Danger: Diet Disaster Area Ahead!

How to navigate potholes on the dieting highway without gaining a pound.

By Heather Hatfield
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

It's the all-you-can-eat buffet at your favorite restaurant, or the vacation where you just want to let loose. Or, worse yet, it's Aunt Sophie piling mega-portions of her secret-recipe garlic butter mashed potatoes on your plate at the weekly family dinner.

Whatever your own personal ''diet disaster zone,'' it's a person, place, or situation that can leave you heavy with guilt and extra pounds.

Here are some common potholes along the dieting highway that you should be wary of, along with tips from experts on how to navigate around them without gaining a pound.

Restaurant Ruination

The Disaster: Your favorite restaurant, offering up an all-you-can-eat buffet bar or portions of creamy, buttery pasta that are too big for three people, let alone one.

''Restaurants are tricky,'' says Rick Hall, a registered dietitian in Phoenix. ''We feel our pocketbooks itching on our legs because we're paying so much for the food, so we feel like we can't let it go to waste. Even if they bring you a huge portion, you feel like you need to eat it all because you're paying $50, $60 or more for what's in front of you.''

The appetizers don't help, especially when they come in the form of baskets brimming with bread (with butter on the side, of course).

''What happens is you're so hungry when you get there, that when the waiter brings out the bread, you fill up on it,'' says Hall, who lectures on nutrition issues at Arizona State University. ''But then you still eat a full meal.''

Coping Strategies: ''First and foremost, skip the bread,'' says Hall. ''In fact, ask the waiter not even to bring it out to the table.''

Next, ask the waiter how generous the portion sizes are. If they're big enough to feed a small army, share the wealth.

''Ask the server what the portion sizes are, and if you can share -- most places these days will let you do that,'' says Hall. ''And the good news is that if you share your main course, you can share a dessert as well.'' (Of course, if your dining companions aren't into sharing, there's always the doggie bag.)

Whether you're eating out or in, eating slowly is another tool for portion control.

''It can take up to 20 minutes to feel full, so eat slowly,'' says Hall. ''Otherwise, you just keep eating when really you should be done. And even though it seems simple, when you are full, stop eating.'' And if your favorite restaurant is the dreaded all-you-can-eat buffet? It's time to find a new haunt.

''Avoid the all-you-can-eat places like the plague,'' says Hall. ''It's just illogical to eat that much food.''

Travel Troubles

The Disaster Area: Vacations, which for many people are all about eating, drinking, and relaxing.

''People tend to lose sight of what their dieting goals are on vacation,'' says Hall. ''Health and nutrition are not really top of mind.''

Mix that with little to no exercise and you have a recipe for dieting disaster: ''The other problem is that most people are not very active on vacation,'' says Hall.

Coping Strategies: ''First, decide what the vacation is all about for you,'' says Susan Mitchell, a registered dietitian and author of Fat is Not Your Fate. ''Is it OK for you to overeat and scrap your diet, or are you going to be careful?'' The important thing is to balance out your indulgences with healthy choices.

''Many hotels have small refrigerators in the rooms,'' says Mitchell. ''So if you know you want to go out for dinner and maybe splurge on a few extra calories, keep some healthy food stocked in your room for breakfast and lunch.''

And while exercise may not be your primary concern while on vacation, it's not too difficult to work some in here and there.

''You don't have the use the gym while on vacation, but you can go for walks and try to balance sitting on the beach with exploring and walking around,'' says Hall.

For Linda Neuman, who lost 53 pounds and has kept it off for more than a year, vacations are challenging, but not impossible.

"I left for vacation right before the holidays, and from there I had a business convention,'' says Neuman, a certified public accountant from Orlando, Fla. ''I made sure when I was eating out I did not eat the whole portion -- I would put half of it aside and box it up for later. And I walked as much as I could, since I wasn't able to do my normal exercise routine.

''While eating out for two weeks and not being in my normal routine was tough, I was proud because I came back and had only gained one pound.''

Family Frustration

The Disaster: Family gatherings at which you sit down to huge portions of fatty foods -- and are pressured to eat, eat!