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Less shopping, more saving. Less bread, more broccoli. Less gossip, more goodwill. We usually have good intentions, but the hard part is actually getting from A to Z. We can’t help you balance your budget, but we can help you upgrade your nutritional habits and improve gym performance in just four weeks.
It’s not a diet, but a practical action plan to totally ramp up the way you eat. The great part is it not only helps you in your hardbody quest but also focuses on your insides with lots of healthy habits to reduce your risk of disease and optimize your health. Just make one change each day and adopt it over a 28-day period. This way, you make over your eating habits gradually—and at the end of four weeks, you’ll have completely overhauled your ability to strip off bodyfat and improve your energy levels.
In addition to the basic daily commitment, you can choose from several options to take your nutrition to the next level. What are you waiting for? Here’s how to take your eating plan to new heights.
Day 1: Write it down
Whether you’re just beginning a fitness program or are a seasoned fitness buff, start a diary in which you record every morsel that you put in your mouth every day this week so you’re aware of what you’re eating. No more mindless munching. Then study your entries to determine where you can fine-tune your diet.
Day 2: Eat breakfast
We know there are some breakfast-skippers out there—studies say about one-third of Americans skip their morning meal. Too bad, because breakfast is a key to success for members of the National Weight Control Registry (consisting of people who’ve lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a year or more). Today is your first day of making a nutritious breakfast a daily fixture.
Day 3: Don’t drink your calories
Choose only low- or no-calorie beverages such as water, tea, coffee and diet drinks. Calorie-laden drinks are of little nutritional value and represent empty calories. Worse yet, research shows that we eat just as many calories whether we drink no-calorie or calorie-rich beverages. Why add the extra calories? Take it to the next level: Ditch the diet soda and other diet drinks entirely. Sip water, tea or black coffee instead.
Day 4: Schedule your meals
If you aren’t already doing so, eat smaller meals 4–5 times per day rather than three large meals. Start thinking of your meals as big snacks to keep your metabolism humming and to prevent overeating. Schedule one of your meals two hours before your workout and another within an hour of finishing your workout for optimum recovery.
Day 5: Forget fast food
Drive right on by the drive-thru. It may be unrealistic for you to completely ban fast food—especially if you have kids pining for it—so set limits. Order a side salad and just one other item, be it a chicken sandwich or a regular hamburger.
Day 6: Splurge
As you’re cleaning up your diet, you don’t want to feel deprived and then give in to daily temptations. That’s why most fitness professionals and models schedule a splurge day once per week (usually on a weekend) when they can drink alcohol, have dessert and be more liberal overall with their diets. Some people are fine with just a splurge meal rather than an entire day. It’s your choice—just make it worthwhile.
Day 7: Cook
Make two healthy recipes this week. Take it to the next level: Pick four recipes to make during the coming week.
Day 8: Brown bag it
Bringing your lunch from home rather than going out will shave off loads of fat and calories from your diet. An easy option is a sandwich on whole-wheat bread and a side of either veggies or fruit. Take it to the next level: Continue to add a day until you’re bringing your lunch all five days.
Day 9: Eat clean
This means eating close to nature—oranges rather than orange juice, potatoes rather than potato chips. Pick two foods you often eat, and switch them to a more natural source.
Day 10: Patrol portions
Most grocery stores now carry 100-calorie snack packs. Though the food items aren’t necessarily the healthiest, the concept is great. You’re much more likely to stick with one serving when it’s prepackaged and proportioned—and you get to know what a serving of crackers actually looks like. Take a cue from these products and buy whole-grain crackers, then package them in baggies to eat on the run. Take it to the next level: Do a calorie check by eating preportioned items such as frozen meals, measuring your cereal, etc., so you can recognize what eating, say, 2,000 calories a day is like. Then adjust your calorie intake based on whether you’re still hungry or not.
Day 11: Limit flubber foods
Author and diet expert Yolanda Bergman termed diet drinks, diet candy and other fat-free chemical-laden items as “flubber foods.” Limit these diet products, and when you’re having a major craving, just eat the real thing.
Day 12: Vamp up veggies
Incorporate vegetables at least twice daily. Some easy ideas: sliced bell peppers as a snack or a fajita stir-fry at dinner. Frozen veggies are a great option, as they won’t spoil as quickly as fresh. Take it to the next level: Include at least one green, red and other color vegetable of your choosing daily.
Day 13: Eat beans
Eat beans today, then reach for them at least twice per week for their nutrient-packed potential. They’re rich in protein, carbs and fiber along with vitamins and minerals. Note: Watch the timing of your bean consumption. Eating beans and other high-fiber foods just before a workout can hamper your performance in the gym since your body will be too busy digesting the legumes.
Day 14: Sneak berries into your diet today
Work up to enjoying them three times a week for their superantioxidant power. Grab a bag of frozen berries for easy use, low spoilage and cost control. Add them to your morning oatmeal, have them as a snack, blend them in a shake or enjoy them as dessert.
Day 15: Increase your protein
As an active woman, you need about 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight to help your body recover from your gym efforts. Get started toward that total by having some protein at each meal and snack. Take it to the next level: Do the math to determine how much protein you should be consuming. For example, a 130-pound woman should consume about 130 grams of protein each day. Check your food diary from the previous week. If you aren’t hitting that number, use today’s action plan to get you there.
Day 16: Eat less after dark
It’s not a rigid “No food after 8 p.m.” rule, but just note that whatever you eat a couple of hours before bedtime generally won’t do your body any favors. Unless you work out late at night, make sure not to eat starchy carbs 2–3 hours before bedtime. Feel free to have 20–30 grams of protein, such as a shake, cottage cheese or a chicken breast, before bed to maintain your lean muscle mass and to aid recovery during your nighttime fast.
Day 17: Use less of the blue, pink and yellow
No-calorie sweeteners such as Equal, Sweet’N Low and Splenda are great alternatives to sugar, but they can become a crutch—tailoring your taste buds to accept only supersweet items. Your goal: Cut your current sweetener use in half. Take it to the next level: Have only one artificially sweetened item per day.
Day 18: Make salmon a biweekly staple
High in protein and essential fatty acids, salmon is one of the healthiest foods around. Start having salmon twice per week.
Day 19: Replace your breakfast carbs
Now that you’ve made eating breakfast a habit, let’s make sure it’s serving you best by doing two important things:
1) Your starchy breakfast carb should consist of old-fashioned (slow-cooking) oatmeal, a high-fiber (5 grams or more) cold cereal or a slice of high-fiber bread (5 grams or more).
2) Include a minimum of one serving of fruit at breakfast every day (not juice). Have five different fruits among the seven weekly breakfasts to add variety and nutrients to your diet.
Day 20: Make over caffeine
Caffeine helps keep your metabolism elevated, can increase muscle endurance and strength, and even reduce the risk of diabetes. That is, unless you partake in ice-blendeds, frappuccinos, mochas and any other froufrou coffee drink that purveyors can invent. Look to pure caffeine sources, such as tea and coffee. Take it to the next level: Cut even the little bit of cream you may add to your black coffee.
Day 21: Lunch on grains
Choose a whole-grain bread, bun or tortilla at lunch. Another option is a baked sweet potato topped with canned beans, low- or fat-free cheese and salsa.
Day 22: Reduce takeout
It’s just too hard to control the calories and fat in your meals when you eat out frequently. Cut your restaurant frequency in half. Take it to the next level: Make the effort to cook all your meals today.
Day 23: Clean up your carbs at dinner
Have a whole-grain starchy carb such as whole-grain pasta or brown rice. If you can’t get used to the taste of whole-grain pasta, mix half of it with regular white pasta. Take it to the next level: Switch to only “wet” carbs—heavy on water and low on starch, such as cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage)—for this meal.
Day 24: Pair vegetables with a healthy fat
It’s a heart-healthy move that will also satisfy your taste buds. At least once today, eat your healthful fat along with a veggie to boost antioxidant absorption of the vitamins. This is especially important when it comes to carotenoids (such as carrots and yams) and lycopene (from blood oranges and tomatoes). Try a couple of slivers of avocado on your salad, a tablespoon of peanut butter with celery, salmon with a side of asparagus or a tablespoon of olive oil drizzled atop steamed veggies or a leafy green salad.
Day 25: Get your fill of fiber
Strive to hit the recommended 25 grams of fiber today. How? Choose cereals with 5 grams of fiber or more per serving, and breads or rolls with at least 2 grams per slice. Consume more whole fruits and vegetables and legumes.
Day 26: Lower the bar
Protein bars are very convenient—sometimes too convenient. If your diet is made up of primarily these snacks and meal replacements, you’re probably getting more of some and less of other important nutrients. Limit yourself to one bar per day.
Day 27: Stock your car
Stock your car, cooler and gym bag with healthy snacks (bagged veggies such as edamame and carrots, protein bars, fruit and low-fat string cheese) so you don’t go too long without eating and don’t resort to the vending machine, a food truck or a fast-food restaurant. Take it to the next level: Stock your cooler with a full day’s worth of meals. If traveling, use frozen veggies as your ice packets; they should make it through airport security.
Day 28: Write it down—again
To keep you on track in the months to come, continue recording what you eat in a food diary at least three times per week. Compare your entries over time to see the changes you’ve made. Some people combine their food and training diaries so they can compare how their nutrition regimens affect their training results, energy levels, even their moods. Such data can help you create a program that spells long-term success. If you want to clean up your eating even more, adopt the next-level behaviors if you didn’t do so the first time.