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Navigating the Buffet Line

So Much Food... So Little Room


Updated August 09, 2007

Maintaining a healthy weight is a cornerstone of diabetes management. Diets are one thing, but what if you want to eat out? It's not so easy to control what you eat in a restaurant. Buffet style restaurants are particularly hard to maneuver if you are watching your weight. Who doesn't love the sight of those never-ending steam tables brimming with everything you never knew you wanted?

Whether it's a Chinese buffet, a big Texas ranch-style extravaganza, homey comfort food or a fancy hotel breakfast buffet, it's a very tempting minefield for people who want to watch their weight. It helps to have some tricks up your sleeve before you visit a buffet.

Where's the Fat?

The first tactic is knowing where the enemy lies. There are fatty selections galore in the average buffet line. How do you know which foods to pick?

Knowledge is power, and the Internet offers on-line tools that can tell you the nutritional facts of many restaurant foods. Calorie-count.about.com is a good place to go if you have time to plot your attack before you're going out to eat. Research some common dishes that are offered at buffet lines. If you know in advance where the diet sabotaging foods are, you are better prepared to make other choices.

But what if you don't have access to nutritional information before you go? There are telltale signs to look for that most high calorie, high fat foods have in common.

  • Any food with a crispy, crunchy, batter-dipped coating is going to cost you in calories, and chances are it's loaded with unhealthy trans fats too.
  • Foods that are deep fried will have a high calorie count. Food absorbs the oil that it's cooked in. And once again, the food is likely to be fried in oils that contain trans fats.
  • Creamy texture equals high calorie. Cream soups have a lot more calories and fat than clear soups. For example, one well-known buffet-style restaurant offers broccoli cheese soup that has 280 calories and 18 grams of fat for a 1 cup serving. The same restaurant offers chicken gumbo soup for 140 calories and 3 grams of fat per serving.
  • It seems like my two favorite foods in the world, gravy and creamy cheese sauce, are on most buffet lines. Gravy is a nutritional land mine where calorie counts can vary dramatically. One buffet chain offers a brown gravy that's 100 calories and 4 grams of fat for an ounce, while another has beef gravy at 30 calories and 2 grams of fat for 2 ounces. If gravy is your thing, like it is mine, limiting yourself to only one ladle will help.

    Creamy cheese sauce is the same story. One buffet offers a 2 ounce serving as 50 calories and 1.5 grams of fat, while another offers the same size serving at 110 calories and 9 grams of fat. If you can't avoid it altogether, keeping it to one serving can help keep your total calorie count down.

  • Most buffets do have some healthier choices mingled in with the higher calorie goods. Dinner buffets usually offer a salad bar. It seems like, at every buffet I've ever been in, the salad bar is over in the corner, all alone, like the nerdy kid at school. No one ever seems to hang out there. That's okay -- it leaves more for you.

Buffet Tactics

  • A well-known buffet idea that many people use is to make their first pass at the salad bar. Fill your plate with lettuce, spinach, and fresh vegetables. Top with a low calorie dressing, or if they have it, just a sprinkling of balsamic or red wine vinegar. When you're finished with that, then go up and peruse the entrees.
  • Another trick of seasoned buffet goers is to scan the selections and get the lay of the land before putting food on their plates. Make a couple of circuits around the buffet and check out the offerings. Don't commit to anything yet. Once you're familiar with all the choices, go in with a plan in mind. Take one serving of that one high fat item that you love and can't leave behind. Then fill the rest of the plate with vegetables, fruits, baked or grilled meats, and other low calorie goodies.
  • Opt for a clear soup as your first course. Chinese buffets have wonderful clear soups, like wonton, hot & sour, and egg drop soups. A bowl of soup is satisfying and filling. You'll be able to check out the rest of the buffet with a more rational mind if you've had time to enjoy a nice cup of soup.
  • Knowing your capacity can also help when faced with a buffet. I try to remember that no matter how many offerings a buffet contains, my stomach, anatomically, can only hold 2 to 3 pints of food at a time. A pint equals 2 cups, so that's approximately 4 to 6 cups of food at the maximum. Visualizing a four cup total for what I put on my plate gives me a reality check on serving sizes. Physically, I can't eat everything that's waiting for me at a buffet. And I shouldn't even try.

    Using a four cup limit, I know I can have four 1 cup servings of things that I really love, or I can have 1/2 cup servings of 8 choices. If I want to get wild and crazy, I can have 1/4 cup servings of 16 different choices, keeping in mind that 1/4 cup is roughly 2 tablespoons. It's all math and fractions. As long as everything only totals 4 cups, I haven't stuffed myself or gone over my stomach's capacity.

Buffet dining may be a challenge to our weight management efforts, but having a plan and sticking to it is half the battle. Of course, the other half may be facing down the cheese sauce.


"Menu/Nutritional Info." Golden Corral. 2007. Golden Corral Family Restaurants. 7 Aug 2007.

"Nutrition Content." Old Country Buffet. Buffets, Inc.. 8 Aug 2007.

"Digestive System."Human Anatomy Online. 2007. Innerbody.com. 8 Aug 2007.

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