updated 10/10/2006 10:31:55 AM ET 2006-10-10T14:31:55

There's power in lunches.

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Doug Cohn, senior vice president of video promotion and production at Atlantic Records in New York, knows that well. Cohn was heavy as a child, but turned things around when he got to college, changing his eating habits and losing a substantial amount of weight.

The pounds became difficult to keep off as he rose in the corporate ranks. A packed schedule, business travel and frequent lunch meetings all conspired against his weight. So Cohn turned to a nutritionist, who helped him figure out creative ways to eat better — starting with those lunches.

"I'm not the type to starve myself," Cohn says. "Lunch can be hard because it's usually a business meeting where other people are eating what they want."

It's not always easy to choose a healthy mid-day meal — especially when you're hungry, rushed and have easy access to quick, greasy foods. And because lunches often go down fast or while you're distracted, it is easy to forget that they pack a big calorie punch.

But you can avoid putting on the pounds without resorting to taking raw celery and steamed chicken to the office. It just takes some smarter decision making.

"People don't have to be as extreme as they think," says Lauren Slayton, owner and nutritionist at Food Trainers in New York. "If they eat just a little bit better each day, it makes a difference."

In advising Cohn, Slayton first asked what he liked to eat. That way, they could devise a strategy that included his favorite foods and didn't leave him feeling deprived.

A healthy cheeseburger?
For instance, you may love a juicy cheeseburger. But, it can contain almost 600 calories. If you take off the cheese, you can still enjoy a favorite, while saving at least 100 calories and some fat. If you want to take it a step further, opt for the veggie burger (minus cheese) and you'll save about 200 calories more. Or, eat those nachos with beans and cheese, but leave off the beef and sour cream and you'll cut more than 800 calories.

Jo-Ann Heslin, a nutritionist who co-authored "The Calorie Counter," which contains calorie counts for over 20,000 foods, compiled a list of tasty — and similar — alternatives to common high-calorie lunches. The better picks are healthier and less fattening, but won't leave you longing for more.

The drop-off in calories may not sound significant, but over time it adds up. According to Heslin, if a person eats just 100 extra calories a day for a year that can mean 10 pounds of weight gain. Conversely, consuming 100 calories fewer each day for a year will lead to weight loss or weight maintenance.

A good way to start picking better is to figure out how many calories you need each day, then divide them for meals.

"If I tell you, you need 1,500 calories a day, then you'll actually stop to think about eating that 540-calorie dessert," Heslin says.

How many calories should you eat?
There are several ways to compile the amount of calories a person needs, and the best is to have a nutritionist figure it out for you. But to do your own rough estimate, Heslin suggests multiplying your ideal weight by ten. So, if you want to weigh 150 pounds, your daily caloric allotment is 1,500. (She notes that this average is simply a starting point, and not completely accurate for active people.)

Next, start working on meals. Experts say the best way to make lunch less calorie-dense is to exclude small things that contribute lots of calories, like cheese, mayonnaise and oils.

"The tip with the sandwich is to avoid mayonnaise," says Lyssie Lakatos, a nutritionist and certified personal trainer at The Sports Club LA in New York. Her sister, Tammy Lakatos Shanes, points out that without the mayo, a tuna sandwich totals about 600 calories; with it, the calorie count doubles.

"Choices are a part of life," Heslin says. "If a person wants a double patty burger, why not go for the single patty? It's not the healthiest choice, but it's still a more positive one."

© 2012


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