Dietitian Maya Nahra Discusses Making Healthy Choices When Dining Out

Diners visit their favorite restaurants for fulfilling, soul-soothing food they can’t get anywhere else. It’s no secret, though, that the same food packed with satisfying flavors often provides generous portions of calories and nutrients that are best consumed in moderation. We reached out to Behavioral Registered Dietitian Maya Nahra for some advice on how diners can make decisions that let them enjoy their favorite restaurant meals while sticking to their nutritional goals and values. Maya also offered some tips on how restaurateurs can support their patrons in making health-conscious decisions.

Healthy Food Decisions Start with Healthy Habits

Maya’s experience with her clients has proven that many of the common strategies people use to control how they dine out can work well, but only up to a certain point.

“You hear people say, ‘Eat less. Put half in a container and take it home,’ or, ‘Have a burger but don’t have the bun and have the fries,'” Maya tells us. “You hear the strategies, and they’re common strategies. You can go anywhere on the web and find strategies and tips for eating healthier at restaurants. And that’s great. You can have all the strategies and tips you want to, but if you don’t have the mindset or the thought patterns to be able to follow through, you’re not going to be able to do it.”

Maya teaches her clients that healthy decisions begin with healthy habits. “It all comes down to the underlying habits and behaviors beyond the food, meaning that the food is just the symptom. When we’re stressed out, we’re going to reach for cookies, but we’re only stressed out because of the perfectionist, control-freak, all-or-nothing practices that we have. After 11 years, there’s one thing I know to be true, and it’s the fact that we’ve never been enough.” Maya suggests that making better food choices begins with how we think about ourselves and how we respond to the feelings that drive us to make decisions we regret.

Maya told us that the key to sticking to your goals is to focus on allowing yourself the pleasures you enjoy rather than depriving yourself with restrictions. A healthy mindset involves seeing each choice as just that – a choice. “We want to be able to say, ‘I can have anything that I want to have. Whatever I am going to order is simply a choice. I have a choice in whatever it is I want to have.’ People who come from a restriction and deprivation mindset tend to think that they can never get this food ever again. But, when you allow the food instead of restrict the food and say, ‘You know what, I can have this in a small amount every day – breakfast lunch and dinner- for the next 2,000 days if I really wanted to.’ And of course, chances are, you’re not going to want to.”

“This isn’t a diet. Once you’ve cultivated your own ‘enoughness factor,’ for lack of a better term, it becomes habit. It becomes permanent. It isn’t about taking a magic pill or going on another diet. This is about putting in permanent, lasting change.”

How Restaurant Staff Can Support Diners

Maya offered us some suggestions to pass along to restaurant staff that may help them better support their customers who are trying to cultivate healthy habits. One way that the restaurant community can help is by adjusting the conversations staff members have with guests. “A lot of times we want to be healthy, but we’re a little afraid to, say, ask for a go box immediately. If it were already in the system for the server to say, ‘Would you like me to pack up half?’ There’s an opportunity to train all staff to empower guests to make healthy steps through small steps like offering a to-go box up front or offering to pack half a guest’s meal to go.” Operators should consider building such opportunities into their restaurants’ cultures.

Another step towards building a healthier restaurant culture begins in the kitchen. “I know sugar makes things taste better, but the more real, whole food we can use, the better you’re going to be. If someone is trying to be healthy at a restaurant, if we are using unprocessed, unbleached flours in our bread, if someone is consuming the bread, it’s going to be a healthier version.” Small changes like cutting down on added sugar in bread can help guests feel better about the food they’re eating.

Maya’s Phoenix-based company Healthy Habit Solutions offers many online and in-person resources for people who are trying to make better choices like the ones we’ve discussed here. “I work in weight loss. I work for people who have been on 998 diets. For anybody who needs the extra coaching support and accountability, that’s what I do and that’s why I’m here.” We’ve published the entirety of our interview with Maya below.

KaTom: Tell us a little bit about your work and your journey towards becoming a Behavioral Registered Dietitian.

Maya Nahra: In a nutshell: I am my client. I’ve walked in my clients’ shoes. As a behavioral dietitian, my specialty niche has been helping chronic dieters, yo-yo dieters, and stress, binge, and emotional eaters to change their habits and behaviors. We all know that we should be eating an apple over a candy bar, but we don’t do it.

After coaching for 11-plus years, what I know to be true is that it all comes down to the underlying habits and behaviors beyond the food, meaning that the food is just the symptom. When we’re stressed out, we’re going to reach for cookies, but we’re only stressed out because of the perfectionist, control-freak, all-or-nothing practices that we have. After 11 years, there’s one thing I know to be true, and it’s the fact that we’ve never been enough. We’ve never been good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, talented enough, perfect enough. Never enough for ourselves in any way.

We’re talking on a small scale around food, but this could be anything. It could be food, drugs, sex, alcohol – anything. It’s just a coping mechanism, and it’s led to obesity problems, diabetes problems, heart disease problems, and so much more.

What I do with my clients is focus on habit change. How do I change my physical, mental, and emotional habits to not only cultivate “enoughness,” but happiness, peace-of-mind, better health. This isn’t a diet. Once you’ve cultivated your own enoughness factor, for lack of a better term, it becomes habit. It becomes permanent. It isn’t about taking a magic pill or going on another diet. This is about putting in permanent, lasting change.

K: For people trying to cultivate healthy changes, going into restaurants that serve rich, calorie-dense food must be a challenge. How do you coach your clients to respond to that kind of environment when they’re trying to make a healthy decision?

MN: This goes for a lot of people, not just for the people trying to lose weight and you don’t have to fall into the categories of people I work with. We tend to have this mentality when we go into a restaurant as diners that says “I never get this food. I’m going to have all of the bread rolls, all of the pasta, all of the worst possible things on the menu, because I never allow myself to have this when I’m at home.” Sometimes we have this fight with ourselves over the menu. “Well, I really should order the salad, but I really do want the burger and fries.” So we go back and forth with ourselves and there’s this internal resistance. There’s an internal struggle.

We use something in this work called thought redirection. It simply asks you to say “How can I see this differently? How can I feel better about this?” I know we’re going a little deeper into the psychology of eating out, but that’s going to lead ultimately to a happier outcome. You hear people say, “Eat less. Put half in a container and take it home.” Or, have a burger, but don’t have the bun and have the fries. You hear the strategies, and they’re common strategies. You can go anywhere on the web and find strategies and tips for eating healthier at restaurants. And that’s great. You can have all the strategies and tips you want to, but if you don’t have the mindset or the thought patterns to be able to follow through, you’re not going to be able to do it.

So, when we’re looking at thought redirection and you’re in front of the menu, and your mind says, “I should really order a salad or vegetables and protein, but I really want this burger,” not only do I want diners to use strategies like asking for a to-go box to put half away, or order the burger without the bun and half the fries. Those are fantastic strategies, but at the same time, what’s going to be helpful are mindset strategies.

Typically we go into a restriction and deprivation mindset. We want to be able to say, “I can have anything that I want to have. Whatever I am going to order is simply a choice. I have a choice in whatever it is I want to have.” People who come from a restriction and deprivation mindset tend to think that they can never get this food ever again. But, when you allow the food instead of restrict the food and say, “You know what, I can have this in a small amount every day – breakfast lunch and dinner- for the next 2,000 days if I really wanted to.” And of course, chances are, you’re not going to want to. So when you can invite in an allowing-based mindset, instead of reduction and deprivation, you’re going to be much better off.

It’s not about saying, “No”, it’s about allowing. Allowing in an appropriate way. “I don’t need to eat five portions right now.” Nobody’s going to be starving in another country. I can take this home. A little bit of bread is not going to make me fat.” It’s these small, rational, mind redirects that you want to use for yourself. You’re literally talking to yourself. That’s what clients call it sometimes. Talk yourself off the ledge and remind yourself that you can have whatever you want to and still be healthy.

K: On the flip side of that, what would you say to chefs and restaurant owners who are trying to design a menu? They know that a lot of their customers are coming in and might not want the big, rich portions. What kind of advice do you have to them about how they should design their menus to sort of cater to the people who are eating for their health?

MN: Two things are popping into my mind immediately. One is not necessarily for the chefs, but more for the servers. A lot of times we want to be healthy, but we’re a little afraid to, say, ask for a go box immediately. If it were already in the system for the server to say, “Would you like me to pack up half?” It would have to be restaurant life for everybody, so nobody would feel targeted, of course.

There’s other little things that could go along with that. Servers can ask, “Would you like half french fries and half vegetables, instead of a massive side of french fries or a massive side of vegetables?” So maybe it just comes down to training the servers across the board when they’re rolling out a new food menu, just to reduce the resistance that the diner may have. For some people, they feel like they’re being a bother to ask for different things off the menu, too. So the more comfortable the diner can feel in asking for their preferences, the better.

Secondly, for chefs, straight from a nutrition perspective for our country in general, nobody needs as much sugar as we have. I know sugar makes things taste better, but the more real, whole food we can use, the better. The better you’re going to be, meaning if someone is trying to be healthy at a restaurant, if we are using unprocessed, unbleached flours in our bread, if someone is consuming the bread, it’s going to be a healthier version. So from a chef’s perspective, it’s simply asking to use less sugar and use real, whole foods.

Tanner West
Tanner West

A dedicated festival-goer, Tanner West has seen more bands perform live in the middle of hay fields and city parks than most people have probably heard of. Raised on beans and taters, he recently renovated a home and three vintage sheds in the back woods of East Tennessee that serves as a quiet retreat for reading and ready base for hiking and camping trips. Despite being able to craft 500-word descriptions of restaurant equipment, Tanner is a man of few words who described the best meal he ever ate in one word: Coffee.

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