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Healthy tricks for the time-challenged dieter

With vacations, camps and crazy summer days ahead, it can be a tough time to keep your diet on track. Dietitian Elizabeth Somer offers tips for quick, easy eating that will help you stay in shape.
/ Source: TODAY

Memorial Day is the unofficial kick-off to summer. Soon there will be vacations, summer camps for the kids and everyone going in a million directions. It’s an easy time to let your diet fall by the wayside. But wait. If your excuse for not eating well or for not losing those last five pounds is that you don’t have the time, then think again. If you have time to pull up to a drive-through window to order a hamburger and fries, you have time to fuel your body with high-quality foods that can also help you lose those extra pounds, says Elizabeth Somer, author of “The Food & Mood Cookbook.” Somer was invited to appear on “Today” to offer advice on how to eat well on a busy summer schedule. Here are her tips:

As school draws to a close and the summer looms, people’s routines are disrupted and it’s easy to grab anything that’s around to eat. But, you say time isn’t a factor when eating well?
With the warm weather fast approaching, you don’t even need to eat a hot meal or even cook to be healthy. In fact, with a well-stocked kitchen, it takes less time to prepare a low-fat, nutritious meal than it does for that take-out order to arrive. It does take a change in mind set and a little planning up front. Fast or slow, eating well is all about focusing on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, omega-3-rich salmon or flaxseed, legumes such as soy, and other “real,” minimally-processed foods that lower your risk for just about every health problem, from heart disease, cancer, diabetes and hypertension to cataracts, colds and even weight gain.

Eating well is also about grabbing the right mix of protein, fat and carbs. At every meal and snack, you need: a little high-quality protein from milk, soy, beans, fish, or meat (provides staying power throughout the day and helps keep blood sugar on an even keel); a bit of healthy fat from nuts or olive oil (helps with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and phytochemicals); and some high-quality carbs from whole grains, fruits and starchy vegetables (provides the fuel your brain and body need to function in tip-top shape). 

You have some guidelines to help us save time. What are they?
The first guideline is to plan your kitchen. Keep healthful staples on hand, such as pasta, frozen chicken breasts and plain vegetables, bottled low-fat sauces and fresh vegetables that will wait for you, such as green peppers, bagged lettuce, garlic and onions and carrots. With a well-stocked kitchen you can throw together a tasty and healthful meal with little or no planning at all.

For example: Cook fresh ravioli (found in the refrigerator section of the grocery store), top with bottled spaghetti sauce (such as Classico Tomato and Basil), and sprinkle with low-fat Parmesan cheese. Serve with steamed frozen vegetables such as broccoli and a salad made from bagged lettuce and bottled low-fat dressing. The entire meal takes 15 minutes to make if you have the staples on hand.

Of course, stocking the kitchen means shopping for the right foods. What are your tips here?
At the supermarket, you’re looking for foods that give you the most nutritional punch for the least calorie and time bang. Think quantity. Shop with the week in mind to avoid extra mini-trips during the week. You’re looking for quick fixes, such as:

  • In the produce section: Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables, bagged salad fixings, bottled minced garlic, bottled minced fresh ginger, and bottled lemon juice.
  • In the dairy case: Choose fat-free or 1% low-fat milk and plain yogurt, pre-sliced low-fat cheese, calcium- and vitamin D-fortified soymilk, fat-free sour cream and cream cheese and cartons of egg substitute. For brown bag lunches and picnics, select 8-ounce cartons of low-fat milk.
  • In the freezer case: Choose whole wheat waffles (topped with yogurt and fruit, these are a perfect five-minute breakfast), light vegetarian pizza, Boca burgers, low-calorie frozen entrees (serve with bagged lettuce salad and steamed vegetables, frozen plain vegetables and fruit), frozen blueberries are a great alternative to ice cream for dessert and TV snacks and all-fruit sorbet.
  • In the bakery section: Select 100 percent whole wheat bread (beware labels that say “whole wheat” or “whole grain” or “7 grain” since typically the first ingredient is refined wheat flour), bagels (a whole wheat bagel topped with peanut butter and crushed pineapple and served with milk is a perfect quick-fix lunch), English muffins and pita bread (dunked in pre-prepared hummus and served with red pepper slices and soymilk is a perfect lunch or snack).
  • Down the aisles: There are hundreds of choices, such as mini cans of tomato juice or V8, whole grain pastas and ready-to-eat cereals, dried fruit, microwave fat-free popcorn, instant oatmeal, low-fat sauces like teriyaki and barbecue, low-fat canned soups, Boboli pizza crust and sauce, boxes of couscous and instant brown rice, nuts and nut butters, ready-made polenta and canned tomato sauce, chopped tomatoes, tomato paste, etc.

You’ve stocked up on healthy quick-fixes, now what do you do?
Always, always bring meals and snacks with you. Your snack arsenal is just as important as brushing your teeth or clean underwear when you head out in the morning! You won’t find healthy food in most vending machines or even at a drive through, so pack your briefcase, glove compartment, purse, diaper bag or gym bag with snacks that take less time to fix than it takes to grab a diet cola and a bag of chips. Watch portion sizes. Even if a snack is healthful, eating two to three times too much can add hundreds of calories to your diet and inches to your hips. Then plan to eat regularly throughout the day to avoid uncontrollable cravings.

Ideas for quick-fix snacks include:

  • 1 cup low-fat vanilla yogurt mixed with 1 tablespoon slivered almonds and 1 tablespoon raisins. Serve with a banana and bottled water.
  • Two fig bars and a carton of low-fat milk.
  • Baked tortilla chips dipped in fat-free refried beans and commercial salsa. Serve with orange juice mixed with sparkling water.
  • Starkist’s “Lunch to Go” snack packs contain chunk light tuna, low-calorie mayo, pickle relish and six crackers. Serve with an orange.
  • 20 fresh cherries, 1 ounce of almonds, and a carton of low-fat milk.
  • Rinse and drain chickpeas and sprinkle with garlic powder, paprika and lemon. Serve with grapefruit juice.
  • Top a sliced whole wheat bagel with fat-free cream cheese, a tomato slice and a lettuce leaf.
  • Wrap a large romaine lettuce leaf around leftover chicken, fish, stir fry, or beans.

One final tip for the time-challenged dieter?
Think big. Prepare extra. To save time, prepare extra amounts of foods that are used frequently. For example, when fixing dinner, I cook a little extra chicken, chop extra celery or green onions, or grate extra carrots and store them in the refrigerator to use in salads, soups, or sandwiches later in the week. Many dishes — from spaghetti, lasagna and stew to soups, casseroles and sauces — can be made in bulk and frozen in individual containers for later use.

What time-savers backfire?
Don’t skip meals to save time or lose weight. Although more than 90 percent of dieters skip meals, this is a big mistake. People who skip meals have lower metabolic rates, making it more difficult to lose weight and keep it off. You also are more likely to overeat later in the day, accomplish less work during the day, think slower and battle mood swings.  Don’t depend on prepackaged or diet foods. Highly processed foods never work as well as real foods that are minimally processed. Real foods satisfy hunger and help you lose weight in the long run. Instead, try this one trick: Eat two fruits or vegetables at every meal or snack. These nutrient- and fiber-packed foods are fat-free and low-calorie. Start dinner with a fruit bowl. You’ll find you fill up on these fat-free foods and have less room for fattier fare.

What’s the bottom line when it comes to losing weight and keeping it off?
There are thousands of dietary tricks for losing weight, but most can be distilled down to the three straightforward habits of most successful weight-maintainers. Consider choosing some or all of these when developing the strategies and mini-steps to reach your weight-management goals:

1. Eat mostly vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Study after study shows that low-fat, fiber-rich meals are what produce long-term weight loss. Researchers at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta report that adults who eat the most vegetables are also the least likely to gain weight. In another study, healthy, normal-weight people spontaneously lost weight and fat mass when they ate all they wanted, as long as it was low-fat and high in fiber-rich grains and produce. Three-quarters of the plate or snack should be made up of these wholesome, minimally processed foods.2. Exercise daily. According to researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, nine out of 10 successful dieters exercise regularly.3. Lose weight gradually. You want an eating plan you can live with for life and that ensures you lose fat, not muscle or water weight. That means losing no more than two pounds a week. No one should drop below 1,600 calories a day without being monitored by a physician or dietitian. Increase exercise, not cut calories further, if you can't lose weight on this low-calorie plan.

Dietitian Elizabeth Somer, M.A.,R.D. is the author of, "The Food & Mood Cookbook," and a regular contributor to "Today."