Let’s be honest: Improving your eating habits is hard, even when you are doing the shopping and cooking. But what do you do when you are constantly being tempted to eat more by the people around you, or the situation you’re in? Relax. While resisting temptation is never easy, we’ve come up with stay-in-control strategies for 13 of the most common situations in which temptation might call. If there’s a common theme, it’s this: Be prepared! By having a plan (or merely a script for what to say) you can make smart eating choices in every situation that life throws at you.
1. It’s birthday-cake time at work
Passing on your colleague’s cake looks as curmudgeonly as refusing to sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ but it’s hard to celebrate the 300 calories, about half from fat, packed into a simple slice of store-bought frosted yellow cake. The socially acceptable way out is to ask for a thin slice, and then eat a small number of bites you’ve decided on beforehand, says dietician Elizabeth Somer, author of Eat Your Way to Happiness. You’re most likely to keep your promise to yourself, adds Somer, if you’ve eaten right all day, without ‘saving room’ for cake. Another calorie-saving trick: leave the icing on your plate and just eat the cake. And while most office parties involve soda, skip it and bring a full coffee mug.
2. Your best pal wants to go out for ice cream
Remember when the two of you used to gorge on late-night sundaes? That was back when your metabolism could shake off 1,360 calories and 89 grams of fat — the going rate for a banana split at Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shops. Liz Brenna, the self-described ‘p.r. chick’ at B&J headquarters, points out that the premium-cream pioneer has beefed up its line of fruit smoothies. While their 20-ounce ‘Life’s a Beach’ mango smoothie is made only with fruit, sorbet and fruit juice, it still clocks in at 360 calories. For true nostalgic glow (and a few more grams of fat), choose a 3-ounce kiddie cone. At that size, most of the 30 ice-cream flavors hover around 220 calories. Better yet, go with frozen yogurt or sorbet, which range from 100 to 160 calories — and little or no fat.
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3. You really, really want a beer
Whether in a tavern, at the beach, or in your workshop, a frosty bottle of beer is often exactly what the situation calls for. So have one! The most refreshing, easy-to-drink beers are the highly carbonated, lower alcohol ‘lite’ brews. If you haven’t tasted one lately, they’ve gotten far more flavorful. Pabst makes an Extra Light Low Alcohol beer with only 67 calories, but even a good ol’ Miller Lite comes in under 100 calories. As a rule the darker the beer, the more calories, so if your yen is for craft-beer flavor, stick to the trendy new wheat and white (‘weiss’) beers and avoid higher alcohol ales, even so-called ‘pale’ ones.
4. You have only a few minutes to grab a meal
Don’t assume a fast-food drive-thru is an automatic no-no. True, a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese clocks in at 740 calories, more than half of them from fat. But the big boys have begun to grasp that customers want some reasonable options: ‘395 calorie meal for $3.95’ read one sign outside a fast food franchise recently, and Taco Bell brags of its Fresco menu, including a 160-calorie grilled steak soft taco wrap with just 4.5 grams of fat. At McDonald’s you can get away with a salad, even one with meat, as long as you ‘avoid anything with the word ‘crispy’,’ says Somer. Just as important, choose a no-fat dressing. Also remember: no burgers bearing mayo-heavy sauces; skip the french fries; and low-fat milk or water rather than soda.
5. Your friend insists you meet at Starbucks
In diet circles, Starbucks has come to be regarded as the evil empire. It’s not just ‘all that caramel goo’ in those ventis, which turn a cup of coffee into an ultrasweet high-calorie dessert, says New York University nutrition professor Marion Nestle. ‘Their stores are set up to make it convenient and entertaining to choose larger portions and more foods.’ Treats — like the 410-calorie lemon poppy loaf — are sumptuously displayed in eye-level glass cases, while the more wholesome chow languishes below. Look down. Starbucks now offers sensible snacks like fruit rollups and paninis that swap out chili spread for mayo, but they’re going to make you find it. As for drinks, begin any order with the word ‘Skinny’ and you can cut the calorie count by up to a third. The best choices: a steaming 16-ounce grande Pike’s Roast black coffee, 5 calories or a grande Tazo Full Leaf Tea, 0 calories.
6. A date takes you to a hot restaurant
At a casual meal, say a Denny’s or a Red Lobster, paring back the calories by skipping sauces or having them on the side is a good way to turn a fat fest into a square meal. Plus, many family restaurants now offer low-cal meals. But a meal in a top-flight restaurant is all about the sauces and special preparations made by a chef who is closer to an artist than a cook. ‘I don’t recommend trying to diet when eating out,’ Nestle says. Instead, order less food, confident that the intense flavors will satisfy you. Pick appetizers as your entrée and share them; after all, it’s more romantic to make the meal a shared exploration of flavors. Also sample the creative broth-based soups or salads. And if you must have dessert, share that too, and order the one with the most fruit.
7. Your lover surprises you with a big box of chocolates
First, a quick lesson in love: your lover doesn’t bring chocolate in hopes of watching you eat. Before surrendering to the temptation of what’s in the box, unwrap your lover. A concerted half-hour of sex can chew up 85 calories, and the longer you linger, the higher that number. Then feel free to enjoy a single piece of chocolate — a Godiva truffle tucks a lot of sweetness into 105 calories. (Meanwhile, a memo to chocolate-buying lovers: consider a 1-ounce chocolate liqueur, which boils down to about 100 calories, none of them from fat.) If you limit yourself to one chocolate a day as a snack, you’ll be fine.
8. You’re shopping and are fading from hunger
Shopping marathons are like any other kind: you need constant, small boosts of energy to keep going. And keeping going is key. Avoid settling in at the food court; pick up a hot pretzel, a small bag of roasted nuts from a kiosk, even a chicken taco, and nibble on the move. Portable meals, of course, can still seriously weigh you down. At Aunt Annie’s Pretzels, a pepperoni pizza pretzel twists together 480 calories with 8 grams of saturated fat. The original pretzel is no bargain at 310 calories without the butter sauce. But with less than a gram of saturated fat and 2 grams of fiber, it’s a good choice, particularly if you eat it in small amounts over time.
9. You’re dashing for an early morning plane
The best place for breakfast in an airport may be…Starbucks. A venti latte with soy milk or skim is 9 ounces of milk, a helpful shot of caffeine and just 170 calories, note Heather Bauer and Kathy Matthews in The Wall Street Diet, which provides tips for people too busy to plan healthy meals. Add a banana and a yogurt to get your day started for less than 400 calories and in under ten minutes (depending on how many other frequent flyers have missed breakfast at home and are lined up in front of you).
10. The only food at the picnic is hamburgers and hot dogs
Most barbecues leave dieters trapped in the great outdoors. Meat grilled over a fire does tend to be less fatty than pan-cooked, but most grillers still depend on fatty burgers and dogs to feed the masses, while the traditional sides like potato salad and slaw are filled with high-calorie mayonnaise. Worst of all, you can’t get away from the deliciously wafting smoke. Go ahead and smell the burgers, but eat the hot dog. A dog on a bun with a smear of ketchup will set you back about 250 calories. That’s as many as the burger has in fat alone. Load up your plate with the low-calorie burger fixin’s, like lettuce, tomato and onions, to round out your meal.
11. It’s 3:30 pm and you’re hungry
The energy drop that hits in afternoon is likely a combination of perfectly natural factors: the result of a light lunch, mild dehydration, a momentary lack of iron, or a crash off that coffee you had at the late-morning meeting. Before wandering to the cafeteria or fridge, start your recovery with a tall glass of water, which boosts your blood flow and, as a side benefit, makes you feel full. Ideal snacks for clearing your cobwebby head are hummus or almonds, but if your only option is an office vending machine, look for any hint of protein — those orange crackers with peanut butter, at 200 calories, are better than a sugary cookie. Wash it down with a cup of coffee doused in iron-rich cinnamon.
12. You’re having drinks with co-workers
Fruit juices, soda and other mixers can ratchet up the calories in cocktails: a margarita with 1.5 ounces of tequila and store-bought margarita mix contains upward of 500 calories. But it’s alcohol itself that turns fun into fat. Not only does it contain 90 calories an ounce, it inhibits your body’s ability to process fats and lowers your resolve. The answer? When you hit the bar to raise a toast to Bob in Accounting’s promotion, have a lower-calorie cocktail that doubles easily for a soft drink, and then alternate between the two, says dietician Somer. For example, a gin (or vodka) and tonic has only 180 calories and no one will be the wiser when you make your second round an equally bubbly and transparent zero-calorie diet Sprite, dressed up with a twist.
13. Your family forces food on you when you go home
Food is love, and when Mamma tells you ‘mangia’ and you don’t, she acts like you’re rejecting her, not her pot roast. The answer: Have some of everything pushed at you during the holidays or a weekend visit home, but only a spoonful. That means your plate will be more of a tasting sampler than a full meal. Remember: Just one bite of a dish, preceded by a loud ‘I can’t resist!’ will do your parents good and won’t kill you. Another strategy: make yourself useful serving people and cleaning up. It gets you away from your plate, but still makes you a vital part of the meal. Most of all, ‘focus on what’s important,’ says Somer. ‘You’re there to visit with your loved ones, not to pig out.’ If you can transfer your emotions from the food to those around you, you’ll live a long and happy life.