Sometimes a carrot stick is just a carrot stick. But for many of us, it's a crunchy, bright orange vehicle for decadent dip -- blue cheese, perhaps, or a nice herbed ranch. And as you dunk your sixth or seventh spear into that delicious dressing, you might tell yourself, Well, at least I'm eating a hearty serving of veggies right now. True -- but you're also consuming quite a lot of salt, fat, and calories.
Wrecking our otherwise healthy food picks along with our waistlines is often beyond our control. In his book, "The End of Overeating" (Rodale), former FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler explains that when you smell, see, or even think about "highly palatable" foods -- ones that are high in fat, sugar, or salt -- your brain can trigger the release of dopamine, the reward-seeking neurotransmitter. Just walking by a Krispy Kreme can cause your brain to send the "eat me" signal loud and clear. So in a way, you can blame the dopamine surge for forcing you to eat that glazed doughnut.
The fact is, it's possible to stop your pleasure- seeking brain from making menu decisions -- you just need to know what to look for and be knowledgeable about what counts as a "pitfall." Check out these common acts of food sabotage, plus our easy strategies for steering clear of them, so that more often than not, you can keep delicious, healthy food top of mind, even in the face of temptation.
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You plunge your celery into peanut butter or creamy dip
While it may seem like a good idea to watch Parenthood with a plate of crisp crudites on the coffee table in front of you, that jar of peanut butter sitting right next to it can spell trouble. Sure, peanut butter provides healthy fat and protein, but it also has 94 calories per tablespoon -- so this seemingly healthy snack can tip the scale in the wrong direction. And 2 tablespoons of creamy dressing can pack 145 calories and 15 g of fat. "Eating just one hundred calories more each day can translate to about a ten-pound weight gain over the course of a year," says Brian Wansink, PhD, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.
If you're dying to dip, mix fat-free plain Greek yogurt (it has about twice the protein of regular yogurt) with salsa or zingy seasonings such as horseradish or curry powder. Prepared hummus or black-bean dips coat raw veggies with protein, fiber, and flavor; just check the labels because fat and calories can vary among brands. Finally, beat boredom by introducing new vegetables into your rotation, such as crunchy jicama or radishes that offer a naturally peppery bite.
You choose "healthier" sweet potato fries as a side dish
Besides the beta-carotene (a disease-fighting carotenoid that our bodies convert to vitamin A) that's responsible for their vibrant color, sweet potatoes provide vitamin C, folic acid, potassium, and fiber -- all for about 100 calories in a medium potato. But when you fry these and other vegetables (hello, broccoli bites and zucchini sticks), the fat and calorie counts skyrocket. Not only that, but a study in the Journal of Food Science found that certain vegetables, like zucchini, actually lose some of their antioxidant power when fried.