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, former FDA commissioner David Kessler, MD, 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.
1. You dunk veggies into fat traps.
While it may seem like a good idea to watch TV with a plate of crisp crudités 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. 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 10-pound weight gain over the course of a year," says Brian Wansink, PhD, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.
Fix it! If you're dying to dip, mix fat-free plain Greek 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.
2. You go for the fried sweet potatoes.
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, 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.
Fix it! 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; choose ones with 0 trans fat and no more than 0.5 g saturated fat per serving.
3. You drown foods in 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 ¼ cup. If you don't measure the amount of oil you use to sauté, grill, broil, or roast, you can end up with way more than you need.
Fix it! 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. You can also make your sautés 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.
4. Your salad is a high-cal land mine.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.
Fix it! Nelson offers an easy-to-remember ratio for preparing main-dish 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.
5. Your coffee is anything but "regular."
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). 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.
Fix it! 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, and lighten your coffee with fat-free milk. Teas, too, come in sweet vanilla, berry, and tropical fruit blends. And if you use sugar or honey in your beverages, limit yourself to about a teaspoon.
6. Your marinades pack a big fat punch.
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 ¼ cup).
Fix it! 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 ½ cup, raw cabbage offers filling fiber and vitamins such as C and B6, and as a cruciferous veggie, it contains cancer-fighting antioxidants.
7. You're good all day but all bets are off at night.You're the Jekyll and Hyde of snacking—restricting calories so much by day that by night you're ravenous. After dinner, you trek back and forth to the fridge. Before you know it, you're cuddled up on the couch with a sleeve of Oreos.
Fix it! Start with a breakfast that's really satisfying—like steel-cut oats, eggs, or Greek-style yogurt. Then at lunch, combine healthy carbs, protein, and fat. And truly savor your treats. Dean Ornish, MD, author ofThe Spectrum, does a "chocolate meditation." Take a single piece of the best chocolate you can find and let it dissolve slowly in your mouth, paying attention to the complex flavors. You'll get more pleasure with fewer calories.
8. You snack before dinner.You're starving by the time you get home from work (join the club). You inhale whatever you get your hands on, whether it's healthy or not.
Fix it! "Planning is key," says Patricia Bannan, RD, the author of Eat Right When Time Is Tight. Before you get home, eat something light and nourishing to tide you over. If you're starving while you cook, munch on raw veggies such as sugar snap peas. Set yourself up for success by knowing meals you can cook quickly, such as frozen veggies with a rotisserie chicken and microwaveable brown rice. Get dinner on the table fast with these 10-minute super-healthy meals.
9. You always eat in the car.If you feel like you live in your car, you probably consume a lot of calories there, too. Maybe you wolf down snacks straight out of the bag, with little idea of how much you've inhaled, or you pull into the nearest drive-thru for a shake.
Fix it! Preempt unrestrained noshing by packing portable snacks that are calorie-controlled such as small bags of cashews or an apple. Even half of a PB&J on whole wheat will do the trick. And if those fries are still calling out to you, "drive home via another route so you won't pass your favorite fast-food restaurants," says Janna L. Fikkan, PhD, a health psychologist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, NC. "It doesn't have to be the shortest way home, as long as you avoid the drive-thru."
10. You work at home.
It's just you and the fridge—and nobody watching. Because you have no meetings or structured activities, you can check the mail, toss in a load of laundry, play with the dog—and grab a snack (or two or four).
Fix it! Keep a log of your daily activities, including every time you get up to eat. Chances are, once you see how often you're indulging, you'll be shamed into cutting back. If you still feel the need to snack, eat at the kitchen table—and don't do anything else. Without the distraction of the computer, TV, or newspaper, you'll be much more aware of how often you eat out of habit rather than hunger.
11. You graze at the office.Between the office candy bowl, the vending machine, and a coworker's homemade brownies, your office probably stocks more snacks than a 7-Eleven. And since you're only nibbling, the calories don't count, right?
Fix it! Launch a counteroffensive by bringing in healthy snacks—say, tamari-roasted almonds or dark chocolate—that you actually prefer over the junk. Knowing that these treats are tucked away will give you the strength to resist the disastrous jelly doughnuts. With healthy fare within arm's reach, you won't need to raid your colleague's candy jar.
12. Your kids' snack habits are contagious.It's the diet dilemma of nearly every mom. The kids badger you into buying them sugary snacks—then you eat them. Before you know it, you're helping with homework and munching on a Pop-Tart or a snack-size package of cookies.
Fix it! Ditch the kiddie foods, says Rolls. These highly processed foods are digested in no time, leaving you wanting more. "Family-friendly snacks should include low-calorie foods that are high in water or fiber and aren't loaded with fat," she says. Try no-fuss fruits like grapes or berries—or fix some air-popped popcorn sprinkled with a bit of Parmesan.