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How's this for a "diet": You don't swear off a single food. Instead, eat a smidge less every day and eat at home a little more. That's what we call "happy eating."
Leave two bites at every meal.
"Literally continue to eat exactly what you have been, except forgo a couple of forkfuls at every meal," says James Hill, Ph.D., director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado, in Denver. "I guarantee you won't be hungry, and you'll cut out about 100 calories a day from your diet." So don't finish all of that blueberry muffin at breakfast, throw out the crust of your pizza at lunch, and clear the dinner table with a strip of chicken and a spoonful of rice still on your plate. By the end of the week you'll have saved 700 calories. Keep it up and you'll avoid those 1 or 2 pounds that most Americans gain each year.
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Eat a little less meat and a little more veggies.
A 2009 U.S. study of over a half a million people found that those who ate the most red meat were 30% more likely to die prematurely from heart disease or any type of cancer. An easy preventative fix: Swap out a red meat dinner and swap in a vegetarian one, once a week.
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Cook at home one more night each week.
Virtually anything you make in your own kitchen is lower in fat and calories than what you'd pick up at the drive-thru. New research shows that the average American now eats four restaurant meals each week. Cut that back to three and chances are you'll be wearing a smaller size in no time.
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Serve your meals on pretty salad/cocktail plates.
They're only 8 inches in diameter, compared with a standard size of 10 inches (or more). Shaving 2 inches off your plate can help you shed inches off your middle because you have a smaller space to pile food on. And even though there's less food in front of you, it will look like more since your plate is full, thus helping to encourage satiety.
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Turn off the kitchen lights at 8 p.m.
New evidence shows that there is indeed a wrong time and a right time for our bodies to take in calories. And the wrong time is when you're curled up on your couch watching TV at night. Even when total calories were equal, mice fed during the daytime (when these nocturnal creatures typically sleep) gained about twice as much weight as the mice fed the same amount of calories during the night, when they are awake and active, according to a Northwestern University study. Yes, the research was on mice, the authors concede, but even experts like Hill agree that "physiologically our bodies are primed to store calories, so eating late in the evening (when we should probably be sleeping) is a worst-case scenario." If you must snack, make sure you portion the food out on a plate (don't mindlessly munch from the box or bag) and sit down at a table to eat it.
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If you don't get the sleep you need—seven to nine hours a night for most women—you are putting yourself at increased risk of heart disease. Plus, research continues to show that too little sleep is associated with weight gain. Some tuck-yourself-in tips:
Gain time with sleep.
"A lot of women think that if they go to bed early they're missing out on getting stuff done—they won't get those e-mails sent, bills paid, or laundry done," says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., a sleep expert at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "But you'll get everything done twice as fast the next day if you get enough rest." Besides a clear head, a decent night's sleep decreases your risk for colds and other illnesses that could hurt your productivity for a few days or more. In a recent study, people who got fewer than seven hours of sleep were three times more likely to get sick than those who logged at least eight hours.
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Give yourself time to unwind.
Log off your computer and allow your brain 30 minutes to wind down (with a good book or silent meditation) before you hit the lights.
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Hotel-ify your bedroom.
If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, try making your bedroom a little more snooze-worthy. Buy some soft sheets and pillows. Add room-darkening shades or turn on a fan for white noise. Don't bring your laptop to bed and move out any abandoned exercise equipment, says Mindell. You want your bedroom to be a haven, not a reminder of your shortcomings.
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Keep it cool.
Set your thermostat to between 60 and 68 degrees at night. Sounds chilly, but research shows that this range is ideal for lowering your core body temperature, which helps bring on sleepiness. Bonus: If you have a hot-blooded partner who is always kicking off the covers, then this little tip could score you some points with your spouse.
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Get the light right.
When your alarm goes off in the morning, open up those blinds, sip your coffee by your kitchen window, or, better yet, take your power walk now. "Exposure to a.m. light affects how sleepy you feel come nighttime," says Mindell. That's because morning light (artificial or natural) triggers your body to stop producing the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and to make more of the stimulating hormone cortisol. About 12 hours later your body will automatically start producing melatonin to get you ready for sleep. To encourage this process, keep your house dim in the evening and plug in a night-light or install a dimmer switch in your bathroom so you don't have to flip on an overhead light for those 2 a.m. bathroom calls. Even that brief exposure to bright light can be enough to wake up your brain, says Mindell.
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Squeeze in more exercise with these totally doable ideas.
Walk 15 extra minutes a day.
"The first thing I tell people is to buy a pedometer," says Hill. Wear it for a few days and see how many steps a day you take. The average woman clocks about 5,500 steps, which is considered sedentary, so kudos if you're already getting more. Whatever your starting point, try to increase your steps by 2,000 a day, which equals about 15 minutes of walking and 100 calories. "That's enough right there to prevent weight gain," Hill says. After you've mastered that, gradually add more steps until you're taking 5,000 more than you were when you started.
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Take advantage of weird time.
You just dropped off your daughter at ice skating practice and you have 30 minutes—not enough time to go home, not enough time to run an errand—so walk! Walk the parking lot, walk around the rink, whatever. When you're a busy mom, you've got to get your heart pumping whenever you can.
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Don't blow off your plans.
Your day has been one big downhill of cake, candy, and chips—so why bother with that 4 p.m. power walk you'd planned? Because it makes a big difference. Physically, exercise can reduce your appetite, and mentally it will put you back on track to eat smarter at dinner.
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Be a role model.
You're not going to motivate your child to run around outside if you're plopped on the living room couch, says Hill. Challenge your kids to a race down the street or a game of freeze tag, moms versus kids.
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.
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