But we've also become masters at rationalizing what we put into our mouths, which can lead to overeating, dubious food choices and even weight gain. Evelyn Tribole, RD, a nutritionist in Newport Beach, Calif., says, "Let's get rid of the guilt! Women need to remember that having foods they love won't make or break their diets as a whole." Readers bravely let us into their heads to hear how they justify dining decisions, then experts shared some eye-openers. Bet you can relate!
Reality check! For sure, certain fats are beneficial. "Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats help reduce cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease and stroke," says Walter Willett, MD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Still, they are just as fattening as the bad-boy saturated kind found in cheese and red meat. There are 9 calories in every gram of fat, generally twice the density of proteins and carbs, points out Caroline Kaufman, RDN, a nutritionist in San Francisco.
Nutrition guidelines to keep in mind: 30 percent of your calories should come from fat, with less than 10 percent from the saturated kind. In other words, favoring heart-healthy fats like the ones in nuts, avocado and olive oil: good. Treating them like an all-you-can-eat buffet: bad.
Reality check! Enjoying an indulgence is fine, says Dr. Willett, "but a whole weekend of pigging out may undo progress made during the week." Weight control boils down to basic math: There are approximately 3,500 calories in a pound of fat, so unless you burn more calories than you consume, you're likely to gain weight.
Many people kick off their food fiestas on Fridays, notes Tribole, co-author of Intuitive Eating; that means they're overdoing it 156 days a year, not just the 104 of weekends. "Overeating promotes a disconnect between you and your body," she continues. "You should be focusing on hunger, fullness and satisfaction anytime you eat."
And don't fool yourself about sticking to salads, adds nutrition pro Pasternak: "The reality is that most salads are far from healthy, loaded with calories from dried cranberries, bacon bits and dressing."
Reality check! Props for working out, but sadly, calories burned at the gym do not necessarily cross out calories consumed, says Pasternak. Two slices of pizza, on average, pack close to 800 calories. A 130-pound woman burns roughly half that calorie amount during an hour of high-impact aerobics.
Some days, says Tribole, we're hungrier than others; it's often due to sleep deprivation. "Think about what your here-and-now body needs," she says. "If it's a slice of pizza you want, have it. You don't have to justify it." Just don't rationalize having the whole pizza.
Reality check! There's a scientific reason your body yearns for potato chips and cookies when you're PMS-ing: It's the bliss fix. Studies show that production of serotonin a hormone that regulates mood and weightslows down during PMS; starchy foods tend to boost it, improving your mood...but not your waistline. One MIT study showed women ate about 1,100 more calories per day during that time of the month.
Your best pick: complex carbs with a little protein (it inhibits the production of serotonin). "By eating rice, pasta and oatmeal, women in our studies felt better," says researcher Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet. And when only a super sugary treat will do, "have your special foodjust don't buy a whole box of it," says Melinda Manore, PhD, professor of nutrition and exercise at Oregon State University. "Get one cookie and eat just that."
Reality check! With all the low-carb, low-fat choices out there, nutritionists say many clients mistakenly deem them "free" foods. "I see some women do this with frozen yogurt and diet gelatin," says Tribole. Low-fat foods are particularly deceptive, adds Brian Wansink, PhD, a researcher in food psychology at Cornell University: "People often believe that low-fat foods have 44 percent fewer calories than they do, but when companies remove fat, they add sugar, so these alternates typically have only about 10 percent less calories."
Popcorn may taste like air, yet 3 cups (without anything on it) is the caloric equivalent of a slice of bread. But, he says, don't think too hard about produce: "If you start counting calories in fruits and vegetables, you'll talk yourself out of eating themand you shouldn't."
Reality check! Although guzzling glass after glass of water will help whoosh out toxins from your body, it won't do much for the massive plate of spaghetti carbonara you feasted on. When you eat, your body breaks down the food and shuttles the nutrients off to your cells for energy or stores them, explains Kaufman. Says Dr. Willett, "Even drinking gallons of water won't compensate for eating too much." End of story.