Eating out at restaurants and social arrangements can be challenging.
You set out with the best intentions – you will have the Caesar salad this time – but as soon as the menu arrives, you decide the burger and chips followed by a triple chocolate fudge brownie would be the sensible option.
Throw in a beer, and you’re so wildly off track, you can’t even see the track anymore.
The track is a dot to you.
Why is it so hard to make decisions aligned with your health and fitness aspirations when at restaurants, with friends, or at other social events?
And, more importantly, is it even possible to stay on track and still lose body fat while navigating these difficult social situations?
Discover the answers below:
A Flawed Mindset Behind Eating Out
There seems to be a hefty blockade preventing people from staying on track while eating out. Why is this?
People ultimately fall into an either/or mindset.
That they either must restrict themselves fully and remove all the enjoyment from the event or forget every habit and skill they’ve been working on and indulge in three starters, one main, two desserts, and
two three bottles of wine. They struggle to find – and adhere to – that middle ground.
Temptation and a ‘screw it’ mentality ensue, and they wind back up and square one, in a worse position than when they agreed to meet their friend for a ‘quick bite to eat’ or go out with the office for ‘one drink.’
How can we perch in the middle of that all-or-nothing see-saw, then?
How can we enjoy ourselves, make memories, but ensure we’re still making steps towards the long-term health and fitness aspirations we possess?
Led Your Values Lead The Way
Values are extensions of ourselves.
They’re defined by what we elect to find meaningful in our lives and are the fundamental component of our psychological make-up. .
Decide that you value camaraderie and Friday night drinks with your work colleagues, and you’ll neglect the chance to eat a healthy meal with your family to attend the event. Value family and health, on the other hand, and you’ll happily miss the alcohol-infused debauchery to be with your loved ones.
What you decide is important in your life will manifest itself in your behaviours.
Following values and character strengths when out at social events, therefore – whether that be prioritising family, health, resilience, or the trait of courage – will always keep you committed to the cause. These characteristics will enable you to choose decisions that align with how you want to lead your life and subsequently encourage better choices when eating out.
There is no ‘end point’ or ‘finish line’ when letting values guide your decision-making. You’ll always value family or your health. This is why you don’t necessarily require unreserved supplies of motivation or discipline when attempting to lose body fat when embracing a values-based system.
The type of person you want to become will dictate your decisions.
If you value time spent with your family, for example, then sharing a pizza on a day trip with your children may bring more joy than staying restrained at that particular moment. Eating a pizza is encouraged.
If you also value health, then ordering a pizza for yourself while at home on a random, cold Thursday in November probably won’t bring more joy than dismissing the temptation. Eating a pizza is discouraged.
Notice how the same meal can be interpreted in two different ways depending on what you value and what the situation dictates? This flexibility allows you to exercise those values to decide when it’s appropriate to use some skills and when to use others.
Eating out no longer becomes an ‘either/or’ situation but an experience that can be adapted to what you want from your life.
Let your values guide your decision-making when eating out at social events.
Rank The Event In Terms Of Importance
Certain events will fall in different places on a ‘Pecking Order of Importance.’
Ask yourself: what events do I truly value and want to maximise enjoyment, and what events lack significance and are occasions for which I’m prepared to make sacrifices for?
Which are at the top of the list, and which fall to the bottom in terms of importance, enjoyment, and fulfilment?
So, while a random lunch out on a Friday at the office probably isn’t that special and will be near the bottom of that list, attending a BBQ with friends/family for your grandma’s 90th is something you can enjoy and will fall near the top.
On the random Friday lunchtime, you focus on adhering to macronutrient targets and eating skills and not going overboard needlessly, but at the BBQ with friends/family, you can relax and enjoy the time spent without stressing too much.
By separating these moments into ‘important’ and ‘not so important,’ you know when you can be stricter with yourself, what you can sacrifice, and when you can relax.
Of course, this is not an excuse to indulge in a complete blowout – nor do these ‘important’ occasions arise too frequently – but separating these events appropriately provides that balance between staying regimented and not depriving yourself.
You’ll quickly realise that most events fall near the bottom of that order of importance, and making sacrifices will be more commonplace and easier to adhere to.
Remove The Fear
Social events are often caked in fear. Not the fear of being kidnapped and eaten by a giant-sized chocolate cake but the fear of looking stupid and the fear of missing out.
The Fear Of Looking Stupid
It can be tough choosing the perceived ‘healthy’ or low-calorie option. Not because you’re wildly tempted by the pizza, but because you feel out of place – silly even – for not ‘enjoying yourself ‘or ‘ruining the fun.’
You don’t want to embarrass yourself by ordering something different to everyone else, saying no to the dessert, or leaving half your portion on the plate.
You fear ridicule and appearing ‘crazy’ in front of friends and family. You fear the ‘Oh, you’re on a diet again?’ and ‘Why don’t you just enjoy yourself?’ remarks.
And instead of overcoming and embracing these ludicrous statements, you want to avoid looking foolish and end up ordering the things you know you shouldn’t.
Overcoming this fear of looking stupid – and embracing the desire to look after yourself and your goals – will lead to greater adherence when eating out.
There is nothing that states you can’t have just as good of a time when you order something different to others or what societal norms dictate.
The Fear Of Missing Out
There seems to be a human disposition to fear missing out on all the food available at social arrangements.
‘I’ll never be able to order that pasta dish again or never consume a cookie,’ you think.
It really does seem like you’re missing out on all the lovely food available when you’re out for dinner.
But are you really missing out?
Are you really never going to have the opportunity to go to that restaurant or be served the same food again?
I bet that’s not the case.
It’s crucial to remember that just because you potentially ‘miss out’ this one time doesn’t mean you’ll miss out forever. Delay your gratification now, and you’ll reap the rewards later.
Set Your Boundaries And Script Your ‘No’
To combat this fear, you must acknowledge the two kinds of social pressure and, subsequently, set boundaries.
Direct social pressure is when someone offers you food or the opportunity to eat. Indirect social pressure is when you feel tempted to eat when you’re around others who are eating.
Combine this with the fear of looking stupid and missing out, and you often have a recipe for disaster.
It’s important, therefore, to remember that food is your choice.
You don’t have to accept food and drink you don’t want to prove something to someone else.
Setting boundaries and what you’re not willing to budge on will only help reinforce your decision-making. If you know you don’t eat certain food or drink while out, no amount of pressure or temptation will change this.
If you say ‘no,’ you won’t necessarily miss out on the enjoyment of being with friends and family, it doesn’t mean you have to say no next time, and you’re putting your values and goals first. You aren’t stupid.
Start scripting your ‘no’s.’
When offered food I don’t want or doesn’t align with my values or long-term ambitions, I will say:
-> ‘No, thank you, I’m full’
-> ‘No, thank you, I’m happy with what I’ve got already’
-> ‘No, thank you, I’m not in the mood for that right now’
-> ‘No, thank you, I had that yesterday’
Avoid The What-The-Hell-Effect And Practice Self-Compassion
We’ve all been there. One innocent cookie has turned into ten. A couple of crisps from the sharing platter have turned into a salt and vinegar crisp meltdown. One regretful deviation from the plan leads to a guilt-consumed bender.
This has been formally defined as the ‘what-the-hell effect.’ 
You’ve already screwed up, so, what the hell, there’s no point in trying to salvage the situation – bring me all the food. Chaos flows as people contrive to leap off the wagon. Hard and fast.
Viewing a failure when eating out – no matter how insignificant – as the end of the road leads to people throwing in the towel and giving up altogether.
Dieters become beset with feelings of guilt and shame when they perceive themselves as failures. These powerful emotions, and the sense they’ve lost control, cause them to become stuck in this vicious ‘indulge-regret-indulge’ cycle.
Instead of learning from mistakes and even implementing a damage limitation approach, they let those feelings dictate future actions. That feedback loop induces more guilt and shame, which only serves to breed more overeating while out.
When a small slipup occurs at a social event, therefore, it’s important to practice self-compassion.
Self-compassion is being kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings. It’s acknowledging it’s natural to make mistakes. 
Self-compassion enables you to change direction and mould better decisions, rather than dwelling on mistakes and succumbing to that what-the-hell effect.
When you avert criticism and recognise poor decision-making is routine, you alleviate self-critical thought. You remove negative feelings without allaying feelings of personal responsibility and find it easier to make good decisions while at social events.
Stop punishing yourself, believing you’ve ruined everything, and aim to make a fresh start as soon as possible.
It is never too late to start again.
-> You can always have a great main meal if you made a poor ‘starter’ choice.
-> You can always stop at one drink if you gave in to temptation at the start of the evening.
-> You can always leave half the dessert if you hadn’t planned on ordering one.
-> You can always make your next meal the best it can be if you unexpectedly overeat at dinner.
Control What You Can; Accept What You Can’t
‘I went out for dinner, so couldn’t track what I had’
‘The office went out for drinks, so I couldn’t adhere to my calorie and macro targets’
‘We had a family emergency, so I had to order a takeaway’
These are all common justifications we hear when people eat out. The notion that things were simply out of their control and they couldn’t possibly stay adherent to their fat loss goals. Unfortunately, this is a flawed line of thinking.
We must learn to control what we can and accept what we can’t.
We can’t control our hard-wired thoughts (for example, cravings) or broader environment (for example, the oven deciding to pack it in), but we can control our behaviours and actions in response to them (for example, choosing the healthier option or using other kitchen appliances).
Those who demonstrate high agency or the disposition to control what they can bend responses and decisions to align with their goals and values. Inducing this responsibility leads to greater happiness, empowerment, decision-making, and progress.
Firstly, it’s important to learn to accept thoughts and emotions.
Being willing to experience uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and urges, and still choosing to engage in healthy behaviours (e.g., ‘I’m feeling the urge for a piece of chocolate, but I’m willing to accept this thought as unhelpful and have a piece of fruit instead’) enables you to stay on track while eating out.
It’s also vital to accept external moments we can’t control (for example, ‘The salad I wanted for lunch has gone off, but as there’s nothing I can do about it, I’ll look to make another good choice instead’).
Secondly, it’s important to learn what we can control.
We can control our response to our thoughts and emotions (for example, ‘I still possess dominance over the subsequent behaviours I can control’) and our reaction to unexpected moments (for example, ‘I’m at a restaurant that doesn’t have a healthy option, but I’m still able to control my portion size’).
It’s also possible to control:
-> How much you consume (listening to hunger and fullness cues)
-> How quickly/slowly you eat
-> What you drink (alcoholic beverages or zero-calorie drinks)
-> What you track (tracking most things to reduce that margin of error)
-> Your plans before entering social situations
-> Scripted responses to food offers
-> How you react after the event (do you let poor decisions spill over, or do you start fresh?)
A Few Final, Quick-Fire Tips To Staying On Track While Eating Out
Look up the menu beforehand and plan what you’ll be having, ensuring this fits into a calorie budget and aligns with your long-term goals. Doing so will give you structure to your meal out and avoid relying on self-control which isn’t always helpful.
Eating slowly will ensure you feel satiated before consuming additional calories and, subsequently, improve enjoyment of the meal. Put your knife and fork down between bites and focus on the chewing and taste of each mouthful.
Remind Yourself Of Your Values And ‘Why’
Focus on why you must make good decisions and what choices will enable you to lose the body fat you need to. Will this take you closer to or further away from your long-term physical aspirations? Let your values guide your choices; emotion will drive behaviour.
Set Implementation Intentions
When people form conditional plans, in which they forecast the precise behaviours they’ll execute in response to a specific cue, they increase their chances of succeeding . Telling yourself, ‘when situation X arises, I will perform response Y’ is effective for adhering to goals and habits.
-> WHEN I’m out for dinner, THEN I will only have a main course and not the dessert
-> WHEN I’m out for dinner, THEN I won’t drink any alcohol
Ask: Do I really want this, or am I caught up in the environment I’m currently in?
Consume A High-Protein, Satiating Meal Just Before
Filling up on a high-protein meal or shake just before will fill you up, ensuring you’re not ravenous when it comes to the canapes or reception. Less hunger leads to better decisions.
Follow A One Drink On/One Drink Off Protocol
After consuming an alcoholic beverage, follow it with a zero-calorie drink. This will ensure you’re consuming the same volume of liquid but half the number of calories.
Don’t Punish Yourself
Showing self-compassion will enable you to make your next decision the best it can be. If something goes slightly awry, you can accept that failing as a normal human error and work on turning things around immediately.
Avoid Unnecessary Extras
Are you having the bread or wedding cake because you want to or because it’s there? You don’t have to conform to societal norms or pressures: if an item doesn’t align with what you truly want, you can say no.
Ask: Could I make a better choice here?
Holidays & Hotels
Schedule A Planned And Restrained Diet Break
Following a period of increased calories (to maintenance) will ensure you remove the pressure of staying fully restrained. Good choices are still crucial, but planning moments of a higher calorie intake will encourage better decision-making.
Only Visit The Buffet Once
The more variety we’re open to, the less likely we are to fill ‘full.’ Our tastebuds don’t get used to what we’re eating and, subsequently, we don’t feel satiated. Select 3-5 options to place on your plate at any one time. Don’t return to the table once you’ve chosen what you’ll be having.
Prioritise One Meal Or Snack Per Day
You don’t have to go all out, all day, every day, to enjoy yourself. You can prioritise one snack or meal where you select something you truly want to have (for example, the ice cream or dessert) and ensure the rest of your choices for the day are aligned with your long-term goals.
The Minibar Is Out Of Bounds
While rigid dietary rules seldom lead to long-lasting change, sometimes these are required in the short term. The minibar is out of bounds. Don’t do it.
Give Yourself Permission
Individuals will attempt to white-knuckle their way through social events, and when they invariably make poor choices, they feel guilt and shame. In giving yourself permission to consume certain items (and ensuring they fit into your daily guidelines), you’re removing that self-blame and the temptation to overeat. No food is necessarily off-limits; simply control the amount you’re consuming.
Practice Mindful-Decision Making
Practice paying attention to food and choices during consumption rather than mindlessly making decisions. Slow down, take your time, and focus on the best possible outcome. Spending that valuable 20 seconds working your way through the various options will encourage better final decisions.
Avoid Liquid Calories
While you should never fully avoid alcohol – especially if this aligns with your true values – it is easier to mindlessly consume liquid calories than it is food. Ask yourself if consuming a calorific beverage will raise enjoyment or not? There is no right or wrong answer but an opportunity to make better choices.
Eat To 80% Fullness
No rule that states you must finish everything on your plate. Listening to your hunger cues and signals will enable you to finish before feeliing stuffed. Avoid consuming something just because it is there.
Sometimes you say yes; sometimes you say no. Staying on track while eating out is about finding that middle ground: successful dieters will never fall into that trap of always depriving themselves or always overeating.
Practice A Growth Mindset
Use every opportunity to practice a growth mindset, one in which you embrace the chance to improve discipline, character, and self-control. You can get better at these social situations but can only do so when you believe you can and allow yourself to do so.
Ask: Can I lose fat while eating out at social events? The answer is YES.
1. Hitlin, S. (2003). Values as the Core of Personal Identity: Drawing Links between Two Theories of Self. Social Psychology Quarterly, 66(2), 118-137.
2. Polivy, J., & Herman, C. P. (1985). Dieting and binging: A causal analysis. American Psychologist, 40(2), 193–201.
3. Neff, K. D., & Dahm, K. A. (2015). Self-compassion: What it is, what it does, and how it relates to mindfulness. In B. D. Ostafin, M. D. Robinson, & B. P. Meier (Eds.), Handbook of mindfulness and self-regulation (pp. 121–137). Springer Science + Business Media.
4. Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54(7), 493–503.
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