Dear Food Diary,
It's a brand new year and I'm determined to make peace with my diet. Dr. Hardy says weight management is about establishing a happy relationship with a variety of foods rather than going steady with a specific regimen, which is great news because last year I broke up with Atkins, Sugar Busters!, and Grapefruit. I also tried the Blood Type Diet, to no avail. My doctor says my weight is normal (even if it isn't my dream weight), so I mainly need to keep an even keel. I want a diet partner for life. Let this be the year!

Sound familiar? If you've romanced a number of diet programs that haven't been "the one," you aren't alone. In fact, food experts say many best-selling diets are incomplete in nutrients and too restrictive to be healthy or successful. "Another problem with popular diets is that people see them as temporary, and the results are often temporary, too," explains Beverly Kindblade, MS, RD, CD, a former faculty member at Bastyr University's School of Nutrition and Exercise Science who now has a private nutrition practice in Seattle. "Diet should really be a lifestyle."

Get your new relationship with food off to a positive start by viewing diet "as a whole-food and whole-life investigation," Kindblade says. Instead of signing onto another rigid diet program, learn to recognize "good" (read: good-for-you) foods, so you can make your own smart choices and put them together for lasting weight management.

Which foods are "good"?
To get familiar with "good" foods, first sleuth out a variety of nourishing options. Choose whole grains, such as whole-wheat pasta, oats, or brown rice; dairy products, such as yogurt; lean meats, including deep- sea fish and skinless chicken breast; beans and legumes, such as kidney, soy, and black beans, as well as lentils and black-eyed peas; monounsaturated and unsaturated plant oils (especially olive oil); and deeply colored fruits and vegetables. "These foods are rich in nutrients and low in calories and [unhealthy] fats," says Malena Perdomo, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association in Denver and a dietitian at Kaiser Permanente Colorado. "They're high-fiber, which helps you to feel full after a meal, and high in complex carbohydrates, which fuel your body and boost your energy level." (For more nutritious and easy ideas to help maintain weight, check out "Five Good-Food Superstars," below.)

Remember the "good" fats
"Successful weight maintainers tend to have low-fat diets," says Anne M. Fletcher, MS, RD, author of Thin for Life (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) and Eating Thin for Life (Houghton Mifflin, 1998). Fletcher studied more than 150 overweight individuals who lost the extra pounds and kept them off. According to her findings, when refining their diets into lasting food plans, weight maintainers gradually cut back on whole-fat dairy products and fattier cuts of meats that can contribute to weight gain, high cholesterol, and other chronic health issues.

But some dietary fat—the right kind, that is—can actually help with weight maintenance and is essential to normal body functioning. The key is to minimize intake of "bad" fats (saturated fats and trans fats abundant in animal products and processed foods) and include a measure of "good" fats (essential fatty acids, or EFAs), which support the cardiovascular, reproductive, immune, and nervous systems. EFAs include omega-3 fatty acids (in fatty fish such as salmon, seaweed, nuts, flaxseed, and pumpkin seeds). The weight maintainers in Fletcher's study opted for fish instead of hamburger and a teaspoon of olive oil and lemon juice on salad instead of a creamy dressing. (To maintain your weight, try our choice foods noted in "Four Foods with Good Fats," below.)

Which foods are "bad"?
Now that you've got a handle on "good" foods, you may wonder: Can certain foods be inherently "bad"? Not exactly, says Kindblade, who feels that such labels get in the way of good eating intentions. "I do believe some foods sustain life and health, and some foods don't contribute that much," she says. Trans fats, for example, may not pack on more unwanted pounds than other unhealthy fats. But according to the Food and Drug Administration, trans fats—found in vegetable shortenings, some margarines, crackers, cookies, and other packaged foods made with partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated oils—raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or "bad" cholesterol levels, increasing heart disease risk. They also lower high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol levels.

Sugar, too, has been associated with health problems, such as type 2 diabetes risk and tooth decay, and at high intakes, it can inhibit the absorption of other important nutrients, such as calcium. Earlier data showed that sugar alone does not make you obese (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2003, vol. 78, no. 4 Suppl). But more recent studies link sugar to obesity. One revealed that women who gained the most pounds over four years also started drinking more sugar-laden beverages during the same period (Journal of the American Medical Association, 2004, vol. 292, no. 8). Other studies have found that the increase in consumption of fructose and high-fructose corn syrup—both refined carbohydrates—mirrors the growing obesity epidemic in the United States (Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2004, vol. 89, no. 6; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004, vol. 79, no. 4). During the last decade, obesity rates among U.S. adults have ballooned by more than 60 percent. Two-thirds of the population is now overweight, and more than 30 percent of those who are overweight are obese. In addition, another study showed a link between refined carbohydrates, such as corn syrup, and type 2 diabetes, which can be an outcome of obesity (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004, vol. 79, no. 5). Interestingly, the same study did not associate either protein or fat with increased type 2 diabetes risk.

Even considering the bad news about refined carbohydrates, such as sugar, Fletcher found in her research that most successful weight maintainers don't completely deprive themselves of their favorite foods. "That doesn't mean they eat hot-fudge sundaes every night," Fletcher says. "Some people may have dessert only when out at a restaurant and not at home, or if they crave chocolate, they may have one small serving of a high-quality brand." When people have a long list of forbidden foods, Fletcher adds, they tend to set themselves up for failure. "They have unrealistic goals," she says. "Who's not going to have another potato chip or cookie ever again? If they said they weren't going to eat any cookies, and then they break their promise by having one, they might think they may as well have the whole bag of cookies."

Although Kindblade tries to eat only nourishing foods—those on her good-foods lists—she allows herself one day a week to eat anything she desires. By freeing herself from an overly restrictive weight-management program that may eliminate entire food categories—say, high-fat fare or carbohydrates—Kindblade's indulgences tend to be more moderate. For example, she might crave pizza, but she now makes it with twice the tomato sauce and vegetables and half the cheese and meat, which fills her appetite but not her waistline.

How to arrange good foods
After you identify a selection of appropriate foods for weight management, make the dietary changes stick by combining foods for optimal nutritional value and fulfillment, as well as minimal calories, says Perdomo. A good rule of thumb for creating a healthy combination for a meal, according to Perdomo, is to fill your plate halfway with vegetables; one-quarter full of a whole grain; one-quarter protein.

To complete the balance, add one calcium-rich food, such as 1 ounce of low-fat cheese or a glass of skim milk; and one fruit. For example, a satisfying meal might be steamed salmon and asparagus, a baked sweet potato or acorn squash, and a spinach salad topped with crushed walnuts and goat cheese with an extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing.

Nothing to lose
Fletcher advises that a new strategy might require "developing a new mind-set" and "training your taste buds to like new foods." But once you start seeing that eating well allows you to maintain your weight, you may soon realize you've met your match. So go ahead and give the good-foods approach a try. After all, what do you have to lose?

Lucy Stevens maintains a healthy relationship with a whole-foods diet.