The tool Atlanta dietitians use to make healthy choices at restaurants

Eating out at a restaurant can be an enjoyable, convenient treat, but it also can derail your healthy eating plan. An increasing number of people – including Atlanta dietitians – are using apps to help them make healthy choices. These can give you very detailed information about your food and drinks, and since you probably have your phone with you wherever you go, the information is always accessible.

"I tend to use MyFitnessPal," Tracy Stark, registered dietitian at WellStar Community Education & Outreach, said. She finds the app to be user-friendly and has been pleased with its large database.

"The number of foods they have in this app seems to be endless," she said.

Personalized information

The app allows you create a profile that includes your height, weight, gender and the amount of weight you want to lose, if any. It provides a recommended calorie level for the day, as well as the amount of carbohydratesprotein and fats you should have.

It also lets you keep a food diary that logs and tracks what you eat, so it's able to give you information about your daily progress. For example, it may let you know that you're approaching your recommended amount of fats for the day.

The app can be used at a restaurant or in advance, Stark said. One of her patients was struggling with eating out with friends after playing tennis, so she used the app to research restaurants and healthy dishes ahead of time. This enabled her to have the information she needed to select a healthy meal ahead of time and helped eliminate some temptation.

Common pitfalls

The calorie and nutritional counts for some restaurant meals can be surprising, Stark said. For example, many people may think that if they're having a salad, they're making a good choice. This may not be true, however. By the time fried chicken tenders, dried berries, nuts and dressing are added, the calories can add up quickly.

"I can't tell you the number of times I've had patients tell me, 'I did good – I had a salad,'" she said, pointing out that the salad may have had 1,600 calories.

Chicken dishes can also be misleading, Stark said. For example, a flatbread chicken, spinach and cheese entree from a popular casual restaurant may sound healthy, but MyFitnessPal lets you know that it actually has a whopping 1,480 calories and 2,600 milligrams of sodium – which is more sodium than you should have in an entire day.

As more people eat an increasing number of meals away from home, it's important to have accurate information about restaurant food and drinks. Stark said another patient who wanted to lose weight was eating three meals a day away from home. The patient's choices sounded fairly reasonable and the quantities weren't huge, but when Stark plugged the information into MyFitnessPal, the calorie total was over 4,000.