Nutrition Hotline

Suzanne Havala Hobbs DrPH, MS, RD

QUESTION: "I'm a vegetarian, but I have weight to lose. What can I do for myself? I can't afford a personal trainer or chef."

ANSWER: In the ideal world, we'd have access to a personal trainer, chef, and dietitian. That's because it takes a high level of commitment– and support–to eat well, get into shape, and stay fit. But even if you had the means, it can be a challenge to find qualified, competent health professionals and fit frequent appointments into a busy schedule.

That leaves a do-it-yourself approach as the only practical solution for most people, and you can do some of it yourself very effectively. If you have health problems, though, get advice from your health care provider before making any substantial changes in your diet or exercise habits.

Most people, however, can benefit from some simple, supportive measures that can be self-imposed without much - if any - technical expertise. Here's where to start:

View the whole picture.
Keep a food diary for a period of days or weeks–or indefinitely. Logging what you do on a regular basis will make you more aware and careful about what you're eating. Keeping a log of not only what, where, and when you eat, but also how you feel, who you are with, and how much exercise you do, can make you aware of patterns of behavior to target for change. For a lowcost food diary, a pen and a spiral-bound notebook will do. Online diaries are also available for a fee.
Get reliable information.
Along with Vegetarian Journal, my favorites include Nutrition Action Healthletter, published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Nutrition Source, a website maintained by the Harvard University Department of Nutrition.
Make a plan, and monitor your progress.
Think through a set of steps for behavior change and a realistic timeline for achieving them. Take a brisk, hour-long daily walk on your lunch break? Eat at the table instead of in front of the TV? Measure success by new skills you master, behaviors you change, and the trend over time on the scale or by how your clothes fit.
Include gentle excerise.
No matter what your fitness level, most people can engage in gentle stretching and strengthening exercises, such as yoga and Pilates.
Get support.
Join a local vegetarian society. Walk or take a cooking class with a friend. Surround yourself with people who are committed to the same lifestyle changes, and you'll find it easier to make progress.

The do-it-yourself approach may not always substitute for the help of a qualified health professional. But there's a lot you can do on your own affordably and effectively. And that's a great place to start.