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Wednesday, August 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Diet Detective

Think twice before you nibble on "just one"

Syndicated columnist

When talking to people who are trying to lose weight, I often come across the "dieter's paradox": They "hardly eat anything," but they still don't lose weight. This seems to be one of our biggest problems — we never believe we're eating anything.

It's been reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that people attempting to lose weight tend to underestimate the amount they eat by as much as 47 percent and to overestimate their physical activity by as much as 51 percent. When scientists at the USDA's Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center in Maryland asked 98 men and women how much they ate in a 24-hour period, they found that 6 out of 7 women underreported by an average of 621 calories, and 6 out of 10 men underreported by an average of 581 calories.

When the American Cancer Institute did a study asking Americans to determine the portion sizes of eight specific foods, only 1 percent got them all right. Sixty-one percent couldn't get more than four correct.

What should you do? Challenge yourself to find out what you're actually consuming. Keep track of everything you eat, even the small, insignificant foods, (e.g., a piece of gum or one grape) for at least three or four days. Why do those little things matter? Think about it: just 25 extra calories per day means an additional 2.5 pounds per year. Multiply that by 10 years, and you've put on 25 pounds — that's how it happens.

Here are the calorie counts for "just one" of a few different foods. And remember that you would have to walk for one minute to burn off every four calories you eat over your daily calorie budget (an average of 2,000). The point of presenting the calorie "costs" of these foods isn't to get you to stop eating them, but rather to get you to think about your food before you eat it.

One Pringles potato chip vs. one McDonald's french fry

Believe it or not, one french fry has only five calories, while a single Pringle is double at 10 calories.

One grape tomato vs. one green seedless grape

The winner: The grape tomato has only one calorie, whereas a green grape has four. Both are great choices, however, particularly for their antioxidants (e.g., grapes have flavonoids and tomatoes have lycopene).

One strand of whole-wheat spaghetti vs. one sip (tablespoon) of Campbell's Select Herbed Chicken with Roasted Vegetables Soup

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The strand of spaghetti has only 3.5 calories, whereas the soup has 6.25 calories. Keep in mind, however, research indicates that eating a low-calorie soup is a great way to fill up before a meal.

One stick of Wrigley's Juicy Fruit vs. one piece of Bazooka

Who would think that chewing two or three pieces of gum a day adds up to 4.5 pounds per year? The winner here is Juicy Fruit at 10 calories, compared with Bazooka's 15.

One M&M vs. one Jelly Belly vs. one Peppermint Altoid

M&Ms can be a pretty good deal at times, especially if you're comparing them with a regular candy bar (one bite of a Hershey's bar with almonds has 37 calories). Also, if you're sharing M&Ms, they split up nicely because you can pass the bag back and forth. However, they have 4.3 calories per piece, which add up fast as you're popping them into your mouth.

As far as jelly beans go, I hear a lot about them being low in fat, but they're still four calories per bean. If you're satisfied with a few, that's great, but watch out for unconscious consumption.

Altoids and other mints are another story. They supposedly serve a function — to freshen your breath — so the calories don't matter, right? Sorry, but all calories count, and please spare me the argument that it takes work to suck on the mint. One Altoid has almost 3.5 calories.

One bite-size cube of cheddar cheese vs. one Famous Amos Chocolate Chip Cookie

Clearly the cheese is the better choice nutritionally, but cheese is not a health food you can consume without guilt — one bite-size (1/2") cube has 55 calories, whereas the cookie has only 37.5. Whenever possible, go with low-fat cheese. A great one is Cabot's Vermont 50% Light Cheddar — 35 calories per 1/2" cube.

One Fritos Original Corn Chip vs. one cashew nut

Here again, the cashew has health benefits that far outweigh those of the nutritionally bland corn chip; however, cashews have 8.5 calories per nut, whereas Fritos have five per chip. So just because nuts are healthful doesn't give you carte blanche to overindulge — you're supposed to eat nuts in place of something else in your diet that's high in calories and nutritionally inferior, not simply add them.

One broccoli floret vs. one baby carrot

Both are super vegetables. Carrots have the antioxidant beta carotene, which may reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer and promote better vision, while broccoli is high in vitamins A, C and K and a great source of iron and folate). OK, so which is lower in calories? It's the broccoli at 0.8 calories; the baby carrot has 1.25.

Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate. Write to info@thedietdetective.com

Copyright 2006 by Charles Stuart Platkin

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