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There's no free lunch

USA Today, August 9, 2004

You can blow one month of dieting in a couple of big meals. It's sad but true, nutritionists say. Today marks the beginning of the fourth week of USA TODAY's Weight-Loss Challenge, and we're looking at how to avoid sabotaging yourself at parties, barbecues and other events outside the home, including while on vacation. The challenge runs every Monday through August. You can choose your own eating plan or follow the low-calorie diet we're outlining. No signup is needed; just keep track of your progress and report to us any successes or tips. (Write to

Some people sabotage their own weight loss because they don't know how to cope with food in social situations. "It's not hard to have a 3,000-calorie splurge at a single meal," says Robyn Flipse, a registered dietitian in Ocean, N.J., who has been helping people lose weight for 30 years. "How are you going to eat less the next week to make up for those 3,000 calories?"

You can eat enough calories at one barbecue to offset four weeks of tight calorie control, says Flipse, author of Fighting the Freshman Fifteen. "I was at a nice barbecue recently, and there was so much food and the desserts were exceptional. If you just sampled a little bit of everything your caloric intake would be off the charts that day."

Nutritionists say you should have occasional treats when you are trying to lose weight so that you don't feel deprived, but you shouldn't go hog-wild. And there are ways to adapt your healthy eating plan so that you can enjoy a fancy dinner out or a neighborhood barbecue.

Here are some ideas from Flipse:

  • Conserve calories for a big meal without starving yourself. At the other meals during the day, eat low-calorie, high-volume foods such as simple soups, raw or cooked vegetables and light bread and popcorn.
  • Reserve about 60% of your daily calories for the large meal and divide the rest between the other two meals and a snack. For example, for the 1,500-calorie diet, allow 900 for dinner and split the remaining 600 by having 200 calories at breakfast, 300 at lunch and 100 for the snack.
  • Make trade-offs to manage all the extra calories you're being offered. For example, at a dinner out, order either a cocktail or dessert, eat either a roll or the pasta and finish either the meat or the potatoes, but not both.
  • Beware of little extras. Skip foods like croutons on the salads, complementary bruschetta, fried noodles and duck sauce, chips and salsa, and oyster crackers with soup.
  • Avoid large steaks, double pork chops, racks of lamb and other large cuts of meat. If you really want to have one these, remember that one serving is the size of a deck of cards and take the rest home. Expensive shellfish and veal are always served in smaller portions.
  • Watch out for high-calorie dressings. Allow about 50 calories per tablespoon for any sauce or gravy. For Caesar salad, the dressing adds 200 calories.
  • Realize that at buffet meals many people go overboard, so keep your guard up.
  • People have a hard time resisting the foods they may not have regularly at home, such as bacon and sausage, cakes and pastries and bagels and lox, Flipse says.

"Eating is not a contest, and you do not have to make up for lost time here," she says. "Make up your plate as if you were serving a 5-year-old: Nothing should touch the other foods, and the amounts should be small."

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Robyn Flipse: Diet sabotages
Registered dietitian in Ocean, N.J. She's the author of The Wedding Dress Diet and Fighting the Freshman Fifteen.