By Amy O'Connor
Starting a diet and fitness regimen can be daunting, but there are a few things that make reaching your goals much easier. We’ve all heard that to lose weight it’s necessary to burn more calories than we consume each day, but without the right tools, determining what we consume vs. what we expend often involves a lot of guesswork. This can easily lead to disappointing results when we step on the scale. When it comes to weight loss, as in most other cases, knowledge is power and what follows are seven things that can make a big difference in your ability to get on the right track and achieve your diet and fitness goals.
I recommend starting any diet with an inspiring book. Even if you have a good sense of what to eat to lose weight, it’s always helpful to be reminded of why fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and lean protein are a crucial part of any diet plan. When my diet goes from small amounts of junk food here and there to brownies for breakfast, I know it’s time to read a book as a refresher on why eating right is critical for my waistline and overall health. EAT: The Effortless Weight Loss Solution by Ian K. Smith, M.D., the author of bestsellers such as The Fat Smash Diet and The 4 Day Diet is a comprehensive primer on the how’s and why’s of healthful eating. Dr. Ian outlines Ten Simple Rules for Good Eating such as “Follow the Rainbow” (eating a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables), and there are also strategies for avoiding diet pitfalls when snacking or drinking. The book defines macronutrients, micronutrients, good vs. bad carbs, the glycemic index, whole grains, fiber, fat, organic, serving sizes, provides lists of which foods are the best choices and why, and deciphers how to read the nutrition facts in a product label–all so that the reader can confidently make good dietary choices on an ongoing basis without going to extremes.
Available online and at Barnes & Noble and http://www.amazon.com
Keeping track of what you eat and how much you exercise daily is a helpful way to understand why your weight is going up or down and where you can improve your habits for better results. I start every diet and fitness plan by logging onto myfitnesspal.com which allows me to track both my daily food intake and exercise output with minimal effort at no cost. When first creating an account the site directs you to enter your stats: age, activity level and weight, and it automatically generates a daily calorie target and nutrient breakdown for you to meet to achieve your desired weight. Enter in what you’ve eaten (including your own recipes) and the exercise you’ve done, and the program tallies everything to let you know where you are within your daily calorie budget. When I eat more than my allotted calories, the page tells me how much more I’ll weigh if I continue at that rate. Conveniently, most foods are already in the database so when I add a serving of Trader Joe’s cottage cheese to the lunch section, the calories and nutrient breakdown automatically come up. The site also allows users to chat with each other and run a variety of progress reports.
Whether you keep track of your daily food intake with myfitnesspal.com or on paper, accuracy is important. It can be hard to gauge the portion size of foods (even with measuring cups, certain foods such as shredded wheat cereal or popcorn defeat the purpose), plus it’s inconvenient to have to transfer foods from measuring cups to serving dishes. Knowing that past diets have been undermined by underestimating my portion sizes, I’ve armed myself with a Good Grips Food Scale with Pull-out Display from OXO. In the past, I took advantage of calorie inexactitude to the detriment of my diet goals – if a peanut m & m was about 10 calories, I’d find the ten largest and call it 100 calories, but now my gorgeous, sleek stainless steel food scale keeps me honest (10 large peanut m &ms turn out to be 160 calories!) This OXO scale has several great features such as zero balancing so I can weigh my cereal bowl, hit the zero balance button, then add cereal and get the weight of just the cereal or hit the zero balance button and add milk and get just the weight of the milk (weights can be viewed in imperial or metric units). Armed with these exact measurements, I can easily enter accurate portion sizes into myfitnesspal.com which then tells me calorie and nutrient totals. Other nice features of this battery operated scale are a backlight option and a removable display.
Available online, http://www.oxo.com and at Bed Bath & Beyond
Another scale that foils guesstimating is a great bathroom scale such as the HoMedics 540 Health Station Body Fat Scale. The needle on my old scale was never balanced exactly on zero so when it looked as if I’d gained a few pounds, I’d tell myself that the scale was off, but with this battery operated scale I know not only my exact weight to the ounce but also my body fat%, muscle mass%, bone mass% and a daily calorie predictor total. Despite its relentless honesty, I love the look of the scale, its stainless steel platform and blue backlit LCD readout. Setting up a user profile (for up to 12 users) is quick and easy, and once done, the scale will display your last weight and other body composition stats each time you step on the scale. The scale manual has informative explanations for each type of body measurement and reference charts showing standard ranges. This HoMedics body fat scale is like a true friend who gives it to you straight with your best interests at heart.
Available online, http://www.homedics.com and at Sears
Another invaluable device is a heart rate monitor. I use the Sportline Duo 1060 Speed and Distance Heart Rate Monitor to tell me my heart rate and the number of calories burned when I exercise, but the watch has so many features: it can be used with or without a chest strap, it can alert you when your heart rate is out of your target heart rate zone, it can tell you how long your heart takes to recover from an elevated rate, it can be set for interval training, it tracks speed, distance and strides and stores the stats from your last 7 workouts . The watch can also be used as an alarm, a timer, and a pedometer, and it comes in a snappy white with yellow and silver trim that looks great. I wear the chest strap so that it isn’t necessary to press on the watch heart rate sensor every 5-10 minutes during a workout (a practical impossibility when jumping rope), but the chest strap transmitter is adjustable and completely comfortable. Seeing your heart rate reaching the fat burning zone in real time is a powerful incentive to keep working hard, and discovering that I’ve burned off 400 calories in an exercise class rather than the 600 I had previously guessed at makes it clear whether there’s room for dessert or not. A fitness guide that describes heart rate and exercise basics as well as an easy-to-follow manual is included with the monitor.
Available online, http://www.sportline.com and at Sports Authority.
A comfortable, supportive sports bra makes doing strenuous, high impact exercise like running or jumping rope more pleasant, not easy mind you, but a lot more pleasant. Champion’s Doubledry Spot Comfort Full Support Sports Bra combines advanced apparel technology with great design in a bra that looks good, provides support and has superior comfort features. My favorite feature is the gel filled adjustable straps that eliminate chafing on the shoulders, but there’s also a mesh panel for ventilation and nylon/spandex fabric that stays light on the body due to its sweat wicking properties and, hurray, molded cups mean no uncomfortable wire! Being properly outfitted for your activity of choice gets you that much closer to following through on your exercise routine, and a good sports bra is a must.
Available online, http://www.championusa.com and at Kohl’s
Several trainers have told me that most women don’t eat enough protein in proportion to their carbohydrate intake to lose body fat as effectively as possible. While carbs provide most of the body’s energy in the form of glucose, the body more readily burns fat if carbs comprise only about 50% of daily caloric intake with protein at about 35% and fat around 15%. So instead of snacking on a candy bar or juice for quick energy on the go, try a protein bar or protein shake. Worldwide Sport Nutritional Supplements makes Pure Protein Shake in a variety of tasty flavors (my favorite is Frosty Chocolate). One 11 oz. can has 160 calories and contains 35 grams of protein, 2 grams of carbohydrates and only 1 gram of fat without added sugar or aspartame. Another good choice is the Pure Protein High Protein Bar which has 180 calories, 20 grams of protein, 17 grams of carbs and 4.5 grams of fat. Both of these products are a convenient, tasty way to boost your protein intake and satisfy your sweet tooth.
Available online at http://www.gnc.com and at Trader Joe’s.