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The secret to shedding pounds isn't saying no to guilty pleasures, it's learning how to say yes without causing diet damage.
"Cheating should be planned and deliberate," says Ann Kulze, MD, author of Dr. Ann's 10-Step Diet: A Simple Plan for Permanent Weight Loss and Lifelong Vitality (Top Ten Wellness and Fitness, 2004). "Avoiding favorite foods can lead to bingeing, followed by regret and abandonment of all your efforts." Allowing yourself the occasional splurge helps you truly enjoy the treat -- and that makes it easier to take a pass on little extras the rest of the time.
Fortunately, you can indulge and still keep calories in check by substituting an equally gratifying and decadent yet more diet-friendly alternative for the food you're craving. (Would you believe cheesecake is an option?) Try these 10 trade-offs and we promise you won't feel the least bit deprived.
Best Bet: Cocoa
Hot chocolate made with nonfat milk and a tablespoon of sugar has 154 calories and 2 grams of fat per cup, saving you about 80 calories and 11 grams of (mostly saturated) fat compared with a milk chocolate bar -- and it's more satisfying, says Dr. Kulze. The heat forces you to sip slowly, so your brain has time to register the treat. Plus, drinking a milk-based beverage helps you eat less at your next meal, says Barbara Rolls, PhD, a professor of nutritional science at Pennsylvania State University.
Best Bet: Oreos
You'd think that marshmallow would be lighter in calories than cream filling, but nope. The Oreo has 10 percent fewer calories per cookie (53 versus 60). If you snacked on three cookies a day and made this swap, you'd effortlessly drop two pounds in a year.
Best Bet: Cake
Even when frosted, a slice of chocolate cake has about half the calories of a large brownie (235 versus 454). If the brownie has nuts, its calorie count jumps to 519.
Best Bet: Pita chips
When you're dying for something salty and crunchy, potato chips are the first thing that come to mind. But a single ounce (that's just 12 chips!) has 160 calories and 10 grams of fat. Add onion dip and your snack jumps to 212 calories and 15 grams of fat. Instead, slice a four-inch pita into wedges, brush lightly with olive oil and sprinkle judiciously with salt, then crisp in a toaster oven. Add hummus, and you'll take in just 167 calories and 7 grams of fat while adding 3 grams of hunger-taming fiber.
Best Bet: Big Mac
Neither is a low-cal option, but when you're surrounded by nothing but drive-throughs, you're better off turning in to a McDonald's. A Big Mac has 560 calories and 30 grams of fat; a Whopper packs 700 calories and 42 fat grams.
Best Bet: Sirloin
This cut is known for being exceptionally lean and tender, says Mary Young, RD, executive director of nutrition for the National Cattleman's Beef Association. Plus, it's more flavorful than other lean cuts, such as tenderloin or top round. Three ounces of sirloin has just 156 calories and 5 grams of fat. A similar serving of prime rib has 250 calories and nearly 18 grams of fat. If you still feel a twinge of guilt over not ordering the wild-caught salmon, remember: Red meat is a good source of protein, vitamin B12, niacin, zinc, and iron.
Best Bet: Pancakes
Enjoy Sunday brunch guilt-free: Three pancakes have 259 calories compared with 447 in three slices of French toast. Top either with a tablespoon of butter and a quarter cup of syrup and you add 310 calories. Try thawed frozen unsweetened fruit instead; it has a syrupy consistency but just 19 calories in a quarter cup.
Best Bet: Doughnut
Standing in Dunkin' Donuts trying to decide? Let a 120-calorie difference make up your mind. The danish has 330 calories and 20 grams of fat; the jelly doughnut has 210 and 8 grams.
Best Bet: Cheesecake
While the two desserts have a similar creamy texture and vanilla flavor, a typical serving of creme brulee has 368 calories and 18 grams of fat compared with 182 calories and 13 fat grams in a two-ounce slice of cheesecake. If you're served a New York-style (read: huge) hunk, share with a friend. And skip the gloppy toppings: a quarter cup of strawberries in heavy syrup tacks on almost 60 calories. At 13 calories, fresh berries are the way to go.
Best Bet: Wine
Cocktails with sugary mixers are virtual calorie bombs. There are 270 in a four-ounce margarita, 245 in a pina colada and 225 in a daiquiri. Wine has about 100 calories. Calories aren't the only concern, though. "The trouble with alcohol is it produces a 'what-the-hell' attitude," says Rolls. Drinking can lower your resolve to eat smaller portions or make healthy choices. Food slows the rate at which alcohol enters your system, so have your wine with dinner, not before. If you must have an aperitif, try a wine spritzer -- half wine, half sparkling water or seltzer. You'll lower the alcohol content and cut the calories of your drink by half.
Originally published in Fitness magazine, December 2005.