When I start work with a new client, they often think that I’m going to be starting them on a strict, no-nonsense diet right away.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that the fitness, diet, and weight loss industry has done our culture a huge disservice by focusing myopically on strategies like “clean eating,” fasting, and low-carb diets.
Instead, my job with new clients is to undercut the problems that dieting presents:
Rules are made to be broken.
Once a strict rule is in place, many people struggle to maintain perfect adherence. The result, instead of “almost perfect,” is often a wide pendulum swing back and forth between “perfection” and “total mess.”
Diets often work well at first, and then wane.
Counterintuitively, whatever once yielded great results for someone often doesn’t work quite as well the second (or third, or fourth) time around. If you were strict with a diet for months and got the results you wanted, then “fell off the wagon,” the wagon is often very hard to get back onto. Sometimes it’s psychological, sometimes it’s physiological, and sometimes it’s a combination… but the end result is that people usually struggle to rekindle their initial motivation.
The leaner people get, the less well “diets” work.
The strategies that allows someone to lose their first 20 pounds is often not the same set of strategies that helps them lose the last 5 pounds. Leanness creates its own set of issues – and strict dieting doesn’t fix them. This can turn into a very frustrating cycle of starting over, buckling down, burning out, giving up, and then starting over again (often heavier).
With diets, there is an artificial finish line that doesn’t exist in real life.
What do you plan to do after you’ve reached your goal? If you don’t have a plan, you know the saying… “Fail to plan, plan to fail.” Managing your weight after weight loss is an ongoing endeavor that must be up-leveled beyond a diet in order to be successful. Your strategies have to not only be effective for weight management, but also must be realistic and meaningful to your everyday life.
So what’s the alternative?
Instead of focusing on rules, I like to develop tools with my clients.
I firmly believe that weight management is a set of skills that can be learned, practiced, and honed over time, making weight loss and maintenance easy.
The way I work with clients, there’s no “on plan” or “off plan.” It’s just everyday life, all the time, practicing skills that are flexible for many life circumstances and settings. Some strategies may differ from person to person, but the common denominator is that weight loss efforts should be:
- Integrated into normal life
In today’s blog post, I’m going to focus on the 10 skills that I most emphasize with my clients to create long-lasting success. And you’ll notice, these habits include exercise, starting with the very first example.
Skill #1: Focus first on exercise.
Ever since headlines have been made about how nutrition is more effective for weight loss than exercise (“abs are made in the kitchen,” anyone?), there has been an unfortunate tendency to under-emphasize exercise.
But don’t underestimate its power! Exercise is incredibly effective for both weight loss, and is perhaps even more important for weight loss maintenance than nutrition.
This is partly because exercise is what Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit author) would call a “keystone habit.” When people develop a regular exercise routine and stick with it, this tends to promote other positive behaviors (including healthier eating!).
Exercise also serves as an appetite regulator, obviously helps to boost your metabolism, and simply puts you in the frame of mind of a healthier person. It’s identity-changing.
So if you’re stuck and wanting to see a physical change, start with exercise first. Don’t chase after a new diet. Simply ask yourself – how many times per week are you exercising, and what are you doing? See what you can change first about your exercise instead of your food.
Hint: most people don’t strength train enough (or the right way).
Skill #2: Plan 80% of your food ahead.
Far from being A-type quirks, these food behaviors help enormously with weight management (whether you want to lose 50 pounds or 5):
- Planning meals in advance
- Grocery shopping every week, at least once per week, with menus in mind
- At least partially prepping some meals so that they are easy to throw together
I like for many of my clients to expunge the word “cooking” from their vocabularies. The idea of “cooking” evokes images of Food Network and chefs and serious culinary skills. Most people don’t have time to cultivate higher-level cooking skills or to spend hours in the kitchen.
The main thing to focus on with meal planning is developing a repertoire of meals that suits your goals. It takes practice, but by focusing on 3-5 meals that are healthful (i.e., high in lean protein, high in fiber, includes veggies, etc.), you build habits around food prep that make it faster and easier every time.
Finally, planning ahead means you think with the “executive function” part of your brain – your prefrontal cortex that has your best long-term interests in mind. This is the part of you that knows you need to eat more vegetables and be mindful of portion sizes. When your “best you” plans ahead, the “worst you” is less likely to reach for the takeout menu after a busy day at work because the prepped meal is already there for you in the fridge.
Skill #3: Eat more protein.
Going hand-in-hand with Skill #2, my next assignment for many of my clients is eating more protein. Most people, left to their own devices, don’t eat enough protein (or not enough lean protein, at least).
Protein is a hugely beneficial tool for weight management, because it promotes the development of lean muscle in conjunction with strength training (see Skill #1), but also is very filling and satisfying. Because it digests and empties out of the stomach more slowly, you’re less likely to have food cravings if you’re eating enough protein at every meal and snack.
Eating more protein requires planning ahead, and aiming for 20-30 gram “doses” of protein in meals and around 10 grams in snacks. Especially convenient sources of lean protein include ground chicken or turkey, frozen filets of chicken breast or salmon, canned tuna, eggs/egg whites, Greek/Icelandic yogurt, lentils, beans, nuts/seeds, tofu, and soy products. Sometimes, it’s easier to get in more protein if you include some convenience foods, like protein bars or protein powders, which leads me to my next Skill…
Skill #4: Step up your convenience food game.
Very common (and good) advice for those who want to change their health/weight is to eat fewer processed foods.
This can be helpful, but it can also put pressure on people to have unrealistic expectations for how much cooking they’re really going to do. In real life, it’s often not possible to completely cut processed/packaged foods or to follow Michael Pollan’s rule of not eating foods with more than five ingredients.
The reality is that many people simply need to improve the quality and the type of processed foods that they’re eating, and to describe them as they are: convenience foods. These are foods that we realistically need in order to function in our daily life without creating a high-pressure attitude toward rigidly “clean” eating.
Here are great convenience foods to cultivate for those times when you really need them:
- Protein bars like RX, Quest, Think Thin, Oatmega, etc., are available at almost every gas station and, combined with an apple or a yogurt, can completely serve as a meal replacement when you’re on the go
- Protein powders like Vega or Designer Whey can turn any milk into a high-protein beverage fast
- Protein drinks like Ripple or Core Power are great to keep in the fridge when you need a fast snack
- Snacks like Bada Bean or other types of dried/roasted beans and nuts are high in fiber and protein
- Individually packaged trail mixes from Trader Joe’s are fantastic for snacks-on-the-go but without the portion control issues that often plague trail mix or granola consumption (“Wait, a quarter cup is a serving?”)
- Canned tuna is a non-refrigerated, pescatarian source of protein that travels well (same for sardines, if you can stomach them)
- A simple salmon-and-avocado sushi roll from a grocery store can be a great emergency meal
- Healthier choices are available at gas stations and convenience stores – WaWa, for example, has a buffalo chicken wrap that’s only 360 calories and high in protein
- Combining a fruit with a protein (like an apple with a single-serve Greek yogurt) is a perfect slow-burning snack
Think about the demands of your real life, and where convenience foods can play a helpful – instead of hurtful – role.
Skill #5: Improve your portion control skills.
Sometimes, portion control is a matter of feeling – like when you’re at a restaurant and you can tell you’re getting full.
At other times, portion control is a matter of doing – something proactive that you do in advance to help yourself stick to smart guidelines around certain foods (especially ones that are hard to eyeball or “feel” that you’re satisfied).
It’s important to keep in mind that there’s volume-full (your stomach is physically stretched by the food/water), and then there’s calorie-full (your stomach may not be “too” full, but you’re clocking in a pretty rich meal).
Both elements are important.
Things like measuring cups, food scales, and measuring spoons can help with externally regulating portions. In my opinion, this is a good skill to cultivate for 80% of your meals (i.e., the ones you prepare yourself). This helps you know you’re eating the “right” amount of rice (about 150 calories), pasta (about 200 calories), or oatmeal (about 150 calories). This can help with preventing accidental overeating, even of “healthy” foods. It can also help when you’re dishing up treats you eat regularly, like ice cream or putting honey in your tea.
But developing an internal sense of awareness is important, as well, because it’s not likely that you’re going to bring a food scale or measuring cup to a restaurant (I know it’s done – but it’s just not likely for most people!).
I’m not a huge fan of “stopping eating when 80% full,” because I think (a) that can be a hard idea for people to tune into and (b) this can encourage under-eating for those who are prone to being health-conscious and self-judgmental of their eating. I prefer the term “satisfied.” Especially at restaurants, eat until you are satisfied and keep in mind the full number of courses that will be happening and what you would like to really eat.
This leads me to my next point…
Skill #6: Eat foods you like and don’t make anything off-limits.
In general, eating “healthier” should mean adding in more good things (like more protein, fiber, and vegetables), not eliminating or restricting foods you actually do like.
The fastest way to blow a “diet” is to swear off the foods you enjoy.
It’s not just about changing your weight or your body – it’s about cultivating a healthy relationship with food, too.
I recommend that clients make small edits, not sweeping changes. Eat more of the good stuff, and when you combine that with exercise, step back and watch how your diet naturally changes for the better. You can always edit more.
Skill #7: Be aware of what negatively impacts your food behaviors.
In other words, know your triggers.
Is it a particular emotional state?
Is it being alone, bored, or tired?
Is it drinking?
Or is it a particular food or food environment?
It can be helpful to know what environments, foods, or behaviors seem to trigger overeating, and to make plans to help yourself (in advance) override these situations. Remember the “executive function”? This is what we want to tap into here.
Sometimes, a “trigger” isn’t a big deal. Most people are “triggered” to naturally overeat in restaurants because this is how restaurants are designed – to encourage overconsumption. Therefore, a great plan is to reduce the number of times per week you dine out. This can be planned in advance by relying on Skill #2 (planning ahead).
But some triggers are trickier, and your behaviors may really trouble you (like binge eating alone).
Sometimes, a plan put in place in advance can handle these situations. They may not be as serious as they seem. I have had clients who thought they were struggling with bingeing or food addiction, but once their food lifestyle was more orderly (more regular meals, more protein, enough calories, fewer blood sugar swings, etc.), the acting-out behaviors practically disappeared.
That being said, I am not a psychotherapist. If you implement basic behavior change strategies that target prevention and you are not successful after a few tries, I strongly recommend that you seek out the help of a therapist or dietitian who specializes in disordered eating.
Skill #8: Fuel your workouts.
This is where I do not advocate “eat when you’re hungry, don’t eat when you’re not hungry.”
If you’re an active person, you need to fuel your workouts. And this may sometimes mean eating when you’re not hungry.
Because exercise is an appetite regulator (and can even act as an appetite suppressant), very active people sometimes don’t “keep up” with their caloric needs because they may not feel hungry at the “right” times. This can result in long-term under-eating and gradually feeling worse and worse from exercise. It also may result in disregulated bingeing behaviors, when your appetite circles back around to bite you.
I advocate eating a carb-rich meal/snack 1-4 hours before exercise, and a carb/protein-rich meal/snack within 1 hour after exercise. This is part of smart training.
Skill #9: Know why you’re doing what you’re doing.
It’s important to ask yourself:
“Why am I making this change in my lifestyle?”
Most people want to be hotter.
Many people want to be healthier.
Some people want to manage chronic conditions.
Some people want to feel tough, fast, strong, and empowered.
Other people want to age well.
Knowing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it can have a huge impact on how you manage your food and exercise lifestyle.
If you’re wanting to get super strong or super fast, for example, it’s smart to not also focus on a big weight loss at the same time. You’ll need plenty of calories to fuel your performance goals.
If you have a weight loss goal and are just getting into fitness, that’s a different set of circumstances.
Knowing your “why” will empower you to make strategic choices that benefit you as an individual. This is where working with a professional can help you clarify your goals and not waste time.
Skill #10: Put as many things on autopilot as possible.
Finally, once you’ve got some good behaviors going, you want to get those habits systematized as quickly as humanly possible, so that they take up less bandwidth and go on “repeat.”
This is because your healthy lifestyle change is meant to make your life bigger, not smaller. The more you have to focus on your workouts and your food, the less time you’re spending on other things like work, family, and social/religious life.
This is why I encourage clients to exercise on a schedule, grocery shop on a schedule, focus on easy-to-prepare meals, and get as much help as they can. This lets “healthy habits” recede into the background, making up the “invisible architecture of everyday life” (Gretchen Rubin). Habit researcher Wendy Wood has found that as many as 40% of our behaviors are repeatedly almost exactly on a daily basis. Improving that 40% makes the part of your life that’s natural and automatic better.
Make your habits easy and very, very repetitive, so that they’re easy to stick with.
Which of these skills do you most need to work on? Where are you already strong? Have questions? Shoot me an e-mail.