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Slim Chance

Justify my love: Guilt-free "piza" at Soma Cafe.
Jackie Mercandetti

Getting dressed this morning, I looked in the mirror and realized I've been getting into the holiday spirit a little too much — I'm starting to look like I'm "great with child."

But I'm pretty sure my curves-gone-wild aren't signaling a bun in the oven. Nope, I'm pleasantly plump from a month of eating without abandon: a Thanksgiving feast with second helpings, endless parties with wine and cheese and wicked desserts, roasted chicken with gravy and mashed potatoes, too many cups of eggnog with spiced rum, and a steady consumption of Christmas cookies. (Confession: I'm eating another one as I write this.)

But this can't go on. Reality will set in right around the time this issue hits the streets, when I know I won't be the only one with a resolution to get in shape and eat more healthfully in 2007. And dammit, I refuse to call it a diet. Something about that word makes me think of joyless deprivation. Maybe it's a useful last resort, but until I start busting my seams, I'm going to stick to the notion of eating as one of life's simplest pleasures. The trick is in redirecting my cravings, switching gears from something rich and heavy to something fresh and energizing. You know — using a little psychology on myself. It's times like these that I'm glad there are places around town where low-fat, low-cal, or low-carb dishes can be deceptively tasty.

Fitness Cafe, 13610 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale, 480-905-7227, www.fitnesscafemenu.com
"Fitness Cafe believes in healthy eating not dieting," reads this restaurant's motto. I like the way these guys think. And from the looks of the place, healthy eating is a year-round lifestyle, not a post-holiday whim. Fitness Cafe seems like a typical deli at first glance, but piles of weightlifting mags, and framed photos of bodybuilders reveal the muscle behind this operation. Start off the day with one of eight fruit-laden power smoothies, or get your protein fix with the Arnold Breakfast Wrap, a scramble of egg whites, peppers, onions, tomatoes, chicken breast, and low-fat Cheddar in a tomato-basil tortilla. For lunch, try a hefty sandwich like The Crunch (tuna and veggies on sourdough), or dig in to a bulked-up salad like the Crosstrainer, a filling mix of romaine, black beans, corn, tomatoes, tortilla strips, Monterey Jack, barbecued chicken breast, and ranch dressing. Everything on the menu comes with a handy rundown of calories, proteins, carbs, fat and fiber, so it's guilt-free eating.

Persian Garden Cafe, 1335 West Thomas Road, 602-263-1915, www.persiangardencafe.com
There are healthful options at just about any Middle Eastern restaurant in town, but sooner or later I get tired of hummus and baba ghanouj. What makes this small spot stand out is its array of organic vegetarian entrees, zinged up with aromatic ingredients like garlic, lemon juice, feta cheese, and fresh herbs. Carnivores can get their fill with juicy grilled chicken kebabs, shrimp scampi, or grilled wild salmon, but I'm hooked on the tofu portabella mushroom dish, a pungent mix of silken tofu, chunks of mushroom, spinach, onion, garlic and tomatoes, served with raisin-studded rice and warm, homemade whole-wheat pita. Also addictive are the purple shoots, a savory asparagus and eggplant dish, and the Shirazi salad, a cool mix of cucumber and tomato, brightened with lemon juice and mint. With flavors this complex, it only takes one bite to forget it's all good for you, too.

Soma Cafe, 10810 North Tatum Boulevard, 602-867-2175, www.somacafe.com
Soma Cafe gets my vote for "most well-rounded restaurant" when it comes to health-conscious options, with an emphasis on low-fat, high-protein dishes (and again, the menu lays out all the nutritional specifics). Breakfast runs the gamut from sweet to savory, including banana-oat flaxseed pancakes, homemade granola, and turkey apple sage omelets. For a light lunch, try an ahi tuna burger, crunchy Thai chicken salad, or a whole-wheat flatbread "piza" slathered in grilled asparagus, garlic chicken, onion, and low-fat mozzarella — it's doughy, cheesy, and big enough for two people to share. More elaborate entrees, like grilled pork tenderloin with ginger plum sauce, make Soma a smart stop for dinner, too. The restaurant is casual, with quick counter service for coffee and takeout, but cozy seating and free wi-fi make it a relaxing place to linger over a meal.

Gentle Strength Cooperative, 9 East Southern Avenue, Tempe, 480-968-4831, www.gentlestrength.com
I lamented the loss of Gentle Strength's old location on University Drive until I stopped by its shiny new strip mall space near an L.A. Fitness. For folks who don't live in the vicinity, it's way more accessible now, just a couple blocks off the U.S. 60 Mill Avenue exit in Tempe. There isn't a separate cafe area as at the original Co-op, but if you want to hang out for a while, there are a few tables and chairs outside. (Better to get your grub and go.) Counter service offers customized sandwiches and maybe even a stir-fry of the day, while the salad bar is stocked with greens, tofu, edamame, and vegetable-laden pastas. In the fridge, look for ready-to-eat veggie burgers, sandwiches, and even vegan cheesecake. Be sure to check out the corn and pepper salad, a creamy, slightly sweet mix of red peppers, lentils, corn, scallions, onion, cilantro, vegannaise, lemon juice and sea salt, as well as the simply prepared kale avocado salad, with tomatoes, red peppers, olive oil, lemon and sea salt. There's no easier way to get a delicious dose of vitamins.

Sprouts, 5402 East Lincoln Drive (The Spa at Camelback Inn), Scottsdale, 480-596-7040, www.camelbackspa.com
Sometimes it's easy to forget that we live in one of the spa capitals of the country. For most people, facials and body wraps are special-occasion indulgences, not routine maintenance, and spa cuisine is just as much of a rare treat, the kind of thing you're only likely to eat when you're swaddled in a plush terry robe, wiling away the time until your massage appointment. It doesn't help that spa cafes are usually buried deep in some feng-shui-positioned, aromatherapy-enhanced inner sanctum only open to clients. But at The Spa at Camelback Inn — perched behind the resort, at the foot of Mummy Mountain — the in-house restaurant alone is worth a visit. It's still a bit of a chichi treat, but it's uncanny how things can be justified in the name of health. Take in a view of the pool and the desert landscape as you nibble on a low-carb frittata for breakfast, or snag a table for lunch with a friend; try a cup of velvety butternut squash bisque, some moist, meaty blue crab cakes, or a crisp, cool watercress salad with avocado. Again, the nutrition details are on the menu. And don't worry — you won't stick out if you're not wearing a white robe.


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