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Overhaul your eating habits -- without missing out on the fun

Maintain or lose weight without restricting yourself

As we lead busy lives, it’s not surprising that finding time to focus on nutrition and exercise takes real effort. But it truly does not have to be a burden.

While there’s no doubt that finding the time to exercise can be impossible some days, if you can start by focusing on creating a healthy diet for yourself, you’ll be on the right track.

Figure out your needs

Certified personal trainer Amber Ross, who has studied and tried numerous types of eating plans, said if you’re looking to lose or maintain weight, it all comes down to how many calories you take in during a day, and keeping track of your macronutrients is the best way to figure out what works for your body.

“Scientifically, that is the only way,” she said. “There are some people who don’t want to have to track calories, but do it for a short term until you kind of learn, ‘This is how I need to eat for my body,’ and then you don’t have to (track) it forever.”

So how do you know how many calories you should be getting, or at how much of a deficit you should be aiming for, in order to lose weight? Ross said the website If It Fits Your Macros has a calculator that lets each person pinpoint how many calories they need a day, based on factors unique to them — sex, age, weight, height, how active the person is, how many days a week they work out, how long each of those workouts are on average, how intense the exercises are and whether they’d like to grow muscle mass, maintain or lose weight.

“It will tell you a suggested number and (an) aggressive (number), and then one is reckless,” Ross said of those who are looking to lose weight. “I tell people to pick kind of in between the aggressive and the suggested.”

[Related: Too busy, but still motivated? This workout was made for anyone who's short on time]

After putting in the information, you get your macro results: how many calories a day you should be eating and how many should come from protein, carbs and fats.

“IIFYM really does give you good numbers,” Ross said.

Apply your macros

Ross uses and recommends a popular app, MyFitnessPal, to help keep track of individualized macros.

After creating your free profile, you can specify your goals.

[Click here to learn more about tracking your macros]

The app has thousands of foods, including restaurants’ food, and will allow you to input a new food if, for some reason, it’s not in the system. While this process may seem tedious -- and it undoubtedly can take some time -- once you’ve input your food once, it stays there under your “Recent” tab, making it quick to click on during your next meal.

And that's not to say that you have to be uber restrictive with the foods you eat. The point in following the macro plan is that you can be flexible in what you eat -- as long as you stay within the criteria set specifically for you. That means desserts are not off the table!

Timing of meals

Ross said the timing of meals doesn’t matter.

“There have been studies that have shown recently — because they used to say, ‘Don’t eat after a certain time because it all turns to fat when you sleep,’ but it’s not true at all. All the recent studies show that meal timing doesn’t matter. It just matters how many total calories you take in, in a day."

She said some people turn to intermittent fasting, where all the calories are eaten within a small window during the day, to help them achieve their goal.

“Most people who do it will skip breakfast and then eat their first meal around noon or 1, and then eat from 1 to dinner time,” she said. “The reason that works well for some people is it helps them stay in a calorie deficit and they feel like they still get bigger meals and get more full.”

Use caution

While eating at a calorie deficit is the goal when trying to lose weight, Ross cautioned to be careful how much of a deficit you eat at and for how long.

Ross, who has placed top two in five different bikini competitions, ate a 1200 calorie diet for several months in preparation for at least one of her shows. She said after several months, her body stopped responding.

[Related: Is eating low carb right for you?]

“It slows down your metabolism (and) it damages your hormone levels,” she said. “I was dropping calories — the amount I normally do — and I was not dropping much weight — not at the rate I normally do.”

She said going to the extreme for too long can have an effect on your endocrine system, adding that many women who compete in bikini competitions will temporarily lose their periods.

Ross said it’s good to find a maintenance level once you’ve dropped weight, because it’s simply not healthy to stay at a reckless calorie deficit for too long.

She said damaging your health is not worth it.

Instead, in preparation for her last competition, Ross stuck with the flexible dieting using macros.

“I didn’t limit myself or keep anything away from myself, but I did try to eat at least 90 percent nutrition and whole foods, and then I would do 10 percent treats,” she said.

Reverse dieting

Ross said for anyone who decides to go the aggressive route and eat at a large calorie deficit, the best way to get back to a maintenance caloric intake once you've hit your goal is to do reverse dieting.

"I’ll just add in 50 to 100 calories a week until I get back up to a good maintenance. And my maintenance calories are 1700-1800 for my body," Ross said. "That’s where I can kind of maintain a good, healthy weight."


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