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10 Common Food Traps (and How to Avoid Them)

author image Katie Farmand
Katie Farmand is a writer, food stylist and recipe developer based in Orlando. She is the coauthor of the forthcoming farm-to-table cookbook, "Florida Field to Feast: Year-Round Recipes Celebrating Farmers, Chefs & Artisans" (University Press of Florida). She maintains her own blog providing original recipes and holds a Master of Arts in mass communication from the University of Florida, Gainesville.

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10 Common Food Traps (and How to Avoid Them)
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Navigating your way to your weight-loss or healthy-eating goals can be challenging enough, but when food traps pop up along the way, your diet can be derailed if you’re not aware of these potential pitfalls. Mapping out your day by preparing for meals and food choices ahead of time and being aware of these potential diet detours can help you stay the course. Eating healthy isn’t always easy, but when you know how to make good choices -- even in places where it seems like an impossible task -- you’ll be able to walk away satisfied and with your healthy diet still on track. Read on to learn about the 10 most common food traps and how to avoid them.

1. Salad Bars
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You may have the best intentions when choosing the salad bar, but what you top your greens with can make or break your calorie bank. A plate full of vegetables is definitely a great choice, but there are many unhealthy additions that can ruin a good thing. For added crunch, skip the croutons and sesame sticks, which have little to no nutritional value, and instead sprinkle on a few sunflower kernels or almonds for protein and healthy fats. If you want something sweet, choose grapes or fresh berries instead of raisins or dried cranberries, which can add considerably more calories and sugar. Finally, avoid fat-free or even low-fat dressings -- they are often loaded with sugar and other unnecessary additives. Instead, top your salad with sliced avocado or lightly drizzle with olive oil. Healthy fats actually help your body absorb certain vitamins that can be found in vegetables.

Related: 23 Healthy Salads Nutrition Experts Eat

2. Vending Machines
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We’ve all been there: It’s 2 p.m. at the office and you need a little pick-me-up to get through the afternoon. The candy bars or salty chips may be calling your name, but think twice -- that quick jolt of energy from the simple carbohydrates fades quickly and you’re left with an energy slump and an empty stomach for the rest of the day. Instead, look for roasted almonds, sunflower kernels or peanuts. Trail mix is another great option. The protein and fiber will help you feel full and keep your blood-sugar levels stable so you won’t feel like nodding off at your work. Another option is to keep healthy snacks stashed in your desk drawer -- an apple, snack bars or quick packets of oatmeal to keep you from raiding the vending machine.

Related: 10 Convenient Low-Carb Snacks

3. All-You-Can-Eat Buffets
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It may feel daunting trying to practice portion control when faced with what seems like a mile-long selection of dishes, but instead of throwing up your hands, try these tricks for keeping portions small and choosing the right foods. First, peruse the entire buffet and its offerings before beginning to fill your plate. In 2008, Cornell University researchers studied the behaviors of more than 300 men and women at a 22 different Chinese buffets across six states and found that those with higher body mass indexes (BMI) typically served themselves right away versus surveying the entire buffet first. Second, if it’s available, use a salad plate instead of those sized for entrees -- it’ll help cut down on the amount you eat. Also, fill up on colorful foods -- the brighter, the better. Fresh fruit and raw, steamed or even sauteed veggies are nutrient-dense choices. Avoiding proteins in sweet or heavy sauces, such as teriyaki beef or chicken masala, will help to cut down on calories, sugar and sodium too. If you see something delicious, but it isn’t a healthy choice, take a small portion to try.

Related: What to Order (and Avoid) When Eating Out

4. Cocktail Parties
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The old advice is still true: Eat something at home before you go to a party so you’re not tempted to fill up on all of the delicious goodies the host has to offer. But hors d’oeuvres aren’t the only threat to your diet -- sugary cocktails can make a huge dent in your calorie intake for the day as well. To avoid being a teetotaler, you can make a wine spritzer with a half glass of wine topped with sparkling water and add a wedge of fruit for added flavor. A dirty martini is chic and low-cal as well. Or try vodka or gin with sparkling water and a small splash of fruit juice for a lower-calorie cocktail. As far as what to nibble on, choose anything with protein -- like a charcuterie board with cheese and almonds or chicken skewers. You’ll need less to fill your stomach and you’ll stay feeling full longer. If you get the urge to snack, look for popcorn (as long as it’s not covered in cheese or tons of butter). It’s a whole grain, and one cup of plain, air-popped popcorn comes in at about 30 calories.

Related: 14 Cocktails That You Can Toast to Your Health With

5. Cookouts
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Grilling and cookouts can be diet-friendly -- if you choose wisely. For the main course, opt for a lean ground-beef patty or even a turkey or veggie burger. Use a whole-grain bun and load up your burger with lettuce, tomato, onion and mustard and skip past the mayo and cheese condiments. For sides, fresh fruit salad or raw veggies dipped in salsa or hummus are fiber-filled ways to stay full. And if there’s something decadent calling your name (think mac and cheese or potato salad), have a small taste after you’ve finished your meal. Those few bites should hit the spot! Also, limited but suggestive research has shown that cooking proteins like meat and poultry at high temps creates heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which may increase the risk of cancer. To limit exposure, use lean cuts of meats, marinade your proteins beforehand and frequently flip your meat. Avoid charring meats as much as possible.

Related: 23 Ways to Improve Your Barbecue

6. Gas Stations
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Road trips, endless errands or even days spent working from your car may leave you stranded at the gas station when a snack break calls. Rows and rows of salty snacks and sweet treats may be tempting, but gas stations are getting better at stocking healthier choices to fuel up your body. Look for whole-wheat pita chips and single-serve packs of hummus and nuts. In the refrigerated section look for baby carrots and precut celery packs for dipping. If you can’t pass up something sweet, granola bars with dried fruit and whole oats can help offset the higher sugar content, or spread the contents of a single-serve pack of peanut butter onto plain graham crackers for an easy-to-eat, filling, sweet snack. And by all means, walk past the sodas and choose a big bottle of water or unsweetened ice tea instead.

Related: 19 Fast and Healthy Convenience-Store Snacks

7. Fast-Food Breakfast
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It may seem like common sense to avoid fast-food restaurants, but busy morning meals may involve a drive-through. Most places offer their version of an egg on an English muffin or whole-wheat toast. Get it with a black coffee and a side of fruit to check off all the morning-meal essentials -- protein, carbs and fat (and caffeine) -- without making a huge dent in your daily calories. A small burrito with eggs and cheese and a side of salsa is another good choice, and if you can’t get going without a taste of something sweet, look for oatmeal with nuts and dried fruit (sans brown sugar). Avoid healthy-seeming yogurt parfaits, which can be sugar bombs.

Related: 14 Protein-Packed Breakfasts

8. Smoothie Shops
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After a workout or between meals a smoothie can be a great way to get a dose of fruit and even veggies, but they can also hide an unhealthy amount of sugar -- sometimes, upwards of 70 or more grams. That much sugar, even when it comes from fruit, is a huge load on your body. The culprit? Usually the fruit-juice base used in recipes or sometimes frozen yogurt and sherbets are added. Some smoothie shops have a “light” menu with lower-sugar options -- but make sure it’s not loaded with artificial sweeteners. Always look at the nutrition facts before ordering, and stick to smoothies that use whole fruits and vegetables. Protein smoothies often have a good dose of healthy fat from nut butters and a bit less sugar than other options. And don’t forget the kids’ menu -- the smaller size can help satisfy your smoothie craving without breaking your calorie limit.

Related: 9 Out-of-the-Ordinary Smoothie Recipes

9. After-Dinner Dessert
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Instead of depriving yourself completely of anything sweet after dinner, try making fruit into a dessert that will satisfy your sweet tooth without undoing your healthy day. Sauteing is an easy way to make fruit dessert-worthy. Start with a hot skillet; add a teaspoon of coconut oil or unsalted butter and a teaspoon of honey. Toss in sliced peaches, mangoes or bananas (or a combination thereof) and gently stir to coat. Let the fruit caramelize in the skillet for a few minutes, then serve with a small dollop of whipped coconut cream. To make whipped coconut cream, spoon the top layer from a can of full-fat coconut milk and whip like cream. A few more simple but tasty fruit desserts: grilled peaches with honey-sweetened low-fat ricotta; fresh berries tossed with chopped mint and a pinch of sugar with fat-free Greek yogurt, and frozen banana slices dipped in melted chocolate. For guilt-free sorbet, blend frozen berries and half a frozen banana in a food processor until smooth.

Related: See Full Recipe and Nutritional Details in MyPlate

10. Coffee Shops
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Coffee shops are filled with tempting sweet drinks and pastries that can lead you down a tasty but ill-fated road. Many drinks can be calorie-and-sugar bombs, but they can also be special ordered so they’re a bit more waistline-friendly. Ask for half or even one-third of the normal amount of flavoring syrup and skip any toppings like whipped cream or a caramel drizzle. For a DIY version of a sweet coffee drink, order a small latte and add a small spoonful of honey and a few shakes of cinnamon at the self-serve bar. As far as the pastries behind the window? The easy answer is to avoid them completely.

Related: What’s REALLY Inside a Caramel Frappuccino

What Do YOU Think?
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Have you ever fallen prey to these common food traps? Are there any traps you feel should be included in this list? What tips do you have for avoiding these diet pitfalls? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.

Related: 12 Fish to Avoid Eating

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