Make Over My Diet
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Make Over My Diet

When life gets busy, healthy eating is often the first thing to go, as these four women found out. Follow our simple strategies for staying on track no matter what your day brings.

Make Small Changes to Eat Healthier

You know what to do: Fill up on fruits and veggies. Eat lean protein. Don't devour the entire pint of chocolate-fudge ripple in one sitting. But as it turns out, there's a lot more to making smart food choices than what you put on your plate. We asked four FITNESS readers to record everything they ate for five days and then sent them for a session with nutritionist Evelyn Tribole, RD, coauthor of Intuitive Eating. A few months and a few small changes later, all four women were healthier, more energetic -- and slimmer! Don't eat another bite until you dig in to their brilliantly easy success tricks.

The Busy Mom

Karen Walch, 42, Greensburg, Pennsylvania

A stay-at-home mom, Karen has always made healthy, home-cooked family dinners a priority. But between taking care of her two kids and keeping up with her long to-do list, she ends up treating daytime meals as an afterthought. "I've never been a breakfast person, and I usually eat lunch on the run," explains Karen, who has gained 10 pounds during the past few years. Diagnosed as prediabetic several years ago, she is eager to make some changes. "I want to get off medication and be a healthy role model for my kids."

Her Daily Dish

6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Eight cups of coffee with skim milk and sugar
2 p.m. A salad with barbecued chicken and a little goat cheese drizzled with low-fat honey-mustard dressing. "Eating this while sorting the mail."
7 p.m. Homemade beef-and-chicken chop suey over brown rice with a glass of unsweetened iced tea. "Sitting down to a meal for the first time all day."
9 p.m. Ice cream for dessert. "Craving something sweet."

Diet Do-Overs

When she eats, Karen makes good choices, Tribole notes, but skipping meals and fueling up on coffee wreak havoc on her health. "Too much caffeine interferes with your sleep and suppresses your appetite," Tribole says. "Plus, going for long periods without eating can cause your blood sugar to plummet, leaving you feeling weak and shaky." Since prediabetics need to carefully control their blood sugar, it's important for them to eat regular meals along with one or two snacks daily. To turn things around, Tribole advises Karen to:

  • Eat two mini breakfasts. A morning meal provides steady energy. Because Karen finds a big breakfast overwhelming, Tribole suggests splitting it up: "Try a yogurt first thing, then some toast with peanut butter and banana around 10 a.m."
  • Cut down on the coffee. Karen's goal is no more than one morning cup. Tribole encourages her to taper her consumption over the course of two weeks to prevent withdrawal headaches.
  • Get snack happy. Going longer than three to four hours without eating can zap your energy levels. To break this cycle, Karen should munch on something small, such as a granola bar or an apple with peanut butter, between meals.

The Healthy Payoff

"I'm eating breakfast and drinking just one cup of coffee," Karen says. "Before, I'd be ready for a nap at 11 a.m. Now I feel energetic all day long -- and I've lost 12 pounds. The best news is that my blood sugar has dropped enough for my doctor to cut the dose of my daily diabetes medication in half. If I keep this up, I could be off the medication in six months!"

The Office Snacker

Amy Zvovushe-Ramos, 29, Bridgeport, Connecticut

Amy, an advertising rep, is still struggling to lose the last 10 pounds of baby weight two years after the birth of her daughter. She tried working out with a trainer for seven months, but the scale didn't budge. "During the week, I have a lot of business lunches, and vendors are constantly sending snacks to the office," she says. "I have a hard time saying no to junk food, though I do try to make up for it by cooking healthy dinners at home."

Her Daily Dish

9 a.m. A leafy-greens smoothie. "Not really in the mood for breakfast, but this helps me get through the morning."
10 a.m. A cup of mint tea and two Twizzlers from a coworker's stash.
12:30 p.m. Two slices of pizza. "I brought lunch from home, but the pizza smelled so good I couldn't resist a second slice."
3 p.m. A few bites of cotton candy. "Needed something sweet to power through a deadline."
7 p.m. Brown rice, celery, and kale stir-fried with olive oil and soy sauce, and a piece of baked salmon. "A healthy dinner to make up for lunch."

Diet Do-Overs

"Amy's eating habits stem from her childhood," Tribole says. "Kids from big families like hers -- she's one of six -- often develop a competitive mentality and feel they have to eat as much as they can, even when there's plenty of food. This makes it hard for Amy to say no to all the treats in her office, particularly when she's stressed." These three strategies will help her gain control:

  • Pack a better brown bag. "A healthy, boring lunch is never going to compete with free pizza," Tribole says. "Amy should include a little treat for herself, such as a cookie. This will make it less tempting to trade her lunch for something unhealthy."
  • Be your own boss. When Amy dines with colleagues, she should take the portion she wants but put part of it, like the extra slice of pizza, aside. "This gets you out of must-clean-plate mode," Tribole says. "If you're still hungry later, then eat a little more."
  • Try a nonfood fix. Stress snacking is an easy way to pack on pounds. Instead of munching, Amy could take a quick walk or chat with a coworker for a few minutes when she's feeling frazzled. Often a small break in routine is enough to help cravings pass.

The Healthy Payoff

"I used to think I had no self-control when it came to eating, but that's not true," says Amy, who lost 12 pounds. "Knowing I can save food for later means I don't feel deprived. Plus, paying attention to how I'm feeling when I eat has helped me stop the constant snacking."

The All-Day Grazer

Shannon Meairs, 32, Santa Monica, California

Shannon prides herself on eating organic, avoiding processed foods, and training hard for triathlons. But after finding herself with 25 pounds to lose, she realized that her eating habits might not be so healthy after all. "In terms of my food choices, I tend to wing it," she says, explaining that she often finds herself snacking in the car on the way to meetings for her job as the CEO of a college counseling service. "I don't plan ahead, so I usually end up skipping meals and then grazing on whatever I can find later."

Her Daily Dish

9 a.m. Two sausage links, trail mix, and a bowl of strawberries. "Ate this on the way to the gym."
1 p.m. Half a potato pancake, a half cup of cranberry-lemon quinoa, a quarter of an organic vegan brownie, and a skim vanilla latte. "Paralyzed by indecision at Whole Foods, I just grabbed whatever looked good and munched in the car."
7 p.m. A small plate of nachos and a Diet Coke. "Out to dinner with friends, but not starving."
10 p.m. Pancake and brownie leftovers from lunch. "Hungry by the time I left the restaurant, so I ate these in the car on my way home."
11 p.m. Half a vegan oatmeal-raisin cookie. "My roommates were eating them, and they looked really good! I couldn't resist."

Diet Do-Overs

"In theory, Shannon's committed to her health, but when she has to choose between focusing on her job or focusing on her body, the job always wins," Tribole explains. "That's okay once in a while, but when it becomes your lifestyle, all those last-minute food decisions can add up to big problems." To reorder her priorities, Shannon needs to:

  • Eat regular meals. Shannon grazes all day, which means that calories pile up. Tribole advises her to schedule her meals to make sure they happen. "If she plans lunch for 12:30 and 1 p.m. hits, she needs to drop everything and eat," Tribole says.
  • Fill the fridge with healthy food. To prevent the there's-nothing-for-dinner panic that can lead to late-night binges, Tribole advises Shannon to hit the grocery store on the weekends to pick up the ingredients for a few favorite dishes.
  • Do an internal audit. Before and after each meal, Shannon should make a quick mental note about how she feels. "This will help her see how regular meals improve her energy and mood," Tribole says, so she'll be motivated to stick with it.

The Healthy Payoff

"Planning ahead has been the biggest revelation; it's much easier to commit to regular mealtimes when you know there's stuff on hand that you want to eat," Shannon says. "My energy levels have improved, and I lost 12 pounds without even trying. It's so worth it to make yourself a priority!"

The Guilty Eater

Liz Scranton, 29, Washington, D.C.

Liz ran a half-marathon the week before her September 2008 wedding. But after two years of newlywed bliss, she found herself 10 pounds heavier. "You always hear about post-wedding weight gain, but I didn't think it would happen to me," says Liz, a director of programming for a nonprofit. She tried calorie counting and packaged diet foods, but nothing worked. "I end up blowing my diet every night because I'm too tired to make a real dinner."

Her Daily Dish

8 a.m. Coffee, an oatmeal bar, and an apple. "My stomach's been growling since I woke up at five."
12:30 p.m. Lean Cuisine Baja-Style Chicken Quesadilla and a clementine. "Still hungry."
2:30 p.m. A 100-calorie pack of chocolate chip cookies. "The hunger pangs win again!"
6 p.m. A scone from Starbucks. "Starving. Need something before I hit the gym."
8:30 p.m. A small container of cookies-and-cream frozen yogurt. "Famished -- so I ate this on my way home from the gym."
9 p.m. A small bag of reduced-fat Cheez-Its and a bowl of Kashi Autumn Wheat cereal with skim milk. "Too exhausted to cook a real dinner."

Diet Do-Overs

"Like many women, Liz is so worried about overeating that she restricts what she eats and when she eats it," Tribole says. "She has very small breakfasts and lunches that leave her ravenous by 2 p.m., yet she doesn't eat dinner until 9 p.m. That creates a vicious cycle in which she consumes too much at night and tries to make up for it the next day." Liz can cut herself some slack with these simple steps.

  • Feed your appetite. Tribole recommends that Liz commit to three days of eating whenever she feels hungry. "If your stomach is growling, you need to eat something, not wait three hours until dinner because you think you should," Tribole explains.

    Get fresh. Liz's meals don't give her enough calories, protein, or fiber. "She should consume at least 300 calories in the morning and 400 for lunch," Tribole says. If Liz did a bit of prep -- for instance, making a pot of soup on Sunday -- she could bring lunch to work a few days a week.

    Ditch the guilt. "Liz feels bad when she eats something she thinks she shouldn't, like the scone," Tribole notes. Instead, she should look ahead to the next meal or the next day to see what she can do to make healthier choices. For instance, packing a healthy snack, such as nuts and fresh fruit.

The Healthy Payoff

"I'm not obsessing about food all the time or constantly worrying about eating perfectly," Liz says. "I'm packing nutritious snacks, like trail mix, so when I do get hungry between meals, I have something healthy and filling to munch on. And it works: I've lost two pounds just by listening to my body."

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, April 2010.

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