Summer is the season for fresh fruits and vegetables, but when the temperature starts to dip, many of us turn to rich fall foods perfect for football games, hayrides, cozy fireside meals, and, if we aren’t careful, weight gain.
All it takes is an extra 100 calories per day to pack on 10 pounds a year. Year after year, the weight adds up and gets harder to lose. While it's true that cooler weather lets us hide under layers of clothing, the best strategy for your health is to avoid this weight creep altogether, experts say.
"There is no time like the present to tighten the belt and get ready for the holidays, when there are food, temptations and parties galore," says Suzanne Farrell, RD, owner of Cherry Creek Nutrition. "It is only going to get worse as we get closer to the end of the year."
This doesn't mean you have to deprive yourself of all your fall favorites, but you do need to make a few simple changes, experts say. Here's a look at some of fall's most fattening foods, along with tips on how to avoid or improve them so you can make it to Thanksgiving without gaining a pound.
Fattening Fall Foods: From Healthy to Horrendous
Fall offers all kinds of delicious and nutritious foods, from apples to root vegetables, but we have a knack for taking healthy foods (think sweet potatoes) and making them decadently rich. When simmered in cream, baked in pie crust, sautéed in butter, or topped with cheese, these foods go from good to bad.
"Foods like apples, squash, nuts, and pumpkin are super nutritious, but the nutritional goodness is masked when you add lots of extra calories," says Tara Gidus, MS, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
And don’t forget those game-day favorites, served on a tailgate or in front of the television. If you're a typical sports fan, you could find yourself seated on the couch for hours at a time on college football Saturday, professional football Sunday, and again on Monday night. Not only is that a big chunk of time to be sitting, but you could easily devour a mountain of chips, nachos, hot dogs, pizza, wings, ribs, sausages, and let’s not forget the beer.
"Eating and drinking for hours at a time coupled with little physical activity is a perfect formula for weight gain," says Gidus.
Oktoberfest adds another opportunity to celebrate, with calorie-laden beer, sausages, and potato salads.
The Most Fattening Foods of Fall
So what exactly are the diet-spoilers to watch out for this season? Here are nine fall foods that can really pack a caloric punch:
- Halloween candy. Long before Halloween arrives, bowls of fun-size candy bars are all over the office. And then there are those tempting bags stashed in the back of the pantry. "When 3 p.m. rolls around, it is easy to get enticed by those bite-size candies. But one usually turns into more, and before you know it, you have eaten the equivalent of a full-size candy bar," says Gidus. Her advice: Stash sweets out of sight, and be prepared to satisfy your midday hunger pangs with something more nutritious. If you must have something sweet, chew a piece of sugarless gum.
- Cream soups and hearty stews. Cream of baked potato and broccoli cheese soups and beef stroganoff may seem like perfect fall foods, but beware. "Warm soups and stews feel so nutritious, but if they are loaded with cream, cheese, or meat, they are also loaded with calories," says Farrell. Serving them in a bread bowl, atop rice, or noodles, or dunking big portions of bread into them can put even healthy soups or stews over the top, in terms of calories, she says. So avoid these options, and be sure to choose broth and vegetable based soups and stews to fill you up for fewer calories.
- Root vegetables. While many are super-nutritious, root vegetables can quadruple in calories when you cream them, fry them, or mix them with cheese, cream, butter, canned soups, or crispy bacon. A sweet potato casserole can easily have 500 calories per serving -- 400 more than a simple roasted sweet potato. Shave calories by eating root veggies oven-roasted or grilled. If you just can’t pass on the mashed potatoes, skip the gravy and keep the portion to 1/2 cup.
- Seasonal beverages. Hot toddies may keep you warm at night, but these hot drinks, along with hot chocolate, pumpkin-spice lattes, eggnog, and apple cider are a quick and easy way to take in lots of extra calories. A 16-oz. Starbuck’s pumpkin spice latte with 2% milk and whipped cream packs 380 calories, while the same size caramel apple cider has 410 calories. "Be careful with hot, cold, or alcoholic beverages because they are additional calories and don’t affect how much you eat," says Farrell. One regular 12-ounce beer has 150 calories, and you can multiply that by however many you drink. So try a hot cup of green or flavored tea, rich with antioxidants and calorie-free. When you choose to drink alcohol, opt for light beer or wine spritzers, and limit yourself to one or two.
- Apples dipped in caramel. An afternoon snack of apples with a thick layer of caramel and coated with nuts can total more than 500 calories, says Gidus. Enjoy crisp apple slices with a small container of low-fat caramel dip (McDonald’s version has 70 calories) for the same great taste with a fraction of the fat and calories.
- Apple, pecan, and sweet potato pies. These fall favorites start with healthy ingredients such as heart-healthy nuts or antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables -- but they also include high-calorie ingredients. "Rich, buttery pie crusts, sweet fillings, and the customary whipped cream or ice cream topping make these pies decadent and full of calories," says Farrell. Skip the crust, add a dollop of light whipped topping, and serve yourself only a sliver to enjoy these yummy desserts without lots of extra calories.
- Stuffing. There are so many versions of stuffing, most containing high-fat ingredients such as sausage and butter. And the calories keep coming when the stuffing is served with a ladle or two of gravy. "You can make a low-fat stuffing using fruits, vegetables, and stock, but you still need to keep the portion small and try to avoid smothering it in gravy," says Gidus.
- Macaroni and cheese. It's an all-time favorite comfort food for both kids and adults, but it can wreak havoc with your diet. At Boston Market, a 7.8 ounce serving of mac and cheese has 320 calories. To make it worse, many recipes call for extra ingredients such as high-fat meats or sausage. "Modify the recipe by using a low-fat cheese, low-fat milk and add in some veggies instead of meat to improve the nutritional profile and still taste great," says Liz Weiss, author of The Mom’s Guide to Meal Makeovers.
- Pumpkin desserts. Pumpkin layer cake, cheesecake, bread pudding -- there are so many ways to take the vitamin A-rich pumpkin and turn it into a decadently rich dessert. "Be careful, because if you add tons of cream and sugar, you negate the health benefits of pumpkin," says Gidus. Instead, she says, "lighten the other ingredients, try a crustless, low-fat pumpkin custard or low-fat pumpkin muffins, so you can enjoy the pumpkin without sabotaging your waistline."
Fight Fattening Foods
Follow these tips to help you enjoy fall’s harvest without the extra calories:
- Rule No. 1 is to try enjoying the autumn harvest simply prepared, without lots of extra fat and sugar. A roasted sweet potato is so delicious it really needs nothing, so skip the butter, brown sugar, nuts, and marshmallows.
- Get moving. Do some push-ups, sit-ups, or jumping jacks during halftime or commercials. Better yet, watch the game while you pedal on your stationary bike. "Stay active and be consistent with your routine, or try to get 10,000 steps each day," suggests Farrell. "Use your lunch time to add steps."
- Don’t keep tempting food out. Put those candy bowls out of sight, and serve the tailgate buffet at halftime, with nutritious nibbles like veggies and low-fat dip to hold you over until then.
- Decide how many alcoholic drinks you are going to have before the fall outing, then alternate them with nonalcoholic beverages. One 12-ounce regular beer has 150 calories; make it a light one and you'll trim 40 calories.
- Be aware of the amount of food you're eating. Check your portion sizes and compare to the nutrition information on the recipe or package. It is easy to eat two to three times as much as the normal portion size.
- Eat mindfully by paying attention to the food on your plate, eliminating distractions like the television and chewing slowing to enjoy each mouthful and allowing your brain time to get the signal that you are full.
- Use low-fat cooking techniques and substitutions to help trim calories without compromising flavors. "You can enjoy comfort foods, but you have to do so in moderation and try to lighten recipes so they are not overloaded with fat and calories," says Farrell.