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By watching what she eats and exercising regularly, 36-year-old Cindy Gendry recently lost 15 pounds. She’d like to lose another 20 but says her job in human resources has stalled her progress. “Since we always have department meetings or training sessions going on, there are doughnuts and croissants around in the mornings and big fat cookies in the afternoon,” says Gendry. “Then there are the celebrations. Last week we had three office birthdays, so we had cake on three different days! We do other sorts of events too, and they all involve food.”

Sound familiar? If you’re trying to lose weight, your office can be a minefield of diet traps—and the workplace isn’t the only dietary roadblock in your way. To keep the pounds off, you have to conquer tempting restaurants, relaxing vacations, and well-meaning family and friends—as well as overcome the common all-or-nothing mentality. It may not be easy, but it’s worth it, for once you defeat the four biggest diet dangers, you’ll boost the odds that your dieting efforts will be successful.


The office

If your job is your dietary downfall, you’re not alone. Part of the problem is that most workplaces have a designated break room where people bring in treats. “People learn that food is always there, and they end up developing these very bad behaviors,” says Kristine Clark, PhD, director of the sports nutrition department at Penn State University. “When they’re sitting at their desks and they’re bored, they can always get up and go to ‘the room’ and get distracted by some food.”

Judith Diamond noticed that she was eating more at work because of job-related stress. “When I was unhappy at work, I would just eat,” says Diamond. “It was all good stuff, but it was too much of the good stuff!”

Vending machines with snacks and sodas can destroy even the most dedicated dieter’s resolve. “Proximity is a big stimulus to food intake,” says Barbara Rolls, author of Volumetrics: Feel Full on Fewer Calories. “If you have something just sitting there, it’s very hard to resist it.”

The following strategies can help you to deal with office dieting pitfalls.

A healthy stash. Keep a supply of healthy snacks at work so you’ll have something to munch on when your stomach rumbles. Fig bars, dried fruits, pretzels, and prepackaged cups of soup, are all good choices.

Avoid temptation. Cindy found that the ever-present dish of candy on her boss’s desk was impossible to ignore. Every time she walked in, she’d walk out with a piece or two. Finally, she asked her boss to put it out of sight.

Write it down. You may have no idea how many extra calories you’re consuming at work. Record everything you eat at the office for a week: a donut here, a handful of popcorn there. Once you know what—and when—you’re eating, you can more easily change your habits.

Get moving. We often tend to snack when we’re anxious or bored. Instead of heading for the break room, walk the halls or the stairs in your office building for five minutes. This will burn off a few calories and give you an energy boost in the process.

Drink it down. Keep a bottle or glass of water on your desk, and sip it throughout the day. It will temporarily stop the hunger.

Indulge—in moderation. You don’t have to be a martyr. If your coworkers brought you a special birthday treat, join in—but take a smaller piece.


Vacations and dining out

Picture your dream vacation. Is it a cruise with sumptuous buffets? Or a family car trip filled with adventures, sightseeing, and sampling the local cuisine? Vacations can wreak dietary havoc—and the frequent eating out will put on the pounds. Studies show that people eating with friends consume 50 percent more than when they dine alone. And on vacations, it’s easy to overeat by a whopping 1,500 calories a day, which means that extra body fat may be among the “treasures” you bring home as a souvenir.

The following suggestions will help you avoid the vacation and dining out pitfalls to maintaining a healthy body weight.

Choose wisely. When dining out in a new restaurant, scan the menu for low-fat choices. Especially avoid fried foods and cream-based sauces. Pasta with marinara sauce, broth-based or minestrone soups, salads (but avoid the dressing), and vegetarian sandwiches made with whole grain breads, are all healthy choices.

Lighten up. Don’t try to lose weight during your vacation. Just focus on maintaining it. Make time for physical activity, especially if you’ve planned for a laid-back trip. Even 30 minutes of walking will burn about 200 calories and boost your metabolism.

Skip the fast food. Avoid the drive thru windows. Instead, on car trips, bring along a cooler stocked with water, fruit, sandwich fixings, and other healthy alternatives to the usual candy, chips, and burger joints. Stock your cooler at local grocery stores, where you’ll get a better selection of foods and at a cheaper price.

Don’t change everything. You don’t have to eat extravagantly at every meal. Stick to your normal eating habits as much as possible, such as a breakfast of cereal with milk, whole wheat toast, and two or three fruits.

Engage your brain. If you’re tempted to go overboard, think of an outfit you’re wearing during your trip. Picture yourself looking great and feeling comfortable in it.

Pay attention to portions. Many restaurant servings are two or three times larger than normal, and research has demonstrated that the more food that’s put in front of you, the more you will eat. Either split dishes with someone, or take home a doggy bag.


Friendly saboteurs

Maybe it’s your husband, who says he’s tired of listening to you complain about losing that last 10 pounds. Or your friends, who love to get together over Mexican food or deep-dish pizza. For Vicki O’Reilly, it’s her children.

“Before I had kids, I never had junk food in the house, so I never ate it,” says the 40-year-old audiologist, whose children are 9 and 7. “But now I buy chips and cookies and ice cream, and it’s here, so I eat it! It’s much harder to cut back or watch what I’m eating when the food’s in the house.”

Your family may not be the only dietary roadblock you encounter. You may find that friends or coworkers aren’t very supportive of your weight-loss plan. If you used to join your friends to indulge but are now sticking to a healthier program, there can be feelings of annoyance or even resentment. Your buddies may complain that you’re not as “fun” anymore, or they may roll their eyes at your carefully made salads, tempting you to throw in the towel and go along with the crowd.

Again, there are ways to avoid these friendly saboteurs.

Focus on the fun. Find activities other than eating that you can enjoy with your friends. Instead of meeting for ice cream, take a walk, browse in a bookstore, visit a museum, paint your own pottery at a ceramics shop, or take a class together.

Stand up for yourself. If someone is trying to force food on you, politely—but firmly—decline. Practice saying, “No thank you, I’m full.” No one can argue with whether you’ve had enough to eat!

Ask for support. Request help from those closest to you. If a friend is complaining about your diet, say something like, “I know I may not seem as much fun, but this is really important to me and I’d like your support.”

Teach your family. Don’t use your kids as an excuse. If they eat the wrong kind of food, they’ll become overweight too. This is a teaching opportunity! Avoid buying it because the kids want it, but do stock up on plenty of fresh fruit so it’s available for anyone in the family who’s hunting for a treat.

Plan ahead. If you’re going out with friends or family, decide in advance what you’ll have to eat. You’ll be less likely to succumb to the high-calorie temptations on the menu.

Lighten up. Others may see your healthier eating habits as an unspoken criticism of their own diets. Keep a positive attitude about your commitment, but don’t become a food evangelist or try to convince everyone to adopt your newfound plan.


The all-or-nothing mind-set

Have you ever filled up on your favorite foods the day before a diet? Or slipped off your diet, then figured the damage is done, so why not go for broke? If so, you’ve fallen victim to the all-or-nothing mentality. Research shows that people who think this way are more likely to overeat once they’ve “blown” their diets.

Changing this mind-set and adopting a more moderate approach can help you achieve lasting weight loss. “Nobody can be good all the time,” explains Rolls. “And if you expect that from yourself, you really are setting yourself up for failure, because there are occasions when you need treats.”

Here are some suggestions to help you avoid the all-or-nothing mindset.

Think different. Changing your eating habits takes time and practice. Pick a catchphrase to focus on when the going gets tough, such as “Progress, not perfection,” “I deserve to eat healthfully,” “Every day is an opportunity to eat better,” “Every little step counts,” or, “I’m worth the effort.”

Include your favorites. Instead of being “on” a diet or “off” it, shoot for eating nutritiously in a way you enjoy and can continue to do. Rhode Island resident Allynn Wilkinson, 39, recently lost 50 pounds, but she still occasionally treats herself to potato chips or a Klondike bar. If you deprive yourself of your favorite foods forever, you’ll be miserable, which will make it more likely that you’ll binge or abandon your healthy eating plan.

Add foods instead. Change your dietary focus. Instead of focusing on limiting high-calorie foods, expand your diet to include a wider variety of fruits and vegetables. Make a conscious effort to eat produce, and you’ll naturally wind up consuming fewer calories. Aim for a minimum of five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Honor your hunger. Break the diet mind-set that says feeling hungry is a good sign. If you go too long without eating, you’ll feel tired and cranky, and you’ll be more likely to overeat when you finally have to eat. Feed your body when it needs it.

Ditch the scale. Weighing yourself every morning keeps you focused on your weight instead of on eating more healthfully. If you want to track your progress, limit weigh-ins to once a month or at most once a week.

Stay on track. Slipping off your diet doesn’t mean your weight-loss efforts have been sunk. “I always say every hour of every day is an opportunity to correct a bad or negative behavior,” says Clark. Even if you had two doughnuts for breakfast, you can still opt for a light lunch and dinner. By not letting minor setbacks derail you, you’ll help ensure that your healthier habits have a lasting effect.

Overcome Dieting Pitfalls

by Kelly James-Enger
From the March 2009 Signs