No sweets, no snacking, no salt, no butter, no oil, no fun whatsoever — diets are associated with deprivation for a reason. Not surprisingly, they’re also associated with a resolve that crumbles like a handful of potato chips in the face of temptation. Give in enough times, and you end up giving up altogether.
Here’s the thing: According to the latest research on successful weight loss, we don’t need to try harder to be faithful to our diets — we should be learning to cheat better. Forget drawing up elaborate, depressing lists of prohibited foods; isn’t calculating exactly how often you can get away with indulging infinitely more appealing? “You can have it all — just not all in one day,” says Susan Roberts, professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University and author of "The Instinct Diet" (Workman). And she’s just one of many nutritionists who have come to believe that this model — let’s call it the Cheater’s Diet — could change the whole way we think about what we put in our mouths.
Of course, there’s being indulgent, and then there’s being delusional — and even on the Cheater’s Diet, there’s a big difference between savoring a scoop of low-fat ice cream and “accidentally” finishing off the whole carton. Portion control and its boring cousin, calorie restriction, are still the cornerstones of weight loss. “It’s just a matter of learning what you can get away with,” Roberts says. And yes, that might include a handful of chips.
The cheat: Snack smart
The mantra of the successful dieter should be “Eat early and often” (specifically, in 100- to 200-calorie increments rich in protein and fiber). Frequent snacks are, in fact, a key to weight loss, “because if you become ravenous, you’re compulsive, you make bad food choices, and you give in to cravings,” says Stephen Gullo, a New York City health psychologist and author of "The Thin Commandments Diet" (Rodale). While there’s no schedule that works for everyone, 100 or so calories every three to four hours should eliminate stomach rumbling. New York City nutritionist Lauren Slayton, founder of foodtrainers.net, likes high-fiber Gnu bars and dried-fruit-based Larabars, and cautions that whatever you choose should have fewer than 200 calories. “A lot of those nutrition bars are made for bodybuilders,” she says, “not for women sitting at their desks.”
The cheat: Eat — the right way
It’s easy to stick to a diet — as long as you’re not on a deadline, in the doghouse with the boss, or even just a tiny bit stressed-out. That’s when the late-afternoon “vacuuming” can kick in (and not the kind done with a Dyson). Ideally, Gullo says, “you can convert your vulnerability into a virtue.” If crunching and chewing is what relieves the stress, he says, “nibble on broccoli or cauliflower or celery.” (For those who crave salt, he recommends pickled vegetables from Tillen Farms or 100-calorie Orville Redenbacher’s Smart Pop Light popcorn.) Barbara Rolls, professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State University and author of "The Volumetrics Eating Plan" (HarperCollins), points out that “some people just need to get that oral satisfaction, and they can try chewing gum, which has been shown to reduce food intake.” Sucking on sugar-free candy might also do the trick, she says.
If the vending machine is your weakness, read the nutrition panel as soon as you fish out your treat, figure out how much of the package amounts to 150 calories, and wait until you get back to your desk to open it.
The cheat: Hit the hors d’oeuvres
“During the day, women can be good — almost too good,” Slayton says. They often abstemiously bank calories all day long in anticipation of later piling them onto their plate. “But then they end up going gangbusters — and can easily eat 1,200 calories at dinner, when someone not as hungry would eat much less.”
One way to avoid such a free-for-all at dinner is to eat a real lunch, preferably with lean protein and some vegetables. But the best solution actually sounds a lot like a riddle: “Eat before you eat” is Gullo’s time-proven motto. That translates to having a prudent snack during that hang time (i.e., hunger time) between getting home from work and having dinner. Roberts recommends crumbling a little bit of intensely flavored cheese — such as Asiago, Parmesan, or Stilton — on a whole wheat cracker or a slice of apple. Gullo suggests a simple shrimp cocktail (about six shrimp), or vegetable slices dipped in nonfat (yet surprisingly rich and creamy) Greek yogurt — “anything that includes a little protein and has a few different parts,” which gives the impression that you’re eating much more than you really are. Lisa Lillien, creator of the popular Hungry Girl website and author of "Hungry Girl: 200 Under 200" (St. Martin’s Griffin), also prefers an assortment: “I always eat pieces of apple and a couple of turkey slices.” It bears mentioning, too, what she doesn’t eat — or even keep in the house: any kind of chips. “If I start, I can’t stop,” she says.
The cheat: Add an appetizer
Before a meal, fill up on salad, and by “salad” we mean predominantly leafy, green, and crisp, with vegetables — not a few hunks of iceberg under a mound of croutons, bacon, cheese, and full-fat dressing. Or, as Rolls puts it, when you think of salad, “pump up the volume — so there is a lot more food that’s lower in calories.” It has its benefits beyond all the nutrients, considering that one of her studies at Penn State found that people who ate a large 100-calorie salad (romaine, iceberg, celery, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, and a little low-fat cheese) as an appetizer consumed 12 percent fewer calories of their main course than those who didn’t. Roberts even suggests “sandwiching” a high-calorie, more indulgent food, like pizza, between two courses of much-lower-calorie food, like salad to start and then strawberries to finish. “The key is making sure you have at least one healthy thing — preferably two or more — at each meal,” she says.
The cheat: Have a drink
A teetotaling diet is “part of the old model of suffering,” Gullo says. “But we can factor in a drink.” That said, not only is booze highly caloric, but the mere act of drinking — especially on an empty after-work stomach — tends to lower your inhibitions, stimulate your appetite, and lead to all kinds of mindless nibbling. At restaurants, Gullo recommends ordering mineral water to start and then having wine or a cocktail with your entrée. Anecdotally, he says, “the greatest lapses in control follow two glasses of wine before a meal.”
Another reliable — albeit surprising — method of restraint is ordering just one strong drink, with hardly any mixer: Its intensity will require that you sip and savor it (and not guzzle it using the cocktail stirrer as a straw, Delta Zeta little sister-style). For instance, instead of a 250-calorie frozen margarita, Slayton says to try “a shot of really good tequila with the tiniest splash of orange juice.” That’s just more than 100 calories and will probably take you three times longer to drink than its slushy cousin.
Beware, too, of tonic. “It has the same number of calories as a regular Coke,” Slayton says. If you (understandably) can’t imagine a happy summer without a gin and tonic, ask for diet tonic. If the bartender doesn’t have that, try lime-infused vodka with soda.
The cheat: Go out for dinner
You can keep the restaurant reservation. You can even have pasta or (pinch yourself) a potato. The trick is to choose one temptation — and then steer clear of all the others. So if you want the pasta (and even then, request a half portion), you’re going to have to give up the cocktail, the bread, and the dessert. Essentially, the trick is “to stay in control in one way or another,” Roberts says. “If I skip cocktails and have salad, and don’t have pasta for an entrée, I’ll get dessert.” Yes, this requires a little advance planning about what you want most. But those few seconds of forethought mean you avoid the scenario of sitting down, ordering a drink, mindlessly scarfing a roll, and then feeling like your whole diet is shot — and succumbing to the call of the carbonara and panna cotta.
The cheat: Go ahead and eat bread
The recent vilification of bread could be keeping you from losing weight — because plenty of types of bread have fiber, and fiber, Roberts says, “is a great weight-loss aid. Paleolithic man ate about 100 grams a day, and current man eats about 15 grams a day.” Even people who aren’t hunting a woolly mammoth benefit from fiber: In various long-term studies at Tufts, Roberts and her colleagues have found that the people who successfully lose and manage their weight eat about 45 to 50 grams of fiber a day. Fiber not only provides a sense of fullness, it also regulates the speed at which your body processes sugars, and it can limit the intake of fat and cholesterol.
If you’re buying a loaf at the store, Joanne Slavin, a professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota, suggests checking the label to make sure it has at least three grams of fiber per slice, each of which should range between 80 and 100 calories. Gullo swears by Beefsteak Light Soft Rye bread, with just 40 calories a slice, “because it’s thick,” he says. “No one wants bread sliced as thin as tissue paper.” (Be warned, too, that what’s called “whole wheat” at diners and delis, Slayton says, often “uses caramel coloring to make it look brown, and it’s not as good as most whole-grain breads.”)
When staring down the restaurant bread basket, Slavin says to reach for the darkest piece with “visible grains or seeds, which usually signal it has more fiber [than white bread].” And if you have no shutoff valve for rolls or baguette slices, make your pick and ask the waiter to take the basket away.
And, since we’re on the subject of fiber, let us take a moment to give potatoes some props: Provided you’re not devouring a bucket full of them, they will not make you fat. “People mistakenly think potatoes don’t have any fiber, but they are still the largest fiber source for Americans,” says Slavin. Of course, not all spuds are created equal: Go for the baked, not the twice-fried Belgian frites dipped in aioli.
The cheat: Ask for refills
Fiber and water go together like peanut butter and chocolate — only they’re good for a diet, not bad. Consider a few strands of high-fiber cereal like Fiber One and what happens to them when they get wet: They expand significantly. So imagine the sense of fullness you get when you eat just half a cup of the cereal (60 calories). To that end, drinking water, especially when you eat a high-fiber diet, makes you feel satiated and aids overall digestion. Water may be ideal, “but anything that doesn’t have calories is fine,” Roberts says. (If you don’t like the taste, or nontaste, of water, she recommends adding the tiniest amount of juice.) Gullo points out that small studies have shown that both green tea and oolong tea can slightly increase metabolism (green by 4 percent, oolong by almost 10), so hydrating with those can help the cause as well. If your inclination is to have diet soda instead of water, most nutritionists approve of that, within reason. “Sometimes, sweet begets sweet,” Slayton says. “Soda can make you want to eat something else. So be careful, and limit yourself to one diet soda a day.”
The cheat: Yes, you can eat dessert
“When you have a sweet tooth, you need a plan,” Roberts says. “For instance, have a rich dessert on the weekend in exchange for only eating fruit on weeknights.” If you have dinner out several times a week, Slayton says to ask yourself, “Is your fork out every time there’s a dessert on the table?” If so, order your own sorbet or a decaf skim cappuccino. “I know it’s not the soufflé,” she observes. “But there is a certain strategy to having something healthier for yourself as opposed to sharing something more indulgent with the table.”