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Shopping Tips for When You're Counting Calories

From the produce section to the snack-food aisle, how to pick foods that will make losing weight easier.

Freezer

Stock up on plain frozen vegetables (shun the ones with sauce or butter) so that you’ve always got some veggies on hand. Most are frozen right after picking to preserve nutrients and flavor, so you don’t have to feel you’re compromising. You might also find some "healthy" frozen entrees—great "fallback" meal insurance, if you like how they taste (check labels to ensure they’re really "healthy," and watch the sodium). Pick up some 100 percent fruit juice concentrates and, for semi-indulgent treats, stock up on low-fat ice milks, yogurts and/or sorbets. Look for single-serving packages that allow you to eat a fixed amount.

Canned/Packaged Food

While these sections can be a minefield of temptations, there are plenty of healthy staples to be found. Choose whole-grain pastas (there are some astonishingly tasty brands now available) and brown rice, as well as "quick" whole grains like whole-wheat couscous, quinoa and quick-cooking barley. Look for canned fruits packed in water or their own juices, and vegetables canned without salt. For convenient protein fixes, try canned beans, water-packed tuna, canned salmon and sardines—and reduced-sodium soups based on broth or beans.

Looking for a good salad dressing? Focus on flavor rather than worrying too much about the fat content, since the whole point of dressing is to get you to eat more salads. "Reduced-fat" and "fat-free" dressings often contain similar amounts of calories and might not be worth the flavor trade-off. Don’t forget to pick up some interesting vinegars, which add calorie-free flavor to just about anything; try balsamic, sherry and apple cider vinegars.

In the cereal aisle, seek out brands labeled "whole-grain" (with whole grains as the first ingredient) and with at least 8 grams of fiber per serving. Check the label to avoid added sugars; you can always add sweetness with your own sliced fresh fruit. In the snack section, best options include whole-grain snack crackers, whole-wheat pretzels, brown rice cakes, whole-grain crispbreads and popcorn (choose "light" microwave variety or—even better—pop it yourself in an air popper or on the stove, in a heart-healthy oil like peanut or canola).

Bakery

Since sandwich bread is a staple, be choosy: you’ll want one that gives you plenty of whole grains in a tasty package. Look for breads, English muffins, bagels and rolls labeled "100 percent whole-wheat," with at least 3 grams of fiber apiece (the first ingredient in the list should begin with the word "whole"). Try "lunch"-size rolls for burgers and sandwiches; you’ll get a more reasonable portion. Store bread in the freezer to keep it fresher longer; just thaw on the counter as needed. Whole-wheat versions of pita and flour tortillas can usually be found here, too, along with corn tortillas; keep them to a 7-inch diameter or less.

Among the cookies and cakes, best choices for a splurge are those in bite-size portions, such as brownie bites, mini muffins or flavored meringues. Be wary of "fat-free" bakery treats, which often have as many or even more calories than their "regular" counterparts. Don’t waste your calories on anything that doesn’t taste fabulous.

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