Carrie Tollefson - Diet and exercise done right (photo from runnersworld.com)
A friend of mine emailed me this week asking me for some advice on how to lose weight based on my own experiences and information I've learned over the years. I wouldn't consider him overweight; he's around 6 feet tall and 185 lbs. and would like to get down to around 170 lbs. and be "lean and mean". While I do not claim to be an expert I have been successful in not only losing a considerable amount of weight but also maintaining that weight loss; and, as most of my friends can attest, I've read practically everything I could get my hands on regarding nutrition.
In order to be successful losing fat and gaining muscle both Diet AND Exercise are important and go hand-in-hand. If you are overweight or obese, making simple changes in your diet will result in quick weight loss since you have so much to lose; but, at a certain point the addition of exercise is imperative to continue making progress. I recommend that you make changes in your diet and start on an exercise routine at the same time to supercharge your fat loss and enjoy the mental and physical benefits of an active life immediately. You must also look at this as a lifestyle change and not some temporary diet where you will go back to your old routine once you lose the weight. I'm sure you've heard people say, "I can't wait to lose this last 10 lbs. so I can get off this diet; I miss ice cream so much and that's going to be my reward!" Guess what, this attitude is the main reason 90% of all people who lose weight actually gain back even more than they lost in the first place.
At the age of 24, it was easy for me to lose the weight for several reasons. I was young, a smoker who never worked out and had one of the worst diets you can imagine. Believe it or not, here is what I would eat in a typical weekday:
Breakfast - 3 Mrs. Fields Cookies and a 44 oz. Coke (my office was in a mall)
Lunch - McDonald's Super Size Big Mac Meal with a Super Size Coke
Mid-Afternoon - 44 oz Coke
Dinner - Either ate out at a Chili's type restaurant, Burger, Fries, Chips and Salsa and Soda or if eating at home something else very unhealthy and in large quantities.
Dessert - At around 9:00 pm I'd have a big bowl of ice cream.
I'd also drink about a liter of Coke every evening and drank alcohol probably 3 times a week.
My caloric intake was in excess of 5,000 calories a day while I was only burning around 2500 calories; it really is amazing that I didn't weigh more and I'm lucky that I caught it when I did! The changes I made were dramatic as I cut out all fast food and soda, started a resistance training and cardio program, limited my consumption of alcohol and started planning my weekly meals. I would take my lunch to work, grill chicken breasts on Sunday and freeze them for dinners during the week and carefully tracked my caloric intake so it matched my output (or in this case I was aiming for a caloric deficit to lose weight). But let's say you're like my friend and you don't need a major over-haul like I did; you just want to clean things up a bit. Here are a few tips:
1. NEVER SKIP BREAKFAST - It really is the most important meal of the day and jump starts your metabolism. Try to find a good combintation of complex carbs with high fiber, protein and healthy fats; I start every single day with Nature's Path Optimum Power Cereal with skim milk and I add in a few raisins. If I'm in a pinch and don't have my cereal I usually go for a whole wheat bagel with all natural peanut butter and a skim latte.
2. EAT OFTEN - You really should eat 5 to 6 sensible meals throughout the day. Think of your metabolism as a fire, if you build your fire and don't tend to it the flames will slowly die down but if you stoke your fire it will come roaring back to life; these small meals serve to stoke your metabolism. A typical week day for me looks like this: I eat my breakfast (described above), eat 2 of my Mom's Oatmeal Raisin cookies around 10:00 am, a lunch of Turkey and Spinach on whole wheat bread with whole wheat pretzels and an apple, mid-afternoon/pre-workout snack of an Odwalla or Clif Bar, for dinner a chicken breast or salmon with brown rice or red potatoes, steamed broccoli and carrots and then for dessert fat-free yogurt with berries and almonds. Also, immediately after my workout, I grab a skim latte and I usually have 1/2 ounce of Ghirardelli's 60% Cacao dark chocolate thrown in there somewhere.
3. BE CONSISTENT - "But Carey, I need some variety and can't eat the same things everyday." That's OK, I actually enjoy my routine and do break away from it with comparable substitutions but I still ensure I'm making healthy choices and keeping my caloric intake in check. When I say consistency it doesn't mean the same things, at the same time, every single day; it just means don't have yo-yo's in your diet where one day you're making healthy choices and the next opting for muffins and french fries. Even if you eat the same number of calories on your healthy vs. not so healthy days there's more to it than that; remember that the quality is just as important as quantity especially when resistance and endurance training.
4. IT'S OK TO "CHEAT" - Occasionally. Allow yourself one meal a week to fall off the wagon; this could actually help your body so it doesn't get in a rut and shock it back into fat burning mode. Remember that this is a lifestyle choice; if you deprive yourself completely you will not be successful. As time passes and you make healthier choices including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, etc. your body and mind will no longer crave those high-processed, sugary foods that are bad for you; funny how this works, but trust me, it's true.
5. HYDRATION AND ALCOHOL - Cut out all soda and sugary drinks; personally I drink diet soda but there are purists out there who say to cut this out too. Water is always the best choice! As far as alcoholic beverages you should cut these back to a minimum and drink in moderation. If you're going to drink have red wine or a drink like vodka and club soda; stay away from high sugar drinks such as margaritas and mixing your spirits with sugary soda. I do not drink alcohol at all for a few different reasons but I'm not saying you have to completely cut it out, just be smart about it and know that the calories in alcohol can add up very quickly. Not to mention losing your inhibitions and hitting Taco Bell for that infamous "Fourth Meal"; we've all been there...
The above is just the tip of the iceberg; as athletes, nutrition is extremely important to ensure we are not only performing our best but also keeping our immune system strong and our mind functioning properly. A book I highly recommend picking up is Eat Right to Train Right by Chris Carmichael; I consider it the nutrition "Bible" for athletes. Nutritiondata.com is a great website for evaluating the nutritional value/content of foods and also determining your caloric expenditure; DO NOT let this tool create a food obsession where you record and analyze everything. My recommendation is to track your food intake for a period of 3 days which will give you a baseline to help determine what changes you need to make and where the holes are in your diet.
Over the past year my view and approach to workouts has changed quite a bit and evolved from focusing solely on cardio conditioning (running) to a combination of resistance training, yoga and cardio in order to be stronger and healthier. Also, since studying for my CSCS Exam, I've learned much more about the importance of resistance training and the downsides of following an aerobic only conditioning routine. While aerobic conditioning is effective for burning calories and fat it is not the most effective way to build muscle and in fact many studies suggest that it may do just the opposite. The amount of muscle you have directly effects your metabolic rate; more muscle means more calories burned, it's as simple as that and the most effective way to build muscle is through resistance training. Resistance training does not only mean weight training; pilates, yoga (power yoga in particular) and boot camp style workouts are other great ways to build muscle if you're not a big fan of pumping iron in the gym. As an endurance runner, having a strong core is imperative to improving performance; when you're deep into a race these core muscles help you maintain your form and avoid injury. Since incorporating yoga, pilates, ab-work and weight training into my routine while maintaining my cardio component (running 50 miles per week), I have been performing better and feeling stronger than I ever did when running was my sole focus. My goal as an ultra-runner is not to add bulk but to add strength; there is a major difference. Yoga, pilates and lower-weight/higher-rep resistance training allows you to do this without adding a ton of mass.
As most of you know muscle does indeed weigh more than fat so if you are only using the scale to measure your progress you may find yourself disappointed. Last Fall I weighed 165 lbs. and after a winter of relatively high mileage and adding in resistance training and yoga I am 175 lbs. My diet is "cleaner" than ever, I'm working out on average 10 - 12 hours per week and feeling/looking stronger than before so I am happy with where I am because I know that the weight gain is due to increased lean muscle and loss of fat. It took me a while to stop focusing on the scale and simply look in the mirror; once I did I liked what I saw :-)
As I said in the beginning I do not claim to be an expert here and continue to learn more and more each day in my experiment of one. Some of the above may work for you and some of it may not; the method of losing weight seems quite simple, burn more calories than you consume. But, as I've found out through the years and in my studies, there's a lot more to it than that. Conversely, many of us do have easy fixes we can make in our every day lives to produce quick results. Of course, the less you have to lose the more complicated it gets.
Please share any thoughts or comments you have as I (and everyone else, I'm sure) would love to hear them!
Hope all of you are well,