Can You Resist the Cookie Pusher?
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Can You Resist the Cookie Pusher?

Or the office party munchies? And then there's the "I'll just pick" dinner. A million mistakes and temptations can sabotage your diet, and it's so easy to succumb. Here, how to stay focused.

Real-Life Dieting

Most busy people don't have the luxury of planning their lives around a diet. In fact, as I've learned in my 10 years as a nutritionist counseling New Yorkers with high-pressure jobs and almost no free time -- as well as a few pounds to lose -- the reason many diets don't succeed is that they only focus on spelling out the right food choices. They don't tackle the real-life obstacles that can make following any food plan the culinary version of the Whac-a-Mole game, with temptations -- think "help yourself" candy bowls or friends proffering chips -- popping up faster than you can bat them down. In the real world, even the best of intentions and most carefully laid plans will only get you and your diet so far. You need a plan to counter the saboteurs that are out to get you. Here it is.

Diet Danger: "Might As Well" Day

You start your day with a light, healthy breakfast, followed by a salad for lunch, only to be utterly undone by the cake at an afternoon office birthday party. You know the drill: "I'll just have a forkful" becomes a whole slice, and since you've blown it, you figure you "might as well" have two slices of pepperoni pizza at dinner. By bedtime you're so far out-of-bounds that maintaining your diet feels hopeless. That downward spiral can take days or weeks to recover from.

Solution: If you fall off track, count it as a mere slip and move on. Don't catastrophize the situation -- all-or-nothing thinking can set in motion a binge -- and don't delay getting back on the wagon. Tell yourself: "This is a one-time thing." That way 300 extra calories don't become 3,000.

Diet Danger: Sundown Snacking

All you want is a little something to snack on before bedtime. But before you know it, your late-night nosh has turned into an out-of-body omnivore experience leaving cracker crumbs and candy wrappers in its wake -- not to mention no leftovers for tomorrow's dinner. To top it off, you sleep poorly and nurse a food hangover all the next day.

Solution: Since nighttime snacking is usually more about habit than hunger, it's best to avoid even low-calorie snacks after dinner; they simply reinforce the behavior and risk triggering a food binge. But if you must eat something, use the turkey solution: Pre-apportion several quarter-pound servings of turkey breast (the low-sodium variety, if possible) into individual plastic bags and keep them in the fridge. Each serving has only about 150 calories. If you're hungry, plain turkey will take the edge off and is a good source of tryptophan, which can help you relax and sleep. Have more than one bag, if you like. I've yet to have a client binge on turkey.

Diet Danger: Celebrations

An office friend just got promoted. Or maybe it's Halloween or even Groundhog Day. It doesn't take much to get everyone in the office -- or at your church or in your book group -- in the mood to party. Of course, celebrations mean food, usually the high-calorie, high-fat kind. Just one generous glass of wine and a cracker piled with Brie can pack 400 calories. Somehow those calories don't really count, you tell yourself.

Solution: Chew a piece of sugar-free gum or suck a breath strip on the way to the party. Your mouth will be full and it may make the idea of eating less appealing. Grab a water bottle -- if you're sipping, you'll distract yourself. Or be the server: Grab the food platter and pass, pass, pass. Do the job well enough and it will be empty before you can even think of helping yourself.

Diet Danger: The Trojan Gift

A friend, in what she means as a kind gesture, gives you a fabulous chocolate assortment. A nibble on Monday, a taste on Tuesday, a chunk on Wednesday...even spread out over a few days, the calories add up.

Solution: Keeping edible presents around is a serious waistline hazard. If you're dieting, never let the sun set with a food gift still in your possession. Before the end of the day, figure out who will be the lucky "echo" recipient of your treat and deliver it.

The Water Cure

Many overweight people are dehydrated because they drink the wrong kinds of fluids -- coffee, diet sodas, diet fruit beverages and teas -- and not enough water. Consume 32 ounces by lunchtime and 64 ounces total per day. If this is too much at first, start by drinking a 20- to 24-ounce bottle by lunch and another of the same size in the afternoon. Don't worry about gaining "water weight." In one study overweight women who increased their daily water intake by about four additional cups lost an added 5 pounds over the year's course.

More Diet Dangers

Diet Danger: Freaky Friday

You've had a brilliant week and need to celebrate. Or you've had a lousy week and need to forget. Maybe your office celebrates every Friday with pizza, or your family kicks back with a feast from the local Chinese takeout. You know your diet is on the line, so you cross your fingers and hope for the best.

Solution: Don't hope; plan ahead. A healthy Friday will set you up to stick to your goals all weekend long. At work make judicious use of low-calorie snacks so you're not starving when the treats show up. Decide to have half a slice of pizza, and follow with a stick of gum so you won't be tempted to eat more. At home be the one who orders takeout and include something diet-worthy (steamed shrimp, not chow fun).

Diet Danger: The No-Dinner Dinner

You get home, exhausted and starving. You grab two chicken nuggets from your kids' plates, dragging them through ketchup as you go. Because you don't feel like cooking you decide to just have a bowl of nutritious cereal with some skim milk. So you do. And then you have another -- it's healthy, after all -- and maybe just one more shake of cereal to use up the milk. You get changed and settle in to watch some TV but you're still hungry because you haven't had a real meal. So you have a couple of sticks of string cheese and a few crackers -- and since you haven't really had a meal you treat yourself to three chocolate-chip cookies. From the time you got home till the time you fall into bed you've managed to consume a whole day's worth of calories.

Solution: As your mother probably told you, eat dinner like a normal person. Don't rush right into the kitchen and grab the first thing you see. Change out of your day clothes. Wash your face and hands. These simple acts create a transition that sets the stage for a real dinner. Stock the refrigerator with healthy foods you can prepare fast, such as prewashed veggies and boneless chicken breasts. For evenings when you really don't feel like cooking, stock up on healthy frozen dinners. One big benefit of a frozen dinner: no second helpings. Portioned foods also demonstrate what meals of 300 or 350 calories really look like and how you should feel after a meal: not stuffed, just pleasantly satisfied.

Diet Danger: Poppables, Pickables, and Dippable

You buy the gargantuan bag of chips at the warehouse store, overcome by the size of the bargain. Or a seemingly bottomless assortment is being presented to you at a party, along with other foods -- hummus, olives, dips -- that are way too easy to mindlessly pop in your mouth. So you do, again and again.

Solution: If you must eat chips, opt for single-serving bags of soy crisps. Keep other "finite" snacks on hand, such as whole fruits and individual yogurts. You can mix cereal into the yogurt, but if having cereal in the house is a temptation to eat it out of the box, avoid it. When you're at parties, make sure you're always holding a glass (seltzer, spritzer, light beer) and have two fiber crackers and a 20-ounce bottle of water before you go so that you won't be as hungry. If you know you'll be eating dinner later, fill one small plate or napkin with nibbles and stop there. If the food will be your dinner, limit yourself to three to four plates from the buffet. In either case, find the low-cal choices, such as vegetables, shrimp, sushi, or chicken skewers.

Diet Danger: Fattening Friends

You've been friends since forever and are really fond of each other. But this friend eats too much -- and too many of the wrong foods -- and when you're with her, so do you. Maybe you and she have gotten into the habit of doing things together that involve food. And maybe she's reluctant to change because she's overweight herself and she subconsciously doesn't want your diet to succeed.

Solution: You can't afford doughnut marathons. Tell her you're dieting and choose eateries with healthy options -- or meet for a movie or something else not involving food. If she's a real friend, she'll respect your choices.

Limit Diet Soda

In an effort to lose weight, it's natural to turn to diet soda. One study found that diet drinks, which contain sodium, caffeine, and artificial sweetener, were associated with increased weight gain, although it was unclear if the negative effects were the result of the soda itself or some associated behavior (for example, they make people feel freer to eat more). This supports a pattern I've noticed in diet soda drinkers who have difficulty losing weight despite a low-calorie diet. When they switch to water, they seem to drop pounds faster. If you really want a diet soda, have one only after you reach your water intake goal (64 ounces). After that much water you may find you're no longer interested.

How to Bounce Back from a Diet Setback

The extra calories aren't what do the worst damage after a diet slipup or even a major binge: It's taking an all-or-nothing attitude to your setback. The dieters who are most successful over the long haul are those who have learned how to recover from a relapse. Two strategies that work:

1. Make the day a Protein Day. This simple meal plan resets your body and gets your diet back on track after a "Might as Well" Day (see page 1) or other major calorie overload. It's just what it sounds like: a day when you eat primarily protein -- that is, lean protein. Protein staves off hunger and is low in calories.

Breakfast: Two eggs (any style) or a four- to six-egg-white vegetable omelet

Lunch: Fish, turkey, chicken, or any grilled protein (vegetarians can eat eggs, cheese, or beans) over greens with vinegar. If you simply can't tolerate only vinegar, use a light vinaigrette.

Dinner: Same as lunch, plus some steamed veggies

Snack: 1/4 pound of sliced turkey if necessary

2. Make the night a Veggie Night. A less-drastic reset tool after a "Might as Well" Day, this is also a useful jump-start to your week on a Sunday or Monday night. And it's a safe solution for nights you get home late. The overall calorie count is low, and the meal is high in fiber and has sufficient carbs to make you sleepy.

The menu:
One baked white or sweet potato
2 cups of steamed veggies

Beware of aftershock: Eating just a nibble more here and there after you've reached your goal can make weight creep back on. Hold to your diet until you've been at goal weight for four to six weeks. When you do start eating a bit more, keep weighing yourself weekly. Get right back on your diet for a week or two the moment your scale shows an increase of more than five pounds or if your clothes feel uncomfortably tight.

When the Losing Stops

You've lost eight pounds. Your clothes are looser and you're feeling great. So why can't you make it 10? Plateaus are an annoying fact of diet life. Diets that promise otherwise just aren't telling the truth. You may quickly lose five or 10 pounds and then get stuck for a week with absolutely no results. I've found this to be particularly true of people who are stressed. I'm not sure if this is because of elevated stress or other hormones, but it may explain why people seem to lose weight on vacation, or at least don't gain, even when they're eating more than usual. You need to learn how long you take to lose weight and stabilize at your new size. Some people will go 10 days without losing an ounce, then lose three pounds the next time they weigh themselves. Some strategies to help you break through a plateau:

  • Record what you eat. You're less likely to eat that extra cookie or chocolate kiss if you have to write it down.
  • Eat less. If you've been eating everything on your plate, finish only three-quarters of your meal. If the three-quarters rule doesn't do it, cut back portions further so you're eating only half for a few days.
  • Add a Veggie Night. Or a second Veggie Night, if you're already doing one. Or do one or two Protein Days in one week (see "How to Bounce Back From a Diet Setback," page 3).
  • Shift your frozen dinner selection. Eat only those under 300 calories. Most people don't notice this change in terms of their satisfaction after eating, but their scale will.
  • Try an omelet dinner. A four-egg-white omelet with veggies is satisfying and low in calories.
  • Drink more water. Add one extra 20-ounce bottle of water daily (see "The Water Cure," page 1) to the amount you're already drinking.
  • Make baby-step cuts. Skip sweetener (even diet ones) in tea or coffee for a week or use less. Cut out or reduce the amount of diet soda because it seems to make it harder for some people to lose weight (see "Limit Diet Soda," page 2). Skip snacks three days a week or cut the calories in the snacks you do eat.

Excerpted from The Wall Street Diet, by Heather Bauer, RD, CDN, and Kathy Matthews. Copyright 2008 Heather Bauer. Published by Hyperion. All Rights Reserved. Available wherever books are sold.


Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2008.