Dining Out with Diabetes: What to Order and What to Avoid (depending on the restaurants)

dining out with diabetes

Living with diabetes does not mean you have to sacrifice your love for dining out or trying exotic foods from around the world. However, it does demand a level of mindfulness when choosing dishes. The ever-present challenge for diabetics is balancing their blood sugar levels and making healthier choices, especially when confronted with a plethora of mouth-watering options at a restaurant. The good news is that with a little guidance, you can confidently dine out while managing your blood glucose levels.

Balancing Carbs and Nutrients: A Dining Guide for Diabetics

Dining out with diabetes requires a touch of strategic thinking, especially when it comes to carbohydrate content. Carbohydrates are a crucial consideration for diabetics because they impact blood sugar levels more directly than fats or proteins. While whole grains are often recommended for diabetics due to their slower release of glucose into the bloodstream, finding genuine whole-grain options in restaurants can be challenging. As such, when eating out, it’s a good rule of thumb to choose dishes with a lower overall carbohydrate content. This approach reduces the risk of post-meal blood sugar spikes. Moreover, by prioritizing dishes rich in fiber and healthy fats, diabetics can achieve more balanced and sustained energy levels, further aiding in blood sugar management.

dining out with diabetes

Italian Restaurants

In Italian dining establishments, the breadth of options goes beyond just pasta. A grilled ‘Orata’ (sea bream) or a ‘Tagliata di Manzo‘ (sliced beef steak) are exemplary choices that align with a low-carb, high-protein diet, suitable for diabetics. If you’re looking for lighter dishes or sides, the classic ‘Caprese Salad’ with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil offers a fresh complement to your main course. Remember, if the allure of pasta is hard to resist, stick to dishes that spotlight fresh vegetables or lean proteins, such as pasta with sea fruits (pasta ai frutti di mare), and ask whether they cook pasta “al dente” which would ensure a slower release of carbs in the stomach.

Indian Restaurants

Indian cuisine is rich in flavors, spices, and aromas. While tempting, many dishes can be heavy on carbs. Go for ‘Tandoori Chicken‘ or other tandoori dishes that are marinated and roasted, not fried. Swap creamy curries for more tomato-based ones, such as ‘Rogan Josh’. For bread, choose ‘Roti’ over ‘Naan’ as it’s often less refined, but try not to go overboard with it (and with rice).

Chinese Restaurants

Navigating Chinese cuisine can pose challenges due to the hidden sugars in many sauces. Yet, there are ample choices that align with diabetic-friendly diets. Opt for stir-fries like ‘Moo Goo Gai Pan‘, which features chicken and an assortment of vegetables. ‘Steamed Fish with Ginger and Scallions’ provides a light and protein-rich option that’s typically low in carbs. If you’re looking for side dishes, ‘Steamed Broccoli with Garlic Sauce’ is both flavorful and fits the bill. Always be cautious and ask about the sauces, ensuring they aren’t laden with excess sugar or thickening agents.

Thai Restaurants

Thai cuisine, characterized by its aromatic spices and flavorful herbs, presents an array of options suitable for diabetics. Consider dishes such as “Larb” – a spicy meat or fish salad with herbs, and “Tom Yum Goong“, a hot and sour shrimp soup. Steamed fish with chili and lime is another fantastic choice, highlighting fresh seafood without the added carbs. However, be cautious of dishes that lean heavily on coconut milk or sugar, such as certain curries. Opting for stir-fried vegetables or proteins without sugary sauces can also be beneficial. And while Pad Thai might be tempting, its sweet sauce and noodles can quickly increase carb intake.

Greek Restaurants

The Greek cuisine is a haven for fresh ingredients and healthy fats. Dishes like “Horiatiki” (Greek Salad) made with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and feta cheese offer a refreshing start. For mains, “Grilled Lamb Chops” or “Souvlaki” (grilled meat skewers) provide protein without unnecessary carbs. “Baked Fish with Herbs and Olive Oil” is another heart-healthy option. While moussaka and pastitsio are popular choices, they contain layers of pasta or potatoes, so it’s better to enjoy them occasionally and in moderation. Replace creamy dips like tzatziki with hummus or melitzanosalata (eggplant dip) to ensure a balance of protein and healthy fats.

Spanish Restaurants

Spanish cuisine, with its vast array of tapas and fresh ingredients, provides plenty of diabetes-friendly choices. Begin with “Almejas al Vapor” (steamed clams) or “Gambas al Ajillo” (garlic shrimp) which are rich in protein and offer bold flavors without the carbs. “Pimientos de Padrón” are small green peppers that are typically pan-seared and sprinkled with sea salt – a simple, yet delightful choice. Spanish omelets or “Tortilla Española”, made with eggs, potatoes, and onions, are filling but do have a higher carb content due to the potatoes; enjoy a smaller portion. When considering paella, opt for those rich in seafood or lean meats and be mindful of portion size, as the dish is rice-based. And remember, moderation is key when enjoying olives and cured meats, which can be high in salt.

Turkish Restaurants

Turkish cuisine offers a delightful blend of flavors with an array of grilled meats, fresh salads, and legumes that can be quite accommodating for those with diabetes. Start with options like ‘Çoban Salatası’, a refreshing shepherd’s salad made of diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and green peppers. For main courses, ‘Grilled Lamb Kebabs’ or ‘Grilled Sea Bass’ are protein-centric choices that steer clear of heavy sauces. ‘Mercimek Çorbası’, a lentil soup, is also a hearty, fiber-rich choice. However, be cautious with dishes that have hidden sugars or are bread-based, and always inquire about ingredients if unsure.

Japanese Restaurants

Japanese cuisine is renowned for its clean, minimalist flavors and a focus on fresh ingredients. For those managing diabetes, it offers numerous options that align well with dietary needs. Sushi enthusiasts can opt for ‘Sashimi’, which are thinly sliced, raw fish pieces without the rice, or ‘Nigiri’ with minimal rice. ‘Grilled Mackerel (Saba Shioyaki)’ is a delightful, omega-rich dish, while the classic ‘Miso Soup’ offers a light, savory start to your meal. ‘Tofu Steak’ or ‘Yakitori‘ (grilled skewered chicken) are protein-packed choices that are not drenched in sugary sauces. When ordering rolls or other dishes, it’s advisable to avoid tempura or dishes with sweet sauces, and instead, embrace the natural flavors enhanced by simple seasonings like soy sauce or wasabi. Japanese dining not only satisfies the palate but can also cater well to those looking for diabetes-friendly choices.

Lebanese Restaurants

Lebanese cuisine offers a delightful palette of flavors with many dishes that are ideal for those with diabetes, even without the inclusion of bread. Start with appetizers like ‘Kibbeh Nayyeh’, a raw meat dish seasoned with fine spices, or ‘Baba Ghanoush’, a smoked eggplant dip flavored with tahini and olive oil. As for mains, ‘Grilled Kafta’ or ‘Shish Taouk’ are skewered meat dishes that provide ample protein without unnecessary carbs. The ‘Fattoush’ salad, a blend of fresh veggies seasoned with sumac and olive oil, can be enjoyed without the traditional bread crisps. In addition, ‘Sayadieh‘, a spiced fish dish served with brown rice, is a great choice, just ensure to manage the rice portion. Overall, Lebanese cuisine offers a plethora of options that are not only rich in flavors but also cater to the dietary needs of those with diabetes.

African Restaurants

African cuisine varies vastly, but dishes like ‘Grilled Tilapia‘ or ‘Moroccan Lamb Stew’ can be both flavorful and friendly for diabetics. Instead of starchy sides, opt for sautéed vegetables or salads. In many African restaurants, a staple bread called ‘Injera’ is served, which is made from teff flour. Teff is a tiny, gluten-free grain native to Ethiopia and Eritrea. It’s rich in dietary fiber, protein, and essential amino acids, especially lysine, which is not commonly found in other grains. Additionally, teff has a low glycemic index, which means it releases its sugar slowly into the bloodstream, preventing a sudden spike in blood sugar levels.

Mexican Restaurants

Mexican cuisine, known for its rich flavors and diverse ingredients, offers a plethora of options for those with diabetes. Start with dishes that emphasize grilled proteins, such as “Pollo Asado” (grilled chicken) or “Carne Asada” (grilled steak). Fajitas, which are typically made with sautéed vegetables and your choice of meat, can be a great choice – just be mindful of the tortillas and consider having fewer or substituting with a lettuce wrap. “Ceviche,” a dish made of fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices and mixed with diced vegetables, offers a refreshing, low-carb option. However, be cautious with dishes that heavily feature refried beans, cheese, or creamy sauces, and consider skipping the rice or opting for a side of vegetables instead. Always ask about ingredients, as many sauces might contain hidden sugars, and enjoy guacamole, a source of healthy fats, in moderation.

Bringing it Home

dining out with diabetes

One of the silver linings of dining out with dietary restrictions is the inspiration you can draw from diverse cuisines. When you discover a dish that aligns with your health needs and excites your palate, consider recreating it at home. This not only allows you to monitor and adjust ingredients more closely but also broadens your culinary repertoire. Embrace the creativity of the culinary world, using it as a tool to enhance both your dining experiences and your health.

Navigating diabetes while dining out is entirely achievable, especially when equipped with the right knowledge. Diverse global cuisines offer a plethora of dishes that cater to both taste and diabetic requirements. It’s beneficial to review menus in advance before making a reservation to ensure they offer suitable options as described in this article. Being proactive, making informed choices, and communicating your dietary needs to restaurants can allow you to fully enjoy the dining experience without jeopardizing your well-being.

Picture of Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon

Gianluca Tognon is an Italian nutrition coach, speaker, entrepreneur and associate professor at the University of Gothenburg. He started his career as a biologist and spent 15 years working both in Italy and then in Sweden. He has been involved in several EU research projects and has extensively worked and published on the association between diet, longevity and cardiovascular risk across the lifespan, also studying potential interactions between diet and genes. His work about the Mediterranean diet in Sweden has been cited by many newspapers worldwide including the Washington Post and The Telegraph among others. As a speaker, he has been invited by Harvard University and the Italian multi-national food company Barilla.

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