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Eating healthy may be virtuous, but it just doesn't seem like that much fun.
The feast-filled holidays were a great excuse for blowing off your strict diet and indulging. Why else bother with a healthy New Year's resolution? Most of us prefer the taste of french fries and peanut brittle over that of oat bran. A glass of burgundy sounds more tantalizing than a cup of wheat grass juice. And while a nice piece of fruit is no punishment, chocolate is exceedingly more tempting.
The good news: Not all of those seemingly unhealthy choices actually are.
Cheese fries may never be a part of your recommended diet, but Russet potatoes alone are nothing to fear. In fact, they're full of disease-fighting antioxidants. Eating the whole box of chocolates still isn't a good idea. A square a day, however, may help prevent cancer and stave off weight gain.
If you're confused, we're not surprised. There's never been more information available on how to eat right. Books, food labels, Web sites — fast food restaurants even provide nutritional information for their meals. But it's hard to draw any simple conclusions from it all. Are carbs good or bad? How many calories are too many? What causes cancer now?
No wonder dietitians say people tend to see healthy choices as too much trouble.
"We are in such a hurry, we're so busy multitasking that eating is no longer a solo event," says David Grotto of the Chicago-based American Dietetic Association. "It's an inconvenience. We have hunger, and we need to squash it. We need to wolf down some food. You're lucky if you remember what you ate the day before."
A recent ACNielsen study of how habits of eating and drinking outside the home develop offers a glimpse into the predicament. About 82 percent of consumers acknowledged that individuals are the most responsible for weight gain in the U.S. population. Only 6 percent place the biggest blame on fast food joints and 2 percent on food companies. Of those surveyed, 18 percent said the main factor leading to weight gain is that modern life is too easy for people to make an effort to be healthy.
Elisa Zied, author of "So What Can I Eat?!" and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says people are frustrated by the conflicting research studies and news reports about what can harm or benefit them. Typically, they just want practical advice on what to eat.
They're also unknowingly making bad choices. Most people know that soda and candy contain a lot of sugar. But they don't always realize that low-fat flavored yogurt, salad dressing and Chinese food (think chicken with broccoli) can too. Because of the new obsession with lowering our intake of trans fats, which food labels must now list, some people are consuming more saturated fats, she says.
Deepak Varma, senior vice president of customized research for ACNielsen, says consumers fall into "autopilot" mode, not really thinking about what they're buying or eating until they have a moment of truth in the form of a medical checkup or want to get in shape.
People also get in the habit of having larger portions because they want to get good value for their money, he says.
Unfortunately, there is no cure-all when it comes to waking up and taking control of your health. Grotto, who is writing a book about making friends with food, suggests viewing meals as both sources of sustenance and enjoyable experiences.
To make that process a little easier, we asked dietitians to recommend a number of foods with surprising health benefits. Chocolate and bruschetta, anyone?
Once you incorporate these tips into your eating habits, try tackling more challenging ones. Jennifer Nelson, director of clinical dietetics at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says another way we can start to change is by asking restaurants for more healthy options and smaller portion sizes. Define value by the quality of your food, not its "supersize."
"Small indiscretions can create bigger health issues," Nelson says. "The good news is that small attempts, the more we chip away at it — we can get big results too."
© 2012 Forbes.com