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Leslie Beck: Eight ways to slash excess calories from your summer diet

Many people find it challenging to hold their weight steady during the winter. A steady fare of rich comfort foods can do damage, especially when outdoor fitness programs go into hibernation.

But summertime isn't necessarily easier on waistlines, even with an uptick in physical activity. If you're trying to maintain your weight – or even lose a few pounds – the warm weather can be cause for anxiety.

Backyard barbecues, cottage weekends, company picnics and socializing on restaurant patios usually mean more calories. And let's face it – a season that celebrates ice cream, potato salad, hot dogs and barbecued spareribs isn't exactly known for producing hard bodies.

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And then there's the alcohol factor. The summer season provides plenty of opportunities to sip on vodka coolers, icy-cold beers, wine spritzers and frozen margaritas.

Kids aren't immune from the risk of summer weight gain, either. Research suggests that the summer break is a danger zone for childhood obesity.

A study published last year in the journal Obesity followed 18,170 American children from the fall of kindergarten in 2010 to the spring of Grade 2 in 2013. During that period, the prevalence of obesity and overweight increased.

All of that increase, though, occurred during the two summer vacations, not during the three school years. Previous studies have revealed a similar trend.

Researchers don't know for sure why kids gain excess weight in the summertime but they speculate that overeating, less physical activity and more screen time play a role. Kids may also have later bedtimes in the summer; less sleep may disrupt the body's circadian rhythm, an effect that could increase hunger hormones and encourage weight gain.

The key, then, is knowing how to sidestep extra calories found in surprisingly high amounts in many summer foods and beverages.

The following eight strategies can help you maintain your weight – and perhaps even lose a few unwanted pounds – over the next three months. Of course, they're effective year-round, too.

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Plan weekend menus in advance

If the unstructured – and social – nature of summer weekends makes it easy to overeat, map out your meals, snacks and happy-hour nibbles in advance.

Doing so will allow you to have healthy foods on hand, whether you have a quiet weekend or you're entertaining family and friends in the backyard or at the cottage.

If you're trying to lose weight, write in your food diary the foods and portion sizes you intend to eat on the weekend in advance. You'll be far more likely to stick to your plan.

Grill leaner meats

Stick to lean cuts of meat such as sirloin, flank steak, eye of round, beef tenderloin, lean ground beef, pork tenderloin and centre-cut pork chops.

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A six-ounce cooked top sirloin steak, for example, has 295 calories, whereas the same serving size of rib-eye steak delivers 430. That's before all the fixings.

Save fatty ribs for occasional treats. A six-ounce serving of cooked pork spareribs serves up 600 calories and 44 grams of fat, not to mention all the sodium if they're slathered in barbecue sauce.

Instead of pork sausages (300 calories per one 3.5-ounce sausage), more often grill turkey sausages which have nearly half the calories (183 per 3.5 ounces).

Grilling lean meat also means that fewer potentially carcinogenic chemicals are created when fat drips from the meat onto hot coals or stones. These chemicals are then deposited back onto meat by smoke and flare-ups.

Avoid piling up the carbs

To save calories at summer meals, limit yourself to one starchy side, be it corn on the cob, a baked potato, potato salad, quinoa salad, grilled garlic bread or a hamburger bun.

Fill the extra space on your plate with grilled vegetables, green salad or vegetable-based salads.

Make smart substitutions

Small compromises can add up to big calorie savings. Serve burgers on thinner, whole-grain buns (Ozery Bakery's One Bun products are my go-to's). Consider skipping the slice of cheese on your burger (can you taste it, anyway?).

Substitute half (or more) of the mayonnaise in potato and pasta salads with plain yogurt.

Be selective at cocktail hour

Along with the rest of your spread, offer lower-calorie options for you and your health-conscious guests. Serve crudités with guacamole, tzatziki or hummus, whole-grain crackers with antipasto or smoked salmon on cucumber slices.

Limit sugary beverages

Lemonade (144 calories per 12 ounces), iced tea (130 calories per 12 ounces) or a Tim Hortons Iced Capp (470 calories per large 22-ounce serving) may sound refreshing, but they're loaded with sugar calories.

Reserve sugar-sweetened drinks for occasional treats. Use sugar-containing sports drinks for hydration during exercise that lasts longer than one hour, not as everyday beverages.

Instead, quench your thirst with plain or sparkling water with a splash of 100-per-cent fruit juice. Or, try coconut water – a source of electrolytes – with a hit of pineapple juice.

Watch alcohol calories

Many people don't consider calories from cocktails as part of their daily intake. Yet five ounces of wine delivers 125 calories, 12 ounces of regular beer has 110 to 200 (the higher the alcohol content, the higher the calories) and 1.5 ounces of 40-per-cent spirits supply 100. Vodka coolers can have as many as 300 calories and eight teaspoons of sugar per serving.

Plus, alcohol can rev up your appetite, almost immediately after consumption.

Lighter cocktails include light beer, wine spritzers, vodka and soda or light coolers.

Limit yourself to no more than one drink an hour. To slow your pace, drink two glasses of water between alcoholic drinks.

Stick to a safe weekly limit of 10 drinks for women (no more than two drinks on most days) and 15 drinks for men (no more than three drinks on most days). If weight loss is your goal, aim for less.

Limit summer desserts

Yes, it is the season of ice cream, berry pie and butter tarts. And you should enjoy them, but in moderation.

Indulging once or twice a week, even once a day, might be appropriate depending on your health goals, the rest of your diet and your activity level. When you do treat yourself, though, keep your portion size small.

Lower-calorie summer desserts include fruit sorbet, frozen banana "soft serve" (puréed frozen banana) and fresh fruit salad with chopped mint or strawberries marinated (for 30 minutes) in balsamic vinegar.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.

Video: Nutrition Basics: Meal Makeover: How to lose a few pounds and fight off pizza cravings (Globe and Mail Update)
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