Here, four eating plans tailored to busy women's different lifestyles. Learn these simple strategies to cut stress, fatigue, and weight gain.
We all have days when we feel drained. But if you walk around in a fog a lot of the time, poor eating habits may be to blame. "Not eating right is one of the biggest causes of fatigue," says Netty Levine, a registered dietitian at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, in Los Angeles.
Refueling with three wholesome meals a day isn't easy, thanks to women's fast-lane lifestyles. The kids oversleep, so you skip breakfast. Lunch is a muffin at your desk while you finish up a project. Then because you're too tired to cook, you pick up dinner from the drive-through window. Whether you spend your days chasing after kids, sitting in front of a computer, or traveling on business, don't let common nutrition traps sabotage your energy and your waistline. Find your lifestyle profile here and follow our simple eating strategies to stay focused and revved up all day long.
Lifestyle stressors: You're always running, which leaves no time for regular meals. There's volunteer work at your daughter's school two mornings a week. You do bookkeeping part-time for a local business. Three afternoons are spent driving your kids to basketball practice and piano lessons. And you never miss your Tuesday and Thursday spinning class. An ever-present cup of coffee and plastic bag filled with dry cereal help you stay awake while you dash around town.
Working a patchwork quilt of irregular hours -- be they nights, rotating shifts, or part-time while cramming in everything else -- can wreak havoc on good nutrition. You tend to eat haphazardly, snatching food where you find it. Often it's fatty fast foods, which can pile on pounds and drain energy (they take longer to digest, which diverts blood to the stomach from the brain, muscles, and vital organs, slowing energy-giving oxygen delivery to them). Constant dashboard dining also makes it easy to overeat, since it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain you're full.
Your high-energy performance plan:
Store healthy snacks in your car. Use ice packs and a mini-cooler to stash packets of nutritious low-cal foods, such as sticks of string cheese, grilled chicken strips, fresh fruit, yogurt, or nonfat milk. "If you've got healthy food available, you're less likely to hit the drive-through," says Susan Bowerman, assistant director of UCLA's Center for Human Nutrition.
Eat several mini-meals throughout the day to maintain stamina. Small meals are easier to digest than big ones (digesting large meals can make you sleepy). Try to stick to regular mealtimes. Breakfast is key; after your sleep-induced fast, your brain needs fuel to function. And have lunch at noon rather than 2 or 3, when you're ravenous. "Eat every four hours to keep your blood sugar from getting too low, making you feel sluggish," says Jo Ann Hattner, RD, coauthor of Help! My Underwear Is Shrinking!
If you must skip lunch -- because you're on deadline or your kid's game goes into overtime -- don't run on empty. "Carry around a nutrition bar that you can eat when you're really hungry and that will hold you until your next planned mealtime," suggests Randi Konikoff Beranbaum, a registered dietitian in Providence, Rhode Island. But read labels to make sure you're not just eating a glorified candy bar: Pick meal-replacement bars with at least 15 grams of protein plus fiber, folic acid, and calcium.
Mix protein with complex carbs. Spread a tablespoon of peanut butter, instead of jelly, on whole-grain toast. Have chicken and brown rice, high-fiber cereal with low-fat milk, apple slices and cottage cheese, or an omelet filled with vegetables. "The fiber in complex carbohydrates slows down absorption of sugars so you don't get quick spikes and plummets in energy," says Penny Edwards, a certified nutrition specialist in Oakland, California.
Drink more H2O. Sipping small doses of caffeine throughout the day can stave off an afternoon crash, but late-day coffee could hurt your ability to sleep when you want to. What's more, coffee can be dehydrating, which can cause drowsiness (and if it's a fatty whole-milk latte, add pounds). Tote around a bottle of water instead.
Lifestyle stressors: There's no place like home, where stay-at-home moms and home-office jocks have easy access to the fridge and pantry, free to graze all day long.
If you're a stay-at-home mom, you're up at dawn to get a jump on the chores before the kids are awake and then make breakfast for your family, often eating what's left on your kids' plates. That pattern repeats itself at lunch or dinner, when you obligingly polish off their uneaten french fries, chicken nuggets, or macaroni and cheese.
When you're home-based, it's easy to snack out of boredom, loneliness, or stress, especially since there are no other food-conscious grown-ups around to make you behave. A tense conversation with a client -- or a toddler -- sends you wandering into the kitchen for a tuck of leftover birthday cake. When you're having trouble gathering your thoughts for a crucial presentation, munching last night's pizza comforts you.
Nutrition pitfalls: Nibbling all day long can lead you to consume as many as 500 extra calories a day, which adds pounds that sap energy. "Because you're constantly foraging for food, you're never really hungry and never really feel full," says Bowerman.
Your high-energy performance plan: Instead of grazing, eat three normal-size meals roughly every four hours so you learn to heed your natural hunger cues and consume foods that meet your nutritional needs rather than satisfy a junk-food craving. You'll also feel more energized.
Power up with a mix of complex carbs and protein. Start your day with fruit and yogurt or an egg and whole-grain toast. For lunch, make yourself a sandwich with whole-wheat pita bread, turkey, and vegetables. If you take your kids out for fast food, choose healthier menu items such as a grilled chicken salad or a grilled chicken sandwich. Snack on whole-grain crackers and low-fat string cheese or celery and peanut butter -- all more nutritious and filling than graham crackers and juice.
Make dining a little formal. Use a knife, fork, and a ceramic plate whenever you eat at home. "No fingers allowed" reduces the temptation to pick off a child's plate or eat standing at the refrigerator door.
Keep plastic bags filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, such as bananas, strawberries, carrots, and cucumbers, in the fridge. Reach for one of these snacks when you feel tempted to scavenge the cupboards for chips or cookies.
Don't use food as a pacifier. If you work from home and are having a stressful day, get out of the house for a brisk 10-minute walk or to play fetch with your dog. Exercise will calm you down and may boost energy. You won't feel like poking around the kitchen afterward.
If all else fails, set a mealtime alarm on your computer or a desk clock and don't eat until it rings.
Lifestyle stressors: Your alarm goes off at 6 every weekday morning. After a quick shower, you check your e-mail, then get the kids up and give them their breakfast: dry cereal with milk, though by Thursday there's often no more milk. A quick blow-dry, a dab of lipstick, and you're out the door by 7:15, a cup of coffee in hand to keep your eyes open for the half-hour commute to work. In the few minutes before your 8:00 meeting, you wolf down a bagel with cream cheese from the employee cafeteria and stay awake with coffee and a doughnut during protracted morning-long meetings.
Lunch is a quick slice of pizza that you eat at your desk while returning phone calls and e-mails. Then you head out again for yet another meeting, where you down a diet cola to stay alert. It's nearly four when you finally get back to your desk to catch up on paperwork. Suddenly fatigued, you grab a candy bar from the vending machine or raid your neighbor's bowl of jelly beans. By the time you head home you're in no mood to whip up dinner, so you stop at a fast-food place or brave supermarket lines to pick up an already-prepared entree.
Nutrition pitfalls: Lack of meal planning may be your biggest diet downfall. And having to shop for dinner almost every night tops the list of time wasters.
Your high-energy performance plan: To boost efficiency, carve out time on Saturdays to grocery shop for the week. "It only takes 15 minutes to plan for the week and less than an hour to shop," says Rachel Brandeis, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Make up a shopping list that includes healthy breakfast items, such as high-fiber whole-grain cereal and instant oatmeal or whole-wheat English muffins and peanut butter, as well as ingredients for four to five easy-to-prepare (or slow-cook) meals, such as chicken, bags of frozen vegetables and potatoes, or instant stir-fry dinners. Choose foods that can be stretched into two meals -- for instance, roast chicken one night, chicken-and-bean burritos the next.
Cook up a storm on the weekend, then refrigerate cooked lamb chops or freeze casserole dishes so you can simply pop them in the oven after work.
Shop for workday snacks and lunch items -- including yogurt, low-fat and sodium-free deli meats, and fruits and vegetables that you can cut up and keep in small containers. Even canned soups, frozen dinners that you can zap in the office microwave, and meal-replacement drinks are healthier alternatives to pastries and pizza.
For quick pick-me-ups on long workdays, stash healthy snacks, such as dried fruit, almonds, energy bars, whole-grain crackers, vegetable juice, even plastic bags of cold cereal, in your desk or the office refrigerator. Load up on protein -- a hard-boiled egg, cheese, nuts, or a high-protein bar -- late in the afternoon when you're famished and energy wanes.
To make sure you're not mistaking hunger for thirst, "drink plenty of water during long meetings," suggests Los Angeles dietitian Bettye Nowlin, RD. "Adequate fluids also help you stay alert."
Lifestyle stressors: You spend most of your time entertaining clients at restaurants and on the road. Fueled with coffee, you often skip breakfast when you have to catch an early flight. At the airport you grab more coffee and a muffin before boarding. On the plane you don't expect much more than drinks, peanuts, and (if you're lucky) lunch meat on a stale roll.
By the time you arrive at your hotel you're ravenous and raid the minibar -- inhaling a bag of fatty potato chips for a quick carb rush -- before meeting clients at a ritzy restaurant. You wisely avoid wine with dinner but can't resist starchy, rich comfort foods, such as bread, pasta, and potatoes. Back at the hotel you're in a food-induced slump as you review your next day's presentation. In the morning you grab a few of the hotel's continental breakfast offerings -- muffin, OJ, fruit, coffee -- before heading out to a day of meetings.
Nutrition pitfalls: While most Americans eat out an average of five times a week, you're probably out much more. Restaurant meals often clock in at 1,000 calories plus, a hefty chunk of the 1,600 to 1,800 calories a woman should typically consume in a day.
Your high-energy performance plan: Make advance provisions so you don't arrive at your destination starving, and choose wisely when dining out so you stay sharp during crucial appointments.
At home, prepare 200-calorie travel snack packs of 1/4 cup of dried fruit or nuts, 1 to 2 cups of cold cereal or a slice of cheese on a mini-bagel. You can also bring packets of instant hot oatmeal (the flight attendant can bring you a cup of hot water).
Stash a few mini peanut butter and jelly "sandwiches" -- low-fat peanut butter and reduced-calorie jelly on whole-grain crispbread wrapped in foil -- in your briefcase. They won't spoil and if your plane is delayed you won't end up ravenous.
Steer clear of airport junk food, such as cinnamon buns, smoothies, and coffee drinks, which can run 400 to 500 calories each. A cup or two of regular coffee is fine, but lattes and frozen coffee drinks are often loaded with sugar and fat. Instead, go for a salad with chicken or ham, a turkey sandwich, or yogurt and fruit.
Stock your carryon with packets of sugar-free instant hot chocolate, suggests Lisa Dorfman, a registered dietitian in Miami. "They're perfect for when you want something sweet and soothing in your hotel room," she says. "Just use the in-room coffeemaker to prepare hot water."
When eating out, remember that many restaurants will cater to special requests, such as grilling fish or chicken, steaming veggies, and holding back on heavy sauces.
Skip bread, wine, and dessert. Alcohol on an empty stomach can give you a headache or make you drowsy. Drink sparkling water with lime or a Virgin Mary, which is a Bloody Mary sans vodka. Ask for bread sticks or raw vegetables if you need to nibble.
Cut calories by ordering just an appetizer and salad. Choose filling high-protein dishes, such as grilled chicken skewers, shrimp cocktail, French onion soup, or crackers with jack, Swiss, or cheddar cheese.
Try to eat something small -- perhaps one of your prepackaged snacks -- before dining with clients. That will take the edge off your appetite and free you up to talk business.
Be sure to refuel properly at breakfast. Hotels catering to business travelers now offer more nutritious continental breakfast choices, including whole-grain cereals with skim milk and fruit. You can supplement with a protein bar from your purse.
5 Easy Energizers
Have a morning meal. Roughly one-fourth of American workers skip breakfast. But this nutritional mistake leaves you low on energy even before your day begins. "Breakfast fuels your body with nutrients it needs to perform," says Cindy Moore, director of nutrition therapy at Ohio's Cleveland Clinic. A good breakfast should have complex carbs (such as whole-grain bread, cereal, or crackers), protein (such as milk, cheese, salmon, or eggs) and fruit or 100-percent-fruit juice.
Avoid the vending machine. More than half of women snack at work midafternoon, says one survey. Cookies, candy, and chips deliver only a temporary energy boost and add pounds. Substitute an apple, a small yogurt, half a peanut butter sandwich, or dried fruit. Keep snacks to 200 calories or less.
Drink plenty of water. Stay hydrated with at least 32 ounces a day. Have a glass with every snack break and meal -- and drink up in between.
Get your vitamins and minerals. You particularly need iron and magnesium for energy, and B vitamins (folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, and thiamine) to maintain a healthy metabolism and proper brain function. Best sources of iron are meat and legumes (consumed with vitamin C); of magnesium, meat and dairy products; of B vitamins, fortified cereal and pasta. A daily vitamin and mineral supplement may help.
Fuel your workout with carbs. Eat a piece of fruit or an energy bar before you exercise intensively. Afterward, have a protein and complex-carbohydrate snack -- yogurt with fruit or cheese and whole-grain crackers -- to replace the glucose used by your muscles.