You're away from home for the first time, you're busy and you're broke. Put those together, and what do you get?
A lot of Pizza Rolls and Taco Bell. And before you know it, an extra 15 pounds.
Panicked, you may turn to MTV's I Used to Be Fat and Oxygen's Dance Your Ass Off for pointers. But these shows target quick weight loss for morbidly obese people, so their methods wouldn't really be right. If you want to lose 15 pounds (or avoid gaining it in the first place), you've got to think in terms of one or two pounds a week, and in terms of lifestyle.
First: Consider your food intake. Nanna Meyer, senior sports dietitian with the U.S. Olympic Committee, says to pay attention to your body. When you think you're hungry, she says, "make sure it's a physical hunger and not emotional hunger." (Stress and boredom often lead to overeating.) If it's physical, eat within 30 minutes. If you wait longer, you're more likely to scarf your food down and overeat.
Meyer suggests eating very small amounts every two to three hours. This should include three small meals consisting of mostly protein and vegetables, and three small snacks consisting of mostly protein and fruit. (Easily portable and affordable options there might include string cheese or nuts with an apple).
Note that a Nacho Cheese Chalupa wouldn't qualify under either category. It barely even qualifies as food.
Meyer recommends you stay away from fast food, but she's not recommending you diet. Far from it.
"About 75 percent of people who diet, gain [the weight] back," Meyer says. Or, as put by local personal trainer and former New York Giants running back Omar Bacon, "Once people reach their goal, they fall off."
Diets tend to be very restrictive, and it's extremely difficult, well nigh impossible, to deprive yourself of foods you like all the time. (How could anyone give up chocolate forever?) Plus, Bacon says, if you consume too few calories, "you'll be in starvation mode. You may think your body is burning fat. It's not; it's storing fat and burning muscle."
Translation: If you're always hungry, you're not doing it right.
Addendum: If you're always grumpy, you're probably not doing it right, either.
"If you eat your favorite things by one handful a day, it's not going to hurt you," Meyer says. Just make sure you're also eating more vegetables and fresh fruit, low-fat options, lean protein and no liquid calories.
And don't calorie-count — "You count and count and count, and there's no joy," Meyer says — or even carb-count. While fascination with low-carb diets won't die, Meyer says that the brain needs about 130 grams of carbohydrates a day to function properly. Turns out there are plenty of carbohydrates in fruits and vegetables, so focus on low-starch varieties, and when you eat grain-based foods, look for whole-grain options like whole wheat pasta, brown rice and oatmeal.
And, finally, don't skip breakfast.
"The body starts going into starvation mode after about seven to eight hours," Bacon says. "So it's important to eat first thing in the morning to get your metabolism going again."
Feel the burn
Speaking of metabolism, there's one more pillar: exercise. And we're not necessarily talking about training for your first triathlon.
"Don't set your expectations too high," says Meyer. If you try to do more than you can handle, you'll likely get burned out or injured, or simply lose your motivation. Get into a routine of walking, jogging or biking, with some light weight training a few times a week. Better yet, do it with a buddy, or take classes or join a team; Meyer notes that anything you do with others will be more fun and motivating.
While cardio is extremely important in weight loss, strength training is almost equally important. It helps tone muscle, but also helps you drop pounds.
"In the moment, you might not burn as much as when you do cardio, but if it's a hard strength training session, post-exercise oxygen consumption and calorie burning is increased," Meyer says, which means that you continue to burn calories at an accelerated rate for 24 to 48 hours after a workout. "If the cardio is low-intensity and the lifting is high-intensity, you're doing two things: you're increasing energy expenditure during exercise and post-exercise."
It is important to incorporate rest days into your routine, as well. This gives your mind and body a chance to recuperate. On those rest days, though, Meyer encourages everyone to "make an effort to just be more active." Clean your room for once or just take the stairs instead of the elevator. Whatever you do, don't sit in front of the TV.
The bottom line is: Don't be stupid. To get the best results, be patient. It will take a little longer to lose the weight than you might expect, but you will keep it off and feel healthier. You won't get Biggest Loser results, but unless you're so overweight that you're in danger of dying, you shouldn't. Be realistic and make an effort to incorporate all three aspects.
"It all has to be compatible," Bacon says, "so you gotta have the weights, you gotta have the cardio, and you gotta have the nutrition."