Toss strict bikini-diet tricks out the window—these healthy-eating commandments help you look and feel your best without having to think twice.
The nights are long, the weather is glorious—and the furthest things from your mind are calorie counting and the catchphrase "Everything in moderation." Summer is a time when dieting can turn into a source of added stress—especially because we tend to eat vacation-style, says Cynthia Sass, RD, Health's contributing nutrition editor. "The season often revolves around treats or splurge meals, like going out for ice cream, BBQs, and road-tripping," she says—and the fun makes nutritional slipups all too easy.
Here's the plan: Skip dieting altogether and follow seven simple food rules, crafted by nutrition pros, that do the work for you. If you combine them daily, these tips (when to prioritize water, how to have a burger guilt-free) compose a foolproof plan that sets you up for ultimate summer-body success.
Make every snack produce + protein
Just as a handful of pretzels won't keep you satisfied for long, an apple alone may not be adequate. Always pair a fruit or veggie with protein; produce gives you fiber, and protein rounds out the snack by making it more satiating, explains Sass. "It also helps regulate blood sugar and insulin, which blunts hunger and results in steady energy, compared with eating only carbs," she says. Make the protein component uncomplicated by picking from this list: a tablespoon of nut butter, a packet of string cheese, 10 to 15 raw nuts, two or three turkey slices, or a hard-boiled egg.
Break your fast with water
It's a reflex for many of us to beeline it to the espresso machine as soon as we get up. "But after 8 to 10 hours without having had any food or beverage, you're dehydrated," says Stephanie Middleberg, RD, a nutritionist in New York City. When you become dehydrated, your metabolism slows down and, in turn, prevents your body from burning fat as effectively. Also, some of us mistake slight dehydration for hunger, which may make us munch unnecessarily. Have water on hand as the day goes on: A new study discovered that increasing your agua intake by one to three cups daily may help you consume up to 205 calories fewer. Avoid quenching your thirst with high-calorie drinks, like sodas or powder-mix lemonade. "Even if they seem trendy or full of superfoods, skip beverages that boost added sugar intake," says Jackie Newgent, RDN, author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook. If plain H20 doesn't do it for you, go for herbal teas or fruit-infused water.
Never go more than 5 hours without eating
Consider this tip the golden rule of when to nosh, says Newgent. A well-timed snack keeps hunger from reaching an uncontrollable level, which may lead you to make impulsive food decisions or overdo it on portion sizes. This move also keeps your metabolism humming throughout the day. "So if lunch is at noon and dinner is at 8," explains Newgent, "plan to have a snack around 4 p.m." Just refer to rule No. 1 when the clock strikes snack time.
Follow the one-out-of-three rule
When you're faced with dessert, drinks, and a carb splurge (like your neighbor's famous potato salad), choose one and forgo the others for that meal. These three categories of indulgences are all carb-heavy, explains Sass. "Having a sandwich and a cookie can mean taking in more carbs than you're able to burn off if you're going to be fairly inactive after the meal," she says. "If you want the cookie, trade the bread for a bed of greens."
Plate every food at every meal
Serving salad on a dish may seem like a no-brainer. But you should take a similar approach to grab-and-graze-type items, like potato chips. "Count out 10 to 12 and place them in a napkin, or put a scoop of fruit salad into a bowl instead of picking," advises Middleberg. The same goes for dips and spreads. "Spoon approximately 2 tablespoons into a cup," she says. (That's roughly the size of a Ping-Pong ball.)
At a party? Pick your "priority splurge"
"One of the biggest problems I see is people completely winging it," says Newgent. "This can lead to nutrient imbalance or calorie overload." So instead of making snap decisions when you encounter an array of food, go straight for a couple of light, plant-based sides, then add the one thing you're craving most. Let's say you're at a cookout and you really want the juicy burger (with bun!) that you've been thinking about all day. Don't waste your calorie load on appetizers you could live without: Fill half your plate with a leafy salad, then add the burger, says Newgent. Plating the veggies first keeps you from passing over key nutrients while still leaving space (and calories) for your gotta-have-it food, whether it's that burger, pulled pork, or other fave that screams "summer" to you.
When in doubt, reach for cucumber
Its peak season is May through August, so take advantage. Cucumbers are high in water and ridiculously low in calories (just 16 per cup). They also help tame bloat, thanks to vitamin C and the antioxidant quercetin, both of which help reduce inflammation and swelling. "They're great to start consuming a few days before a trip, along with lemon water, for added help with fluid retention," says Middleberg. For a simple side, toss slices with splashes of rice wine vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil and a teaspoon of sesame seeds. And put slices of freshly cut chilled cucumber into your water for an all-day detox drink. On the go? Pack a bag of slices with a single-serve container or hummus (your protein element!) for an energizing afternoon pick-me-up.