Limit Your Menu
Many people think that they can make weight loss fun by introducing variety into their diets. There are thousands of recipes available for healthy meals, and it would seem that trying a lot of them would help you lose weight and keep food interesting at the same time.
But the data unfortunately suggest the opposite. Studies show that more food variety is associated with higher body weight. And more limited menus predict a greater reduction in fat and calorie intake as well as more weight loss. Exercise is different — adding variety to your exercise regimen through interval training, cross-training, and combining resistance training with aerobic workouts not only keeps exercise interesting, but it also introduces “muscle confusion” and improves long-term results. But lots of variety in your diet has the opposite effect — a high-variety diet stimulates your senses and therefore your appetite. The fewer choices you have, the less you will ultimately eat. Spend a few minutes watching the customers at a Las Vegas buffet and you will see what I mean.
Limiting your menu is a fairly novel concept in dieting, and it is not very popular, because it goes against the idea that we should eat for pleasure. You can still enjoy your meals, but by picking some staples that you can live with, you will eat more consistently. Less choice means fewer opportunities to make mistakes. Less choice means less spontaneity — which is honestly the last thing a dieter needs. Less choice means planning your meals in advance. Finally, less choice usually means limited portions.
Lunch is one of the easier meals in which to limit variety, because you tend to have a routine during the day at work or at home. Pick three to five lunches you like to bring from home or to eat out and rotate them throughout the week.
Don’t Eat Out of Vending Machines
Vending machines have been around for over a hundred years, and today they provide everything from cigarettes to soda to hamburgers. But try to find something healthy to eat in a vending machine and you will more often than not come away empty-handed. Items in vending machines might be sitting there for long periods of time, so perishable items (like fruits and vegetables) are hard to find, particularly in the United States. Countries like Japan and the Netherlands do offer fresher and more substantial foods, but the foods are usually fried; it is hard to find a bag of mini-carrots among the croquettes and ramen noodles. Vending machines usually mean soda, chips, and candy bars in place of more balanced meals you could have brought more cheaply from home. Almost 5 percent of workers get their lunch from vending machines. Don’t be one of them. Hide your change, store your singles, and place a personal ban on vending machines.
Hold the Mayonnaise
Americans use it as a condiment on sandwiches. Europeans love it with French fries. Japanese incorporate it into sushi and salad. And Russians use it even more than ketchup. No matter where you live, mayonnaise is readily available, and it is also pretty simple to make with oil, egg yolks, and mustard, with lemon or vinegar added.
What this means from a nutritional standpoint is that one tablespoon has between 50 and 100 calories — and about 5 grams of fat. While most of the fats in mayonnaise are unsaturated, people generally use more than a tablespoon at a time. Holding the mayonnaise on your daily sandwich can drop 500 calories per week from your total intake. That is a pound in less than two months, just from changing your sandwich spread.
Miracle Whip is unfortunately not a great alternative. It actually has high-fructose corn syrup and sugar added to its “natural flavors,” bringing you calories and fat similar to those in mayonnaise. Far from a miracle.
Fortunately there are some other condiments out there that are pretty good. Mustard is a great option. Although it can be high in sodium, mustard is generally used in smaller quantities than mayonnaise, and the result is fewer calories on your sandwich. Sweetened mustards are a bit higher in calories, but you can generally expect to consume about 90 percent fewer calories overall if you make the switch. Fat-free mayonnaise is another option, but it doesn’t get many points in the taste department. Make your own tastier spread by mixing one and a half tablespoons of capers, one-third cup of fat-free sour cream, one teaspoon of garlic powder, and a dash of cayenne pepper in a food processor. It will taste fresher and you can make as much as you’ll need for sandwiches or recipes.
Substitute a Vegetable for French Fries
It is estimated that the average American consumes about fifty-six pounds of frozen potatoes per year, mostly in the form of French fries. People who travel for work or who eat fast food frequently may eat at least three or four servings per week. Add some salt, ketchup, melted cheese, and gravy, or even (gulp!) mayonnaise, and you have taken the side dish to center stage, outdoing the rest of your meal in sodium, fat, and calories. Spuds are a universal staple — the United Nations declared 2008 to be the International Year of the Potato. So make this year the Year of the Substitute. Trade in your French fries for some healthy low-calorie, low-salt, no‑fat steamed vegetables or salad, and trade in your old pants while you’re at it. Substituting a steamed vegetable at lunch or dinner can save you upwards of 500 calories every time you would normally eat French fries.
FLEX Solution #43
Don’t Eat and Drive
Not only does eating while you drive divert your attention from more important things — like the road — but driving, in turn, diverts attention from what you are eating. It is rare enough to find good food choices on the road, whether you are eating at fast-food restaurants or buying snacks from gas stations or convenience stores. But eating while you drive makes bad choices even worse, because you lose your ability to calculate appropriate serving sizes. When a bag of chips or pretzels sits in the passenger seat, it is easy to munch absentmindedly. But if you take the time to sit down in a restaurant to have your lunch, you may actually decide against some of the fast-food outlets that would be more convenient if you are eating on the run. Convenience foods also tend to be high in carbohydrates and are often wrapped in plastic — you can’t really eat a salad on the road. Better to avoid them.
FLEX Solution #44
Use Microwave Meals
Lunchtime is a challenging time of day, regardless of whether or not you are actively dieting. It is structured, yet unstructured — like recess for adults. You look over at one person and he’s washing down pepperoni pizza with chocolate milk, and then you look at your own tired looking peanut butter sandwich and wonder quietly about making a switch.
Enter the microwave meal. Seriously. Microwave meals have changed since the TV dinners you grew up with, or even the microwave meals you ate just five years ago. Responding to criticism about nutritional content, producers have worked hard to bring fat and sodium content down to real-world levels while maintaining some standards of good taste. True, the meals are processed food, but you could do worse.
Why are microwave meals a successful part of weight loss? It’s simple math. Even when we are trying to limit our calories and be careful about portions, we are not all that accurate. In the same way that small plates are effective in limiting portion size, the predetermined small portions and limited calories of microwave meals are helpful too. Research shows that consistently using microwave meals as part of a diet results in weight loss over time.
Brands geared toward weight loss like Weight Watchers Smart Ones, Lean Cuisine, and Healthy Choice are a good place to start, but be aware that even among these better options there is a wide variety of fat, protein, and salt content. You need at least 300 calories to feel full, but make sure that the meal you buy has only “one serving,” or else you could be inadvertently eating for two. To gain the greatest benefit, choose meals with fewer than 800 milligrams of sodium and more than 20 grams of protein — and the more fiber, the better. And if you are worried about filling up, throw in some frozen vegetables to bulk up your meal without bulking up yourself.
FLEX Solution #45
Limit Eating Out to Two Days a Week
This Solution is as easy as packing a brown paper bag. Studies show that over half of working Americans buy two or more of their weekday lunches rather than bring them from home. And overweight individuals are more likely to eat out. The most commonly cited reasons for buying lunch during the workday are based on misperceptions about convenience and cost, and the result is that people eat fast food. Fast food unfortunately accounts for almost half of lunches purchased during the workday. Even with expanded menus including apple slices and healthy salads, people more often turn to French fries and burgers, which supply too much salt and saturated fat, and too many calories. Add a soda, and you are easily looking at over 1,000 calories, with 75 percent of your salt intake for the day. For lunch.
There are real advantages to bringing your own lunch.
The Four Cs
- Cost savings. When you buy food at the grocery store, you are in effect buying in bulk, which saves you money in the long run. When buying lunch, also consider the costs you do not even think about, like tipping in a restaurant, driving your car, and parking. They add up.
- Convenience. You can pack some leftovers from last night’s dinner, so all you need is a microwave. You can prepare the next day’s lunch as part of your nighttime routine, or just incorporate doing it into getting the kids off to school or packing your bag for the day.
- Control over your portions. When you bring your own lunch, the food you bring is the food you eat. It doesn’t allow for a last-minute decision to order appetizers or dessert, and it does not require willpower. What’s in the bag is all you get, and the portions you serve yourself tend to be much more reasonable than the ones you pick out from a drive-through menu when you are starving.
- Calories. When you make your own lunch, you control the amount of spread on your sandwich and dressing on your salad (both of which are used in excess in restaurants). And unless you have a deep fryer in your office, you can really eliminate trans fats entirely by bringing lunch from home. If you typically eat a fast-food lunch five days a week, this change could mean a difference of 2,500 calories in just one week.
But you still have to make good choices. Concentrate on whole-grain breads and low-salt and low-fat deli meats, and use no cheese if you can help it. Avoid mayonnaise in favor of mustard and bring low-calorie dressing for your salads. Load up on carrots, green pepper slices, and jicama — anything with a healthy crunch. Pack fruit instead of cookies for dessert.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Beckerman, M.D., is a practicing cardiologist at the Providence Heart and Vascular Institute in Portland, Oregon, who provides advice and information online as the WebMD.com Heart Expert and the MedHelp.org Weight Loss/Healthy Living Expert. Dr. Beckerman graduated from Harvard University and earned his medical degree from Harvard Medical School. His book, The Flex Diet: Design Your Own Weight Loss Plan (Copyright © 2011 by Dr. James Beckerman), shows you how to lose a single pound…in 200 different ways. It shows you how to you to create your own customized weight-loss plan — one that fits your lifestyle, is full or tasty and nutritious meals, boosts energy levels, an keeps the weight off for good.
- Learn more about The Flex Diet: Design Your Own Weight Loss Plan and browse inside the book
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