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.
A baked sweet potato is the worry-free choice (mash in 2 tablespoons of a creamy fat-free dressing for extra flavor); eat the skin and you'll also get at least 4 g of fiber. If you're just not satisfied with a baked spud, buy a bag of oven-ready frozen fries at the supermarket. Compare labels and choose ones that have no trans fat and no more than 0.5 g saturated fat per serving.
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You saute your heart-smart fish in glugs of olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil is high in "good" monounsaturated fat -- the kind of fat that can help lower LDL cholesterol -- but it also has about 477 calories and 54 g of fat per 1/4 cup. If you don't measure the amount of oil you use to saute, grill, broil, or roast, you can end up with way more than you need.
When grilling or broiling, use a pastry brush or nonaerosol pump to lightly glaze food with oil, says Jennifer Nelson, RD, director of clinical dietetics and nutrition at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. If you're making a stir-fry, wipe a paper towel dipped in olive oil around the wok before adding ingredients -- or better yet, use a nonstick skillet. You can also make your sautes sizzle with wine, soy sauce, chicken broth, or 100& carrot, tomato, or vegetable juice. And try poaching your fish in low-fat broth or watered-down orange juice; the fillets will soak up some of the liquid, which will make you feel fuller, says Barbara Rolls, PhD, professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University and author of "The Volumetrics Eating Plan."
You top your veggie-laden salad with cheese and nuts
The virtue of a salad starts to wilt when you add more than one calorie-dense topping, such as cheese, nuts, dried fruit, or croutons. Cheeses can register high in bad saturated fat, and though nuts have monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that may help raise good (HDL) cholesterol, a small serving of walnuts (about 7 pieces) can add up to about 185 calories and 18 g of fat. Plus, some add-ons are high in sodium.
Nelson offers an easy-to-remember ratio for preparing entree salads: "Three-quarters should be fresh fruits and vegetables, and the last quarter should be a combo of lean protein, like chicken, plus a complex carbohydrate such as wheat berries or quinoa. Then allow yourself two tablespoons of calorie-dense items." For major nutrition impact with minimal calorie load, forgo dried fruit in favor of fresh pomegranate seeds; they're potent in polyphenols, and researchers at Case Western Reserve University found that pomegranate extract may be effective in reducing the inflammation that can lead to arthritis.
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You stir flavored syrup, whole milk, or whipped cream into coffee and tea
Sipping coffee or tea plain isn't the problem. In fact, both beverages have been linked to a number of health benefits, including a lower risk of heart disease and cancer. A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry also suggests that drinking coffee may reduce your chances of type 2 diabetes. But major calories and saturated fat come with added ingredients such as sugary syrups, honey, whipped cream, and whole milk (1& and 2& aren't much better). For about the same 450 calories in a large Iced Mocha Raspberry Latte at Dunkin' Donuts, for instance, you can eat two slices of Pizza Hut's hand-tossed pepperoni pizza. And while honey may seem like a natural, healthier alternative to sugar, the fact is it has 21 calories per teaspoon versus sugar's 16.
For a low-cal, lower-fat drink that feels like a sweet treat, choose coffee beans in tempting flavors such as chocolate almond, hazelnut, or white chocolate, rather than using syrupy mix-ins after brewing, and lighten your coffee with fat-free milk. Teas, too, come in sweet vanilla, berry, and tropical fruit blends. And whether you use Splenda, sugar, or honey in your beverages, limit yourself to about a teaspoon.
You smother your grilled chicken sandwich or turkey burger in barbecue sauce
You're wise to choose skinless grilled chicken, but be careful with condiments. Barbecue sauce is filled with sugar, which equals calories (about 94 per 1/4 cup).
Ditch the high-sugar sauce and instead spice up chicken by marinating it with cayenne red-pepper sauce, or mix hot sauce with some fat-free yogurt and smear it on your sandwich for buffalo-inspired flavor. Another way to punch up the taste and nutrient power of grilled chicken sandwiches and turkey burgers: Try a topping of homemade slaw. Bagged shredded cabbage makes a convenient base; toss it with flavored vinegar or fat-free mayo and a little mustard. At 11 calories per 1/2 cup, raw cabbage offers filling fiber and vitamins such as C and B6, and as a cruciferous veggie, it contains cancer-fighting antioxidants.
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