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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.
Nutrition pitfalls: 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, April 2006.