Chocolate, when you're on a diet?

Cynthia Sass, author of a new book called "Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds, and Lose Inches" (HarperOne; $25.99), insists on it. She's explaining her reasons for the indulgence over a jumbo cup of hot tea at Dominican Joe Coffee Shop.

A small piece of dark (70 percent or darker) chocolate, she says, isn't just a daily treat — it's a little bundle of antioxidants, one that could curb cravings for both salt and sugar, lower blood pressure, boost brain activity and even reduce stress.

Sass, 40, should know. A registered dietician with master's degrees in public health and nutrition, she co-wrote the wildly popular "The Flat Belly Diet," published in 2008. She's the health columnist for Shape magazine and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers hockey team and Tampa Bay Rays baseball team.

She spent a day in Austin recently as part of a media blitz for the new book, which came out Jan. 1 and already is the buzz of the diet book world. In recent weeks, Sass has talked about "Cinch" on "The Rachael Ray Show," "The Martha Stewart Show" and "The Early Show" on CBS.

The book advocates eating four meals a day, with each meal a sort of puzzle made up of five pieces — produce (fruit or vegetable), whole grain, lean protein (with vegan and vegetarian options), plant-based fat and natural seasonings (like vinegar, citrus juice or zest, hot peppers, tea leaves and herbs or spices). The book includes about 100 recipes developed and tested by Sass.

"It's not a diet, it's a strategy. It's what to eat, why, how much and when," she says.

Despite the chocolate hook, the book is no trendy get-skinny-quick tome. Rather, it's a way of thinking about fueling the body that steers clear of processed foods and focuses on fresh, seasonal basics with plenty of fiber and nutrients.

"When I was growing up, a lot of the women in my life were yo-yo dieters," she says. "We always had a vegetable with every meal, but we definitely ate Twinkies and things I wouldn't think of eating now."

Thirteen years ago, Sass, who lives in New York City, married a man who didn't exactly practice healthy eating habits. "When I met him, he really didn't eat any fruit and vegetables unless they were fried," she says. "No breakfast at all. He didn't put that much thought into what he ate."

Sass says she never asked her husband to change his diet, but encouraged him to try healthy foods. His eating patterns slowly shifted, and he gradually lost about 50 pounds. "It feels good to hear someone, especially your husband, say, 'I didn't know I could feel so good,'" she says.

Unlike "The Flat Belly Diet," the new book doesn't ask dieters to count calories. Servings are described in a visual way, such as a golf ball-sized serving of shredded cheese, a smart phone-sized piece of protein or a baseball-sized portion of vegetables.

"I really think the idea of calories in, calories out is outdated," she says.

The quality of the food is more important, she says. It's better to get 400 calories in the form of lean chicken and vegetables than in a sugar- and fat-laden muffin, for example. "Does it read like a science experiment or real food?"

Meal timing is important, too. Sass advises eating breakfast within an hour of waking up and spacing the remaining meals evenly throughout the day.

Food should be eaten slowly, making it a sensory experience. Shoveling in a handful of M&Ms while you're washing the dishes is discouraged. "When you savor the smell and taste of food, it's more satiating," she says.

Sass visited some favorite Austin haunts when she was in town, including Whole Foods Market and BookPeople. She dropped by Freebirds World Burrito, too, where she ordered a salad with corn salsa, black beans, guacamole and jalapeños for lunch.

Her thoughts on the raging obesity epidemic in our country? "The easy availability of food is definitely an issue. Lots of my clients tell me their office is filled with processed food and candy, and we're programmed to eat when food is available."

That's why a lot of the book is spent untangling the emotional and environmental triggers to eating.

"We generally don't eat when we're hungry and stop when we're full," she says. "It takes a lot of awareness to know we're reaching for something not because we're hungry but because our mind is looking for an escape or comfort."

If she could only share three tips to healthy eating, they'd be to quit drinking soda, the top source of added sugar in the American diet; displace some carbohydrates with vegetables to increase the amount of fiber and nutrient content; and use more natural seasonings.

And yes. Sass has a vice. It's potato chips and french fries, which she still indulges in occasionally. But she makes sure to buy the kind without hydrogenated oils.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994