Monday, October 24, 2011

Nutrition 101 - Part 6 Towards A Looser Approach & Conclusion

Towards A Looser Approach

If you’re like the majority, you’re great at losing weight. You’ve done it so many times in the past. Sure, you might have weight to lose right now… but that doesn’t imply that you’re not good at losing it. It simply means you’re terrible at keeping it off. And you’re not alone.
Call it the yo-yo effect or whatever… but it’s definitely a serious issue.

People reach an intolerable point of fatness where enough is enough. In an instant, motivation revs up and action ensues – lots of it. While the iron’s hot, they strike with a vengeance by slashing calories and crushing their bodies with exercise. In their eyes, the more strict, difficult, and rigid the plan of attack, the faster the results will be. They view their bodies as the enemy and they run it through a gamut of abuse.

And weight is lost. At first.

Unfortunately there are some problems. For one, motivation is a short-term phenomenon. It’s not something that can be relied upon in the long run. The utility and novelty of conquering your weight problem wears off relatively quickly. Excitement dies with enough exposure to even the most awesome of things.

At around that same time, your body begins realizing that something’s up. It gets grouchy when you go from overeating to undereating when referring to calorie intake or when you go from riding the couch to warp speed on the treadmill overnight. And to show how much it hates it… it slows down your progress.

When you’re slapped with these realities, one of two things happens. You either slash calories even lower and jack up exercise even more. Or you give up. If you don’t give up this time, you will eventually. In the game of deprivation and torture, your body is going to win in the long run.

I’m sure some of you think that I’m exaggerating but you don’t see what I see on a daily basis. Women who are cutting calories by as much as 60%, lifting weights 3 times per week, and performing high intensity sprints or circuits 5 days per week are a dime a dozen where I come from. Hell, some of these women might even throw a few lower intensity conditioning sessions into the mix as well. Their exercise load is that of an advanced athlete yet their calorie intake is that of a sedentary, 100 lb female. Not only are they depriving their bodies, but their neurotic tendencies are bordering on addiction.

Sure, a calorie deficit is necessary in order to tap into fat. But it seems that energy availability is a foreign concept to most people. They disregard the fact that after ‘calories in’ and ‘calories out’ are accounted for, there has to be something left to support health, muscle, energy, basal functions, and metabolism. The deeper you cut calories, the bigger the hit to recovery ability. Logic would tell us that if recovery ability is drastically reduced, it’d be wise to govern how much recovery is needed. But that’s not what’s happening when I see these people slaving away at soul crushing workloads and intensities day in and day out while being energy deprived.

With dwindling motivation and a body that’s reluctant to give you what you want, it’s only a matter of weeks, if not days, until you’re back to your old, fattening ways.

Not this time?

Are you sure about that?

Add up every pound that you’ve lost in your adult life. I don’t care if it was the same 10 lbs over and over again. Add them up. Now subtract your highest adult weight from your lowest adult weight. If the first number is substantially greater than the second number… you’re likely a yo-yo dieter. No matter how much you think things will be different this time, they’re likely not going to be. At least not without a serious shift in your perspectives and beliefs about dieting.

We’ve all heard it before – diets are a temporary way of eating that leads to temporary results. This led to everyone labeling it a lifestyle. Now that everyone’s practicing new ‘lifestyle habits’, the overweight and obesity trends have really declined. Or not!

You can call it whatever you want but if the outcome doesn’t change, it really doesn’t matter… does it?

Yes, they’re right… in order to effect lasting change, certain behaviors and habits need to be adopted – permanently. But that’s not what’s happening. In the heat of excitement surrounding the prospects of a sexier body, people are losing rational judgement and objectivity. They’re falling victim to extreme dieting strategies and inflexible thinking.

The conception most people have about what must be done in order to reach their goals is absurd. A peek inside the mind of your average dieter is frighteningly confusing and frustrating.

All of this rigidity and confusion is of no surprise. While people understand the concept and importance of lifestyle modification… they do not know how to implement it. And marketers slice right through this confusion and desperation by telling you something that you’re dying to hear – a fancy sounding answer.
Here’s the BI list of rules:
  1. Instead of eating when you’re hungry, eat to prevent hunger. This has to do with how often and what you eat. The “what” will be discussed in the remaining rules as they’re all meant to promote satiety and cover your body’s basic needs. The “how often” really depends on you, how much you’re eating, and your individual hunger patterns. I’ve personally found that most of my clients feel more satisfied eating frequent meals each day. This isn’t a necessity though as some people feel better eating lower meal frequencies. Check out intermittent fasting if you haven’t heard about it. Nobody’s going to spoon feed you, so experiment to find what’s best for you. Once you know your hunger patterns, build a meal plan that suits them.
  2. Related to #1, go into each week with a plan of attack. Shop with grocery lists, don’t go to the grocery store hungry, and prep your foods in advance for the entire week. The goal is to reduce how much thought needs to go into meal preparation throughout the week. Failing to plan is planning to fail given how many high calorie foods and events bombard us in our culture. A plan will keep your tires on the road more often than going about things arbitrarily.
  3. Stick to whole natural foods for the majority of your diet – majority being the operative word. Don’t be so rigid that one bite of cake causes so much guilt it turns into the entire cake. No food on its own merit is “good” or “bad.”
  4. Focus on calorie-density above all else. It’s well understood by now that some foods, by volume, contain much higher calories than others. A coffee roll from Dunkin Donuts has 400 calories and an equivalent volume of chicken and broccoli will most likely have less than 150 calories. It just so happens that whole natural foods tend to be the most calorie-sparse while the processed (high sugar and high fat) foods tend to be the most calorie-dense, which is why rule #3 exists, among other reasons.
  5. Eat protein (preferably from lean sources) at every meal. Good sources of protein include (but aren’t limited to) chicken breast, turkey breast, pork tenderloin, lean ground beef, lean cuts of steak such as top round, venison, fish, seafood, eggs, dairy, and protein powder. Of course if you miss a meal, your muscles aren’t going to fall off. It’s the net amount of protein consumed at the end of the day that matters most. It’s still a good idea to fit some protein in at each meal if you can though.
  6. Consume 2-4 servings of fruit per day. If you tend to get a sweet tooth between meals, try fruit first. Often times this will calm the craving, as well as satiate you.
  7. Consume 3-6 servings of fibrous vegetables per day. They’ll provide loads of nutrition and satiety without a massive caloric punch. Eat them cold. Or steam them with olive oil, garlic, and a dash of salt and pepper. Or eat salads and be mindful of using too much calorically dense salad items like high calorie dressings, mounds of croutons, and mountains of cheese. Or mix veggies in with your other foods – meat and vegetable kabobs come to mind as well as chicken stir fry made with vegetables of your choosing. Regardless, find ways of fitting them in!
  8. Approximately ¼ of your nutrition should come from fats. Optimally it’s balanced between saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. Most people will obtain adequate saturated fat from the meat they consume. Examples of good sources of monounsaturated fats include olive oil, almond butter, avocados, olives, natural peanut butter, and nuts. Examples of good sources of polyunsaturated fats include flax and more notably high-fat fish such as salmon, tuna, and trout. I highly recommend fish oil supplementation, as well.
  9. Carbohydrates aren’t evil. Yes, they’re the weight-loss enemy of the decade, but they aren’t going to make you gain weight in the absence of a calorie surplus. So don’t be irrationally scared of them if you have your calorie intake under wraps. I would prioritize protein and essential fats over them and I’d also suggest letting fruits and veggies comprise the majority of your carb intake. But don’t be afraid of whole wheat breads and pastas, rice, yams and potatoes, etc.
  10. Stay hydrated. How much you need to hydrate depends on numerous factors including sweat rates, environments, and food types consumed. Short of certain foods, diseases, and medications causing various effects, your pee shouldn’t be neon yellow/amber. The better hydrated you are, the clearer your pee will be. Use this as a metric for determining whether you need to drink more. Drinking gallons of water per day isn’t going to miraculously kick your metabolism into high gear though, which is something I often hear on the message boards. So don’t go overboard (yes, you can drink too much water).
This is the same list of rules that we give to every single one of our clients who come through the doors of our gyms. What I’m suggesting is to focus on the stuff that provides the most mileage… the most bang for your buck. These are the basics that I’m continually harping about – keep your calories in check, eat sufficient protein, pop some fish oil pills (or get your essential fats somehow), load up on fibrous veggies, and have a couple of pieces of fruit each day. If you focused on this stuff 80-90% of the time… nothing else would really matter.

“But Steve… didn’t you say that people need to be counting calories and weighing everything that they consume?”

Yes, but…

I argue that while some level of rigidity is necessary for most people during the initial stages, most are going to fare better by loosening the reigns after a while.

It’s akin to any new task that you’re attempting to learn. Think about saving money. There’s a large faction of people in our culture who are spending more money than they’re making. They lack financial responsibility and control. The remedy to their problems typically requires pretty serious intervention. They might need to consolidate debt, set up payment plans, analyze cash flow in order to identify and nix unnecessary costs, and set up a weekly spending allowance.

Eventually these rigid rules will change behavioral patterns. Before long, the spender starts showing the tendencies of a saver.

I’ve witnessed the same when it comes to weight control. Let’s assume that the usual, successful approach to losing weight starts with weighing every calorie you consume with a food scale, logging your food intake, tracking your energy expenditure with a heart rate monitor or bodybugg, following a rigid exercise program, hitting specific calorie and nutrient targets each day, and planning cheat meals/foods.

Given enough time, hitting these targets will become second nature. They’ll have a better understanding of energy density and portion sizes. They will have found a mixture of meals that satisfy their calorie and nutrient targets without having to weigh and count. They won’t battle hunger as much anymore. Their taste buds will change. At best, they’ll be able to balance energy intake and expenditure without any conscious intervention. They learn that they can be loose here and there in terms of calories, nutritiousness, or whatever… without blowing their progress… without feeling like a failure.

Forcing a lifestyle will transform into living a lifestyle.

Reaching this stage is the difficult part. It requires a lot of patience and faith. It’s very difficult to look past the hype and promises this industry spews. It’s very hard to set and manage realistic expectations. At the end of the day though, if you focus on the big picture as outlined above, your chances of reaching your goals are about as high as they’re going to get. Not to mention you’ll maintain some level of sanity and enjoyment in the process.

I believe it was Maslow who modeled the Four Stages of Learning and it explains what I’m talking about perfectly. He suggested that the four stages of learning are:

1. Unconscious Incompetence
2. Conscious Incompetence
3. Conscious Competence
4. Unconscious Competence

In other words, most people don’t work at getting fat. It happens automatically. They’re not good at leading a non-obesogenic lifestyle and they’re not aware of this fact (1). Eventually they realize that they’ve slowly gained 5 lbs per year over the last 5 years. You’ll commonly hear about how “the weight just snuck up on me.” Awareness is the first component of progress (2). If this awareness leads to sufficient desire to learn or change, eventually they’ll act on it. The solution takes consistent effort and conscious awareness, though, via calorie/nutrient tracking, food logging, resisting temptations etc (3). Repetition is the mother of all learning, right? Finally, after sufficient time and progress the individual is able to maintain a healthy weight without thinking about it. It becomes second nature (4).

It seems that when people start out with strict control of their food intake (calories, nutrients, timing, food selection), they head in one of three directions:
  1. They learn to loosen the reigns over time… as described above.
  2. They never seem to mind the rigid control and they stick with it indefinitely.
  3. They go off the deep end into neurosis and counterproductive anal retentiveness.
I’m fully aware that some people can balance the structured rigidity and their sanity (#2). It never seems to bother them and they’re successful with it – they actually enjoy the attention to detail. And that’s okay… I’m not suggesting that you MUST loosen the reigns. Each of us has unique psychologies – meaning what ‘fits’ one individual won’t necessarily fit another. Different strokes for different folks and all of that good stuff.
If you’re keeping the reigns tight simply because you’re afraid that it’s the only way though, please keep this page in mind.

There’s a definite spectrum at play here:
RIGID <<————————————–>> FLEXIBLE

I’ve encountered a lot of people who struggle. They feel trapped by the numbers. Breaking these shackles can be pretty enlightening.

I’m not here to tell you one way is better than the other. I simply want to drop a friendly reminder that you have options. There’s more than one way to approach weight control and nutrition. It’s on you to control the dial, so to speak. You may need to turn up the rigidity when necessary while keeping in mind that it’s adjustable. It sounds so simplistic, but many people seem to find themselves in one particular track and lose site of the other avenues that lead to the same destination.

Lyle McDonald does an amazing job at explaining the difference between flexible and rigid dieting psychologies and approaches in his book A Guide To Flexible Dieting. It’s his best book in my opinion.
As for the last camp (#3), I think you have to take a long hard look at what you’re doing. Ask yourself how the strict approach has treated you so far? If you’ve always been anal retentive about the nitty gritty details yet you’ve never been able to maintain any appreciable weight loss… you’re likely a member of this group.
You’re typically the yo-yo king or queen. Everything is seen in polarized views – good/bad, healthy/unhealthy, dieting/binging, etc. You’ll typically do very good in terms of effort, progress, and consistency for a short while. But then you hit a brick wall and revert to old habits. This cycle continues and each dieting phase is accompanied by stricter and stricter rules. This approach doesn’t pan out so well in the research either. I think it’s time for a different approach. I think it’s time for some honest assessment of your relationship with food, exercise, and dieting. It’s time to open your mind to other possibilities.

You category 3′s need to learn to enjoy the process. It’s the journey that means the difference between happiness and frustration… success and failure – not the destination.

I’ll shut up now…

When I first started my pursuit of a good body, I was as anal retentive as they came. I was reading the muscle magazines and bought into everything. My attention was focused on supplements and clean eating.

I had spreadsheets loaded with meal plans that met my calorie and nutrient targets. I never deviated from these meal plans. I’d get anxious in restaurants and social gatherings as I tried my best to avoid (what was in my mind) nutritional disaster. I’d obsess over clean eating. I’d avoid saturated fat and processed sugar like it was my job. I’d weigh myself daily… sometimes multiple times each day. I’d weigh every single morsel of energy that passed my lips. I’d track the number of calories I expended exercising. I ate 6 meals per day, each and every day, at the same exact times each day.

On and on it went.

Though I felt good about how involved I was with my body and health, I simultaneously felt enslaved. My happiness revolved around how “on” I was. And being “on” took ungodly amounts of effort. Invariably I’d slip up relative to my unreasonable expectations and when I did, I’d feel horrible. So horrible in fact that I’d usually skip a week’s worth of exercise and I’d eat whatever I wanted. Either that or I’d try to compensate by doing ridiculous levels of exercise as punishment and to make up for any lost ground.

Needless to say… it wasn’t a healthy approach.

I was just a kid back then. After a lot of years and experience, and after having the opportunity to help so many people reach their goals, I thought it was time to jot some of my ideas down in an attempt to help others make sense of what has become a very confusing landscape as far as fitness/nutrition information goes. I use the phrase ‘my ideas‘ lightly because in reality other professionals have helped shape my viewpoints just as much as my experiences with clients.

Here’s a secret for you – there’s a fine line between dedication and obsession.

Much has changed since my obsessive days, thank goodness. The old way of doing things wasn’t congruent with the things that really make me happy in life. I enjoy cookouts with my friends and family. There are many days I like to wake up early and go for a bike ride or hike which might mean skipping the planned breakfast in favor of a protein bar. I don’t have time to eat 6 meals per day anymore. I have a family now and want to set healthy examples for my baby girl.

I’ve learned to find enjoyment in the process. I’ve figured out what matters most. I’ve prioritized consistency of sensible basics over minutia. I’ve become a master of the tried and true (boring to some) basics.

Knowledge and experience shine new light on our perceptions. It takes time, trial, and error. And you have to be flexible and objective about things. Don’t become married to certain concepts or rules. Try things out. Keep what’s beneficial. Ditch what’s not – even if the diet industry tells you it’s super important. Your personal journey is a work of art that requires constant refinement along the way.

I’m well aware of the fact that there’s a tremendous amount of information out there. As soon as you hear something that sounds sensible, you hear another authority preaching about how that ‘something’ is stupid. If you’re really in this for a lifetime and you’re willing to be patient, sensible, and methodical… you have your entire life to figure everything out.

The End

Hopefully you’ve found my writing entertaining, or at the very least educational. If you did, I simply ask that you share a link to this article on your Facebook page, Twitter page, or whatever you use to communicate with friends and family.

If you’d like to ask questions or discuss certain parts of the page, please use the comments section below or comment on the links in FaceBook.  Or just email me a

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