It's hard enough trying to eat healthy without all of the noise from diet books, the grocery aisle and the news media about what's good for you — and what isn't. Carbs are making you fat. Actually, it's all that sugar. Never mind. It's fat that's making you fat.
In the quest to figure out the magic formula for weight loss, many dieters obsess about what to eat and leave out one critical component. "The boring message of the day when it comes to food is that there are only two variables: what you are eating and how much," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and the author of The Flexitarian Diet.
An average adult woman should consume about 1,600 calories a day, says Deanna Hoelscher, director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for the Advancement of Healthy Living and a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, School of Public Health. But the focus on calories is not simply a numbers game. Eating a variety of foods in proper portions will also help you maintain a healthy weight.
One easy way to think about what and how much you are eating is, ironically, to picture a plate: One quarter should be lean protein (such as chicken or fish), another quarter should be grains (including whole grains like oatmeal and brown rice) and the last half should be fruits and vegetables.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has long promoted these types of paint-by-number rules for balanced eating in healthy portions. But quick fixes like banning one type of food —carbs in the Atkins Diet, for instance — can seem like a simpler and more attractive option.
The Healthy Halo
Prohibiting — and thus demonizing — some foods like fat or sodium has caused other foods to acquire what Blatner calls a "healthy halo." When a food is labeled as "healthy," many dieters decide to eat as much as they want, and don't look at calories. Chicken is a food many turn to as a lean protein and alternative to beef. Problems arise, however, when it is consumed as though it were calorie-free. Six ounces of chicken has 280 calories. (As a reference point, 3/4 cup of whole wheat pasta is 130 calories.) "If people [on a diet] are going to overeat something, it's not pasta or bread, it's chicken," says Blatner.
A good-for-you reputation can also cover up the calories. "Salads are taken as wholesale by consumers as a reliable way to order," says Matt Goulding, food and nutrition editor at Men's Health and co-author of Eat This, Not That! Restaurants don't even have to market them as healthy. Even a salad with a wholesome (and exotic) name like California Pizza Kitchen's Thai Crunch Salad with grilled chicken breast, carrots and cabbage — not to mention fried wontons and peanut dressing — has over 2,000 calories, or the equivalent of eight slices of the restaurant's pizza.
Not All Good, Not All Bad
Similarly, when we find out that a food is healthy in one way, we might assume it is good in all ways. Olive oil is a legitimately heart-healthy food because it contains monounsaturated fat. The Food and Drug Administration says two tablespoons a day can reduce the risk of heart disease. But before liberally pouring it in the pan, calorie counters should know that one tablespoon of olive oil still has 120 calories — the same amount found in peanut, canola and coconut oils.
On the other side of things, some foods that have a bad rap are often banned entirely. The food with the worst public image? Fat, says Goulding. "It happens to be named the same thing that hangs off our bodies," he says. People think, "Fat in me equals fat on me." In fact, foods with good fats, such as avocados, walnuts and salmon, can be beneficial and help stave off hunger without clogging your arteries.
Read the Labels
If fat is banned, why not just eat the reduced-fat version? Very often, when one thing is taken out, something else is substituted in. Yogurt with fruit that is labeled low-fat, for instance, can have more sugar than two scoops of ice cream, according to Goulding.
A 2008 study from Arizona State University and the University of Kentucky showed that dieters will actually eat more if the portions are presented in small packages because the reduced sizes are perceived to be diet food.
But this isn't entirely a food industry conspiracy. Nutrition labels reveal more information than ever before. Consumers just have to look. Additionally, food marketers are not always the ones plotting diet trends, or putting the fork in your mouth, says John Stanton, chair of department of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "If a diet book comes out, sells millions and says 'no carbs,' you'll see 'no carbs' on the packaging," he says. It is the consumer who then decides, "This is low in something so I can eat a ton of it."
This is even true for foods that have portioned calories as part of the marketing. A 2008 study from Arizona State University and the University of Kentucky showed that dieters will actually eat more if the portions are presented in small packages because the reduced sizes are perceived to be diet food.
A magic bullet for weight loss — whether it's pre-packaged portions, low-carb, reduced-fat or sugar-free — might work. Sometimes. And then there's the proven method: Eat less, exercise more. "It's almost like we haven't moved on from Ponce de Leon, and we are still searching for that thing that is going to solve all our problems — keep us thin, keep us young," says Stanton. "It's not cutting out snacking or cutting out fat." So what is the solution? "Cut out food," he says.