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updated: 4/5/2011 12:58 PM

Ask the Nutritionist: Favorite spring treats can derail healthy eating

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Q. Springtime candy is everywhere now. Can I avoid gaining weight by choosing jelly beans, marshmallow candies or other low or no-fat sweets?

A. The most important step for keeping candy, whether high in fat or not, from causing unwanted weight gain is portion control.

A quarter-cup of jelly beans (a portion the size of a golf ball or egg) or a serving of five marshmallow chicks has about 160 calories. Even though there's no fat added, these candies have as much sugar as a 12-ounce can of regular soda, so calories add up.

A small one-ounce piece of chocolate contains slightly fewer calories, but nibbling piece after piece adds up. Some people fool themselves by just eating a bite here and there without paying attention to it. But in the end, whether you eat it all at once or mindlessly nibble a bit at a time, when you polish off a 7-ounce solid chocolate bunny, you've added more than 1000 extra calories.

As with all treats, when springtime candy comes out, limit portions, substitute it for some other higher calorie treat, and eat it when you can sit down and really taste and fully enjoy it. Behavior researchers advise us to limit how much we bring home, because the odds are that once it comes home with you, it may disappear faster than you planned.

Q. Can the plant-based diet you so often recommend really provide enough protein?

A. Yes, people sometimes think of protein as only coming from meat and dairy products, but we also get protein from plant foods. Beans, nuts and seeds are the most concentrated sources of plant protein, and they provide fiber, magnesium, potassium and natural protective phytochemicals. Grains and vegetables also supply small amounts of protein that add up when you make them a major part of your meals.

As you eat less of the animal sources of protein, keep in mind the need for balance. If you eat very little meat, you can't just eat a rice cake and plain salad and assume you've met nutrient needs. As you shift the balance of plant and animal foods on your plate, look for places you can include beans (in salads, soups, casseroles and more). And it's one of many reasons to switch from snacks of chips or cookies to protein- and nutrient-rich nuts and seeds.

A mostly plant-based diet that includes 5 to 6 ounces a day of lean poultry, fish or meat and three servings of dairy products or alternatives will meet the protein requirements of most adults.

Analysis of eating patterns suggested in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans shows that if you prefer to omit or further minimize meat or dairy products, you will also get protein well above the Dietary Reference Intake (RDI) if each day you include about three servings of vegetarian sources of protein like beans, nuts and seeds. One serving of beans is cup; seeds and nuts are 1 ounce each.

• Provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research. Learn more about the group and its new American Plate Program at aicr.org

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