While I’m far from being an expert on dieting, I’ve been working on sustaining a healthy lifestyle for several years now, and I’ve learned a few things along the way. I see all the commercials on TV for this diet or that one, the ads for the miracle fat burners, and the infomercials for the super-duper exercise plans. Everywhere you turn, there’s a new fad, and attempting to separate the wheat from the chaff can be overwhelming.
It helps if you keep a couple of key points in mind:
- The old saw is true; if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
- Keep it as simple and sensible as you can; if you do the work, you will see results.
Diet is, of course, one of the most important factors in any plan for healthy living. Because of this, when considering a diet plan, it is essential that you consider the extent to which it is sustainable.
Many diet plans oblige you to substantially change the way that you eat, either by requiring that you reduce portion size, or by requiring you to eliminate certain things from your diet while adding others, or both. This is, of course, a significant lifestyle change. You must consider the fact that a diet plan is not a temporary commitment, but rather a life-long dedication to eating healthier. It is crucial that you closely examine your options and select one that you believe you will be able to devote yourself to for the foreseeable future.
Changing your portion size is a simple but important step in any diet plan. And this can be difficult, because your body has to adapt, and, for a time, you’ll feel hungry pretty much all of the time. But you will soon adapt to the lower caloric intake. A couple of simple tricks may help with reducing your portion size:
- Refuse to allow yourself seconds. Limit your meal to one helping, no more.
- Use a smaller plate or bowl. As odd as it may sound, it does make a difference; if you use a smaller plate and stick to your determination to consume only one helping, it can significantly reduce the amount you’re eating. Think about the difference in size between a dinner plate and a salad plate, for example; your average dinner plate is about eleven inches in diameter, versus about eight for a salad plate.
Even more important is changing what you eat. The only way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you eat. There’s no way around it; it’s simple math. So you have to cut the calories you are consuming.
There are a lot of options out on the market these days to help develop a healthier lifestyle. Back in the 80s, low fat or sugar free options were scant, not to mention nearly inedible. If you recall the first generation of diet colas such as Tab or Fresca, you will probably agree that they were absolutely gag-inducing. And sugar free treats such as cookies tasted like baked wood chips. But now you can find all sorts of delicious healthy alternatives to your old favorites. For myself, the path to a healthy lifestyle is an ongoing journey, and the vast improvement in dietary options has made it far easier.
I have found that one of the best ways to cut calorie consumption while still eating the foods you enjoy is through substitution. For example, instead of a pork chop, try a turkey breast chop. If you find yourself craving mashed potatoes, try cauliflower or turnips as a substitute. If you’re in the mood for a hot dog, reach for a turkey bratwurst instead, wrapped in half a tortilla instead of tucked into a bun. When experiencing an overwhelming urge for an omelet, go for the egg substitute instead of eggs. You can eat the foods you love, and still reduce the calories, fats, and sugars that you are consuming. You don’t have to sacrifice taste to eat healthy food; you just have to get a little creative. Eating healthy does not mean that you can’t enjoy delicious foods.
The Food Comparison Chart displayed here lists a small sample of food substitutions, with corresponding nutritional values.
It is important to note that almost all of the values for the possible meat substitutions listed in this sample came from a website that promotes beef consumption. While other sites have figures that differ a bit, this data was used for the sake of a fair and balanced comparison. For many of the other items on this list, values were taken directly from the source whenever possible in order to present each of the items in the best possible light; again, figures from other sources may differ a bit.
This list is just a small sample of promising substitutions; there are many other possibilities. But this helps illustrate that you can easily transform your favorite recipes into healthful, delicious meals, simply by thinking outside of the box; don’t be afraid to get a little creative. Even a failed experiment with a substitution can be a learning experience.
Personal experimentation has illustrated two notable facts:
- Virtually any recipe can be transformed into a more healthful meal through substitution, and
- Almost all recipes benefit from substitution in terms of flavor.
Take as an example the image shown of a recipe for Stroganoff. For the sake of comparison, a suggested alternative is included.
Each of these recipes is for four servings. A rough calculation using the My Fitness Pal recipe nutrition tool places the original Beef Stroganoff recipe at 743 calories per serving, with 19 grams of carbohydrates, 48 grams of fat, 54 grams of protein, and 1 gram of fiber. Using the same tool, a rough calculation of the alternative recipe for Turkey Burger Stroganoff, with just a few simple substitutions, comes in at only 329 calories per serving, with 20 grams of carbohydrates, 5 grams of fat, 47 grams of protein, and 2 grams of fiber. While there is undoubtedly some room for debate on the data My Fitness Pal provides, these are dramatic results, and they amply demonstrate the difference that just a few simple substitutions can make.
Of course, the only way to be sure that the measures you take to cut calories are effective is by tracking your calories. There is great benefit to be had in tracking the calories you consume and the calories you burn on a daily basis. I strongly recommend doing so, especially when you are first beginning your journey toward a healthier lifestyle.
How Many Calories?
Most of us don’t realize how many calories are present in the foods that we eat; it is often the innocuous items (such as dressing on a salad, or mayonnaise on a sandwich) that make the numbers climb. There are many resources for determining your proper daily caloric intake, and for tracking consumption. The sources don’t always agree, but most reputable sites and apps can at least give you a fairly accurate range. Two that I have found to be useful are My Fitness Pal and Livestrong, both of which have websites and smart phone apps. Also, many food distributors and major restaurants post nutrition information on their websites that can assist in tracking not only calorie intake but also the consumption of fiber, carbohydrates, fat, or sodium. All of these can be useful tools in tracking and controlling your calories, and almost all of them allow you to incorporate your exercise regimen as well.
An appropriate workout plan is another essential tool in finding your way to a healthier you. But it isn’t as simple as merely stepping onto a treadmill or climbing onto a bicycle; there are several factors to consider when determining which exercise will work for you. Your general level of fitness is, of course, a primary factor. Any medical conditions must be considered when developing an exercise plan; it may be a good idea to consult with a physician.
Aside from any medical concerns, however, you should also consider what exactly you are trying to accomplish. If you’re working on losing weight, you want to go for calorie burn. But if you want to strengthen and tone, you may need to focus your energy on exercises more suited to obtaining that goal. Many exercises, of course, can be useful toward achieving both calorie burn and muscle development. However, very few exercises do both with the same efficacy.
Running, for example, is a terrific cardio exercise, and you can burn a fair amount of calories while doing it. In addition, your legs will develop nice muscle definition fairly quickly. But it is less useful for toning the muscle groups in your upper body. If you are able to perform high intensity workouts on a step machine, you can accomplish the same thing, while also benefiting your core muscles, but, again, the step machine is of little use in toning your upper body. Weight lifting, of course, will greatly contribute toward building muscle mass, but the calorie burn is typically lower.
Exercises such as Zumba are a great way to develop overall fitness, and to burn calories (thereby shedding pounds), and they have the advantage of allowing you to work your way up in terms of intensity. Intensity is important, because high intensity workouts will allow you to burn calories at a higher rate, which can be useful if you’re an individual who has little time in which to work out.
It is recommended that you have a varied exercise program, for a couple of reasons:
- It will help you to stick with your workout regimen if you are having fun, so pick activities you enjoy, and change it up every once in a while. If you like to run, great, but don’t do it every day. Even the most avid runner can burn out or get bored.
- If at all possible, your workout regimen should include exercises that will involve all the major muscle groups on a cyclical basis, as well as cardio exercises, because your muscles typically fare better if you allow them to have brief rest periods between work outs. For example, a comprehensive plan may dictate that you work your chest and shoulders one day, your quadriceps and gluteal muscles another day, and your core on another, and that you finish your weekly workouts with a run. Your muscles actually grow during the rest periods between workout sessions, and if you don’t factor recovery time into your routine, your muscles will not grow.
Estimates on how much exercise you should get can vary; some sources will tell you to work out a minimum of three times a week, for a period of at least thirty minutes. Others will tell you to work out for a minimum of one hundred and fifty minutes each week. For laymen, it is difficult to know which course of action is best; the only advice I can offer in this regard would be to suggest that you consider your general level of activity when determining how much time you should spend on exercise. If you lead a sedentary life, the upper end of the scale may prove more beneficial to achieving your goals.
Again, I am neither a nutritionist nor a physician. I wouldn’t even begin to attempt to advise someone on how to manage diet and exercise with the additional challenge of diabetes, or high cholesterol, or hypertension. Anyone interested in changing their lifestyle should consult with their physician, especially if they have some sort of medical condition that could complicate it. A few moments spent on the web in research quickly makes it obvious that all of these conditions benefit from good diet and a comprehensive exercise plan; it is simply a matter of selecting the right options to fill your individual needs, and, again, a physician or nutritionist would be an excellent resource for this.
A word of caution: in almost any journey toward a healthier lifestyle, there will be ups and downs. You will fall of the wagon. Your weight loss will plateau. It will not always be smooth sailing. It is very important to remember that you can climb back on that wagon; each day is a new opportunity, each week another step along the road to a healthier you. And don’t concentrate only on the scale; you will often see the most dramatic results in inches lost rather than in pounds shed. The pounds matter, but where those pounds are carried on your frame is also important, and even if the pounds drop in small increments, losing that spare tire will also improve your overall health.
Changing your lifestyle is not easy. It is daunting at best, and it requires a great deal of motivation and commitment. But the rewards are immeasurable, both physically and mentally. Not only will a healthier lifestyle improve your overall condition, it will make you feel better, and meeting the challenge will provide you with a great deal of confidence and personal satisfaction. The journey, like any other, will have its twists and turns, and there will be obstacles along the way, but with each goal met you will be stronger, healthier, and happier. Buona Fortuna!