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In the quest to figure out the magic formula for weight loss, many dieters obsess about what to eat and leave out one critical component. "The boring message of the day when it comes to food is that there are only two variables: what you are eating and how much," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and the author of The Flexitarian Diet.
An average adult woman should consume about 1,600 calories a day, says Deanna Hoelscher, director of the Michael & Susan Dell Center for the Advancement of Healthy Living and a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, School of Public Health. But the focus on calories is not simply a numbers game. Eating a variety of foods in proper portions will also help you maintain a healthy weight.
One easy way to think about what and how much you are eating is, ironically, to picture a plate: One quarter should be lean protein (such as chicken or fish), another quarter should be grains (including whole grains like oatmeal and brown rice) and the last half should be fruits and vegetables.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has long promoted these types of paint-by-number rules for balanced eating in healthy portions. But quick fixes like banning one type of food--carbs in the Atkins Diet, for instance--can seem like a simpler and more attractive option.
Prohibiting--and thus demonizing--some foods like fat or sodium has caused other foods to acquire what Blatner calls a "healthy halo." When a food is labeled as "healthy," many dieters decide to eat as much as they want, and don't look at calories. Chicken is a food many turn to as a lean protein and alternative to beef. Problems arise, however, when it is consumed as though it were calorie-free. Six ounces of chicken has 280 calories. (As a reference point, 3/4 cup of whole wheat pasta is 130 calories.) "If people [on a diet] are going to overeat something, it's not pasta or bread, it's chicken," says Blatner.
A good-for-you reputation can also cover up the calories. "Salads are taken as wholesale by consumers as a reliable way to order," says Matt Goulding, food and nutrition editor at Men's Health and co-author of Eat This, Not That! Restaurants don't even have to market them as healthy. Even a salad with a wholesome (and exotic) name like California Pizza Kitchen's Thai Crunch Salad with grilled chicken breast, carrots and cabbage--not to mention fried wontons and peanut dressing--has over 2,000 calories, or the equivalent of eight slices of the restaurant's pizza.
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