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Beat the Binge

Sometime every day, a woman is having her moment of nutrition meltdown. For some people, starvation strikes in the late afternoon, triggering a trip to the vending machine to eat something -- anything. Others feel a snack attack coming on well before noon and start pilfering from their lunch bags, only to be ravenous again later. What might start as a craving can quickly spiral into a binge.

Often, it's our emotions that make us eat more. Stress, boredom and anxiety are often misinterpreted as hunger. We think we need fuel when we really want comfort. Problem is, comfort foods (cookies, chips, cake, etc.) are typically processed carbohydrates high in sugar, fat and salt. Experts say we crave carbohydrates because they stimulate production of serotonin (a brain chemical that regulates mood and sleepiness and seems to calm anxiety and induce relaxation). A food diary is an excellent way to combat this. Writing down when and what you eat can reveal startling patterns: pizza before a big presentation, or potato chips on a lazy afternoon.

Experts also agree that we've become so preoccupied with not eating, it's all we think about. Deprivation turns into obsession. Fact is, when you eliminate a favorite food from your diet, you only crave it more. The solution? Eat small amounts of such foods and you won't feel deprived. Or, find reduced-fat and -calorie versions.

A nutrient-dense, balanced eating plan (rich in complex carbohydrates, lean meat, poultry and fish, low-fat dairy products, nuts, seeds, and fresh fruits and vegetables) will head off any pang that comes down the hunger highway, and leave room for a few indulgences. When planning meals, choose a good balance of complex carbohydrates and protein and add lots of fresh produce. Simple carbohydrates, like sugar and honey, may give you an energy jolt because they metabolize quickly, but soon will send you dashing to the vending machine for more fuel. Complex carbohydrates (legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables) take longer to break down, providing lasting energy. They also add a dose of fiber, which absorbs water on its way through the digestive tract, making you feel fuller. Plus, it takes longer to chew most fibrous foods, slowing down the process of eating and giving your brain a chance to recognize the signs of satiety. Add a little protein to the carb meal, and the fuel you get may be enough to combat between-meal nibbling (if not, don't fret -- we have great snack ideas).

With a little planning, you can build a day of healthy, nutritious eating from wake-up to bedtime so you'll feel satisfied -- and kiss binges goodbye.

A day of great eating

Breakfast There are basically two types of people -- breakfast eaters and breakfast skippers. Among breakfast eaters are "doughnut-dunkers" and "grain-grabbers." Obviously the latter is preferred. Studies show that people who get a healthy breakfast eat less overall dietary fat and have fewer impulsive snack attacks than those who don't. Eat something, and aim for carbs (they offer quick energy). Add a little protein, which takes longer to break down so your breakfast energy lasts longer. Some ideas: a bagel with a tablespoon of light cream cheese, toast with a tablespoon of peanut butter, cereal with nonfat milk, fruit with nonfat yogurt or an English muffin with three egg whites. If you just can't imagine stomaching anything before 10 a.m., try a "beginner's breakfast": a fruit smoothie (puree nonfat milk, strawberries and a banana), whole-grain crackers with reduced-fat peanut butter, or a handful of high-fiber cereal and a glass of orange juice.

Lunch Many food choices have more to do with habit than hunger. Take lunch, for example. It takes 10 minutes to make a healthy lunch at home. It takes a lot more than that to walk to a cafeteria or deli, order food, wait in line, and fork over cash. You say you "don't have time," but you do. Plan ahead and make healthy lunches in a snap (while avoiding takeout temptations). Enjoy leftovers from low-fat dinners the next day. If they need sprucing, add flavor-packed ingredients like fat-free dressing, salsa, balsamic vinegar, roasted red peppers, fresh herbs and hot peppers. Make salads the night before and add dressing just before eating. Reinvent the standard bowl of lettuce: add diced apples, almonds, pumpkin seeds, beans, raisins and feta cheese. Make it a meal by tossing in a half-can of tuna, a cup of garbanzo beans or leftover grilled chicken.

At the deli, get grilled or roasted turkey or chicken (sans skin and sauce), reduced-fat cheeses, broth-based soups (without cream), hearty breads and fresh fruits and vegetables. Cajun and blackened foods are often loaded with flavor -- not fat.

Dinner Intense hunger can sabotage your best dinner intentions. If nutritious foods aren't readily available, you're bound to grab something fast and unhealthy. If you had to make a pizza from scratch, would you still choose it? Stock the freezer with whole-grain breads, whole-wheat tortillas, frozen vegetables, healthy frozen entrees and low-fat leftovers. Load up the fridge with fat-free and low-fat dairy products, tomato sauces, chutneys, salsas, salad dressings, and fresh fruits and veggies. Crowd the cabinets with whole grains (bulgur, couscous, quinoa, brown rice), pasta, canned beans, low-fat soups, sun-dried tomatoes, dried wild mushrooms and jars of roasted red peppers. A fabulous dinner of pasta, beans and porcini mushrooms -- kicked up with fresh broccoli -- can be ready in 20 minutes, including the time it takes to boil water.

You vs. the vending machine

A study at Michigan State University found that of the 133 different snacks offered in unrefrigerated vending machines, only four were considered "nutrient dense" (rich in nutrients relative to calorie content). Yet when researchers added more-nutritious foods to the machines, vending sales dropped. Reality is, people usually choose the least-nutritious food in a machine.

Be prepared -- bring your own snacks (fruits, veggies, yogurt, nuts and seeds, or even a serving of low-fat or fat-free cookies or angel food cake). For days when the vending machine is your only option, choose your treat wisely. Fat, sugar and salt run rampant behind the glass; even the fat-free and low-fat choices (cookies, cakes, candy) are extremely high in sugar (and practically devoid of vitamins and minerals). But have them if you really want them. Just limit your frequency and alternate with other choices. See our list for the best buttons to push (and keep asking your employers to stock fresh fruits, yogurt and sandwiches).

Why you should snack

It's nearly impossible to incorporate all of the more than 40 nutrients our bodies need in a few meals. That's where snacking comes in. Beef up your nutrient intake with snacks high in fiber, calcium, folate, beta carotene and vitamin E (low-fat dairy products, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are great choices). Make sure they're satisfying -- don't bring carrots and celery to work if you don't like them. Here are some ideas for sweet snackers and salt cravers.

Snacks for a sweet tooth

* Mixed dried fruit -- apricots, prunes, raisins, apples
* Fresh or dried figs with goat cheese
* A sweet potato with maple syrup
* Unsweetened applesauce with ginger snaps
* Fat-free or low-fat yogurt with fresh raspberries
* Angel food cake with kiwi, strawberries or all-fruit spread
* One serving of fat-free or low-fat brownie
* Fat-free or low-fat cookies without too much sugar: animal crackers, graham crackers, fig and other fruit bars, vanilla and lemon wafer cookies
* Gelatin with fresh sliced peaches
* Pudding (made with nonfat milk) and sliced bananas

Snacks for a salt craving

* Raw veggies (bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, zucchini) with fat-free ranch dressing
* 1/2 baked potato with fat-free sour cream
* Baked whole-grain crackers with reduced-fat cheese
* Shrimp cocktail
* Blanched almonds
* Sunflower/pumpkin seeds
* Baked corn chips with salsa
* Whole-wheat pretzels with spicy mustard
* Fat-free or "light" popcorn
* Rice cakes with mango chutney
* Ry-Krisp and seasoned flat-bread crackers with broth-based soup
* Matzo and soda crackers with fat-free cottage cheese (add Old Bay seasoning for flavor)
* Tomatoes and cottage cheese

Friendly vending

Instead of: Cookies
Choose: Low-fat granola bars. Just know they're high in sugar.

Instead of: Potato chips, corn chips or nacho-cheese tortilla chips
Choose: Baked potato chips. Great with fat-free onion dip (bring toothpaste if you have an afternoon meeting).

Instead of: Cheese puffs or curls
Choose: Baked bagel chips. Excellent topped with fat-free cream cheese and roasted red peppers.

Instead of: Oil-roasted peanuts
Choose: Pretzels Whole-wheat and oat-bran are best; choose hard pretzels, pretzel nuggets and thin twists and keep spicy mustard at your desk. Avoid pretzels with sugary or fatty coatings (such as honey mustard).

Instead of: Most chocolate candy bars
Choose: Tootsie Roll, peppermint patty or 3 Musketeers. If you must have chocolate, a lower-fat way to go.

Instead of: Cupcakes or snack cakes with icing
Choose: Red or black licorice or Life Savers

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