7 Tips For Doing A Plant-Based Diet Right

Researchers, dietitians, and influencers alike are all about plant-based diets, which emphasize eating more plants and less animal products (think meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy). Why? Research shows that plant-based diets are good for us: Consider this study about its connection to lower rates of type 2 diabetes, or this review supporting its ability to support weight loss, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, potentially even lessening the need for certain medications.

And the best part is, you don’t have to go full-on vegan—or even vegetarian—to hop on the plant-based train (though you totally can if you want to)! Plenty of plant-based eaters enjoy eggs, meat, and dairy every once in a while, but the whole notion of ‘plant-based’ is simply that plants are top priority.

Still, skeptics worry that a plant-based diet means missing out on certain nutrients. That could be the case, sure, if your version of a plant-based diet is only bread and bananas and peanut butter. But with these seven nutritionist-backed tips, you can create yourself a plant-based diet that’s nutritionally-balanced and sustainable.

1. Prioritize Protein

You may think of protein as the nutrient that builds and repairs your muscles and bones—but it does a whole lot more than that. “You also need protein to make hair, blood, enzymes, connective tissue, antibodies, and hormones,” says culinary nutrition expert Jessica Levinson, R.D., founder of Small Bites by Jessica. And in a plant-based diet, you’ll have to venture beyond chicken breast to get that precious protein.

Most people need 0.8 to one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, which is about 70 grams for someone who weighs 150 pounds. If you’re an athlete or working to build muscle, you’ll need more like 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight, which is about 82 to 95 grams for someone who weighs 150 pounds.

And, yes, that’s totally doable on a plant-based diet. Center every meal around protein by filling at least a quarter of your plate with a plant-based protein source, like beans, legumes, tofu, tempeh, or edamame, says Stephanie Mendez, R.D., a nutritionist with NY Nutrition Group and co-founder of women’s fitness and nutrition program Matriarch. All of these options offer upwards of 12 grams of protein per serving. Nuts and high-protein grains (like quinoa and amaranth) also offer some protein.

Related: 7 Meat-Free Protein Sources

You can even plantify your go-to protein shake by adding a plant-based supplement like soy, pea, rice, or hemp protein powder. Many plant-based proteins include a blend of these in order to provide the best mix of amino acids (the molecules in protein) possible.

When you do incorporate animal-based proteins, limit them to less than half of your total protein intake, suggests Christy Brisette, R.D., of 80 Twenty Nutrition. Try to stick to fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna (which are high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids), poultry, and lean meats, all of which are all lower in saturated fats, she says.

2. Keep Carbs In Check

When you cut back on foods like dairy, eggs, and meat, it’s easy to replace them with carbs, says Mendez. And even if you’re eating all healthy foods, a diet too high in carbs and too low in healthy fats and proteins may leave you feeling unsatisfied.

Avoid this mishap by making sure one half of your plate is filled with non-starchy veggies (like spinach, carrots, mushrooms, cauliflower, or broccoli), one quarter with protein, and one quarter with carbs (either from starchy veggies like potatoes, corn, peas, and squash, or whole grains like brown rice, oats, or bulgur), according to Mendez. (Most dietitians recommend about 30 to 45 grams of carbs per meal, which would be about a cup of cooked whole grains or starchy veggies.)

And, like with any healthy diet, you’ll want to limit baked goods, added sugars, white bread, and pasta, and choose less-processed, whole-grain carbs. Refined carbs are stripped of their fiber, protein, and other nutrients (including vitamins E and KB vitamins, selenium, and magnesium), says Levinson. Meanwhile, whole grains, starchy vegetables and more wholesome products like whole-wheat bread contain fiber and nutrients to fill you up and keep your blood sugar stable and healthy, says Mendez. “Just make sure the first ingredient says ‘whole grain’ and there are no added sugars,” says Mendez.

3. Keep An Eye On Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 helps your body form red blood cells and DNA, and plays an important role in brain and nerve function, says Levinson. And because it binds to proteins and is found mostly in non-veggie sources like fish, meat, poultry, eggs, and milk, plant-based eaters have a harder time eating their fill. (Adults need about 2.4 micrograms a day.)

Incorporating one serving of eggs, dairy, or seafood a day can bump up your B12 intake. Otherwise, you can find it in nutritional yeast, and some fortified cereals, grains, and nut milks.

Related: Is There Such A Thing As Eating Too Much Meat?

If you’re going plant-based long-term, Mendez recommends having your B12 levels checked regularly. Your doctor can let you know if a B12 supplement is necessary with a simple blood test, she says.

4. Eat Your Spinach (And Other Iron Sources)

This is a big one. Iron helps your body transport the oxygen you breathe to all of your tissues. It also supports your metabolism, your hormones, and connective tissue. The average woman needs about 18 milligrams per day, while the average man needs eight.

There are two types of iron: heme iron, which comes from animal proteins, and non-heme iron, which comes from plants. Non-heme iron isn’t absorbed as easily as heme iron, so you need to eat more of it to hit your goals. To do so, make sure your diet contains a variety of sources, like beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, fortified grains and cereals, and (of course!) dark, leafy greens like spinach. One cup of beans contains about eight milligrams of iron, while a cup of boiled spinach contains about four.

Women, especially, should try to have a serving of iron-rich plant foods at every meal of the day, Mendez says.

Related: Talk to your doc about whether an iron supplement is right for you.

Levinson also recommends pairing iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods (vitamin C boosts your absorption of iron) and avoiding eating iron foods with calcium-rich foods (calcium limits absorption). For example, try pairing spinach with tomato sauce or fresh tomatoes.

5. Don’t Forget About Omega-3s

Omega-3s (like EPA and DHA) are a type of fatty acid that supports brain, eye, and heart health. Tricky thing is, they’re primarily found in fatty fish and eggs, says Mendez.

Featured Plant-Based Omega Supplements

But fear not! There are plenty of plant foods that help you stock up on these important omegas, like flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. These plant sources contain an essential fatty acid called ALA, which is used to produce EPA and DHA. Feature these foods on your plate regularly so your body can produce enough of the omega-3s it needs, says Mendez.

6. Plan Ahead For Snacking, Travel, And Meals Out

If you’ll be out and about—and potentially without veggie-friendly options—packing snacks and small meals can keep your plant-based eating possible and keep you from making an impulsive, imbalanced food choice. Pizza and pasta are tasty, sure, but they often contain lots of fats and carbs without much protein, so you don’t want to rely on them when you’re out, says Mendez.

Meal planning and prepping on the weekends (breakfast and snacks included) can go a long way in making plant-based dieting easy throughout busy weeks. If you know you’re going to be on the run, stash healthy, portable snacks to tide you over. Choose something that’s about 50 percent protein and 50 percent carbs, like a handful of nuts and an apple.  

7. Don’t Assume Vegetarian Or Vegan Products Are Healthier

Ooh, vegan cookies? Something about ‘em just seems healthier, right? But don’t be fooled.

For one, highly processed vegetarian foods—especially meat replacements like burgers or nuggets—are still highly-processed. “When you look at food labels for things like veggie chicken, they have a lot of other ingredients, including preservatives and chemicals added to get the texture and taste of meat,” says Mendez.  And vegan cookies, though they may not contain dairy, are usually still high in calories, fat, and sugar, she adds.

So limit the premade, processed foods as much as possible. After all, a brownie is still a brownie. Focus your meals and snacks on whole foods, and consider meat-free and vegan packaged foods with the same skepticism you’d consider any other foods.

Pin this infographic to keep these plant-based eating guidelines handy:

6 Weight Machines Definitely Worth Using, According To Trainers

A staple at  many gyms, weight machines get plenty of hate from some people in the fitness community. And it’s true—compared to free weights, the machines have a few shortcomings. For one, most machines won’t properly fit all body types. They also hone in on just one muscle group at a time (this burns fewer calories), which can make it easy for you to develop strength imbalances. Free weights, on the other hand, tend to engage more muscles (especially your core and small stabilizing muscles), burn more calories, and encourage more natural movement.

Still, some machines can fit well into your routine, says Holly Perkins, C.S.C.S., founder of Women’s Strength Nation. The machines can make strength training more accessible to newbies and help you focus on specific muscle groups that may need some extra love, she says.

Whether you’re a strength-training spring chicken or a weight-room regular, here are the six weight machines trainers say deserve a spot in your workouts.

1. Assisted Pullup Machine

Pullups work your core, entire back (trapezius, rhomboids, and lats), shoulders, and biceps—but most people can’t even do one, says Paul Sklar C.S.C.S., founder of Prescriptive Fitness in New York City. By using the assisted pullup machine, you can gradually add weight in five to 10-pound increments until you’re strong enough to do them on your own. And trust us, this move is worth it, since adequate back strength helps to improve posture, according to Erica Suter, C.S.C.S.

Related: Can’t Do Pullups? These 3 Moves Will Get You There

How to use it: Hold onto the padded bars with palms facing away from you and hands wider than your shoulders. Place one knee (or foot) and then the other onto the assistance platform or bar and allow it to lower toward the ground. (Your shoulders should be directly over your hips and knees.) Engaging your abs and relaxing your shoulders down, use your back and biceps to pull yourself up until your chin is above the bars. Keep your hips directly under your shoulders and your head in line with your spine. Lower all the way back to starting position so that your arms are fully extended before repeating. (Focus on contracting your glutes throughout the exercise and you can even get a bit of a butt workout in, too.)

2. Lying Hamstring Curl

On days that you deadlift, adding the lying hamstring curl machine to your routine can ensure you hit all the parts of your hamstrings, says Nick Tumminello, C.S.C.S. In fact, one study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that lying leg curls hit parts of the hamstrings that deadlifts don’t.

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“Hamstring strength is especially helpful to women, who are more quadriceps-dominant and tend to have weaker hamstrings, which makes them more prone to knee injury than men,” Tumminello says.

How to use it: Lie face-down on the machine with your hip joint on top of the apex of the pads. Adjust the pad across your lower legs so it hits the bottom of your calves. Keeping your legs hip-width apart, hold onto the handles, exhale, and curl your heels up and in as close to your glutes as possible. Engage your core and inhale as you slowly extend your legs back to starting position. Let the weights lightly touch the stack—but not fully rest on it—before performing your next rep.

3. Leg Press

The leg press machine eliminates the upper-body involvement and torso and spine stabilization required for squats, so you can really zone in on your glutes, quads, and hamstrings. “It’s a safe way to get beginners or those with little lower-body strength pushing some serious weight before progressing to squats and lunges,” says Suter. Perkins agrees: “In the early stages of strength development, I find this machine very helpful to improve overall leg function and strength.”

Related: 3 Ways To Improve Your Squat

How to use it: Sit in the machine and place your feet on the platform a little wider than shoulder-width distance apart. Remove the safety bar and exhale as you push through your heels to extend your legs as much as possible without locking your knees. Your torso should make a perfect 90-degree angle with your legs. As you inhale, lower the platform until you form a 90-degree angle at your knees. (This is key, says Perkins.) Keep your hips and pelvis firmly in the seat of the machine and your torso stable against its back. Exhale and repeat.

4. Cable Lat Pulldown

“This might be my most favorite machine of all because you can’t mimic this movement in any other way,” says Perkins. “Your lower body is anchored, allowing you to put your energy and focus into activating the upper-body muscles.” Lat pull-downs are a safe and effective way to strengthen your back (lats, traps, and rear deltoids), core, and shoulders, which can help prevent future neck and shoulder injuries.

How to use it: Sit down at the machine, adjust the pad over your thighs so it’s snug, and grab the bar overhead. You can use either a shoulder-width, reverse grip (palms facing toward you) or a wider-than shoulder-width, overhand grip (palms facing away from you). Keep your shoulders relaxed down and away from your ears and engage your core so your torso doesn’t sway back and forth as you move the bar. Bend at the elbows to pull the bar down to your upper chest (never behind your head). Slowly extend your arms to release the bar back to starting position. Repeat.

5. Cable Station

By switching up the cable positions and attachments on this machine, you can work pretty much all of your muscle groups—including your core. “Cable stations allow for a more natural and functional movement,” says Sklar. He likes using the machine to do cable rows with alternating reverse lunges, which work your core, quads, glutes, hamstrings, and back.

How to use it: To perform Sklar’s row-lunge combo move, set the cable height so it’s positioned between your hips and lower ribs. Attach the close-grip row handle (which looks like a triangle with two handles) or a straight bar. Grip the handle and step back into a reverse lunge. Drop your back knee to hover just above the floor so both knees form 90-degree angles. As you lunge back, keep your torso engaged and straight, and bend at the elbows to row the cable back toward your lower ribs. Step back into the starting position, keeping your core steady and slowly releasing the cable back out in front of you. Repeat by stepping back with the opposite foot.

6. Dual Cable Cross Machine

Similar to single cable stations, the dual cable cross can be adjusted to train just about every muscle in the body. When each handle you use is attached to its own weight stack, you can’t cheat with your dominate side, says Kyle Brown, C.S.C.S. Brown likes using the cable cross machine for the standing chest fly, which hones in on your core, pecs, and deltoids.

How to use it: Adjust the cables to shoulder-height. Grab the handles and step forward with one foot. Your arms will be fully-extended out to your sides. Lean forward slightly from the waist and keep a bend in your elbows and your shoulders back and down as you press your hands towards each other directly in front of your chest. Engaging your core and chest, inhale and allow your arms to open up until you feel a stretch in your chest. Exhale and push your arms back together. Repeat.

Related: Use resistance bands to recreate cable machine moves at home.

The Best Way To Keep Your Fitness Results From Stalling

Ah, the dreaded plateau—when our once-effective workouts suddenly stop working and our results totally stall. But why do plateaus happen to good people? Usually it’s because you’re just not challenging your body enough. And while that probably means you’ve gotten better at your routine (cool!), it’s still incredibly frustrating.

“If you do the same thing over and over, your body adapts and isn’t stimulated to grow or get better,” says Nick Clayton, C.S.C.S., personal training program manager for the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). “You need to do a little more every time to create stress so your body has a better recovery response and you get stronger or fitter,” he explains. The experts call this whole ‘do a little more’ thing ‘progressive overload,’ and it’s this idea that will help you move past the plateau.

What Is Progressive Overload?

When you work out as hard as you possibly can, you force your muscles to adapt in multiple ways. For one, you push them to metabolic fatigue, which means you use up all of the glycogen (energy from carbs) stored in your muscles. This trains your muscles, making them able to store more carbs and grow, explains Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., host of the All About Fitness Podcast and adjunct professor of exercise science at San Diego State University. Two, you break down your muscle fibers, which signals your body to form new muscle cells to repair them. And, three, you challenge your muscles’ efficiency at using oxygen and carbs for energy, which tells them to adapt so you can go faster and harder in the future.

To give your body the constant push it needs to get stronger, you need to gradually increase the difficulty of your workouts and hit new personal maxes. If you’re doing cardio, that means either increasing your speed or your distance. If you’re strength training, that means increasing the weight you lift or the number of sets or reps you lift for.

Want to ramp up your workouts? Here’s how:

Apply Progressive Overload To Strength Training

When it comes to using progressive overload to build muscle, you have two options: increase your weight or the number of sets or reps you do. So if you’re doing three sets of 10 reps of a move, try to hit 11 or 12 reps with that same weight the next time you work out, says Clayton. The next time? Go for 13 or 14. Once you can hit 15 reps, it’s time to increase your weight and start back down at 10 reps a set.

You can use the same approach if you’re lifting for lower rep ranges to focus on strength. McCall recommends working your way up from four to eight reps. Once you can perform more than eight reps, up your weight.

Another way to switch up the stress you put on your muscles: Mix up your exercises and the types of weights you use. Every couple months, change up your go-to moves (like swapping squats for lunges) and equipment (like swapping barbells for dumbbells)to keep your body guessing, McCall says.

Related: How To Lift Heavy For Maximum Muscle Results

Keep a journal or a note in your phone to track your progress throughout the month. “Ask yourself: Within the past month, have I gotten better at what I want to do? If not, it’s time to make these tweaks,” Clayton says.

Apply Progressive Overload To Cardio

When it comes to cardio, you’ve got two ways to embrace progressive overload power: increase your volume (miles) or increase your intensity (the speed at which you run your miles). Overachievers be warned, though, you should only increase your distance or your speed—never both at once, according to Clayton. So don’t try to add half a mile to your five-mile run and try to shave 30 seconds off each mile. (More on the reasons why below).

If you want to attack volume, increase your distance by 10 percent—but not more—each week, Clayton recommends. So if you run 10 miles one week, you’d run 11 the next.

Once you’ve built up a solid base distance-wise, you can start to push your pace. The most effective way to do so? Sprints, says Clayton. Here’s how to adjust if you usually run, say, three miles three times a week. On one of your running days, run a shorter distance and break that distance up into sprints. So instead of running three miles, you’ll run two miles total, broken up into four quarter-mile sprints. If your normal running pace is a nine-minute mile, you’ll try to hold an eight-minute mile pace for each sprint and rest for a few minutes between each. And since progressive overload is the gift that keeps on giving, you can continue to up your sprint pace as you get better.

You can work on distance and speed in the same week, but make sure to slow your pace on the days you run slightly longer distances.

How To Do Progressive Overload Right

Ready to start going harder, better, faster, stronger? Progressive overload has the power to take your performance (and body) to the next level—but it’s all too easy to turn overload into overboard.

As pumped as you may be to step up your workouts, it’s important to stick to the experts’ guidelines for adding incremental challenges. “All too often people end up crushing their bodies so much they burn out, which can lead to injury and a lack of motivation,” says Clayton. If you constantly feel tired, achy, sore, or irritable, you might be overdoing it, he says. And though these signs start to pop up after a few days, it might take two weeks for them to really knock you on your butt.

To avoid burnout, keep these tips in mind as you progressively overload:

1. Give yourself time to recover.

Obviously your workouts are key, but it’s in the 24 to 48 hours after you work out that you actually become stronger, says Clayton. So stick to three or four high-intensity ‘overload’ workouts per week and either rest or do low-intensity exercise—like walking or jogging—in between, says McCall. And every two or three months, take a full week off to rest and recover. You’ll come back to your workouts with the restored glycogen and revitalized energy you need to crush your workouts, he says.

2. Be patient with your progress.

Progress isn’t always linear, so don’t hold your gains to too tight a timeline. “It’s not like you’ll get better every time you work out,” says Clayton. “There’s always variability based on your stress levels, recovery, diet, and other factors.” You might be able to hit 15 reps in one workout and barely make it to 10 the next. Focus on the long-term, and don’t beat yourself up for having a bad day or week. Clayton recommends looking at your progress in six to eight-week periods.

3. Eat enough.

Don’t drastically cut your calories while pushing your body to its limit during your workouts. While exactly how many calories you need depends on your current weight and fitness level, the experts agree you shouldn’t have more than a 500-calorie deficit per day. When you demand more of your body, your body needs more calories, Clayton explains. Which brings us to our next point…

4. Pack in the protein.

Whether you’re aiming to improve your cardio or build muscle, down about 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (about 70 grams of protein for a 130-pound person, says Clayton. Your muscles are built out of amino acids, the molecules in protein—so not eating enough of this nutrient will hold back your progress. Protein is your number-one priority, but carbs are important, too, since they’re your muscles’ primary source of energy. Eating a protein and carb-rich snack after your workouts—especially if you’re training for more than an hour five days a week—can also help ensure you’re well-fueled. Clayton recommends a snack that contains one gram of protein for every four grams of carbs, like chocolate milk.

Related: Shop ready-to-drink protein shakes to refuel after a good workout.

Cheat Meals Get A Lot Of Hate—Here’s How To Make Them Work For You

Many of us associate dieting with swearing off all cheats, treats, and comfort foods—but what if we could have our cake and lose weight, too?

Trying to stick to a too-strict diet can ultimately make healthy eating unattainable, says nutritionist Torey Armul, R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. So enjoying the occasional ketchup-covered fry or gooey brownie can actually be a smart move and help you maintain an overall healthy diet in the long haul. “Occasional indulgences can reduce feelings of deprivation, improve satisfaction, and maintain the pleasurable aspect of eating,” she says.

That’s where the ‘cheat meal’ comes in. This once-in-a-while opportunity to eat purely for your soul is supposed to help you stay true to your fruits and veggies the rest of the time. This way you can stay on-track with your health and fitness goals while still enjoying a good ‘ole Belgian waffle on the weekend. But it’s not all sunshine, abs, and maple syrup. Cheat meals, when mismanaged, have been known to mess with our heads, turn into all-day eat fests, and sabotage our relationship with food. But they don’t have to!

Think of these meals as treating yourself to something you love (even if it’s not super healthy). In a perfect treat meal world, you’ll embrace every bite and then return to your healthy routine. Yeah, we know that can be harder than it sounds, but with these expert-backed tips, you’ll be a treat meal pro in no time:

1. Plan ahead.

Don’t just decide last-minute that you’re sick of your diet and need a splurge. Instead, plan for treat meals a meal or two in advance. “A premeditated splurge is better than an impulsive one for getting back to your normal eating habits,” says Armul. Knowing you have a treat coming can motivate you to eat your veggies in the meantime and keep you from spiraling into a black hole of indulging afterward.

2. Don’t call it cheating.

How we identify our indulgences has a lot of power over whether they become a healthy part of our lifestyle or a problem. So, for many dietitians and psychologists, the biggest issue with cheat meals is the name itself.

“I don’t like the word ‘cheat,’ because it implies morality, and I think that’s not helpful when you’re approaching weight control,” says Edward Abramson, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Chico and author of Emotional Eating: What You Need to Know Before Starting Your Next Diet.

“The idea of a cheat meal creates a feeling that you’re being ‘bad,’ not ‘good,’ which is a moral dichotomy that shouldn’t apply to food,” agrees nutritionist Jessica Levinson, R.D., founder of Small Bites by Jessica. So spare yourself unnecessary guilt and reframe them as ‘treat meals’ instead. We’ll call them by that name from now on, too.

3. Keep it rational.

Indulging doesn’t mean scarfing down all the yummies from Friday to Monday. Take an 80/20 approach to treating yourself, says nutritionist Christy Brisette, R.D., president of 80 Twenty Nutrition. Eat as healthy as possible 80 percent of the time and enjoy your favorite eats during the rest. And remember that portions still count when you do treat yourself. “Calorically, one cheat meal can negate many days’ worth of healthy eating,” says Armul. So eat intuitively and stop when you’re 80 percent full, she says.

Related: What A Day Of 80/20 Eating Actually Looks Like

If you want to break your treats up throughout the week instead of having one full treat meal, pick one thing—like that cocktail, a side of fries, or a dessert—to enjoy every few days, Brisette recommends.

4. Fill in the gaps with healthier goodies.

Between treat meals, don’t just ignore your cravings. Instead, find healthier ways to satisfy your cravings throughout the week. The more nutritiously you can satisfy your cravings, the better.  Some ideas: Trade ice cream for frozen yogurt with fruit, or a double-cheeseburger for a bun-less burger with avocado and baked sweet potato fries, says Levinson. Swap a chocolate chip cookie for a quality dark chocolate bar, for example, and you’ll not only down fewer calories, but enjoy some benefit from the antioxidants in dark chocolate, says Abramson. When you’ve been enjoying your healthy grub all week, you’ll approach your treat meal in a more balanced, less cookie monster-ish way.

5. Go into your treat meal well-fed.

While it’s tempting to ‘save up’ calories for a delicious dinner (and dessert) out, treating yourself when you’re famished just makes you more likely to go overboard. Make sure you have a healthy meal or snack—which should include filling protein, fiber, and healthy fats—leading up to your treat time, so you’re not as tempted to go all-out, suggest Brisette and Armul.

6. Eat mindfully.

Once you’re enjoying that treat meal, take small bites and savor them. “The more you focus on sensations like the flavor and texture, the longer it will take to eat the food and the more satisfied you’ll feel,” says Abramson.  When you eat mindfully, it becomes almost impossible to binge because you’ll be more aware of when you’re really full.

7. Check in with yourself.

Keep track of how your treat meals affect your weight and whether they’re actually helping you stick to your diet. If you’re sticking to other parts of a healthy routine but still notice tighter-fitting clothes, you may need to reevaluate treat meals.

And get real with yourself about your eating behaviors after those treat meals. “For some people every healthy decision increases momentum for the next one, and the same can be true for unhealthy choices,” says Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist specializing in diet and nutrition and professor at the University of Connecticut. So ask yourself: After your treat meal, do you go back to your usual diet, or do you sometimes continue on the treat yourself train?

If you do go tend to go overboard, give yourself a break. “We make over 200 eating decisions each day— so no one is going to get them all right,” says Abramson. Don’t expect yourself to eat 100 percent clean 100 percent of the time! Consider every decision a new opportunity to get your healthy eating back on track. If your treat meals regularly spin out of control and you can’t stop once you start—even when you feel full—though, you may want to meet with a mental health professional, Abramson says. These treat meal mishaps may indicate some turmoil in your relationship with food and mental health.

Watch Out For These Treat Meal Saboteurs

While splurging once in a while can be super helpful when you’re trying to stick with healthy eating long-term, it’s easy to lose perspective. Here are a few slippery slopes to watch out for so you can either make treat meals healthier for your lifestyle—or identify if they’re not right for you:

1. Don’t deprive yourself the rest of the time.

If one treat meal Oreo turns into the entire sleeve, chances are you’re depriving yourself in the rest of your diet. And when treat meals become treat days and treat weekends, you end up sabotaging your initial goals anyway, says Armul. Your treat meals are only as helpful as the rest of your diet is balanced and nourishing.

2. Never eat until you feel sick.

This is a major no-go for healthily incorporating treat meals. When you keep eating even though you’re stuffed, you may be tempted to under-eat the next day, which will leave you wildly hungry and likely to just binge again, starting a nasty cycle of binging and restricting, says Brisette. Not only does this pattern of eating mess with your head and your relationship with food, but it’s also tough on your digestive system and throws your blood sugar out of whack.

3. Don’t beat yourself up if you overindulge.

“Watching your weight requires energy and concentration, and if you get discouraged and angry with yourself, it’s hard to maintain the motivation,” says Abramson. It’s easy to feel guilty after a treat meal turns into a treat weekend, but use this opportunity to understand what leads to you overindulging.

Depriving yourself throughout the rest of the week is a big culprit here, as are emotional eating (more on that in a sec) and social situations like parties. Self-awareness can go a long way in preventing future treat meal snowballs, though, so being tuned into your patterns can help you make sure treat meals don’t sabotage your goals.

4. Avoid emotional eating.

One of the biggest treat meal mistakes is eating to forget you’re upset, bored, or stressed, which tangles up our biological need for food with our emotions. “It’s okay to eat when you’re physically hungry, not when you’re just emotionally aroused,” says Abramson. So when you’re really itching for a treat, stop to ask yourself why you want it. Are you hungry—or are you actually pissed at your partner, feeling tired, or worried about something at work?

As soon as you identify that you want to eat for emotional reasons, distract yourself, says Abramson. Take a bath, go for a walk around the block, or make a mug of tea. “Cravings aren’t permanent. If you can distract yourself, they’ll go away,” he says.

5. Consider treat meals with any health concerns in mind.

Treat meals are tricky territory: They have the potential to cloud our relationship with food if we aren’t careful in how we use them. If you have a history of eating disorders or are unsure how to make them a healthy part of your diet, talk to your doc to decide how to best approach them.

The same goes for chronic health conditions. “If you have diabetes, for example, having a large amount of carbohydrates or sugar in a single sitting will cause your blood sugar levels to skyrocket,” says Brisette. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the occasional goody—but a qualified health professional can help you delight in your favorite treats in a healthful way.

Why You’re Losing Inches But Gaining Weight

Ever started a new fitness program and found yourself feeling more in-shape than ever—but weighing more than before you started? Don’t worry, that’s actually pretty common!

“Almost all of my personal training clients, even athletes, notice weight gain at the onset of a progressive strength-training program,” says Erica Suter, C.S.C.S. “They get worked up over the number on the scale, yet they’re delighted and tell me their clothes fit better.”

Sure, it’s frustrating when the numbers on the scale don’t decrease—but here’s why you shouldn’t fret.

What The Scale Can’t Tell You

First of all, the number you see on the scale can be influenced by a number of factors, like what and when you last ate, all that sodium in your last meal, the last time you pooped, or, if you’re a woman, where you are in your menstrual cycle, says Suter.

And even if you step on the scale when none of these random variables apply, it still can only tell you how many pounds you weigh in total—not what those pounds consist of. Here’s why that matters: Often when we eat well and exercise (and strength train, in particular), we lose fat and build muscle at the same time, says Suter.

And because muscle is about 18 percent denser than fat, it takes up less space pound for pound, she says. So if you replace, say, five pounds of fat with five pounds of muscle, you can look completely different and drop a dress size without seeing any change on the scale.

It’s hard to overcome the mentality that health and fitness success is measured in pounds lost, but trust us, making that muscle is worth it. Muscle is more metabolically active than fat, meaning it requires more calories to maintain, so the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn even at rest, says Suter. (One pound of muscle burns about seven calories a day, while fat burns about two.)

So having more muscle—and the higher metabolism that comes with it—helps you keep your weight down and allows you to eat more calories to maintain your weight, says William Yancy, M.D., Director of the Duke Diet And Fitness Center. More muscle also means a lower risk of injury, an easier time taking care of day-to-day tasks and, usually, an invaluable boost in confidence.

Related: 6 Reasons You’re Not Losing Weight

If that hasn’t convinced you to worry less about the scale, consider this: Someone who has more muscle may weigh the same as someone with more fat, but they’re less likely to deal with a number of health issues, like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, and sleep apnea, according to Yancy.

When we lose weight it’s typically two-thirds fat and one-third muscle, so holding onto those pounds can actually be a good thing, says Yancy. “Even though you may lose less on the scale, shifting weight loss in any way so that you lose less muscle is a win,” says Yancy. (To do this, you’ll need to down enough protein and hit the weights regularly. Suter suggests starting with full-body weight training about three times per week and eating 15 to 30 grams of protein at every meal.)

Better Ways to Gauge Your Progress

Instead of hopping on the scale to evaluate your progress, try snapping progress photos and taking note of any differences in how your clothes fit, recommends Suter. You can also use a tape measure to record and track the inches lost around your chest, waist, and hips as you go.

For more precise info, a doc or trainer can evaluate your body composition (like how much of your bodyweight comes from fat). They may pinch your skin folds with a caliper and measure them to estimate your body fat, or use a body composition scale, which shoots electricity throughout your body to measure your percentage of body fat, explains Yancy. Some trainers or weight-loss clinics may even have access to more sophisticated options, like underwater weighing (which uses your buoyancy to determine body fat), the BOD POD (which uses air displacement to measure body fat), or DEXA scanning (a type of X-ray that looks at body composition).

A standard blood test can also show that you’re getting healthier even if the scale doesn’t budge. Look out for improvements in your cholesterol, glucose, and insulin levels, Yancy says. Sleeping better, having more energy, and feeling less pain are also signs that your healthy lifestyle is paying off beneath the surface, he says.

Suddenly the scale doesn’t seem so important, does it?

Related: Shop supplements that support muscle building.

Should You Lift Full-Body Or Bodybuilder-Style?

Whether you’re a cardio fiend looking to sculpt stronger muscles or just trying to get back in shape, pretty much any personal trainer will point you in the same direction: strength training.

Building lean muscle helps you move more easily through everyday life, improves your posture, and supports bone density—which is especially important as you get older and your muscles and bones naturally weaken. And, of course, there’s everyone’s favorite muscle benefit: It boosts your metabolism.

“If weight loss is a goal, having more lean muscle will help you burn more calories,” says Albert Matheny, M.S., R.D., C.S.C.S., co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab. Plus, strength training also regulates hormones (for both men and women), which can boost your mood and sexual health, he adds.

Related: 6 Ways Building Muscle Benefits Your Health And Well-Being

But with so many ways to approach strength training, it can be hard to figure out how many of your workouts should be strength-focused, which muscles you should hit each time, and how long you should spend in the gym. Whether you do full-body lifts or split up your workouts bodybuilder-style for different muscles depends on your goals—and how many hours a week you’re willing to log in the weight room. We got the scoop from the experts, so you can figure out which strength-training method is best for you, and start seeing results.

Full-Body Strength Training

Who it’s for: If you’re looking to maintain your general fitness or get back in shape, total-body strength training is a good foundation. “It’s great both for people who aren’t in the best shape and for anyone who wants to get the most out of their time,” says Matheny. “Full-body training boosts your overall health, burns calories, and makes you less prone to injury.”

What it involves: To make the most of full-body training, you’ll need to work out for 30 minutes to an hour, starting with two or three training sessions a week, suggests Matheny.

In everyday life, you aren’t plopping down on a machine and doing a leg press or bicep curl—so full-body strength training sessions focus on multi-joint movements, in which you work the muscles you need to move, balance, and stabilize your body in the real world. “Total body workouts focus on the bigger muscle groups and involve more than one muscle group in an exercise,” says Erica Suter, C.S.C.S. Think squats (core, hamstrings, quads, and glutes); deadlifts (core, hamstrings, glutes, and back); pullups (core, back, and biceps); and bench presses (core, triceps, and pecs).

Because you’re working all the muscles, give yourself at least a day of recovery between full-body strength-training sessions at first, says Suter. You might lift on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, or on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, for example

In each workout, you’ll choose one total-body movement, like the squat or deadlift, to be the main focus of your training session. You’ll dedicate between one and five sets of one to five reps to this main lift. Then, follow that move up with a few additional movements that also work major muscle groups, like dumbbell rows, reverse lunges, pushups, and farmer’s carries. Pick up to seven of these moves, called ‘accessory lifts.’ For these, perform three to four sets of eight to 10 reps.

If you plan on doing any cardio on the same day as your full-body strength training, save it for after, so you can strength train with full energy and power.

Related: 3 Ways To Improve Your Deadlift And Crush Your Next PR

Each of your workouts for the week should be slightly different, says Matheny. So, if the main lift in your first workout hits your lower body, choose an upper-body main lift for your second workout. Same goes for your accessory lifts. If you did a bunch of lunges that first workout, swap them for hinge movements (like single-leg deadlifts) the next workout. Even if you just slightly vary the exercises you do—like performing lateral bodyweight lunges instead of barbell reverse lunges—you can boost your results and keep from getting bored, Matheny says.

You’ll want to stick with these workouts for about four to six weeks, says Matheny. Throughout that time, slowly decrease the number of reps you perform and up the weight you lift so that you’re progressively building strength—especially in those main lift movements. After four to six week, switch things up and pick new moves to work on.

At that point, most people are able to tack on an additional day of strength training, says Suter. Just keep in mind that varying the exercises in your workouts is especially important if you’re doing full-body strength training on back-to-back days, Matheny adds.

Bodybuilding

Who it’s for: Bodybuilding is more about achieving a certain ‘look’ more than it’s about improving your overall health and fitness or losing weight. “The goal is to sleep, eat, and train—and limit other exercise in order to get big and cut,” says Matheny. This training style is best for people with specific aesthetic goals who are ready to commit over an hour to the gym almost every day.

What it involves: Pro bodybuilders work out up to 10 times per week, but you can transform your physique with about four or five lifting sessions a week, says Suter. You’ll need at least 45 minutes to an hour per workout. Many bodybuilders just lift, so all of their workout efforts maximize muscle gain—but to maintain or improve your overall fitness and cardiovascular health, you’d want to add in a session or two per week of longer-duration, lower-intensity cardiovascular training (like jogging for an hour), says Matheny.

On a bodybuilding-style training plan, you’ll perform exercises that isolate one specific muscle at a time (like doing skullcrushers for triceps), or that hone in on a specific pair of muscles (like doing lat pulldowns for lats and biceps).

Because each workout is hyper-focused on just a couple of muscles, your training days may be broken up as follows: On Monday you train back and biceps, on Tuesday you train quads and hamstrings, on Wednesday you train chest and triceps, and on Thursday you train hamstrings and glutes. From Friday through Sunday you’ll either rest or do a second training session for any of the muscle groups you really want to bulk up.

In each lifting session, you’d perform about 12 to 14 exercises to really laser in on and exhaust those muscles. On a back and biceps day, that might mean a bunch of variations on bicep curls and back rows in which you switch up your equipment (dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands, and machines), and how you perform the move (hammer curl versus classic bicep curl, or overhand grip versus underhand grip). For each exercise, you’d perform three to five sets of eight to 15 reps using moderate weight and work to complete fatigue.

If you incorporate weight machines into your workouts, meet with a trainer once or twice when you get started to ensure your form is correct so you don’t hurt yourself, Matheny says.

To boost the muscle-building effort you’re putting in at the gym, be sure to bump up your calorie intake, since getting enough calories is key for packing on muscle and size, say Suter. You might want to sip on a protein shake during your workout, she says.

Follow up your lifting sessions with a few minutes of stretching to keep those just-worked muscles from tightening up like crazy.

Related: Find a recovery supp to help your muscles bounce back from tough training sessions.

 

 

 

Top Trainers Share Their 5 Favorite Moves For Glutes Of Steel

A solid booty may just be the pinnacle of a fit physique. But there are so many more reasons to build a strong rump outside of having hot rear-view gym selfies to post on Instagram.

“Glutes are the biggest muscle in the body, and they help us walk and run,” says Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., founder of TS Fitness. Not to mention, they’re important for protecting the lower back.

To mold a well-rounded butt, consider these three pro tips from Tamir:

  1. Mix up your workout by incorporating lateral movements in addition to your usual squats, lunges, and deadlifts. Lateral work—like clamshells, cable hip abductions, or lateral band walks—target the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles, while a lot of big leg day movements hit the gluteus maximus, the biggest muscle in your butt.
  2. Whatever move you’re performing, make sure you mindfully squeeze your glutes to maximize your muscle-making potential.
  3. Incorporate weights into your routine. “Doing just bodyweight exercises will only get you so far,” says Tamir. “Weighted exercises are how you really grow your glutes.”

With these tips in mind, try out the following all-time favorite glutes moves from Tamir, as well as Karena Dawn and Katrina Scott, founders of Tone It Up.

GIF: Tone It Up

1. Deep Squat (Plus Overhead Press)

This powerful move engages your booty and your quads, according to Dawn and Scott. And because the move engages your large muscle groups, it’ll fire up your metabolism all day, they say. For a full-body bonus, you can add an overhead press to the movement to sculpt your upper-body, too.

Try it: Stand with your legs just wider than hips-width apart, with your toes pointed slightly outward. Lower your booty directly back and down as if sitting back into a chair. Keep your chest open, your shoulders back, and your core engaged. Try to keep your knees behind your toes—and get low!

If you have a hard time dropping it low because of inflexible ankles, try placing thin weight plates under your heels. Newbies can practice this move without weight, but you can kick up the intensity by holding a kettlebell at chest-level or dumbbells at shoulder-level. You can then add an overhead press, pushing your weight up above your head when you reach the top of your squat—just keep your form intact and core tight.

Dawn and Scott recommend adding three sets of 20 reps to your next leg workout. Or, try a drop set protocol by performing 12 reps with the heaviest weight you can handle with good form, and then performing about eight reps with a slightly lighter weight.

Related: 3 Ways To Improve Your Squat

2. Hip Thrust

This exercise hits the gluteus maximus, which gives the butt the nice round shape many of us are after, says Tamir. Plus, because it also engages your core, quads, and hamstrings, it’s also helpful for maintaining good posture.

Try it: Place your upper back on a bench, chair, or sofa that comes to about knee-height. Walk your feet out to so they’re directly under your knees and push your hips up so that you’re parallel to the floor, with a 90-degree angle at your knees. Stretch your arms out wide across the bench, with your palms facing up. Drop your hips so they hover just above the ground, then bring them back up to that starting level by pushing through your heels. Don’t lift your feet! Keep your pelvis tucked and your core engaged so your ribs are down and your back is flat throughout the movement.

Step the move up a notch by either placing a band around your knees or resting a barbell across your hips. To bump up the intensity without adding weight, perform your hip thrusts on one leg, keeping one leg stretched out in front of you throughout the move.

Try this one for three sets of 10 to 12 reps, Tamir says.

GIF: Tone It Up

3. Deadlift

Deadlifts are the gold standard for shaping your backside, say Dawn and Scott. This big move not only fires up your glutes, but hits your hamstrings and your lower back. It’s a calorie-torching full-body powerhouse.

Try it: Hold dumbbells in each hand and stand with your feet hips-width apart. Keeping your core engaged and your back straight, hinge at the hips and lower the dumbbells down along your legs. When the weights are just above your toes, hinge back up to the starting position, engaging your glutes.

Dawn and Scott recommend performing three sets of 15 reps.

4. Step Up

“The step is great because it works your stability,” says Tamir. That means you’ll strengthen your core along with your lower body. Plus, you can really squeeze those glutes as you push off with your working leg. And since you’re focusing on one leg at a time, you’ll work both sides of your rear equally.

Try it: Stand facing a bench, chair, or couch that’s about knee-height. Place one foot firmly onto your step so your knee forms a 90-degree angle. Drive through your heel and push up until you’re standing in an extended position and your other foot is hovering at bench-level. Engage your abs and glutes to keep the movement steady and controlled. Then, lower back down to starting position.

To increase the burn in your glutes, lift the knee of your non-working leg up to hit height when you reach the top of the movement. You can also hold dumbbells while performing the move.

Perform three sets of 10 to 12 reps.

Related: The 5 Most Effective Abs Moves

GIF: Tone It Up

5. Plyo Lunges

Standard lunges are a leg day staple because they target both your booty and the muscles in your thighs. By turning those lunges into plyo lunges, you kick up your heart rate and burn more calories, according to Dawn and Scott.

How to do it: Begin by standing tall in split squat position, with one leg in front of you and one leg behind you. Lower down into a lunge position so that your front knee is directly above your front heel and forms a 90-degree angle, and your back knee is directly below your hip. Jump up, switching your legs in the air, and land softly in the same lunge position on the opposite side. Keep your abs engaged and maintain a tall posture throughout the move.

To make the exercise harder, hold light dumbbells in your hands—just make sure you can maintain proper form.

Add three sets of 10 reps to the end of your next workout to end on a sweaty note.

Related: Find your perfect preworkout for energy and focus.

Is That Smoothie Bowl As Healthy As It Seems?

It’s Instagram official: Smoothie bowls are the Breakfast of Summer 2017. These colorful blends can be more satisfying than traditional smoothies because they offer mouthfuls of tasty ingredients like fruit and granola, plus they’re just so pretty to look at! However, as healthy as they appear, not all smoothie bowls are created with balanced nutrition in mind. In fact, depending on what you dump in your blender, you could end up with a calorie bomb that’s more dessert than health food.

“While the ingredients are often considered ‘healthy,’ it’s very easy to have too much of a good thing,” says Lindsey Pine, R.D. “And while many smoothie bowls that we see on social media are beautiful, they are often way too large!” For example: Though Juice Press’s Açai Blueberry Bowl serves up a reasonable 370 calories, it packs a whopping 41 grams (that’s 10 teaspoons!) of sugar and just six grams of protein—not the ideal nutritional balance.

Here are some common mistakes that make for a not-so-healthy smoothie bowl, along with tips for building a better one.

Mistake #1: You Overdo it on the Fruit

No nutritionist is going to argue that fruit on your plate (or in your bowl) is a bad thing—most of us don’t eat enough of it! But that strategy can backfire when you’re dumping fruit into the blender and then also topping your smoothie with it. Although fruits contain antioxidants and other valuable nutrients, they also contain natural sugars—which is why the USDA recommends the average adult stick to about one and a half to two cups per day.

It’s pretty easy to surpass this recommendation when you make a smoothie bowl—especially if you also use fruit juice as your liquid. Plus, when your smoothie bowl is fruit-focused, you miss out on the opportunity to balance fat, protein, and carbohydrates (which makes for a filling and healthy meal), says Emily Kyle, R.D. After all, your body needs fat and protein for a number of functions, and the two macronutrients help keep your blood sugar more stable when you consume carbs.

Mistake #2: You Skip Out on Veggies

If there’s one food group we should be incorporating into as many meals as possible, it’s veggies. “Smoothie bowls are an excellent way to incorporate vegetables into your diet in a way that even the most picky eater is likely to enjoy,” says Kyle. Mild-flavored veggies like spinach, cauliflower, and yellow squash are totally undetectable in a flavorful smoothie bowl and provide a number of important vitamins.

Mistake #3: You Opt For Flavored Yogurt or Sweetened Liquid

When you’re already including naturally sweet fruit in your smoothie bowl, you don’t need extra sugar coming from flavored yogurt. Plus, some flavored yogurt blends don’t provide as much protein as plain Greek yogurt or skyr does, says Pine.

Related: Is Sugar Really All That Bad For You?

The liquid you use in your smoothie bowl can also be a sneaky source of extra sugar. Plant-based milks like almond or soy milk can also contain a few grams of hidden sweeteners, says Kyle. Same goes for fruit juice—just another contributor to a sugar-bomb smoothie bowl.

Mistake #4: You Load Up on Granola

Granola, as delightfully crunchy and sweet as it may be, has definitely come under fire for being loaded with sugar—and that goes for both store-bought and homemade varieties. Often, you’re just adding extra sugar and calories to the bowl, says Pine. A tablespoon of chopped nuts or seeds would provide the same crunch factor, plus some protein, she says.

Mistake #5: You Treat Your Bowl Like Dessert

Sorry to be a buzzkill, but a heavy-handed drizzle of chocolate sauce, spoonfuls of chocolate chips, or other undeniably indulgent ingredients end up transforming your smoothie bowl to a sundae. “I’ve seen smoothie bowls with chunks of candy bars,” says Pine. Even in crumbles, a Snickers bar isn’t a health food—no how many Instagram foodies say so.

Mistake #6: You Go Overboard on Toppings and Extras

The more ingredients, the prettier and more satisfying the smoothie bowl, right? When you’ve got avocado, nut butter, walnuts, chia seeds, and coconut flakes on top of your bowl, you’re surely adding some nutritional value, but you’re also adding a ton of extra calories and sugar, says Pine. Choosing a couple of toppings and actually measuring them out (two tablespoons total, tops) is key to avoid overdosing on extras. And if you just can’t go without the banana slices or berries on top of your bowl, set aside a few pieces of the fruit you’re blending into the smoothie itself for your toppings later.

Mistake #7: You’re Getting Honey Involved

You get the picture by now—extra sugar in your smoothie bowl is a no-no if you’re trying to make it a health conscious meal. “Smoothie bowls made with fruit generally don’t need added sweeteners because the fruit provides natural sweetness to the bowl,” says Kyle. If you’re blending a veggie-heavy and low-sugar smoothie and need that hint of sweetness, make sure you don’t get carried away with that drizzle of honey. Use as little as possible!

Blend Up and Spoon Out a Better Smoothie Bowl

Mastering the healthy smoothie bowl is all about limiting sugar and balancing your macros. You want your smoothie bowl to be about 50 percent complex carbs, 25 percent protein, and 25 percent heart-healthy fats, according to Kyle. “A balanced bowl should contain a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and some elements of either plant-based or animal-based milks or yogurts.”

Make your next smoothie bowl a healthier one by following Pine’s formula for a balanced blend:

Step 1: Start with veggies. Add either one heaping cup of leafy greens (like spinach or kale) or a half cup of other veggies (like zucchini, cauliflower, or cucumber).

Step 2: Then add one cup (or less) of fruit. If you like your bowls on the sweeter side, use half a banana.

Related: The 5 Fruits With The Most (And Least!) Sugar

Step 3: Boost the protein. Add a half cup of plain Greek or skyr yogurt, three ounces of silken tofu (it blends well, don’t worry!), or a scoop of your favorite protein powder.

Step 4: Add your liquid, starting with a quarter cup of water or milk, (add more if you prefer a thinner texture). For an extra protein bump, you can use cow’s milk or plain kefir (which also contains gut-supporting probiotics), since they pack more protein than plant-based milks.

You can add a tablespoon of nut butter or a third of an avocado for a thicker smoothie, but keep in mind that it counts toward one of your toppings. (We’ll get to that below!)

Step 5: Add superfood powders. Unsweetened cocoa or matcha powder, for example, provide a healthy dose of antioxidants. (You’ll probably need about a tablespoon each.)

Step 6: If you must, add honey. Just keep it to one teaspoon max, says Pine.

Step 7: Topping time! This is the fun part, right? Choose two or three toppings and add a tablespoon max of each. Think nuts, avocado, nut butter, or chia seeds.

Related: Check out smoothie bowl ingredients galore.

Pin this infographic to make a healthier smoothie bowl, every time: 

Your Hour-By-Hour Plan For De-Bloating In Under A Day

We’ve all been there—you’re a day out from a trip to the beach and you feel completely bloated. WHY, WHY, WHY? (Answer: Life is unfair.)

The good news? One day is enough to get your belly back to its usual state. By nixing certain foods, noshing on others, and taking a few other smart steps, it is possible to de-bloat fast—zero water pills required. Just use caution: You don’t want to be in de-bloat mode all of the time. Otherwise you may dehydrate yourself and put yourself at risk of fainting or of dealing with kidney stones down the line, says naturopathic doctor JoAnn Yanez, N.D., Executive Director of the Association of Accredited Naturopathic Medical Colleges.

If you’re looking for a longer-term water-weight fix, Yanez suggests seeing a naturopathic doc or allergy specialist, since food allergies can often lead to inflammation, indigestion, and bloating. In the meantime, here’s a step-by-step, 24-hour guide to de-bloating.

7 A.M.—Down A Big Glass Of Cucumber Water

While it might seem a bit counter-intuitive, drinking more water can make you less bloated. “The more water you drink, the more you’re flushing out stored water and stored salt, which are causing you to feel bloated,” says nutritionist Christy Brissette, R.D., of 80 Twenty Nutrition. “And it helps to get rid of waste in your digestive tract and keeps you regular, so you’ll end up with flatter stomach.”

If you don’t drink enough you’ll actually end up feeling even more bloated, because your body holds onto the little bit you do drink, explains Revée (Ray) Barbour, N.D., a naturopathic doctor in Sacramento, CA.

Yanez and Barbour both recommend sipping on cucumber-lemon water, since both ingredients encourage your body to release water. Bonus: Cucumber can be soothing for your gut, says Barbour. Add your cucumber and lemon slices to a pitcher of water the night before, so the flavors can diffuse.

What not to drink: carbonated beverages. (The bubbles can add to that bloated belly feeling.) And avoid sipping through a straw, which can make you take in extra gas, Brisette says. Simply aim for 12 cups of water throughout the day before your event. The good news? Coffee and tea count!

7:30 A.M.—Hit The Treadmill Or A Hot Yoga Class

Barbour suggest avoiding eating immediately upon waking up. “If you go an extra hour or two before you eat, you increase your fasting time, which increases your levels of leptin, the hormone that makes you feel full,” she says. As long as you’re used to working out without food in your stomach, a quick sweat session gets your heart pumping, revs your metabolism, and allows you to perspire out excess water and sodium before you start your day.

Related: 5 Myths About Your Metabolism

Barbour recommends going for a quick run, brisk walk, or doing your favorite form of cardio. If you’re already a yogi, a hot yoga session can get your heart rate up and bring on the sweat—plus specific yoga poses (especially twists) can help keep things moving along through your digestive system, she says. Whatever morning workout you choose, make sure to bring a big bottle full of water with you and sip frequently so you don’t end up retaining water or feeling faint after sweating it up.

The workout you don’t want to do: weight-lifting, which—because it can build up lactic acid and cause you to draw water into your muscles—might leave you looking even puffier.

8:30 A.M.—Have A Smoothie For Breakfast

Our gut is made up of billions of bacteria, both good and bad, says Yanez. Having healthy good bacteria helps keep the bad ones—which can cause gas, constipation, and stomach upset—in check. So eating foods that contain probiotics (which are filled with good bacteria) can promote a healthy gut and help keep gas at bay, she says.

Add plain Greek yogurt to a morning smoothie to reap the probiotic benefits, suggests Brisette. Just stay away from brands with added or artificial sugars, which can cause stomach issues and contribute to bloating.

To get even more de-puff bang for your buck, add fresh-cut fruit, like pineapple or papaya, to your blend. These two fruits contain natural digestive enzymes called bromelain and papain, which help you break down protein for easier digestion, Brisette says. Plus, they also provide potassium, an electrolyte that helps maintain the fluid balance in your body and flushes out excess water and sodium, she explains.

10:30 A.M.—Snack On Watermelon

Giant meals can be hard on your digestive system, so opt for five to six smaller meals throughout your de-bloat day. “We’ve all seen what happens after Thanksgiving, when a food baby appears,” Brisette says.

Switch up your snack game and make sure to avoid energy, fiber, or protein bars that contain any ingredients ending in “-ol” (like sugar alcohols sorbitol, xylitol, and mannitol). “They’re designed so our bodies can’t digest all the calories,” says Brisette. And since we can’t fully digest them, they hang out in our gut and lead to gas.

Instead, snack on fresh fruit, which contains water to hydrate you, along with more de-bloating potassium and fiber to keep things moving through your digestive tract. Chomp on some juicy watermelon, a high-water, low-calorie, low-carb fruit that also contains citrulline, an amino acid that may help your body tackle swelling, says Barbour.

12:30 P.M.—Eat Grilled Chicken With A Side Of Tabbouleh Salad For Lunch

All day, you’ll be banning salty, processed, and greasy foods like burgers, chips and fries, which can upset your stomach and make you hold onto extra water (mostly because of their sodium content, according to Yanez). By making your meals at home today, you can replace salt with other herbs and spices for flavor, adds Brisette.

Grilled chicken is a lean and filling source of protein that’ll keep you nourished and satisfied. Pair it with a tabbouleh salad—a favorite of Yanez’s—for some extra de-puffing action. Tabbouleh salad usually includes tomatoes, parsley, mint, bulgur, and onion. Parsley, in particular, contains potassium and encourages your body to release water, says Yanez.

1:00 P.M.—Gargle With Mouthwash

If you normally chew gum and want that fresh feeling on the run, rinse with mouthwash instead today. Sugar-free gum contains those bloat-causing sugar alcohols, and the act of chewing makes you swallow extra air, adding even more bloat, says Brisette.

2:00 P.M.—Sip On A Glass Of Dandelion Tea

Swap your afternoon coffee for a tea that contains dandelion, hibiscus, burdock root, and/or lemon, recommends Barbour. Not only do you avoid caffeine that might keep you awake later, but these other herbal ingredients can help your body get rid of excess water.

3:00 P.M.—Cut Cravings With Celery And Peanut Butter

When those mid-afternoon munchies hit, stay away from packaged snacks and opt for a simple, wholesome alternative. Pair celery—another one of those high-water foods—with a tablespoon of nut butter, suggests Yanez. The fat and protein in the PB will hold you over until your next meal.

5:00 P.M.—Skip The After-Work Happy Hour

They don’t call it a “beer belly” for no reason! All alcohol tends to cause bloat, but drinks with bubbles do extra damage, Yanez says. Also, alcohol makes you all-the-more likely to reach for salty, high-calorie, puff-inducing foods. Not to mention, it totally wrecks your sleep.

6:00 P.M.—Take A Bath With Epsom Salt

Epsom salt is great for detoxifying the body and soothing joints,” says Barbour. While it’s not necessarily de-bloating, an Epsom salt bath can support the body’s response to inflammation and help it manage swelling, she says. Choose a bath salt that contains magnesium chloride (the mineral at work here) and pour three to four cups into a warm bath. Barbour recommends soaking for 20 to 40 minutes.

If you have any chronic conditions or health concerns (like low blood pressure), talk to your doctor before bathing in Epsom salts, says Barbour. And make sure to drink a big glass of water after your soak to stay hydrated.

7:30 P.M.—Fill Up On Salmon, Mesclun Salad, And Asparagus For Dinner

For every gram of glycogen (energy from carbs) your body stores, you retain up to three or four grams of water, says Brisette. This is why people on low-carb diets tend to lose a couple pounds of water weight in the first few days—and why all of our experts suggested scaling back on carbs in their de-bloating efforts

Like your lunch, your de-puff dinner focuses on protein and veggies. Breads, pastas, and white rice won’t help you in your mission. (Note: Many people feel exhausted on long-term low-carb diets, so Brisette doesn’t recommend them.)

You’ll also want to avoid gas-promoting cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, which are tougher to digest. Beans can also lead to some extra gas, especially if you don’t eat them regularly, Brisette says.

Related: 7 Foods That Can Make You Gassy

Instead, fill up on a big mesclun greens salad topped with high-water produce like tomatoes and cucumbers. Toss your salad in a quick combo of lemon juice and olive oil and serve with baked salmon, or your favorite protein source. You can also include a side of asparagus, which contains an amino acid, asparagine, that (you guessed it) supports the body’s release of water, says Barbour.

8:30 P.M.—Relax With A Cup Of Ginger Tea

Ginger is an anti-spasmodic, meaning it helps to soothe your digestive system, which is good news for eliminating gas, says Brisette. Sipping on ginger tea, especially after a meal, can support smooth digestion. Then, hit the hay so you’re well-rested!

Related: Find an herbal tea for every need.

Pin this infographic to put this de-bloat plan to use in a pinch: 

 

The 5 Most Effective Abs Exercises

Your core—which includes the torso muscles between your chest and hips, like your abdominals and obliques—is super important for just about everything you do throughout the day, from standing up straight to working out. Sure, we all want the sleek midsection that comes with a strong core, but these muscles are also key for maintaining mobility and avoiding injury.

“All of these muscles work together as one unit to keep the pelvis and posture in alignment,” says Erica Suter, C.S.C.S. When your core isn’t strong, your lower back compensates, often leaving you with slouchy posture, lower back pain, and at risk for poor form when strength-training.

Almost all of the exercises you do—from squats, to pullups, to pushups—work the core to some extent, explains Suter. So strengthening your core not only improves your workouts and posture, but helps you get through tons of functional activities you do every day. “A lot of clients tell me a stronger core has helped them tremendously in daily living with things like lifting heavy grocery bags or carrying their kids,” she says.

That said, some moves target and fire up the core more effectively than others—so we asked two top trainers to share their go-to MVP abs moves. Prepare to feel the burn, big time.

Related: The Truth About Belly Fat

photo: Erica Suter
  1. Resisted Dead Bug

If you can’t do conventional crunches because of lower-back pain, this move hits your lower abs and helps to stabilize your lower (lumbar) spine. Suter loves this move because it’s safe for most exercisers.

Try It: Attach a rope handle attachment to a cable machine or loop a resistance band around a squat rack hook. Lie on your back in front of the machine with your legs extended as straight up above your hips as possible. Hold the rope or resistance band overhead, with your arms extended straight up above your head, framing your ears. Crunch up just enough to lift your shoulder blades off the ground, keeping your chin tucked to maintain tension throughout your core. Pull the band or cable directly toward your chest. Keeping tension in your core, lower your legs until they hover just above the ground. Then raise your legs back up to starting position. Repeat for two to three sets of 10 to 15 reps.

Make the move easier by skipping the resistance band or cable machine and simply crunching up. Make it harder by moving further away from the rack or upping the resistance on the cable machine.

photo: Suter
  1. Ab Walkout

This move challenges all of the muscles that keep your midsection stable, from your rectus abdominus (those six-pack muscles) to your transverse abdominus (muscles along the front and side of your torso, beneath your obliques), to your obliques themselves, says Suter. Since this exercise trains you to avoid arching or over-extending your lower back, it can help protect you from trouble in that area.

“There’s also an upper body strength component the farther you roll out,” says Suter. Expect to feel the burn in your shoulders and triceps, too.

Try It: Kneel down on your knees and contract your glutes (butt muscles) as hard as you can. Exhale and slowly walk your hands out one-by-one in front of you, keeping your abs contracted and head and hips in a straight line. Walk your hands out as far as you can while still keeping your core fully engaged—if you feel your lower-back sagging or experience any discomfort there, you’ve gone too far! The farther out you walk your hands and the closer your body is to the ground, the harder the exercise. Repeat for three to five sets of 10 to 15 reps.
To make this move harder, use an ab wheel. To kick up the intensity even further, lift your knees and start the exercise in plank position—or elevate your feet on a bench.

  1. Hardstyle Plank

Planks teach your spine and hips to work in unison, which is super important for powering through pretty much every sport, says Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S. This level-up on your basic plank is a great way to create what Somerset calls “controlled tension” throughout your hips and core.

Try It: Start on the ground on all fours. Lower your elbows to the ground so they’re in line with your shoulders. Extend your legs, planting the balls of your feet firmly on the ground. Keeping your hips in line with your shoulders, contract your quad muscles (fronts of your thighs) and glutes, and lengthen through your heels. Press your shoulders away from your ears, lengthening your neck. Think of pushing the floor away from you with your forearms and brace your core like you’re about to be punched in the gut. “Breathe with the force of the big bad wolf trying to blow over the little piggies’ house,” Somerset advises. The goal is to generate tension in your core—the more tension you create, the harder it’ll be to hold the position—so squeeze as hard as you can! Hold for about 20 seconds and repeat two to four times.

Related: How Much Do Genetics Factor Into Getting Ripped Abs?

  1. Bird Dog

This move helps you learn to use your core to balance movement in your arms and legs without putting stress on your low back or neck. “Bird dogs help you to control movement from the hips and shoulders while promoting balance and stability throughout the core,” says Somerset.

Try It: Get onto your hands and knees, with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Keeping your back flat and core engaged, extend your right arm out directly in front of your right shoulder and your left (opposite) leg out directly behind your hip. (Imagine reaching your hand and foot out toward the walls in front of you and behind you, instead of lifting up toward the ceiling.) Then carefully bring your right elbow and your left knee to meet beneath your midline. (Slow down if you’re wobbling.) Extend your arm and leg out again. Repeat the movement eight to 10 times, then switch to the other side. Repeat for two to four sets per side.

  1. Kneeling Pallof Press And Raise 

This move helps you learn to control rotation through your spine by firing up your obliques. Strong side abs, here you come.

Try It: Kneel down onto a padded surface (a mat, rolled up towel, or foam roller will do the trick) perpendicular to a cable machine. Grab the cable handle with both hands and extend your arms out in front of you at shoulder height. Engage your core. Keeping your arms straight—but not locked—pull the cable straight up over your head until your arms frame your ears. With control, lower back to the starting position. Pull the cable in toward your chest, keeping your core tight, shoulders back and down away from your ears, and your elbows wide. Then extend your arms back to the starting position. (Your ribs and pelvis shouldn’t budge as your arms move.) Repeat for two to four sets of eight to 10 reps on each side.

To make the exercise harder, increase the weight on the cable machine.

Related: Check out training accessories for quality workouts.

photo: Peter McCall
  1. Rotating Shoulder Press

Your abs connect your trunk—which, by extension, includes your shoulders—to your hips. “The most effective core exercises engage all of the muscles that connect those parts via rotational movements,” says Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., host of the All About Fitness Podcast and adjunct professor of exercise science at San Diego State University. With this reach-and-rotate exercise, you’ll strengthen and lengthen these muscles, making you more resilient against injury, he says.

Try It: Stand holding two dumbbells, with your feet slightly wider than your hips. Bring the dumbbells to rest at shoulder height. Rotate your chest to the left and press the left dumbbell until your arm is extended directly up above your shoulder, keeping your spine long, chest high, and core activated. (The rotation should come from your hips—not your spine—so allow them to rotate as you press the weight.) Rotate your chest back to center as you lower the left dumbbell back to shoulder height. Repeat for two to four sets of 10 to 12 reps per side.

As the exercise becomes easier, increase the weight of your dumbbells until you can only perform eight to 10 reps per side.

Related: 6 Dumbbell Moves That Build Muscle And Burn Calories

Why It’s So Darn Hard To Lose Those Last 5 Pounds

Almost everyone who’s tried to lose weight knows the struggle of seeing progress for a while and then feeling like the results screech to a halt just a few pounds shy of that goal number. That last bit of body fat seems to really cling to our bodies—but why?

Here’s the full breakdown of what goes on in our bodies when we’re trying to lose weight—and what to do if you find yourself in that last-five-pounds rut.

First Things First: Weight-Loss Basics

We all need a unique number of calories in order to function—called our basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is how much energy our body needs to maintain basic daily functions like breathing and digesting food, says William Yancy, M.D., Director of the Duke Diet & Fitness Center. (Basically, this is the number of calories you’d burn just lying in bed all day.)

Your gender and size play a role in determining your BMR, but so do other factors, like your lifestyle. Someone who hits the gym regularly needs more calories than someone who spends most of their time sitting—not only because they burn extra calories when they exercise, but because they might also have more muscle mass, which requires extra calories to maintain, says Yancy.

To lose body fat, you need to create a ‘calorie deficit,’ which means you need to use more calories than you consume, says Yancy. That means either eating less and/or upping your physical activity so you have more calories going out than coming in.

When you’re in a calorie deficit, your body needs to tap into a new energy source, so it turns to glycogen, energy you store in your muscles and liver from carbohydrates. Next, it’ll turn to stored body fat, Yancy says. Your body will also break down some muscle into amino acids to make more glucose, which is why most people lose some lean mass—along with fat—when they lose weight, he says.

When you’re cutting calories or exercising more to create a calorie deficit, it’s safe to shed about a pound or two per week, Yancy says. People with higher BMIs tend to lose weight faster because their larger bodies require more calories, making it easier to create a calorie deficit—hence why guys shed pounds faster than women. But weight loss can be a toss-up beyond that. Some people lose weight nonstop at a slow and steady rate. Others don’t lose a lot at first but then lose more later on (or the opposite). Still others lose weight in steps, with plateaus in between, says Yancy.

Why Those Last Five Pounds Just Won’t Scram…

As individual as weight loss may be, those last five pounds are notoriously difficult to shed. “I call it ‘high alert mode’,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, R.D.N., author of Eating in Color. “It’s easier to shed large amounts of weight because you can do big things, like cut out soda or eat less overall,” she says. When you’re close to the finish line, though, not-so-fun little tweaks (like turning down after-work drinks) make a difference. Eventually, the level of discipline required to keep shedding pounds can become exhausting. Plus, as you lose weight, your smaller body needs fewer calories to function and your metabolism slows down, says Yancy. Meaning you’d have to start eating even fewer calories. Talk about fighting an uphill battle.

Same goes for exercise. You might be able to kick into high gear for a while, but busy schedules and burnout make rigorous gym routines hard to maintain, Largeman-Roth says. And there’s only so much sweating you can reasonably do!

How much weight we’re able to lose changes with age, too. Around age 20, our BMR naturally begins to decrease, dropping about one to two percent per year until about 45, when it really declines, Largeman-Roth says. So the goal weight that may have been realistic for you at 25 may not be realistic at 35 or 40. As women enter perimenopause in their 30s or 40s, changing estrogen levels can also make weight loss harder, she says. For guys, it’s the declining levels of the muscle-supporting hormone testosterone (which starts to drop around age 40) that lead to a metabolism slowdown.

The icing on the cake? Stress increases our body’s production of the hormone cortisol, which can also spur weight gain in the long-run. And elevated cortisol levels do us dirty by leading us toward foods higher in fat and calories, according to a paper published in Nutrition.

What You CAN Do When The Scale Won’t Budge

Keep a food diary. Jotting down every single bite and sip you put into your mouth for a week (including the weekend) can be eye-opening, says Yancy. You can even snap photos of all your eats. “You might realize you’re eating and drinking more than you thought,” says Largeman-Roth. You may suddenly realize those extra snacks add up!

Recalculate your burn. You might be hitting the gym harder than ever, but it’s possible that you’re overestimating how many calories you’re burning. Plus, that extra-hungry feeling you get after a bout of cardio might lead you to nosh on more than you actually need in order to to refuel, effectively canceling out your workout. “It’s quite easy to eat a couple hundred extra calories, but it takes a whole lot longer to burn that many,” says Yancy. Double check the average calories burned for the exercises you’re doing—Harvard Health Publications has a guide—and keep that number in mind when picking your post-workout grub.

Related: The Perfect Post-Workout Snack For Your Goals

Watch what you drink. An extra three or four beers or glasses of wine can add up to 500 calories to your total caloric intake for the week, says Largeman-Roth. Try to cut back on a glass or two per week, and swap sugary, calorie-loaded cocktails like mojitos for wine or vodka soda with a splash of lime.

Find a lighter way to satisfy your sweet tooth. If you can’t pass up something sweet after dinner, Largeman-Roth suggests swapping that bowl of rocky road ice cream for Greek yogurt topped with naturally sweet blueberries and a few chopped walnuts. The protein and healthy fats will satisfy your belly without the sugar high (and crash) that comes with sugary desserts.

Related: 8 Nutritionists Share How They Satisfy Their Sweet Cravings

Don’t go crazy cutting calories. While losing weight is all about that calorie deficit, cutting back too much can eventually backfire and eventually slow down your metabolism because your body adapts to function on less energy than usual. For most people, 1200 calories per day should be the absolute bare minimum, says Largeman-Roth. But your baseline may be higher, depending on your size and activity level.

If you’ve been slashing hundreds of calories to no avail, try adding 200 calories a day back into your diet for a couple weeks. Largeman-Roth also suggests adding strength-training to your routine, which helps boost your metabolism by supporting muscle growth, meaning you can take in more calories and still reach your goals.

Related: 6 Ways Building Muscle Benefits Your Health And Well Being

Go lower-carb. Research suggests that a low-carb diet may be beneficial for weight loss, says Yancy. One study, published in JAMA, for example, found that a low-carb diet (more than a low-fat or low-glycemic index diet) effectively prevented the metabolic slowdown that often comes with weight loss. The low-carb dieters consumed just 10 percent of their daily calories from carbs, with 30 percent from protein and 60 percent from fat. You can also read more about cutting back on refined carbs here.)

Make sleep a priority. Missing out on sleep can throw your hunger hormones out of whack, leaving you hungrier and more likely to reach for higher-calorie foods, says Yancy. In fact, a study published in Sleep found that four nights of restricted sleep (four and a half hours per night) influenced circulating levels of the hunger-related chemicals,and that sleep-deprived participants reported feeling hungrier and less able to turn down snacks.

To help keep your appetite in check, make seven to nine hours of sleep per night a priority, says Yancy.

Related: Find a supplement to support a good snooze.

Try HIIT. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) has been shown to boost your body’s fat-burning ability better than lower-intensity exercise. “If you’re already dieting and exercising, but can’t lose those last five pounds, HIIT may be just the final push you need,” says Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., host of the All About Fitness Podcast and adjunct professor of exercise science at San Diego State University. For best results, McCall recommends two to three sessions per week. And since you can bang out an efficient HIIT workout in about 30 minutes or less, it’s a great exercise option when you’re crunched for time. Plus, you can do interval workouts on just about any cardio machine—even while using bodyweight exercises.

Related: Here’s Everything You Need To Know About HIIT Workouts

Switch up your workouts—and don’t forget to rest. Athletes take time off now and then to allow their bodies to rest—and so should you. “The biggest mistake people make is thinking they have to exercise all the time,” says McCall. But that’s a recipe for poor recovery and burnout. If you notice you haven’t been able to lift more weight or run faster in a few weeks, it’s time to either take a week or so off, or switch up your routine, McCall says.

Reality Check: Should You Reevaluate Your Goals?

Ultimately, the scale isn’t the end-all-be-all indicator of your health. After all, one pound of muscle takes up less space than one pound of fat, and boosts your calorie burn by four to seven calories per day, says McCall. “If you gain five pounds of muscle, you’ll burn 30 more calories a day,” he says. That’s like walking an extra mile a week—without actually doing the extra exercise.

Losing that last five pounds isn’t a health concern. For many of us, that goal number may just be unrealistic or more about aesthetics. When your laser-beam focus on hitting a certain number is stressing you out, think instead about how your clothes fit, or how strong or energetic you feel. You might just realize you don’t need to lose five more pounds after all.

Should You Try Carb Cycling?

If you’ve ever considered going low-carb to lose weight but don’t want to completely break up with pasta, carb cycling—a diet that alternates between high-carb and low-carb days—might be an option.

According to a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, carb cycling may be an effective approach. The study found that overweight women who ate normally but otherwise restricted their carbs two days per week lost more weight than women on a standard calorie-restricted diet for three months. They also better maintained their weight loss, and improved their bodies’ sensitivity to insulin (which regulates blood sugar).

But carb cycling isn’t for everyone—and it isn’t meant to last forever. Here’s what you need to know.

Your Body On (And Off) Carbs

So, why cut carbs in the first place? “Going low-carb has been shown to be somewhat effective for weight loss in the short-term,” says board-certified sports nutrition specialist Jennifer O’Donnell-Giles, R.D. That’s in large part because reducing carbs is a fast way to shed water weight: For every gram of glycogen (energy from carbs) you stash in your muscles, you store three grams of water with it. So by cutting carbs and depleting some of your glycogen stores, you reduce the amount of water your body holds onto. Hence why many low-carb dieters notice they lost three-to-five pounds pretty quickly, says O’Donnell-Giles.

Your body needs carbs, though, for exercise and muscle-building. Any time you work out—whether it’s running or weight-lifting—at a moderate or high intensity, your muscles use up your glycogen stores to make chemical energy called ATP (adenosine triphosphate), explains Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., host of the All About Fitness Podcast and adjunct professor of exercise science at San Diego State University.

This is the downside to low-carb dieting: It might leave your muscles without the fuel they need to perform and grow. And since muscle is crucial for a fired-up metabolism (the rate at which your body burns calories), many long-term, low-carb dieters find that they gain weight faster after coming off that low-carb diet, says O’Donnell-Giles.

Related: 5 Myths About Your Metabolism—Busted

That’s where carb-cycling comes in. By cycling through no-carb, low-carb, and high-carb days throughout the week, you can support weight loss and muscle-building at the same time. On no-carb and low-carb days, you’ll lose water weight and burn fat, explains O’Donnell-Giles. Then on high-carb days, you’ll refuel those glycogen stores with the energy you need to crush tough workouts.

How To Do It

First things first, here’s what no-carb, low-carb, and high-carb days look like on a carb cycling diet:

No-carb days: On these days, you’ll limit your carb intake as much as possible—often below 30 total grams per day, with some people staying as low as 20 to 25 grams. That means that other than protein (like chicken, fish, and steak) and fats (like nuts), you’ll eat only veggies that are high in fiber and water, says O’Donnell-Giles. And not just any veggies: Only low-carb produce like leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, onions, peppers, mushrooms, asparagus, and zucchini are on the menu. But starchy vegetables like winter squashes, potatoes, corn, and legumes—along with fruits and dairy—are all no-gos because they’re higher in carbs.

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Low-carb days: On these in-between days, you’ll up your carb intake to roughly 70 to 80 grams per day by adding a serving of starchier veggies, fruits, or grains to two meals. Think brown rice, oatmeal, beans, peas, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes. “But many people still avoid gluten, soy, and dairy, which are higher in carbs,” says O’Donnell-Giles. (A serving of pasta contains between 30 and 40 grams, while a sweet potato comes in around 20 grams.)

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High-carb days: On these energy restocking days, prepare to load up on the carb-y goods. You’ll more than double your carb intake to between 150 to 300 grams of carbs, which should be evenly spread throughout your meals. Just make sure to eat your carbs along with protein and healthy fats to slow down their absorption and keep your blood sugar as stable as possible. “If you just ate bagels all day, you’d have really high blood sugar spikes from the fast-absorbed carbs,” says O’Donnell-Giles. This blood sugar rollercoaster can affect your insulin sensitivity and lead to weight gain—and, of course, make you feel sluggish when you crash.

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How you organize your no-carb, low-carb, and high-carb days is up to you. Some people continuously cycle through a no-carb day, a low-carb day, and then a high-carb day. Others stay on each carb level for three days before moving onto the next. Some even start the work week with two no-carb days, followed by three low-carb days, saving their two high-carb days for over the weekend, says O’Donnell-Giles.

Just plan to eat most of your carbs during the day, when your body needs them the most, and not before bed, says O’Donnell-Giles. For bonus points, load up on your carbs (along with protein) after you work out. Your body uses the amino acids in the protein and the glucose in the carbs to repair your muscles—and your revved metabolism will help shuttle the nutrients straight to your muscles to help you recover and get stronger.

Related: Find an amino acid supplement to fuel workouts and muscle recovery.  

Common Mistakes To Avoid

Limiting any type of food inevitably cuts out important nutrients, warns O’Donnell-Giles. Many people on carb-cycling diets don’t eat dairy, for example, which means they’re missing out on vitamin D, magnesium, and calcium. Meanwhile, ditching gluten means missing out on B vitamins. With a little planning, you can easily incorporate these foods into a carb cycling diet, especially on those high-carb days, says O’Donnell-Giles. The more balanced and well-rounded you can keep your overall diet, the better.

Replacing fresh, whole foods with processed stuff is another common no-no, says O’Donnell-Giles. “Some people won’t touch a banana, but will make shakes out of a packet,” she says. Swapping natural foods for processed ones—even if they’re more low-carb friendly—isn’t a good move for long-term nutrition and health, so avoid the too-easy temptation of packaged products and stick with natural foods.

When NOT To Carb Cycle

As great as carb cycling may sound for losing weight without suffering through an all-around low-carb diet—it’s not for everyone. Reconsider trying carb rotating if any of the following apply to you:

You’ve been diagnosed with anxiety or depression. When you skimp on carbs, your body produces less serotonin, the neurotransmitter that regulates mood and anxiety levels. According to a paper published in PLOS Biology, the body’s release of insulin triggers the release of serotonin. Without carbs to trigger that insulin spike, your production of the feel-good hormone serotonin may also be affected.

Hence why many low-carb dieters get moody and down in the dumps, says O’Donnell-Giles. For this reason, O’Donnell-Giles recommends that those on antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications avoid low-carb diets.

You have type 1 or type 2 diabetes. When you have diabetes, your body has trouble producing and/or using insulin. “That means you need about 15 to 25 grams of carbs, along with protein and fats, at every meal to keep your blood sugar steady,” says O’Donnell-Giles. Significantly switching up your carb intake throws off insulin levels, she says.

Related: Is Sugar Really All That Bad For You?

You’re an athlete or workout warrior. If you’re exercising heavily—like running 20 plus miles per week or crushing regular CrossFit® classes—carb cycling will leave you without the fuel needed for the long periods of time spent training. Remember those glycogen stores we talked about? If performance is a priority for you, the energy you get from carbs is even more important. “You can’t go low-carb and run 10 miles and feel good,” says O’Donnell-Giles.

The Verdict On Carb Cycling

Though carb cycling can be less restrictive than all-out low carb diets or other eating plans, it’s likely not realistic in the long-term. While it can help you lose weight initially, your body will eventually adapt: “You can try carb cycling for three to four months, but your body will hit its limit,” says McCall. At that point, you’ll likely plateau and need to reassess your nutrition strategy.

In the long run, O’Donnell-Giles recommends finding the carb middle ground in your diet. Weight loss and maintenance are all about consistency, she says. A steady, moderate amount of carbs (somewhere between the low-carb and high-carb day amount) keeps hormones (like insulin) consistent while helping you feel energetic and satisfied, she adds. Just make sure those carbs come from quality, whole foods.

11 Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Metabolism

We all want to have the most efficient, zippy metabolism possible. More calories burned every day? Yes, please!

Formally known as your basal metabolic rate (BMR), your metabolism is a measure of exactly how much energy (i.e., calories) your body requires in a day to accomplish basic functions like keeping your heart beating and your gut digesting food. Depending on your age and lifestyle, your BMR accounts for 40 to 70 percent of all the calories you use in an average day, according to nutritionist Jess Cording, R.D.

Muscle burns more calories than fat, so your muscle mass has a big impact on your metabolism, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). How much muscle we have is determined partially by our genes—but since men tend to have more lean mass than women, they usually have a higher BMR (a.k.a. a ‘faster’ metabolism.) As we tend to lose muscle and gain fat in our 40s and beyond, though, our BMR decreases, says Cording. Womp womp.

That said, there are a number of things you can do—and avoid doing—to keep your metabolism running at top speed. Make sure you’re not making any of these metabolism-slowing mistakes:

1. You’re Not Eating Enough

When you don’t take in enough nutrients, your body essentially thinks you’re starving, says Cording. “Your metabolism slows down to compensate for the lower caloric intake in order to save up energy for later on,” she explains. So if you’re cutting back on calories, feeling exhausted, and not seeing any change on the scale, chances are, you’re not eating enough.

The solution: First of all, a weight-loss diet should never dip below 1,200 calories per day, says Cording. And your baseline may be much higher, depending on your age, gender, and activity level. Cording suggests bumping up your daily caloric intake by 200 calories and monitoring how you feel—and look. If you still feel drained and don’t see results on the scale or in the mirror after a couple of weeks, you may need to check in with a dietitian who can help reevaluate your diet.

Related: 5 Myths About Your Metabolism—Busted 

2. You’re Skimping On Sleep

Your cells need  nightly rest in order to function as efficiently as possible during the day—so when your cells are tired, it takes a lot more for them to keep up with day-to-day processes, says Cording. While it might seem like this would up your calorie burn, your body actually burns calories less efficiently, she explains. Plus, lack of sleep also throws your hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin, out of whack. “That means you’re less in-tune you’re your hunger and fullness cues, which primes you to overeat and seek calorie-dense foods,” she says.

The solution: Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep every night, on as many nights as possible, Cording says. (Prime yourself for a great snooze with this evening routine.)

drink water3. You’re Not Drinking Enough Water

Just like your cells struggle when you don’t get much sleep, they also have a hard time functioning properly when they aren’t getting the water they need, says Cording.

The solution: Take a look at the color of your urine: It should look like lemonade, not apple juice or iced tea, says Cording. If you’re seeing cider-y hues, go grab a glass of water, stat. For most people, eight glasses per day is a good baseline, but if you work out a lot or if it’s super hot outside, you may need more. And while there’s no conclusive evidence that gulping down a glass first thing in the morning actually kick-starts your metabolism, it does help your digestion function at peak capacity, according to Cording.

Related: 8 Fun Ways To Drink More Water If You Hate Water

4. You’re Stressed Out

High stress levels boost certain hormones in your body—most notably cortisol—that can wreak havoc on your metabolic rate. With that, stress can affect inflammation and even the amount of fat you store around your mid-section, according to Cording. Plus, since stress can often leave you tossing and turning at night, it can contribute to the whacked out appetite and cravings associated with poor snoozing, she says. You know your body best, but consider consistent crummy sleep and feelings of irritability, exhaustion, or spaciness good indicators that your stress levels are too high and hurting your health.

The solution: Get a handle on your stress—that can help you get a handle on other areas of life. If you’re logging long hours at the office, try to find ways to cut back—or find a stress-relief outlet like a spin class, yoga, meditation, massage, or another natural stress-busters. Cording suggests that setting a regular sleep schedule—and making it priority, even on the weekends—may help your body cope.

5. You Use Sea Salt Instead Of Table Salt

Low levels of iodine, which is added to table salt but not found in sea salt, can impact your thyroid function, says Cording. (And many Americans don’t get enough iodine.) Since your thyroid controls hormones throughout your body, like those that regulate metabolism and hunger, you can expect a wonky metabolic rate if it’s not functioning properly.

The solution: Split your seasoning between sea salt and regular table salt, and try to eat two servings of fish (a natural iodine source) per week, suggests Cording. And if you’ve experienced sudden, unexplained weight gain, check in with your doctor about having your thyroid checked.

Fascinating Facts About Protein6. You’re Not Eating Enough Protein

Your body needs protein to do everything from fueling your cells to building your muscles. “When you’re not getting enough protein, you feel sluggish and have a lower metabolic rate because the body doesn’t have the fuel it needs to do its job,” says Cording. And without ample protein, you won’t be able to gain muscle mass—no matter how much weight you lift, she says. (That’s because the amino acids that protein is made of are crucial for your muscles.)

The solution: Cording recommends most healthy people start with 0.8 to one gram of protein per kilogram (that’s 2.2 pounds) of body weight. For a 140-pound person, that’s about 50 to 60 grams of protein per day. But if you’re very active and trying to build muscle, shoot for at least half your body weight (in pounds) in grams of protein per day—that’s 70 grams of protein per day for that same 140-pound person. Because your body can only utilize so much protein at a time, Cording recommends spacing it evenly throughout the day—yes, including  breakfast.

Related: Find a protein supplement to support your muscle-building goals.

7. You’re Low In Calcium Or Vitamin D

These key nutrients have an impact on much more than your bones! Calcium helps nerves and cells function, while vitamin D helps hormones function, says Cording. These factors are essential for tons of body processes—including your metabolism, she says.

The solution: Calcium can be found in dairy, tofu, fish, and leafy greens like bok choy and kale.If you’re noshing on these foods regularly, you’re probably good to go on calcium, says Cording. It’s vitamin D that’s the tricky one. It’s not easy to get from food, so unless you eat fish frequently or bank lots of time in the sun, your levels may be low. Your doc can test your levels and recommend a supplement, if needed, she says.

Related: Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Your Doctor About Vitamin D

8. You’re Still On The Low-Fat Train

The low-fat diet trend seems to finally be over, but for many of us the idea that eating fat makes you fat is tough to shake. Fat is actually crucial for your body to function at its best, because it gives you energy, helps your body absorb some vitamins (A, D, E, and K), and offers your body essential fatty acids that you need for brain development, blood clotting, and to control inflammation, according to the National Institutes of Health. So if you don’t get enough fat in your diet, your body may slow your metabolism to conserve the energy and nutrients it is getting, explains Cording.

The solution: Cording recommends getting about 30 percent of your daily calories from healthy fats. Go mostly for plant-based monounsaturated fats like avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, which provide essential fatty acids and help to lower blood cholesterol and decrease inflammation, among other important benefits, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. (But some whole eggs and full-fat dairy are okay, too!) That might look like avocado toast with an egg for breakfast, some nut butter with an apple as a snack, and veggies tossed in olive oil and roasted with dinner.

4 Reasons You're Still Wrecked Days After Your Workout MAIN9. You’re Working Out Too Hard

If you’re doing intense workouts daily, your body could be susceptible to what’s known as ‘adrenal fatigue’, explains personal trainer Erica Suter, C.S.C.S. When you exercise, levels of the stress hormone cortisol (which is made by your adrenal gland) rise. (They return to baseline after you’ve finished and recovered.) When your body doesn’t get enough recovery between workouts, though, it remains in a constant state of stress, she says. Chronically higher cortisol levels can derail your metabolism, leaving you feeling fatigued and grumpy—all without seeing the results you want from your workouts.

Feeling wiped out on your way into the gym is a tell-tale sign that you need to scale back the intensity or schedule in more frequent rest days, says Suter.

Related: Why You’re Still Feeling Wrecked Days After A Workout

The solution: Seeing maximal results from your workouts requires balance. That means splitting your week between a few days of high-intensity workouts and a few days of more relaxing exercise, like yoga, hiking, or walking, says Suter. That way, your body has the opportunity to recover and respond positively to your more challenging workout days, she explains.

10. You Don’t Hit The Weights

Yes, research does show that cardio burns fat and and helps with recovery and weight loss—but only doing cardio won’t boost your metabolism. Weight training, on the other hand, will, says Suter. Your body uses more calories to maintain muscle than it does to maintain fat—so the more muscle you have, the higher your baseline metabolic rate!

The solution: Make sure to fit at least two or three strength-training sessions into your weekly workout routine, says Suter. (Not sure how heavy you should lift to build muscle? Find out here.)

11. You’ve Sworn Off Carbs

Low-carb diets might be everywhere, but cutting carbohydrates out of your life won’t boost your metabolism—and might actually undercut it instead. “Carbs are our muscles’ main source of energy,” explains Suter. When we eat carbs, our bodies store them as glycogen, which is used throughout the day, especially when we exercise. “Once our glycogen is used up—like after a HIIT workout, strength-training, or long bout of cardio—our muscles struggle for energy,” she says. This can spike our cortisol (stress hormone) levels, which is a no-no for your metabolism and weight in the long-term, she adds. Plus, because carbs play a role in protein synthesis, the process in which our muscles rebuild and grow, ample carbs are necessary for maintaining and building muscle.

The solution: The average person needs at least 100 grams of carbs daily, says Suter. If you’re physically active or go hard at the gym, though, you may need quite a bit more, especially before and after your workouts. Pay attention to your energy levels and mental sharpness during your workouts and throughout the day, Suter says. If you feel sluggish, you probably need to fuel up with more carbs. Go for whole-food sources like oatmeal, brown rice, potatoes, fruits, veggies, and beans.

Related: How To Pick The Perfect Pre-Workout Snack (That Won’t Wreck Your Stomach)