12 Sneaky Ways to Slim Down Your Diet

Sam Kaplan/Fitness Magazine
Sam Kaplan/Fitness Magazine

By Sharon Liao

Maybe it was a Top Chef marathon or the realization that you could probably buy a new wardrobe with the money you were shelling out on kung pao chicken. Whatever the reason, you traded your takeout menus for cookbooks. But even though you're spending more time in the kitchen (whipping up healthy meals, no less), your pants aren't getting any looser. What gives? Chances are, you're making a few all-too-common mistakes. Before you throw in the dish towel, read on for the supersimple fixes that can help you look Padma-esque in time for summer.

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Fat trap 1: Overcooking pasta
Take that pot off the stove a little early and your bucatini will have a satisfying bite and keep you full for hours. "Hot water breaks down the bonds between starch molecules," says Johanna Burani, RD, the author of Good Carbs, Bad Carbs. The longer you boil your pasta, the quicker your body converts those carbs into fuel. This sets off a rapid rise in blood sugar that is followed by a hunger-inducing plunge. Al dente noodles take longer to digest, delivering a steady stream of energy.

The fix: Go with the shortest time in the recommended range on the back of the box, then bite into a slightly cooled strand. "There should be a tiny white circle of raw pasta in the center," Burani says. The residual heat will continue to cook the noodles, so they'll be perfectly al dente by the time you serve them.

Fat trap 2: Coating the pan with nonstick spray
This healthy staple may not be as low in calories as you think. "Many people spray it on for about six seconds," says Bonnie Liebman, the director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. That's 36 calories and four grams of fat. While that doesn't sound like much, it adds up: If you coat your pan before sauteing spinach, for example, and then again before folding in the eggs, you tack 70-plus calories onto that scramble.

The fix: To cut down on the amount of spray you need, use nonstick pans for cooking and a silicone mat or parchment paper for baking whenever possible. Or forgo the stuff altogether: "You can substitute chicken broth when sauteing vegetables," says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Just heat a few tablespoons in a pan and stir in the veggies, adding more liquid as needed until they're cooked through.

Fat trap 3: Picking poultry instead of beef
Although turkey breast is about as lean as it gets, ground turkey often contains dark meat and skin, which edge up the calorie count. A four-ounce serving of ground turkey packs 204 calories and 14 grams of fat, while the same amount of lean ground beef contains just 155 calories and six grams of fat.

The fix
: Whether you're buying beef or turkey, "look for labels that say the meat is at least 90 percent lean," suggests Diane Henderiks, RD, the founder of Dishwithdiane.com. Or ask the butcher to grind up turkey breast or sirloin steak. Saute either in heart-healthy olive or canola oil (about 1 tablespoon per pound) to keep the meat moist for fewer than 30 extra calories a serving.

Fat trap 4: Adding hot sauce to everything

Sure, it gives your eggs, tacos, and pizza a no-cal kick. But just a teaspoon of certain brands uses up nearly 10 percent of your daily sodium allotment, and too much of the mineral can take a toll on your waistline. According to a study from the University of California, San Francisco, people who ate a high-sodium diet gained more weight -- about one extra pound over a five-day period -- than those who consumed low-sodium versions of the same high-calorie meals. The researchers believe excess sodium increases your body's production of insulin, a hormone that turns sugar into fat.

The fix: "Fresh peppers, red pepper flakes, and cayenne pepper add heat without any sodium," Henderiks says. Miss the sauce? Try Tabasco, which contains a mere 35 milligrams of sodium per teaspoon, just 2 percent of the 2,300 milligrams most of us shouldn't exceed in a day.

Fat trap 5: Baking with gluten-free flou
Whether it's because you have celiac disease, are gluten intolerant, or just want to experiment with nonwheat options, you've decided to pick up one of the new wheat-free flours or baking mixes. Unfortunately, just because they're gluten-free doesn't mean they're good for you. "Many of these flours and blends are made from white rice or potatoes, so they may contain a minimal amount of filling fiber," Burani says, but just as many calories and carbs as the regular stuff.

The fix: At the supermarket, scout out options made from brown rice, teff, or quinoa, such as those by Bob's Red Mill and Arrowhead Mills, and make sure a serving provides at least two grams of fiber.

Fat trap 6: Removing the chicken skin

Each piece of skin contains 69 calories and six grams of fat, so it makes sense to separate it from the breast before popping it in the oven, right? Not really. The skin locks in moisture, so you get tender, more flavorful chicken for not a lot of extra calories, explains Amy Myrdal Miller, RD, the director of culinary nutrition at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, California.

The fix: Don't remove the skin until right before serving, and the chicken won't need as much calorie-rich sauce, salad dressing, or mayo. The exception: If you're making soup or a casserole, the fat from the skin will drain into the dish, Myrdal Miller warns, so peel it off it beforehand.

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Fat trap 7: Skipping a step when you make meat sauce

Ground beef is one of the easiest ways to add protein to your pasta dinner: All you have to do is saute, season, and serve. But if you're not blotting the meat after it's cooked, you're missing out on a quick way to slash four grams of fat per three-ounce serving, according to scientists from Iowa State University. "This removes excess fat without altering the flavor," says Julie Garden-Robinson, PhD, RD, a food and nutrition specialist at the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

The fix: Drain cooked crumbles on a paper towel-lined plate for one minute, then pat the top with more paper towels. Or go a step further and rinse the beef. Doing so will remove more than half the fat, according to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Just put the cooked meat in a strainer over a large bowl and pour hot water -- about four cups per pound -- over the top before mixing the beef into your marinara.

Fat trap 8: Dicing vegetables into tiny pieces

You've been making oven-baked shoestrings instead of the fried kind -- hooray! But according to a Dutch review of research, switching to steak "fries" could help you cut even more calories. "The more pieces you cut something into, the more surface area there is for the oil to cling to, which equals extra calories and fat," Myrdal Miller says.

The fix: To ease up on the grease, chop potatoes and veggies at least a half inch thick, then pat them dry. Research suggests this helps create a crust that blocks oil from being absorbed by food. Cut calories even further when roasting or baking by using an oil mister to lightly coat the pieces instead of drizzling them with EVOO from the bottle.

Fat trap 9: Giving produce a quick rinse

Fresh fruits and vegetables are a dieter's dream, but the pesticide residue on them can keep your calorie-burning machine from performing at its peak. In an International Journal of Obesity study, dieters with the highest levels of pollutants in their bodies had markers of slower metabolism than those with the lowest levels. "Pesticides may affect your thyroid's ability to function," explains lead author Angelo Tremblay, PhD, a professor of kinesiology at Laval University in Canada. And there's evidence that they also harm the functioning of mitochondria, the parts of a cell that convert fuel into energy.

The fix: Government researchers say you need to scrub fresh produce for at least 30 seconds to remove the residue. You can also minimize your exposure by purchasing organic produce, especially the kind with an edible peel, as well as organic beef and dairy products, because regular cattle feed can contain high concentrations of pesticides.

Related: 5 Surprising Superfoods You Should Be Eating

Fat trap 10: Sipping Pinot as you prep
When you're adding wine to your risotto, it's tempting to pour yourself a glass. But that aperitif can pack on the pounds in more ways than one. According to a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, sipping the equivalent of two drinks on an empty stomach slows your flab-burning capacity by as much as 73 percent for up to six hours. "Instead of converting fat into fuel, your body uses alcohol for energy," explains study author Marc Hellerstein, MD, PhD, a professor of endocrinology, metabolism, and nutrition at the University of California, San Francisco. And alcohol not only messes with your metabolism, but it also loosens your inhibitions and can encourage you to eat more.

The fix: Wait until you're seated with your meal before you start imbibing. Food slows the absorption of alcohol, which can offset its diet-damaging effects.

Fat trap 11: Serving veggies on the side
There's nothing wrong with setting out a dish of steamed broccoli or roasted asparagus, but sneaking them into your main course can boost their benefits. Researchers from Penn State found that people who ate meals that incorporated vegetables -- think chicken casserole with squash and carrots -- consumed 350 fewer calories a day than those who had veggies only as a side dish. The likely explanation: Produce bulks up main dishes and adds filling fiber, so you feel satisfied and take in fewer calories.

The fix: "Experiment with mild-tasting vegetables that aren't overpowering," advises Jessica Shapiro, RD, a dietitian at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. She suggests adding cauliflower puree to macaroni and cheese, diced zucchini to lasagna, and shredded carrots to chicken salad.

Fat trap 12: Holding all the fat
Banishing high-cal ingredients, such as cheese and nuts, seems smart. "But fat takes longer to digest than protein and carbs, so it keeps you full longer," Dr. Gerbstadt says. "It also adds flavor, which ups satisfaction." And the benefits extend even further: A study in the journal Health Psychology showed that people produced less of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin after drinking a shake that was labeled "indulgent" rather than an identical one described as "sensible."

The fix: Sprinkle nuts or seeds over your salad or spread pesto on your sandwich. Besides whittling your waistline, you'll also increase your nutrient intake: Purdue University scientists found that just three grams of monounsaturated fat -- the amount in less than a teaspoon of olive oil -- helped the body absorb more cancer-fighting lycopene, lutein, and beta-carotene.

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