It's been a difficult few years for dieters. First Atkins had us loading up on steak and trading skim milk for half-and-half. Soon South Beach halted our fat free-for-all, but turned us off carrots and orange juice. Then the government weighed in with a chart-filled tome (at healthierus.gov), urging us to exercise 30 to 90 minutes a day, trade Whoppers for skinless chicken breasts and actually read food labels... dream on. To help you drown out advice you probably won't follow anyway, tip sheet interviewed nutrition experts and came up with the bare minimum: four simple rules that will start you down the path to eating healthier.
HAVE A BIG BREAKFAST. Studies have shown that people who leave time for breakfast are less hungry during the day, making them better able to control their burger-and-fries impulses at lunch. It's also the easiest meal at which to work in some of the 3 ounces of whole grains (equivalent to 3 slices of bread) and 2 cups of fruit (equal to 2 apples plus a banana) that the government recommends. Katherine Tallmadge, author of "Diet Simple" (LifeLine Press. $14.95), suggests a bowl of oatmeal cooked with low-fat milk, topped with berries, a teaspoon of brown sugar and walnuts, and a glass of orange juice.
BRING FOOD TO WORK WITH YOU. Fight the lure of the vending machine by packing your own lunch--or at least some healthy snacks, suggests Barbara Rolls, a dietitian at Penn State University and author of "The Volumetrics Eating Plan" (HarperCollins. $25.95. March 1). When in a hurry, pack a low-fat frozen entree and a piece of fruit, and "you're home free." Snack options include grape tomatoes, low-fat string cheese, low-fat yogurt or small, microwaveable containers of soup.
ORDER A SALAD BEFORE EACH MEAL. It sounds counterintuitive: eat more, weigh less. But in one recent study, conducted by Rolls, participants who ate large salads with low-fat dressing before lunch consumed 12 percent fewer calories overall than when they ate an entree only. Rolls says the raw veggies require extra chewing time, which leads people to believe they've eaten more than they have. Other studies report similar findings for broth-based soups, which, like a salad, make you feel full but have relatively few calories.
GIVE YOUR TV A DINNER BREAK. A television, writes Tallmadge, is "the equivalent of having a 19-inch brownie in the house." Not only does it lead to mindless nibbling, but some experts say it also slows the rate at which people burn calories. "You're so zoned out that your metabolism is nearly as slow as --when you're sleeping," she says. It takes a particular toll on kids' health. Tom Robinson, associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford, found that cutting back on the amount of time kids spend in front of the TV contributes to significant weight loss.
Of course, no one plan works for everyone. If you're interested in the food world's equivalent of a personal trainer, look up a dietitian in your city at the American Dietetic Association's eatright.org. Individual sessions range in price from $60 to $250. It may sound like a big investment, but it will save you calories--and diet-hopping--in the long run.