Sometimes a carrot stick is just a carrot stick. But for many of us, it’s a crunchy vehicle for decadent dip or dressing. And as you dunk your sixth or seventh spear into that delicious goo, you might tell yourself, Well, I sure am eating a hearty serve of vegies. True, but you’re also consuming a lot of salt, fat and kilojoules.

According to a study published in the journal Obesity, the mere sight or smell of desirable foods can trigger the brain to release dopamine (the reward-seeking neurotransmitter), which can spark a compulsion to overeat. So the smell of burgers at the local takeaway will have you ordering one with ‘the lot’ before you even reach the counter. Yes, you can blame dopamine for the extra cheese, egg and bacon, but …
It is possible to stop your pleasure-seeking brain from making menu decisions; you just need to know the pitfalls to watch for. Check out these food saboteurs, plus our easy strategies for steering clear of them in the face of temptation.

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You plunge your celery into peanut butter or creamy dip
Although it might seem like a good idea to watch Modern Family with a plate of crisp crudités on the coffee table in front of you, that jar of peanut butter sitting next to it spells trouble. Sure, peanut butter provides healthy fat and protein, but it also has 502 kJ (120 cal) per tablespoon—so this seemingly healthy snack can tip the scales in the wrong direction. And 2 tbs of creamy dip can pack 607 kJ (145 cal) and 15 g of fat. “Eating an extra 420 kJ (100 cal) each day can translate to a 4-kg weight gain over the course of a year,” says Janet Franklin, PhD, senior dietitian for metabolism and obesity services at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

If you’re dying to dip, mix fat-free plain Greek yoghurt with salsa, chopped herbs or zingy seasonings, such as horseradish, seeded mustard or curry powder. (Greek yoghurt is higher in protein than regular yoghurt.) Store-bought hummus and vegie-based dips can coat raw vegetables with protein, fibre and flavour; just remember to check the labels because fat and kilojoule counts vary among brands. Finally, beat boredom by bringing new vegetables into the rotation, such as crunchy red cabbage or radishes that offer a peppery bite without the high-kilojoule coating.


You smother your grilled-chicken burger in bbq sauce
You’re wise to choose skinless grilled chicken, but be careful with condiments. Barbecue sauce is oozing with sugar, and that equals kilojoules—about 460 (110 cal) per 1/4 cup.

Ditch the high-sugar sauce and instead spice up chicken by marinating it in chilli sauce. Another way to punch up the taste and nutrient power of grilled-chicken burgers: try a topping of homemade coleslaw. Shredded cabbage makes a convenient base; toss it with flavoured vinegar or fat-free mayo and a little mustard. At 46 kJ (11cal) per 1/2 cup, raw cabbage offers filling fibre and vitamins such as C and B6; as a cruciferous vegie, it also contains cancer-fighting antioxidants.

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You choose ‘healthier' sweet-potato fries as a side dish
Besides the betacarotene (a disease-fighting carotenoid) that’s responsible for their vibrant colour, sweet potatoes provide vitamin C, folic acid, potassium and fibre—not bad for a vegie that tastes so good! But when you fry these and other vegetables, the fat and kilojoule counts skyrocket. One study even found that certain vegies lose some of their antioxidant power when you fry them.

A baked sweet potato is the worry-free choice (mash in 2 tbs of a creamy fat-free dressing for extra flavour); eat the skin, and you’ll also get at least 4 g of fibre. If you’re not satisfied with a baked spud, buy a bag of oven-ready frozen fries at the supermarket. Compare labels and choose a brand that has no trans fat and no more than 0.5 g saturated fat per serving.


You top your salad with cheese and nuts
The virtue of a salad starts to wilt when you add a kilojoule-dense topping, such as cheese, nuts, dried fruit or croutons. Cheeses can register high in saturated fat, and though nuts contain healthy fats that may help raise HDL (good) cholesterol, a small serving of walnuts (about 7 pieces) can add up to around 355 kJ (85 cal) and 8.5 g of fat. Plus, some toppings are high in sodium.

Accredited practising dietitian Geraldine Georgeou offers this ratio for preparing salads: “Aim for 40% protein, 40% low-GI (glycaemic-index) carbs and 20% fat—for example, 150 to 200 g of lean protein with a medium potato, 1 to 2 cups of vegies and a dressing with 1 to 2 tsp of extra-virgin olive oil.” For nutritional impact with fewer kilojoules, swap dried fruit for pomegranate seeds; they’re bursting with potent polyphenols.

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You sauté your heart-smart fish in glugs of olive oil
Extra-virgin olive oil is high in ‘good’ mono-unsaturated fat—the kind of fat that can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol—but it also has about 2,000kJ (478 cal) and 54 g of fat per 1/4 cup. If you don’t measure the amount of oil you use to cook with, you can end up with much more than you need.

Use either a pump spray or a pastry brush to add oil to foods; this allows you to coat items evenly without adding extra oil, says Franklin. If you’re making a stir-fry, wipe a wok’s surface with paper towel dipped in olive oil before adding ingredients or, better yet, use a nonstick pan. You can also make your sautés sizzle with wine; soy sauce; chicken broth; or 100% carrot, tomato or vegetable juice. Hint: try poaching (rather than frying) fish in low-fat broth or diluted orange juice to keep your energy intake low. Frying allows meat to absorb the oil you’ve added, pumping up the kilojoules in your meal, says Franklin.

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You stir flavoured syrup, whole milk or cream into coffee and tea
Sipping unadulterated coffee and tea isn’t the problem. In fact, both beverages have been linked to a number of health benefits, including a lower risk of heart disease and cancer. And research suggests that drinking coffee may reduce your chances of type 2 diabetes. But added ingredients, such as sugary syrups, honey, cream and whole milk, come with major kJs and saturated fat. And though honey seems like a natural, healthier alternative to sugar, the fact is that it has 88 kJ (21 cal) per teaspoon versus sugar’s 67 kJ (16 cal).

For a low-kilojoule, lower-fat drink that still feels like a treat, choose coffee beans in tempting flavours, such as chocolate-almond, vanilla or hazelnut, rather than adding supersweet syrups, and use skim milk. Teas come in sweet vanilla, berry and tropical-fruit blends, too. And if you use Equal, sugar or honey in your drink, limit yourself to about a teaspoon.

What are you diet mistakes and what do you do to avoid them?

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