Restrictions are lifting, people are heading back to work by the millions, and life is starting to feel (somewhat) normal again. You can finally leave your house for something other than grocery shopping without feeling scared or like you’re doing something wrong. It’s a wonderful feeling and everyday the light at the end of the tunnel grows larger and larger on this COVID train.
As you move toward a semblance of typical life, with it comes a host of new (relatively speaking) situations to navigate. You’ve likely spent most of your time alone, or with your housemates, for the past 3+ months. While this may have been depressing in some respects, especially if you live alone and didn’t see people much, it offered some unique benefits with regards to eating. Most of the eating you did over the past 3 months was likely home cooked, and on occasion ordered in, but in either case you didn’t have to navigate the tricky waters of social eating and drinking that’s soon to become more common and frequent. This adds a difficult challenge to reaching your health and fitness goals.
Many people will decide that eating out can’t be a part of their life while trying to lose weight, improve their health and get fit. And that’s fine if you don’t mind missing out on work lunches with coworkers, delicious dinners with family, or late night drinks with friends. But if you want to enjoy all those things, while still working towards your health and fitness goals, you’ve got to make some changes to the way you approach those meals.
Learning how to grab dinner with your girlfriends, have a drink with the boys or go on a romantic date with your significant other while staying on track toward your health and fitness goals is a skill. It takes practice and over time the more often you do it, the easier and more natural it will become. At first it will feel a bit awkward, like that 6th grade dance where everyone stood on the edges of the gymnasium, wondering what to do next, but as you progress forward and become more comfortable with the skills of eating out and socializing, you’ll find your footing, get used to the new dance moves you’ve learned and bust loose on the dance floor.
I’m not saying that you can go out to eat for every meal, eat anything on the menu and still reach your goals, far from it. But I am telling you that you don’t have to shun eating out and avoid food and drinks while socializing if you want to reach your goals. In fact, not only do I think it’s possible, I think it’s absolutely necessary if you want to not only be successful in your dieting efforts, but also improve your overall health.
A healthy social life is a key component of long term mental and physical health. Humans are social creatures highly driven by the interactions and connections that we create with one another. In fact, the areas dubbed “Blue Zones” by researchers, where they have the highest percentage of centenarians (people 100 years of age or older), show a healthy social life and strong relationships and connections with others as one of 9 key predictors of a long life with good health (1). Though these relationships pertained more to those with a significant other and within a faith-based organization, other areas of research back this up.
A host of studies have shown increases in mortality rate, inflammatory markers, various diseases like cancer and cardiovascular disease, a reduction in immunity and even slower wound healing among those with less social ties and lower quality relationships (2). In other words, lower quality relationships and reduced social ties (think social circle outside close friends and family) leads to more frequent and severe illness, an earlier death and a reduced level of satisfaction in life. Social ties and relationships are vastly underrated in terms of a healthy lifestyle, so I not only think it’s possible to reach your goals while eating out, I highly encourage it for your mental, physical and emotional health.
Socializing and human connection is a key component to human life, as is the act of eating out and having the occasional drink as part of a healthy diet and long-term weight loss success. Having dinner out can lessen some of the stress that cooking home meals can bring. Cooking meals at home (as well as cleaning up afterward) takes time, energy, decision making brain power and more, all things that are typically in short supply after a busy day or week. A meal out can reduce this stress and give you a bit of a “break” from this process, making it a beneficial and almost necessary part of any long-term successful diet.
A drink here and there can also levy some of the daily stress that we feel. It can help to “take the edge off”, bringing with it a break from the stressors of daily life. Much like using food as a coping mechanism, alcohol is totally acceptable as long as it’s not done to detriment in other areas of your life and you have other coping skills that you turn to the majority of the time. But in small doses and infrequently, especially in the presence of good friends and family, a drink can help reduce stress, improve mood and increase your overall health.
Not only does eating out save you a bit of time and energy, it also provides mental relief from a typical diet that can become repetitive, stagnant, and bland. Restaurants have something that you don’t: a (usually) highly skilled chef who gets paid to create tasteful, culinary masterpieces designed to wow your taste buds. Restaurants offer you the opportunity to try foods you otherwise wouldn’t and eat in a way you likely otherwise couldn’t, simply for the fact that you don’t have the time, energy and prerequisite skills to cook to the extent and variety that restaurants can. Much like the brief respite from stress that can result from cooking every single meal, eating out also provides a bit of a break from “dieting” itself. This small break from the day to day of dieting and making healthy choices (which can still be made in large part while eating out), can give you just enough mental relief and satisfaction to continue making healthy choices more successfully and dieting for a longer period. This leads to more consistent good choices over the long haul and lends itself to long-term sustainability and success.
While many health professionals will tell you to avoid eating out entirely, or say that a social life doesn’t need to involve food or drinks (it doesn’t but let’s be real, food and drinks are a large part of a social life), I’m here telling you that you not only can eat out, but absolutely should, especially if it provides necessary social interaction or a short break from the day to day of cooking and dieting. The benefits of a meal out, socializing with friends and family, or enjoying a nice drink, and relaxing just a bit, far outweigh the drawbacks that a (possibly) calorie-laden meal will provide. And as long as you don’t base your entire diet, or the majority of it, on eating out, you’ll be able to enjoy the benefits of a meal out or drinks with friends, without throwing your fitness and health goals off track.
Want to learn how to eat out, go out for drinks and still reach your goals?
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(1) Buettner, D., & Skemp, S. (2016). Blue Zones: Lessons From the World’s Longest Lived. American journal of lifestyle medicine, 10(5), 318–321. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827616637066
(2) Umberson, D., & Montez, J. K. (2010). Social relationships and health: a flashpoint for health policy. Journal of health and social behavior, 51 Suppl(Suppl), S54–S66. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022146510383501