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Think about how often you eat food that you don't even want: the free cookie that came with your sandwich; the second helping of paella you accepted just to be polite; the unsatisfying fat-free ice cream that you kept dipping into each night because you didn't want to waste it. The trouble with such rationalizations is that they can add up to extra pounds. "These examples can total about 600 additional calories a day -- enough to cause a moderately active woman to gain five pounds a month if she doesn't burn them off," says Milton Stokes, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Here are the most common leaps in food logic and the simple attitude adjustments that will keep your diet -- and your weight -- in check.THE LOGIC behind "It's Free!": When food's up for grabs, I might as well grab some!
Freebies are everywhere, from samples at the market to bagels in the morning meeting. But just one sesame-with-cream-cheese will set you back almost 500 calories. And that's not the only reason to refuse it: Research shows that you're likely to perceive free food as less tasty (so you're not even really enjoying it). Plus, you're unlikely to compensate for the additional calories by eating less the rest of the day, says Brian Wansink, PhD, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. "In our brains, free food isn't coded as a meal but as a surprise that we don't need to enter into our daily calorie count," he explains. So even if the giveaway grub is mediocre at best, you keep eating, since it's not like you're paying for it -- not in cash anyway.
Change your mind: When faced with a tempting handout, ask yourself, "If it weren't free, would I stop and buy it?" Anything not worth your hard-earned dollars or even cents isn't worth the added pounds either.
Whether it's your mother, your friend, or your boss who's the cookie pusher, one large chocolate chunk can pack more than 400 calories. But unfortunately, in many families, offering baked goods is the edible equivalent of saying "I love you"; to refuse is to reject the sentiment.
Change your mind: One strategy, says Stokes, is to ask for a cookie to go, then immediately toss it once you're home. If it's an ongoing problem and involves something less portable -- like that second helping of paella -- you'll have to take a more direct approach. Respectfully explain that you're trying to cut back on extra helpings. Or accept the offer of seconds, but say you've actually had your eye on another serving of tonight's veggie dish.
It's a message we hear our whole lives: You don't waste perfectly good food when there are kids starving in Africa! But nibbling the cold mac-and-cheese off your 4-year-old's plate doesn't help anyone. Nor does eating the entire carton of bland fat-free frozen yogurt you bought but hated after the first bite.
Change your mind: Never feel guilty for getting rid of extra food. Eating more than your body needs counts as wasting food too -- it just gets dumped in your fat cells instead of the garbage can. Chucking that 1.75-quart container of fro-yo (minus the one serving you ate) would save you 1,170 calories -- that's one-third of a pound of jiggly body fat. Try reducing recipes so you make only as many servings as you have people. Give kids who don't clean their plates smaller portions; if they're still hungry, they'll let you know.
Special occasions feel like a time to relax the rules and enjoy yourself. The problem is, when you've got an "occasion" every other day -- whether it's a birthday party, working lunch, family event, happy hour, or restaurant outing -- they can't all be considered "special" anymore. If, like most Americans, you eat out a few days a week, the calories can really add up: Just one piece of bread with butter tacks on more than 100 calories per slice.
Change your mind: Approach each day, whether you're dining in or out, with the same nutrition goals. A study of members of the National Weight Control Registry revealed that people with this mind-set were one and a half times more likely to maintain their weight. The trick is to remember that it's never your last chance to indulge -- delicious food will still be available tomorrow and the day after that. Order the must-have appetizer this time and the fabulous dessert next time.
Just can't resist ordering all your favorites every time? Take a look at your regular diet: If all you eat is lackluster food (like frozen dinners, energy bars, and garden salads), no wonder you go nuts every time you go out. Replace some or all of your "diet" meals with real food -- take a healthy-cooking class, buy a new cookbook, or make a trip to a gourmet shop. Just including one nutritious but full-flavored item at each meal, like artisanal cheese or dark chocolate, can make you feel less compelled to "get it while you can" at restaurants and parties, says Stokes.
Call it the "Costco effect": An item you didn't especially want or need suddenly becomes appealing when you can get twice as much for half the price. Unfortunately, getting 16 more ounces of soda for just a quarter more ups your calorie total as well -- by 182. And don't count on making the larger serving last longer: In one study, Wansink found that people ate 92 percent more cookies each day when they had an especially large supply stockpiled in their cupboards. In fact, you're liable to keep munching away even after your monster-size snack loses its appeal, says Wansink. He found that people given larger buckets of free popcorn ate significantly more, even when it was 14 days old and stale!
Change your mind: Adopt a "pay less, weigh less" attitude. Sure, it may be a better value to buy 100 cookies for $5 than it is to buy 10 cookies for $3. But by choosing the smaller package, you'll actually spend $2 less -- and save hundreds of calories.
This concept works at restaurants, too. Order an appetizer portion of your dish even if you have to pay the full entree price. You're not wasting money; your meal costs the same either way. You're simply choosing to buy fewer calories with your money.
It's amazing how many activities are paired with food -- candy at the movies, margaritas on date night, coffee and doughnuts while reading the Sunday paper. It becomes a classic Pavlovian response. "When you combine a certain pastime over and over with eating, you eventually stop listening to hunger or fullness cues and just eat on autopilot whenever you engage in that activity," says Tara Gidus, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association in Orlando, Florida.
Change your mind: Disentangle food/fun associations by altering your routine, says Gidus. If your evening ritual is a bag of chips in front of the TV, relax instead with a book on the patio. "Just switching rooms or chairs can help break the pattern," says Gidus. Rather than dinner dates, plan active outings. And as for the movies, think about how much money you'll save just by avoiding the inflated concession-stand prices.
"Food provides a very basic, easily obtainable way to nurture and reward yourself, and delaying this gratification isn't easy," says Rick Temple, PhD, a psychologist who treats eating disorders at the University of South Florida Counseling Center in Tampa. The trouble is, we rarely nurture ourselves with broccoli: A classic study found that when an eating bout is triggered by emotions rather than by seeing or smelling food, you're less likely to take nutritional value into consideration.
Change your mind: Acknowledge all of your needs, not just the ones for instant gratification: "Yes, it's true, I deserve a sundae. But do I also deserve fat thighs and high cholesterol?" Next, grab a pencil and paper and list 10 inedible things that make you feel rewarded, or comforted, or indulgent or pampered, and pick one, suggests Gidus. Call your best friend, cuddle with a pet, or seduce your husband -- that's one thing we guarantee will be more satisfying than food.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, August 2006.