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Eating out at a restaurant is a common activity for many people. But for people who have undergone bariatric surgery, it can present some challenges in terms of portion sizes and nutrition.

With a little preparation and some smart ordering, however, you can still enjoy the experience of eating out after surgery.

“Having all these very tempting foods in large portion sizes available, it can definitely be difficult,” says Douglas Reed, MD, bariatric and general surgeon, Minimally Invasive Bariatric and General Surgery, UPMC. “Especially if you’re just coming out of surgery and you’re used to those larger portion sizes and you obviously have struggled with gaining weight and obesity. That can be a source of anxiety psychologically, on top of physiologically.

“But that being said, there are a lot of tips and tricks you can employ to help you minimize the anxiety. And once you get a routine down, you can really get back to the enjoyment side of things and not be afraid to go out with your friends.”

Here are some tips for eating out at a restaurant after bariatric surgery.

Tip 1: Wait to Eat Out Until You’re Used to Your New Diet

Before going out to eat after bariatric surgery, you may want to wait about four to six weeks. After bariatric surgery, people progress through a diet that starts with liquids and transitions to purees, then soft foods, then regular foods. Waiting to go out until you’re ready to eat regular foods can be beneficial.

Also, waiting four to six weeks can help you get used to your dietary restrictions in terms of portion size and nutrition.

“You’re going to have a lot of temptation in terms of the types of foods and knowing that you can’t quite eat them at first just because you’re still healing from surgery,” Dr. Reed says. “It’s usually best to avoid that up front and just know you’re in a comfort zone in terms of what you’re eating.”

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Tip 2: Look at the Restaurant Menu Beforehand

Many restaurants now post their menus online, and some also post nutritional facts. If you’ve just had bariatric surgery, try checking the menu to get a sense of what you might be able to order.

You may also want to contact the restaurant to see if they have lighter options. You can also see if they’re willing to make adjustments — like steaming vegetables instead of cooking them in butter or sauces.

Tip 3: Order Wisely

When you’ve reached the restaurant, you can order foods that fit your new diet whether you were able to plan or not. Many restaurant menus have a section catering to lighter options.

Even if they don’t, here are a few diet essentials you can adhere to:

  • Avoid starches, fried foods, sugars, and heavy sauces.
  • Go for lean proteins like chicken or fish.
  • Order vegetables. Ask if the restaurant can steam your vegetables instead of cooking them with butter or oil.

Most bariatric patients are limited to around 1,200 calories a day after surgery, spread out over multiple smaller meals. It’s important to meet your dietary needs within that limitation.

“You have to go back to your basics,” Dr. Reed says. “Lean proteins and vegetables are going to be your friends. The refined sugars and starches, not so much. Fats are OK in moderation, but you want to limit them as well.”

Tip 4: Think About Your Portion Sizes

Whether you’ve had gastric bypass or gastric sleeve surgery, you need to avoid eating too much and stretching your pouch or sleeve. Overeating can be a problem at restaurants with large portion sizes. However, there are ways you can minimize your risk:

  • Order off a “lighter” menu, a lunch menu, a senior menu, or even a children’s menu. These offerings often offer smaller portions than a regular menu does. (But be aware that the children’s menu doesn’t always offer the healthiest food options.)
  • If you order off the regular menu, ask the server to bring a box with your food. Then, when you get your order, divide the serving and put part of it in the box right away. “There’re little nuances in terms of portion size,” Dr. Reed says. “It depends on
    the restaurant, but cutting it in half — maybe even in
    thirds — would be a good general rule of thumb.” (One added benefit of this approach is that you’ll have another meal or two for later on!)

Tip 5: Don’t Drink Too Much Liquid as You’re Eating

Dr. Reed says he recommends that patients drink eight 8-ounce glasses of liquid a day (ideally water) after surgery. However, you should try to avoid drinking large quantities of liquid when you’re eating. You don’t want to overstress your gastric sleeve or pouch.

“Sips of water, especially if you’re feeling very thirsty or if you feel like you need to help wash something down, are definitely OK,” Dr. Reed says. “But if you’re going to try to put in a higher volume for hydration’s sake, try to give it a good 30 minutes.”

Tip 6: Avoid Alcohol and Other High-Calorie Drinks

People should avoid drinking alcohol for the first year after bariatric surgery, Dr. Reed says. That’s because your body will absorb alcohol faster after surgery, and it can take time for your body to adjust. But even after that first year, you should limit alcohol because it’s often found in high-calorie drinks.

Likewise, you should avoid sugary and high-calorie drinks.

Tip 7: Listen to Your Body — Stop Eating if You Feel Full

After bariatric surgery, it’s important to stop eating when you reach a feeling of fullness. Eating beyond your limit can have gastrointestinal consequences.

“You’re still going to feel that sensation of being full,” Dr. Reed says. “Obviously, it’s going to be a lot quicker than it was before surgery, but you still need to listen to that intuition of your body.”

Tip 8: When in Doubt, Talk to Your Doctor

Both before and after surgery, your bariatric team will educate you about what you can eat. You’ll have several follow-up appointments in the year after surgery to help you through the process. But if you’re planning to eat at a restaurant and have questions about what to order, don’t hesitate to call your team.

Your specific dietary needs may vary from other people’s. At UPMC, we adjust our recommendations from patient to patient to help you on your weight loss journey.

The bottom line: You may feel nervous about eating out after bariatric surgery. But bariatric surgery shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for that social activity.

“Eating out is a big source of enjoyment for people, and it’s definitely a huge part of social interaction and having fun,” Dr. Reed says. “Just because you get surgery, you shouldn’t avoid that or have anxiety about it.

“It takes a little bit of planning and adjustment. But once you do that, I think you’ll find that you may even get more enjoyment out of it in terms of knowing and being confident in what you can eat, feeling good about yourself, losing weight, and even being able to stretch out those meals over multiple days.”

At UPMC Bariatric Services, we’re here for you on every step of your weight loss journey. If you’re having weight loss surgery, we will help you through the pre-op process and adjust to your new lifestyle after surgery. For more information on our services, visit our website.

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.