You can have diabetes and enjoy a dinner out! Find out how the calories, carbs, fat, and sodium stack up in three popular types of restaurants -- Italian, Mexican, and Chinese. Our diabetes dining guide shows you how to slim down each meal to fit your diabetic eating plan.

Marsha McCulloch, R.D., L.D.
September 28, 2018

Diabetic Restaurant Dining Guide

The average American eats five meals per week at restaurants. With our restaurant guide, you can enjoy delicious dinners out without loading up on carbs and calories.

Our tips and tricks will help you navigate through your favorite cuisine at Italian, Mexican, and Chinese restaurants while keeping your blood sugar in check. Our guide provides easy ways to slim down your favorite appetizers, sides, and main courses, and it shows you how to steer clear of restaurant pitfalls. We've included nutrition information, too. Enjoy!

Diabetic Living's Guide to Italian Restaurants

Italian restaurants rank in the top three most-visited ethnic restaurants in the United States. "A wide range of choices -- from healthier to not-so-healthy -- awaits you at Italian restaurants, and portion control will always be the skill to use to prevent overeating," writes Hope Warshaw, M.S, R.D., CDE, in Eat Out, Eat Right! (Surrey Books, 2007). Follow these Italian restaurant dining tips to stay on track with your diabetic meal plan:

  • Pasta dishes can often be ordered in smaller (lunch-size) portions, regardless of the time of day. Many Italian restaurants offer whole grain or gluten-free pastas.
  • Free bread can gobble up your carb allowance before your entree even arrives. If you must have bread, limit yourself to a single serving and go light on the olive oil for dipping.
  • Pasta sauce can quickly add calories and fat to an otherwise healthy dish. Pick tomato-base toppers filled with veggies instead of sauces loaded with high-fat ingredients such as cheese, cream, or bacon.
  • No-added-sugar desserts can be deceiving. Before indulging in a piece of cake you think is guilt-free, ask for the nutrition information. Some restaurants offer sugar-free desserts that have a whopping 800 calories per serving!

Keep reading to learn how to slim down Italian restaurant favorites.

Slim Down Lasagna

Lasagna is layered with high-fat meat and cheese that contribute a day's worth of fat. We show you how to trim this 8-carb-choice (117 grams of carbohydrate) meal to a manageable 4 carb choices, plus cut the fat by 70 percent.

Lasagna before (dinner portion): 850 calories, 39 g carb., 47 g fat, 2,830 mg sodium
Slim it: Order the lunch portion and put half in a to-go container when you're served.
Lasagna after: 290 calories, 17.5 g carb., 16 g fat, 965 mg sodium

Slim Down a Garden Salad

A side salad brimming with fresh veggies can be full of good-for-you nutrients. But when it's tossed in high-fat, high-calorie dressing, it becomes a not-so-smart salad. Opt for low-fat dressing on the side, and save 200 calories and 1,220 milligrams of sodium!

Garden salad before (tossed in dressing): 350 calories, 22 g carb., 27 g fat, 1,990 mg sodium
Slim it: Ask for low-fat Italian dressing on the side.
Garden salad after: 150 calories, 18 carb., 5.5 g fat, 770 mg sodium

Did you know? A tablespoon of shredded Parmesan cheese adds about 25 calories and 85 mg sodium but no carbohydrate.

Slim Down Breadsticks

You can still savor a fresh-from-the-oven breadstick at your favorite Italian restaurant! Enjoy one breadstick instead of two to save 150 calories and 28 grams of carbohydrate.

Breadsticks before (two with garlic-butter spread): 300 calories, 56 g carb., 5 g fat, 700 mg sodium
Slim it: Limit yourself to one breadstick. If you chose pasta as a main dish, plan accordingly.
Breadstick after: 150 calories, 28 g carb., 2.5 g fat, 350 mg sodium

Diabetic Living's Guide to Mexican Restaurants

While the basics of Mexican fare -- rice, corn, beans, tomatoes, and chiles -- are packed with nutrients, beware of entrees loaded with fatty cheeses, refried beans, and sour cream. Follow these tips to enjoy flavorful Mexican food without derailing your diabetic diet:

Platter-size entrees with all the fixings can total 1,500 calories. Take half home or order a la carte to get only what you want.
Cheese and sour cream top many entrees. Ask for reduced-fat sour cream (or skip it altogether) and lower-fat sauces, such as a red sauce rather than cream sauce.
Crispy entrees usually mean the dish has been deep-fried. Opt for corn or whole wheat tortillas instead.

Keep reading to learn how to slim down Mexican restaurant favorites.

Slim Down Fajitas

Fajitas are fresh and tasty, plus you assemble them yourself at the table, so you can cut carbs, fat, and calories. With our tips, you can trim this 12-carb-choice (181 grams of carbohydrate) dinner to 3.5 carb choices.

Chicken fajitas before (with three flour tortillas): 984 calories, 181 carb., 20 g fat, 2,770 mg sodium
Slim it: Split the order and ask for corn tortillas instead of flour, then eat only two tortillas.
Chicken fajitas after (with two corn tortillas): 220 calories, 10 g carb., 9 g fat, 935 mg sodium

Did you know? Each flour tortilla has 120 calories, 18 g carb., and 3.5 g fat. A corn tortilla has 75 calories, 14 g carb., and 1 g fat.

Slim Down Tortilla Chips

Whether you prefer it spicy or sweet, salsa is a flavorful way to jazz up Mexican dishes. Instead of eating carb-heavy chips with your salsa, skip the chips and save the salsa to spice up your fajitas. You'll save 225 calories and 26 grams of carbohydrate!

Tortilla chips and salsa before (half of the basket; about 20 large chips and 2 ounces salsa): 250 calories, 29 g carb.,12.5 g fat, 115 mg sodium
Slim it: Skip the chips. Save the salsa for your fajitas.
Salsa after (2 ounces): 25 calories, 3 g carb.,1 g fat, 160 mg sodium

Slim Down Sides

Most Mexican restaurants serve refried beans that are loaded with lard and full of fat. Enjoy a half-serving of black beans and ask for a shredded lettuce side salad instead of rice. You'll still get the flavor you love, but without the 420 extra calories!

Sides before (refried beans and Mexican rice): 510 calories, 69 g carb., 17 g fat, 1,870 mg sodium
Slim it: Substitute black beans and split the serving. Instead of rice, ask for extra shredded lettuce with tomatoes. Since these veggies are so low in carbohydrate, you can consider the side salad a free food.
Sides after (black beans and shredded lettuce): 90 calories, 10 g carb., 3.5 g fat, 230 mg sodium

Slim Down Fajita Toppers

Top your sizzling fajita with pico de gallo and guacamole, and you'll save 90 calories by skipping the sour cream. (You won't even miss it!)

Toppers before (sour cream, guacamole, and pico de gallo): 170 calories, 9 g carb., 14 g fat, 400 mg sodium
Slim it: Keep the pico (a mix of tomatoes, onions, and peppers) and guacamole. Skip the sour cream.
Toppers after (one scoop of pico de gallo and one scoop of guacamole): 80 calories, 6 g carb., 6 g fat, 220 mg sodium

Diabetic Living's Guide to Chinese Restaurants

With a little help, it's easy to eat healthfully at Chinese restaurants.

  • Entrees are large enough to share among the table. Save fat and carbs by choosing meat that isn't breaded and deep-fat fried.
  • All-you-can-eat buffets are hard to resist. Opt for a restaurant that allows you to make healthful swaps and ask how the dishes are prepared.
  • Sauces add sodium and carbs, so request that the chef use less. Even light soy sauce has 500-600 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon. Sweet and sour sauce has 10 grams of carbohydrate per 1/4 cup.
  • Hidden sugar looms in meat marinades and sauces. "People with diabetes often find that Chinese food can wreak havoc with their blood glucose levels," says Hope Warshaw, M.S., R.D., CDE, in Eat Out, Eat Right! (Surrey Books, 2007). Ask your server to leave sugar and cornstarch out of your dishes to help you control your blood sugar.

Keep reading to learn how to slim down Chinese restaurant favorites.

Slim Down Beef with Broccoli

A typical order of beef with broccoli has more than half a pound of meat; the recommended meat serving is 3 ounces (visualize three matchbooks). And appetizers, sweet sauce, and rice can overpower your carb budget. We help you whittle this 9-carb-choice (132 grams of carbohydrate) dinner to just 3 carb choices.

Beef with broccoli before: 1,118 calories, 38 g carb., 65 g fat
Slim it: When you order, ask to have two-thirds of your entree packed in a to-go box. Eat a third of the dish and take the rest home (or share it).
Beef with broccoli after: 373 calories, 13 g carb., 21.5 g fat

Slim Down Rice

You can still enjoy rice with your Chinese meal -- just choose a smaller portion of brown rice. This easy swap saves you 46 grams of carbohydrate, making it a smart choice when you're dining out.

Rice before (1 cup white): 295 calories, 64 g carb., 1 g fat
Slim it: Request steamed brown rice (if available) and limit it to 1/3 cup.
Rice after (1/3 cup brown): 84 calories, 18 g carb., 0.5 g fat

Did you know? Using chopsticks can slow your eating pace and cut your intake of high-sodium sauces. Chinese-food entrees often have 2,000-3,500 mg sodium!

Slim Down Dessert

Give your delicious meal a sweet ending with a fortune cookie (just 30 calories) instead of ordering deep-fried banana fritters (814 calories per serving).

Dessert before (deep-fried banana fritters): 814 calories, 130 g carb., 37 g fat
Slim it: Skip this carb-heavy, calorie-laden dessert and opt for a fortune cookie instead.
Dessert after (one fortune cookie): 30 calories, 7 g carb., 0.5 g fat

Eat What You Love!

Food -- sugar, carbohydrate, fiber, protein--is not your enemy. With the help of a wide variety of tasty, low-carb recipes and quick tips to help you eat more healthfully, you can take control of your diabetes with every bite.