Q: OK so I have been running 4-6 miles on the stair-master, cross-trainer or treadmill 4-5 times a week. And taking one hour classes (weight training, cycling, kickboxing, or machines) about 4 times a week. I eat my normal diet, that hasn’t changed much, but I am a vegetarian and it is semi healthy… with a little oil, sufficient carbs and lots of greens.
I have been doing this for the last 5 months. Initially, I lost some weight, but lately the scale says that I gained weight. I assume that could be muscle, however, my inches are no longer going down, nor does it seem like my body is losing anything anywhere anymore…
I just finished medical school (I know, I should be able to answer my own question then =) ). So my life outside of the gym consists of stress and sitting in front of the books for 14 hours studying for the boards… Obviously I was initially doing something right so my diet cannot be the sole reason. So what am I doing wrong and what should I do differently? – Megha
A: Kudos for finding the time to work out so diligently and for being determined in your goals. Don’t get discouraged! There are many factors involved in fitness. That means we’re required to try lots of things as we get to know our bodies and discover what will create optimal results for us.
Weight loss plateaus are common, too: the body is so smart that it adapts quickly in order to conserve energy. But to lose excess fat, we want it to burn energy. The key is to keep the body off balance. So while you may not be doing anything wrong, it’s probably time to switch up your routine.
Let’s first look at what you’re eating, and then we’ll point you to some great resources on this site for maximizing fitness results.
WHAT TO EAT (AND WHAT NOT TO!)
Essentially, you should be eating plentiful fruits and vegetables, calcium-rich low-fat dairy, whole grains, and—in your case, as a vegetarian—ample non-meat sources of protein. Make sure to incorporate a variety of foods in your diet. Here are some basic guidelines for the three major dietary nutrients:
Protein is fundamental for keeping—and building—lean muscle mass. It will increase your metabolism as well as make your workouts more effective, so you’ll burn more fat. (By the way, you are right to ask whether your increased weight could be muscle gain. Don’t put too much emphasis on what the scale says.) While trying to gain muscle, you should eat more than the average RDI. Whey protein and soy protein (which can be found in powder form) are great sources of protein, as are nuts and eggs. You can also time your protein and carb intake to maximize workout results.
By reducing your carbohydrate intake, your body will turn to fat for fuel and start burning it up. But don’t cut carbs completely; it’s still needed for extra energy, and you don’t want your body to go after your muscle instead. So, on the days that you do high-intensity workouts, include more carbohydrates in your diet. On your steady state cardio days, have a low carb intake. And on your days off—those all-important recovery days—skip carbs completely.
Many of your non-meat (plant) protein sources also have extra carbohydrate content (lentils, beans), which is something to be aware of. Still, these are a better source of carbs than starchy carbohydrates without any protein, such as pasta, bread and rice.
Believe it or not, you won’t want to cut fat completely out of your diet. It, too, supplies your body with needed energy. You will of course want to stick to the healthy, fat-containing foods: low-fat milk products, legumes, and oils (canola, corn, soy bean and olive). Some good sources of unsaturated fat: avocados, nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, pecans) and seeds (flax, sesame, pumpkin).
Weight Loss Villains
Avoid these ingredients in your diet:
- Caloric sweeteners (added sugar and artificial sweeteners)
- Saturated fat (whole milk, cheese, ice cream)
- Trans fat (cookies, crackers, chips and other commercial baked goods)
WHEN TO EAT
This is almost as important as what you eat! We recommend eating 5-6 small nutritious meals throughout the day, as opposed to 2-3 large meals. This will do three things:
- Speed up your metabolism
- Supply your body with ample energy throughout the day
- Keep you from overeating. Many people only have one big meal, often at the end of the day. Starving, they overeat, and then plop down on the couch or head for bed. This is a recipe for sluggish metabolism and fat gain!
HOW MUCH TO EAT
In order to lose excess body fat, you also need to lower your caloric intake (while still meeting your body’s nutrient needs). Find a calculator that can tell you what your caloric needs are, and then subtract 300-500. Your body will turn to fat stores for energy, allowing you to burn up that excess fat throughout your body.
Remember that it’s going to be about more than eating, say, 1700 calories, if this is your target. It’s even more important to focus on eating a lower-carb diet than on lowering your caloric intake. After all, more calories in a healthier diet will always be better for you than having fewer calories, but less healthy foods. The most effective approach to losing weight would be a low calorie, low carb diet.
WHAT ARE YOU DRINKING?
Poring over the books for extended periods of time can cause lead us to caffeinated beverages and not enough water. If you’re propping your eyelids open with soda, red bull, and vanilla lattes, don’t! Caffeine is fine in moderation, and can even give your metabolism a little boost while suppressing your appetite (that’s why many weight loss supplements include a small amount). But skip the sugar, creamer and flavoring. And after your first cup or two, switch to green tea, which has caffeine plus incredible weight loss and health benefits. Or, have an apple or a protein shake for energy. And we’ll say it again: drink more water!
ARE YOU SUPPLEMENTING?
Taking a supplement is important for everyone, but critical for those trying to lose weight. Dietary supplements are an easy way to give your body the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients it needs that you can’t get from food alone. Go for a multivitamin for overall health. A metabolism booster like Green Tea Extract is good, too. Weight loss support supplements like ResveraShape can be a boon when you’re trying to lose excess fat. The right ones will combine essential nutrients with metabolism-boosting (green tea, kelp, grapefruit extract) and appetite-suppressing ingredients (resveratrol, caffeine).
KEEP A HEALTH LOG
We bet we don’t need to tell a medical school graduate this, but just in case: it’s really important to keep a daily exercise and nutrition log. Not only will this give you a clear picture of your habits and patterns, so you can see what works and what doesn’t; but it will also keep your goals in focus. Without a visible record, it’s easy to miscount how many “just this once” indulgences we give in to!
Keep a note, too, of your weight and measurements. Don’t compare them from day to day, or you won’t notice much difference, and you may get discouraged. Compare every other week, or at the end of the month, however, and you’ll see the difference.
MASTERING THE MIND
Finally, don’t discount the role your mental state plays in weight loss. Are you getting enough sleep? Not only is adequate rest necessary for overall health and performance, but it’s also necessary if you want to get anything out of your exercise routine. It’s during sleep that your body recovers from your workouts and builds muscle. It’s also important to keep stress and depression at bay, as they can make weight management hard. Many people find that achieving balance and focus is ultimately the most important step in their weight loss journey.
MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR GYM TIME
Your weight training and resistance exercises (like stair-climbing), along with high intensity cardio (kick boxing), are great! Just make sure to progressively add resistance and repetitions, and switch up the activity type every so often. You can skip the machines, which only deliver isolated exercises, unless you are honing in on one specific area. Otherwise, compound movements that work multiple muscle groups are best. Make sure you aren’t working the same muscle group every day, or your body won’t have time to recover and progress. Steady state cardio on the bike or treadmill will allow your muscles a rest between intense training days.
For the full scoop, check out these posts: