Much of our daily eating happens on autopilot. We grab a snack out of the fridge just because we happen to be walking past it. We pick up a greasy lunch on the run during a busy day. We wolf down dinner while catching up on the news. But mindless habits like these aren't waistline-friendly, and minor missteps are a reason some of us can't seem to shake off unwanted pounds. "The most dangerous habits are the ones that feel like they're no big deal," says registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, author of The Flexitarian Diet. "When people gain weight, they often don't think they've done anything majorly different—and that's probably true. You don't have to do anything major to gain 10 pounds a year."
The good news: Bad habits are meant to be broken. Here's how to overcome some common mindless eating behaviors.
Eating while distracted. It's not as dangerous as driving while distracted, but it's still a big threat to your figure. Reading the newspaper or channel-surfing while chowing down is a recipe for overeating. When you're distracted, you're likely to eat more than you want or need to, without even realizing it until you're done—in part because multi-tasking makes it difficult to detect feelings of fullness. Studies suggest that eating while doing something else produce less satisfaction with the meal and leads to eating too much later. The solution? Focus on your food. That means doing nothing other than eating during meal times and, when possible, having dinner at the dinner table.
Dousing salads with dressing. Nothing dampens the benefits of veggies quite like getting squirt-happy with regular or full-fat dressing. Two tablespoons of ranch, for example, can pack up to 200 calories. Stick with fat-free or low-fat, low-calorie dressings. You can also add flavor with a squeeze of lemon or balsamic vinegar, or even opt for a less-conventional option like salsa, Greek yogurt, or pico de gallo.
Making fancy sandwiches. Gone are the days of a basic turkey on bread. "Now it's all about the gourmet cheeses and pesto spreads, the dried fruits and candied nuts," Jackson Blatner says. "And that doesn't only pack additional flavor—it's a lot of extra calories, too." She suggests prioritizing favorite ingredients. Instead of going for aioli-flavored mayonnaise, brie cheese, and calorie-dense ciabatta bread, select just one to make your lunch more deluxe. Same goes for salads: A healthy option can quickly go south if you load up on toppings like shredded cheese, nuts, croutons, and bacon bits. So don't overdo the accoutrements just because your favorite salad bar offers them.
Going wild on the weekend. Even if you eat like a saint from Monday through Thursday, be careful about overindulging on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. "Letting caution go to the wind on the weekend can absolutely undo all your efforts," Jackson Blatner says. "Instead of being an A+ student during the week and a D student on the weekend, be a little loose most days."
Making bad coffee decisions. A cup of black coffee contains just 2 calories. But doctoring your cup of joe can introduce caloric landmines. Whipped cream could tack on 80 to 130 extra calories, as well as 8 to 12 grams of fat. A tablespoon of sugar adds up to 50 calories, so stick with calorie-free sweeteners like Splenda and Equal. And think twice before dumping creamer into the mix: Full-fat milk can add up to 140 calories. Reduced-fat and skim milk are smarter choices.
Having dessert every day. Grocery stores are loaded with low-calorie, seemingly innocent treat such as "light" ice-cream bars, 100-calorie cookie packs, and similar desserts that are marketed as diet-friendly. But these products are deceptively seductive. Tacking just one a day onto your current diet could expand your waistline: An extra 100 calories a day translates to an extra 10 to 15 pounds over a year, Jackson Blatner says. So, make dessert an occasional indulgence instead of a daily habit.
Hitting the road without a plan. When you're driving and your stomach starts rumbling—and your favorite fast-food joint is feet away from the off ramp—odds are all too high that you'll pull over. "You're going to end up eating something you'll be sorry for later," says Karen Ansel, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Make sure you're prepared for any roadtrip with healthy snacks like fruit, veggies, trail mix, and granola. Or plan when and where you'll eat ahead of time. Savvy dieters count coolers and thermoses as smart investments.
Cleaning your plate. Don't feel obligated to eat everything that's in front of you. Stop eating as soon as you're full, rather than stuffing yourself with unnecessary calories because you don't want to waste food. If there's enough left, save it for lunch or a snack the next day.
Eating while standing up. Often, this translates to leaning over the kitchen counter or sink, or gulping food as you grab it out of the refrigerator. "It's like mindless grazing," Ansel says. "It's nonstop noshing ... It's very hard for your body to know when you've had enough, when you're constantly popping food into your mouth." Planned snacks and meals are typically the only time you should be eating, she says. For the average person, three meals and one or two snacks a day will suffice.
Forgetting to plan ahead. "We tend to make food decisions in real-time," says Scott Kahan, codirector of the George Washington University Weight Management Program in Washington, D.C. "All of a sudden it's lunch time, and you're standing in front of the menu or fridge, trying to decide what to eat and how much of it to have." Spend a few minutes each morning either packing a lunch or checking out restaurant menus and calorie counts online. "That makes it much easier to eat healthier in the moment," he says.