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6 Food Rules That Help You Reach Your Weight-Loss Goals

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On an Internet message board, someone suggested the Fresh Diet, a service that delivers gourmet calorie-controlled meals daily. Starting at $175 a week, it was a whole lot of (reduced-fat) cheddar to drop. But my dad had surprised me with a birthday check a few years back with the instruction to blow it on an indulgence. So I splurged on the $1,200-a-month premium plan, which had a variety of dishes to choose from.

The first morning, I was greeted with an insulated tote containing three meals, a snack, and a dessert, all of which fell within my daily allotment of 1,200 to 1,400 calories. Everything tasted delicious, but the portions were small: Lunch and dinner—a ­chicken-mango-arugula salad and shrimp with black beans and vegetables—were roughly the size of Lean Cuisine servings. The snack of heirloom tomato slices sprinkled with goat cheese was minuscule. For dessert, there was just enough balsamic strawberry trifle to fill an espresso cup.

By the third day, my stomach was rumbling after work. I panicked, thinking, There's not enough food! But after eating my snack and then dinner and dessert a few hours later, I felt fine. Once I had adjusted to the portion size, my hunger went away.

By the end of the month, I was down six pounds. Thrilled, I signed on for another 30 days and shed three more pounds. But what would happen when the meals stopped showing up on my doorstep?

Determined not to backslide, I started recreating some of the dishes and employing the strategies I had learned on the Fresh Diet. It worked! The scale has held steady ever since, and these are the secrets that helped me drop the weight and keep it off. They'll work for you, too—no delivery meal plan required.

1. Recalibrate your plate. My first breakfast on the plan was two superthin slices of French toast with a thimbleful of syrup. It was then that I realized I'd been eating way too much food. Turns out that I'm not alone in my portion distortion. The average dinner plate has grown 36 percent over the past five decades, Cornell University researchers say.

On the Fresh Diet, portions are carefully measured. In my plan, proteins were three ounces, about the size of a deck of cards, and grains were a half cup, the equivalent of half a baseball. "To ensure you're eating the right amount, measure your food for a day or two," says Alison Massey, RD, the director of diabetes education at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

Getting used to these smaller servings took about a week, but following the plan's recommendation to spend 30 minutes enjoying each meal helped. "Eating slowly gives your brain time to register fullness," Massey says. To pace yourself, sit at the table for meals and put down your fork between bites.

2. Ramp up the flavor. "When you're cutting calories, herbs and spices can prevent you from feeling deprived," says Lauren Harris-Pincus, RD, the founder of NutritionStarringYou.com. According to a study in the journal Appetite, people enjoyed the reduced-fat version of a dish as much as they did the full-fat one when herbs and spices were added. In my delivery meals, harissa, a Tunisian hot sauce, gave vegetables a kick and parsley and mint dressed up meatballs.

Incorporate herbs and spices in your cooking. Fold curry into a cauliflower mash, or mix rosemary into a turkey patty. Along with delivering a dose of nutrients, such ingredients can also lessen your dependence on the saltshaker. Research from the American Heart Association found that when people flavored their food with herbs and spices, they reduced their sodium intake by 966 milligrams a day.

3. Use your bean. Whether it was cannellini floating in a chicken-vegetable soup or black beans flecked with red onion Cuban style, my delivery meals were often brimming with legumes. "Beans are high in both fiber and protein, which can keep you satisfied longer," says Rebecca Cipriano, MD, the founder of Pop Weight Loss in Freehold Township, New Jersey. In fact, researchers at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto found that people felt 31 percent fuller when their meal contained a cup of beans than when it didn't.

Over time, this may add up to pounds dropped. In one study, people who ate beans regularly weighed an average of seven pounds less than those who didn't. To bulk up your meals, add a half cup of legumes to soups, salads and entrées. For a snack, Dr. Cipriano recommends puree­ing your favorite type of beans with lemon juice, olive oil and spices and serving it as a dip with sliced veggies.

4. Make every bite count. My delivery snacks—including a ­roasted-pear-and-ricotta crostini with arugula, and spicy shrimp with papaya salsa—resembled mini masterpieces. They were much more enjoyable than my typical vending-machine pick. Munching a bag of chips doesn't feel like an eating experience, Massey explains. "But having a snack that's full of different tastes and textures is more memorable and satisfying," she says.

For a worthy treat, look for a combo of protein and vegetables with a mix of flavors, such as whole-grain bread topped with a little egg salad and red pepper slices. No time to prep? Jazz up basic snacks—dust almonds with cocoa or top low-fat Greek yogurt with pomegranate seeds.

5. Become a grain-iac. Before the Fresh Diet, my starches were all white. But to my surprise, I enjoyed the fragrant whole grains, like nutty-tasting farro and smoky Chinese black forbidden rice, in my delivered meals.

Besides adding a flavor boost to my meals, these whole grains helped stop my urge to graze. "Their high fiber content keeps you full, so you're less likely to seek out sugary foods," Harris-Pincus says. In a study from Tufts University, people who ate mostly whole grains had 10 percent less belly fat—the kind linked to chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease—than those who consumed no whole grains. To incorporate whole grains into your diet, be creative: Whip up hot quinoa topped with fresh apple slices and sprinkled with cinnamon in the morning; fold wild rice or barley into your favorite casserole recipe; and use rolled oats in place of bread crumbs in meat loaf.

6. Plan ahead. Knowing what I was going to have throughout the day on the Fresh Diet prevented me from eating mindlessly. "Planning is the key to staying on track," Massey says. She recommends setting aside time each weekend to prepare a few staples: Grill chicken breasts, roast vegetables and make beans in the slow cooker. "That way, you can easily mix and match sides and proteins for your lunches and dinners," she says.

During the week, take a few minutes every evening to portion out your breakfast for the next day and pack a healthy lunch and snack to take to work. Dining out? Review the restaurant's menu online beforehand and decide on a couple of healthy options. You can choose between them once you get to the restaurant.

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