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Even if you have healthy habits, sometimes a seemingly inconsequential snack choice can keep pounds in place.
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updated 11/9/2007 5:37:27 PM ET 2007-11-09T22:37:27

You snack on fruit, check calorie counts, and start most days with a walk or swim. So when you step on that scale and the needle stays put, you wonder what the heck you're doing wrong. Even with such healthy habits, sometimes a seemingly inconsequential snack choice or a larger (but common) food myth can keep pounds in place. Take heart: A simple, slight adjustment in how you eat and think can help you reach your weight loss goal.

Healthy habit: You count calories
The key to weight loss: Take in fewer calories than your body needs to maintain your current weight and you will drop pounds. But only 11% of Americans correctly estimate their ideal daily calorie requirements, according to a recent survey. The rest of us tend to over­estimate, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, and that's what keeps you from losing weight. Let's say you assume that a target of 2,000 calories per day will allow you to get to your weight goal, but it really takes 1,800: Those extra 200 are enough to keep an additional 20 pounds on your frame.

Do it better
Determine the right number of calories you need each day — and stick to it.

Get your max intake. Go to prevention.com/caloriecalculator and plug in the weight you want to be (as well as your height, age and activity level) to get your daily calorie allowance.

Divvy it up. Set limits on your meals and snacks. If 1,800 calories is your max, split it into three 500-calorie meals and one 300-calorie snack.

Create a custom meal. If your favorite frozen entrée has 500 calories, that's all you get. Find one for 300, however, and you can have some fresh fruit and a small salad with it.

Healthy habit: You're consistently active
Spend a few hours running errands and it feels like you've worked off some serious weight. But even between the aisle laps at the mall, hauling around shopping bags, and loading and unloading the car, you burned only about 400 calories — that's about 1/10 of a pound.

Do it better
Rev your routine.

Short bursts of intense activity burn more calories — and up to 36% more fat, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. Strolling around the mall or the park for an hour works off about 150 calories; pick up the pace 1 minute out of every 5 to burn over one-third more calories (try a similar method if you bike). Swimmers can switch from freestyle or breaststroke to a more challenging crawl every few laps, or just go a little faster. Even small steps make a difference: Skip the elevator and carry your groceries up the stairs to burn 128 more calories, or instead of hitting an automatic car wash, do it yourself and zap 204 calories.

Healthy habit: You choose nutritious foods
What you put on your plate is important, but healthy eating is also about being mindful of how much you consume. For example, your husband has pancakes with butter and syrup for breakfast, your son grabs a doughnut, and you opt for a cup of oatmeal with a handful of walnuts, a sliced banana, and a large glass of organic blueberry juice. You may win on nutrients, but when it comes to calories you're dead last: That healthy-sounding meal adds up to almost 700, more than a third of your allotment for the day.

Do it better
Keep portions of even healthy foods in check.

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The best way to know if you're eating too much is to write it down. "Even if you note it on a napkin and then throw it away, that's okay. Just the act of writing makes you more aware," says Taub-Dix. Portion control cues help, too: a baseball-size serving for chopped veggies and fruits; a golf ball for nuts and shredded cheese; a fist for rice and pasta; and a deck of cards for lean meats. Also, swap higher-calorie healthy foods for high-fiber, lower-cal varieties like these:

Fruit. A 1/2-cup serving of strawberries has 23 calories, while a medium banana has more than 100. An orange has almost half the calories of a glass of orange juice. More low-cal picks include melon and blueberries.

Vegetables. Per 1 cup, raw spinach has 7 calories and boiled eggplant contains 35 calories; mashed sweet potato, however, has 249.

Whole grains. Two full cups of air-popped popcorn (a whole grain) has about the same number of calories as three little whole wheat crackers.

Healthy habit: You order the healthiest sounding item on the menu
Choose the turkey sandwich over pizza and you think you're being good, but again, looks can be deceiving. A turkey sandwich at Panera Bread comes on focaccia with cheese and mayo and delivers 960 calories. Two slices of pepperoni pan pizza from Pizza Hut total 560 calories. Put your sandwich in a spinach wrap instead of regular bread? It's the same difference, says Tara Gidus, RD, a spokesperson for the ADA. "My clients think they get more nutrients and save on calories with 'healthy bread,' but often that's not the case."

Do it better
Look up fast-food nutrition facts in advance (or use these tips as a guide).

Many restaurants offer nutrition information, from Taco Bell to Subway. See if your favorite eatery has nutrition facts online or in the store — you may be surprised at what you see. We were when we checked out Baskin Robbins: A medium strawberry-banana smoothie has 80 more calories than a strawberry milk shake!

Healthy habit: You satisfy cravings with 'diet' treats
When you want something sweet, all those fat-free, sugar-free options seem like a smart idea. But researchers at Cornell University found that overweight people who choose low-fat versions of snack foods rather than the regular kinds consume on average twice as many calories. "The terms fat-free or sugar-free can create a green light effect, triggering people to eat more," says Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, Prevention's nutrition director. But many fat-free foods have about the same number of calories (or more) as their full-fat counterparts. Case in point: One variety of oatmeal-raisin cookie has 107 calories and 9 g of sugar, and the fat-free version of the same brand has 106 calories plus 14 g of sugar.

Do it better
Go for reasonable amounts of the real thing.

If you adore ice cream, have a small scoop of premium. "You won't stick to a diet that doesn't include your favorites," says David Grotto, RD, a spokesperson for the ADA. Bottom line: Life's too short for forbidden foods.

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