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updated 2/1/2008 9:29:12 AM ET 2008-02-01T14:29:12

A new year, a new you, right? It's now one month into 2008, and your eating habits may have veered a bit off course. But it's not too late — just a few small changes can make all the difference.

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In fact, you might be surprised to learn that simply substituting one food for another can have a dramatic impact on the calorie content and overall nutritional value of your food choices.

First, a nutrition primer: When you cut fat content, you cut a concentrated source of calories. Consequently, looking for ways to eliminate even small amounts of fat can help reduce calories.

For example, cheese sauce can add from 50 to 90 or more calories per half-cup serving. As an alternative, sprinkle a couple of teaspoons of grated Parmesan cheese onto vegetables, pasta or chicken to add similar flavor for roughly 20 calories. That switch will also reduce the sodium load from about 475 milligrams (mg), more than 20 percent of the recommended limit for the whole day, to no more than 85 mg.

Meat can be another concentrated source of fat. Choosing extra lean ground beef (90 to 95 percent lean) cuts 40 to 75 calories compared to the same three-ounce portion of regular ground beef. Ground turkey breast, which is usually lean and has a similar mouth feel to ground beef, is another nice alternative. Moreover, since current recommendations advise limiting red meat to no more than 18 ounces a week in order to lower risk of colon cancer, occasionally incorporating ground turkey in your recipes may offer additional health benefits.

When it comes to hamburgers, many Americans have embraced alternative choices, enjoying salmon burgers, turkey burgers, veggie burgers and more. Although traditionalists may feel less comfortable with these substitutes, ground poultry or soy-based vegetarian crumbles can easily replace high-fat ground meat in casseroles, chilis and sauces with little uproar. In fact, try making the switch without announcing it to your family. It’s unlikely they’ll notice at all.

Something you’re unlikely to notice: The added fat, sugar and sodium in many processed tomato sauces. Compared to a half-cup of canned diced tomatoes (providing only 25 calories, 4 grams of naturally occurring sugar, no fat and as little as 5 mg of sodium in unsalted varieties), a similar serving of store-bought pasta sauce provides 70 to 120 calories and over 500 mg of sodium. In addition, these sauces often contain up to two teaspoons of added sugar and about a half-teaspoon of oil per serving. For a delicious, lower calorie alternative, flavor canned tomatoes or tomato puree with your own herbs, spices and perhaps some onion or garlic.

Besides cutting fat, you can also decrease the calorie content of your dishes simply by increasing the proportion of veggies. As most vegetables are among the foods least concentrated in calories, when they occupy a greater proportion of a mixed dish, it will automatically reduce the calorie content of each portion. Switch from serving one cup of pasta accompanied by half a cup of mixed vegetables to one cup of mixed veggies paired with a half-cup serving of pasta. You’ll still enjoy the same portion of food, but with at least 50 fewer calories. As a bonus, when you increase vegetables, you also add dietary fiber, antioxidant vitamins and phytochemicals that can help protect against cancer.

If your eating habits are unhealthy, there’s no better time than the present to start making changes. In choosing to make simple changes to your current food choices, you can benefit your health immediately and in the long term by reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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