In our recent diet poll, Epicurious editors asked readers to tell us which is the best diet choice: low-carb, low-sugar, low-fat, or low-calorie. The overwhelming answer? Low-calorie, with 41.1 percent of the votes.
They're smart cookies, according to many nutrition and healthy-eating experts. "All diets are about calories, no matter what they're called-they all reduce calories, otherwise you wouldn't lose weight, " says Dr. Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University (the department she chaired from 1988-2003) and author of Food Politics, Safe Food, and the James Beard Award-winning What to Eat.
"A reduced-calorie diet is the only effective diet for weight loss," agrees Monica Reinagel, chief nutritionist for our sister site NutritionData.com and author of The Inflammation Free Diet Plan. "You can eat a low-carb diet, a low-fat diet, or a low-sugar diet, but the only way you're going to lose weight on any of them is if you end up eating fewer calories. So the real question is: What is the easiest way for you to cut calories-by restricting carbs, restricting fats, restricting sugar, or just cutting calories across the board? What I think we've seen in your poll is that most people do best not by trying to radically reduce their consumption of any one type of food but rather by eating a little less of everything."
Keri M. Gans, a registered dietician, president of the New York State Dietetic Association, and a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, echoes Reinagel, saying that "a long list of 'You Can Never Eat It Again' sets you up for failure." Or, as Marion Nestle puts it in her characteristically droll tone, "Life is too short to not eat carbohydrates."
We listened, consulted the experts, and then created this package of recipes, products, and tips, all designed to help you cut calories without losing your resolve, your enjoyment of food, or your mind.
One of the best ways to find low-calorie recipes is by using Epicurious's Advanced Recipe Search-you can narrow your search by dietary restriction, ingredients, season, and much more. Here are some of our favorite low-cal recipes to get you cooking.
Here are a dozen ways to cut calories without completely sacrificing the joy of eating real food.
Make New Discoveries
"Eating healthy is not about deprivation-it's about enjoyment," says Keri M. Gans, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. In your quest to cut calories, fat, or carbs, you might discover a new favorite food. "There are so many grains out there that people have never tried," adds Gans. "They've never tried barley, they've never tried quinoa or couscous.... But they've tried French fries!"
"Eat less." That's the dryly delivered advice from Marion Nestle on how to reduce calories and lose weight. "Everybody eats more if they have more food in front of them," adds Nestle. It may seem like a no-brainer that larger portions have more calories than smaller ones, but Nestle says research shows that large portions also encourage people to eat more and underestimate the number of calories they've consumed. Fight portion distortion by serving yourself less food at home. One way to do that is to use smaller bowls and plates. Also, take an honest look at how much you normally eat and then make a conscious decision to serve yourself a little less. At restaurants, order an appetizer or two instead of an entrée, or cut your meal in half and share it with a friend or take half home. And remember, "Even if you are talking about healthy food, you need to watch portions," says Gans. The good news? "Learning to recognize and stick to reasonable portion sizes is a great strategy for long-term weight management because it allows you to enjoy regular foods," says Monica Reinagel, chief nutritionist for our sister site NutritionData.com.
While many of us here at Epicurious would sooner walk on hot coals than give up certain full-calorie foods like real butter, there are plenty of other reduced-calorie products that actually taste good, particularly if you're cooking with them or combining them with other flavorful foods. We love chili topped with low-fat sour cream and reduced-fat cheddar, for example (we recommend Breakstone's for the sour cream and Cabot for the Cheddar). And a baked tortilla chip loaded up with salsa is pretty hard to distinguish from a fried one. (See the "Products" tab for more of our favorite low-calorie packaged foods.)
Bulk Up to Slim Down
While portion size matters even with healthy food, some ingredients are inherently lower in calories and thus you can eat more of them: A big salad of mostly greens and veggies with a little protein, good fat such as olive oil, and some complex carbs such as bulgur or quinoa is more satisfying and filling than the tiny serving of fatty meat and buttery potatoes that would deliver the same number of calories. Gans and other healthy-eating experts recommend filling 1/4 of your plate with your protein, 1/4 with whole-grain carbs, and 1/2 with vegetables. Not only is this good for overall health, but you'll fill up on the lower-cal stuff (just don't douse your veggies with a ton of oil or cream). Check out Nutrition Data to look up the number of calories and other nutritional info in all sorts of foods. Did you know that a cup of kale has only 33 calories? Asparagus clocks in at even fewer calories per cup: 27!
You had oatmeal for breakfast, a salad for lunch, and poached chicken for dinner. Great! But don't forget how fast the calories in between meals can add up. Try packing a healthy snack so you'll be prepared for the afternoon munchies and won't be driven to the vending machine. The advent of the 100-calorie snack pack is a portion-control boon for dieters. Granted, many of these products aren't exactly "healthy," but if you've got to have Oreos, better to know you're only eating 100 calories worth of them. "If snack foods are your weakness and you really can't have just one treat, you might benefit from choosing the 100-calorie size packages that have become so popular," says Reinagel. "Or save your money and divide your snacks into 100-calorie ziplock bags as soon as you get them home." A few ideas for your baggies: almonds and a couple of squares of dark chocolate; dried fruit and nuts; crackers and string cheese.
Lose the Liquid Calories
Don't forget drinks when you're calculating your caloric intake. "Soft drinks should be off everybody's list," says Nestle. "There are a lot of calories and they add up quickly." Don't forget the calories in coffee drinks, fruit juice, and alcohol, either. Diet sodas have few to no calories, but they aren't exactly healthy for you-not only are they loaded with artificial ingredients, but research has actually linked the consumption of diet drinks to weight gain.
Eat Out Without Expanding Out
In addition to watching portion sizes, be wary of any dishes with a sauce in restaurants. "You'd probably have a stroke if you could see how much butter goes into restaurant meals," Reinagel says. "That's why they taste so good!" And don't ditch the idea of getting dressing on the side just because it's a dieting cliché. Choose lighter preparations, such as steamed instead of fried or sautéed, when given the option.
Before you eat that whole bag of chips or candy, read the fine print to see how many servings the manufacturer says are inside it-all too often what looks like just the right amount for one person is billed as suitable for three. Likewise, when you're marveling that a serving of ice cream has only 200 calories, check to see if that serving is more than a tablespoon. Also keep in mind that "reduced," "low," "no," and "non" labels such as nonfat, reduced-sugar, or low-carb don't necessarily indicate that a product is low in calories. Likewise, be wary of foods with "healthy" labels such as "whole grain" or "trans fat-free." They might be better for you in some ways, but they could still be calorie bombs. For example, an ounce of Barbara's Bakery Cheese Puff Bakes (emblazoned with healthy claims such as "All Natural," "No Hydrogenated Oils," "No Artificial Colors," and "No Artificial Flavors") has the same number of calories as an equal amount of Cheetos Puffs.
Don't Cut Too Much
"When people consume too few calories for their bodies, they have difficulty losing weight," says Gans. In addition, eating too little at one meal can lead to overeating at the next meal or binging on unhealthy snacks.
Check Your Cravings
Gans says to ask yourself questions when you're craving unhealthy food: Have you not eaten that day? Was your lunch not large enough? Was your lunch too carb-heavy? For overall health, and to keep cravings and calories in check, don't skip meals, eat enough at each meal, and make sure you're getting plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein, and healthy fats.
Be a Snob
Here's a food-business insider tip: If you want to keep calories in check, sometimes you have to waste food. If you're full or just don't like what's on your plate, don't finish it. Craving sweets? Spring for a few squares of high-quality dark chocolate instead of trying to satisfy yourself on junk food. (For more tips on eating like a food writer, check out The Skinny book and blog by Robin Aronson and Melissa Clark-the latter is a super-slim cookbook author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, as well as Epicurious.
A final tip frequently employed by food writers and editors: Remember that the more calories you burn, the more you can consume. "It is not necessarily about joining a gym," says Gans. "You need to figure out a way to move more and find something you enjoy doing-exercise should be fun, as eating should be."
By Megan O. Steintrager
MORE FROM EPICURIOUS.COM
Food News and Views From All Over
Explore the Globe's Most Iconic Recipes in This Weekly Video Series
International Fare, Light Desserts, or Heart-Healthy Recipes, Epicurious Has Them All
The Man in the Orange Clogs Talks About His Influences and Cooking Style
Easy Cooking and Healthy Eating Tips Delivered Daily