[Editor's Note: Tampa Bay Buccaneers Team Sports Dietitian Kevin Luhrs is part of a rotating panel of Buccaneer experts who will be providing advice all season to those who have taken the UnitedHealthcare Get Fit! Pledge. In the first of our weekly installments, Luhrs helps those who are starting a new fitness regimen as part of the Get Fit initiative by providing advice on the basic diet changes that will help a person start and stick with a successful program.]I may be biased about this, but I think nutritional changes are going to be one of the most critical things you do when you start a new program. It's also important to note that the specific changes you are going to make depend on your goal. You may want to lose weight, or you may want to add muscle, but knowing what your goal is before you start any program is going to be the first step.
Once you've established your goal, you can then gather the information you need to set up a successful plan, which should include elements of exercise and nutrition. If you want to establish a weight-loss program, as most people do, you can add exercise, but if you do that without the nutritional changes, or vice versa, you're probably not going to accomplish your goals.
For a weight loss program, you need to make the kinds of changes to your daily routine that you know you can obtain. If you switch everything about your diet around, you can probably lose weight doing that, but it's not going to last long and you're going to find yourself tired. Even with Buccaneer players who want to lose weight, I usually tell them to start by making three simple changes. I want to emphasize that these are small changes, goals you know you can reach. Start with these changes, make them a part of your daily routine, and then you can build from there.
I can, in fact, suggest three small changes that will help almost anybody. First, focus on adding fruits and vegetables to your diet. I believe that this part of a diet is largely overlooked in our society today, and that's making it more difficult for people to maintain good nutrition. Emphasizing fruits and vegetables can make a huge impact in your attempt to lose weight. Not only are they healthy, but they are not calorically-dense. Finding ways to fill up without taking in too many calories will be critical to your efforts, and fruits and vegetables are perfect for that.
Another thing to focus on is hydration. Staying hydrated is going to be key as you attempt to make these nutritional changes. A lot of the time we think we're hungry when we're actually thirsty. I'm not a doctor, but I have read that the sensations of thirst and hunger are located close to each other in the brain and so they can often be confused for one another. More importantly, staying hydrated – and, especially, doing so by drinking water – is going to fill up your stomach without adding calories. Focus on liquids that have little or no calories. I'm actually not opposed to coffee or tea, as long as they are consumed in moderation. And, while there seems to be some confusion as to whether or not diet soda is bad for you, I believe current studies are inconclusive. Diet soda is not your best liquid option, of course, but for a weight-loss program it is certainly a better choice than non-diet soda. Basically, the main point is: Don't consume your calories as liquids.
My third suggestion is to make sure you get all your meals in throughout the day, whether you choose to have three or four of them. That's going to be important in maintaining your metabolic rate, which will help you in establishing lean mass and burning fat. That's really the name of the game: Not just losing weight but losing fat. That should be your goal.
If you are contemplating switching to a low-carbohydrate diet, I would only recommend that if you are not going to be very active. Carbohydrates are primarily an energy food, and so if you just want to focus strictly on the diet part of the program and not add exercise due to time or money constraints, then a diet limiting carbs makes sense. As I said before, however, a program that combines exercise and diet changes is going to have a much better chance to succeed.
Keep track of what you eat and how you exercise. This is more essential than most people realize, partly because we tend to ignore the issue of portion sizes even when we make positive changes to our diet.
Here's one final suggestion that I hope will help you in establishing and, most importantly, sticking to a new diet and exercise regimen: Keep track of what you eat and how you exercise. This is more essential than most people realize, partly because we tend to ignore the issue of portion sizes even when we make positive changes to our diet. The people who are most successful in a new diet program are those who closely track what they're doing, writing down what they eat and, critically, the portion sizes. You will learn an amazing amount about what you are eating and what you can change. Often, we tend to underestimate how many calories we actually take in on a daily basis if we do not specifically keep track. Also, knowing what you have been doing will help you make adjustments along the way. For instance, if you frequently find that you don't have enough energy for your new workout regimen, you may actually need to increase your caloric intake to some extent.
I know this is a difficult habit for many people to establish, but keep in mind that you don't have to do it forever. Simply tracking your diet for two or three weeks will give you a much better understanding of the changes you have made and the ones you still need to make. After a few weeks, you'll be able to balance your diet and measure out the correct portion sizes without having to refer to notes, and the changes you make are more likely to stick.
Hopefully this advice will help you in these very important first few weeks of your new Get Fit program. You are already doing the most important thing: Getting started. Follow the suggestions above, set small and attainable goals for yourself, and before long you will have made healthy and lasting changes to your lifestyle. Good luck!- Kevin Luhrs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Team Sports Dietitian