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Exorcising the D word

So it's New Year, and I'm going to talk about dieting. Because everyone else is.

Let's for a start be clear that here I am using the word "diet" in the colloquial way, as in a restricted or alternative diet for the purposes of weight loss. The true definition of "diet" is essentially "the food you eat", as in "let's look at the quality of your diet". In that context being "on a diet" is a nonsense, we are all "on a diet" so long as we eat something. I'd like in a way to reclaim that, because I would really like the concept of "dieting" as a short term process to go away.

I've done all the diets. I've done the cereal ones, the ones where reconstituted dust is supposed to be food, the restricted calories, the food combining, the carb cutting. I've done the supplements and just for completeness, I've also suffered from an eating disorder. So forgive me if, when I talk about diets I talk not just from the point of view of a personal trainer, but also as someone who has seen first (and second) hand how "diets" not only don't really work, but are also incredibly damaging to our health, physically and psychologically.

Why diets don't work

When I say diets don't work, I know that someone is immediately going to counter with "but I lost X pounds on this diet, it certainly does work". So lets define what I mean when I say work.

Most people embarking on a weight loss program want to lose fat. And then they want to keep it lost, for good. Many weight loss plans involve the loss of non-fat mass, and almost none are sustainable in the long term.

Forgive my cynicism when I hear someone say "oh I must get back to diet plan/weight loss club because I've put on all the weight I lost last year". If you have to go back to it regularly... It didn't work. There's no point going back, because you're just perpetuating the cycle.

And of course it doesn't work in the long term. Weight loss brands have nothing to gain from your long term success. They need you to keep coming back, because repeat sales are easier than cold sales. They are based around a model of demonstrating some kind of efficacy with a short term improvement, then instilling in you the idea that if this effect reverses then it is you who has failed, not their system, so you need to go back and have them show you again.

This system is also fuelled by shame, the number on a scale is supposed to be some indicator of how "good" you are. In diet culture we are literally putting a figure on our self worth. We wake up feeling good about ourselves, we check ourselves out in the mirror and we feel OK, we step on the scale and suddenly we have failed.

So we punish ourselves, by denying ourselves food. Putting aside all the reasons why eating appropriately for our bodies' needs is so important.

So many people go through life in a constant cycle of fluctuating weight. Dieting to meet a goal, then going back to their previous habits until the weight gradually creeps back (in fact it's common to put on more weight than they started with). Feeling dreadful about it, then starting all over again.

This isn't just psychologically unhealthy. It's not just our self esteem that is taking a battering. "Yo-yo dieting" increases your insulin resistance (essentially pushing your body towards diabetes), lowers your "good" cholesterol levels, increases your blood pressure and is thought to damage your heart.

We need to stop this ridiculousness, and find a better way to fuel our bodies and manage our weight without causing more harm than good.

Things to try instead of dieting

What we need do, is replace the concept of quick-fix dieting, with the idea of sustained healthy lifestyle. Fitness is reversible, any temporary change in habits will result in only temporary changes in outcome, which will reverse when we reach our goals and revert back to the old ways.

We will always go back to the old ways, because we have instilled in ourselves that "dieting" is a temporary and uncomfortable measure, that we must endure to pay for the sins of our previous indulgence. We say things like:

"I can't eat that, I'm on a diet"
"I shouldn't eat that, I'm trying to lose weight"
"I've been good, I've earned this doughnut"
"I'll be naughty and have dessert"
"I can't wait to reach my goal weight so I can have chocolate again"

And that's the mindset that is damaging us.

Move more

So much of the weight loss mindset is focussed on what we don't do, what we deny ourselves. Our brains don't process negatives very well, it doesn't appeal to the most simple parts of our brains, when we think about what we can't do, we want it more. Reducing your fuel intake isn't healthy, and a low calorie diet makes you less motivated towards activity. Most people don't actually suffer from an excess of food, they suffer from a lack of activity. So instead of depriving yourself of food, give yourself some movement.

We are even beginning to understand that many of the health problems formerly attributed to obesity, are actually ills of inactivity, and are present in people of "healthy" weight who don't move enough. Sedentary lifestyles are literally killing us.

Remember your 150 minutes of moderate activity. Get your heart pumping for 30 minutes a day. Go for a brisk walk in your lunch hour. Attend fitness classes. Dance. Play tag with your kids. Go for a swim. Get a pedometer or fitness tracker and set yourself a daily step goal. It's not hard to burn through an extra 500 calories a day just by doing a little exercise and making a point of getting on your feet regularly throughout the day. That's a light to medium meal extra, burned right off.

Watch your portions

Portion sizing is a really common way of overeating without even noticing. When I started weighing out my pasta and rice before cooking it, I realised how easy it would be to even double the size of a portion without really clocking it. So be aware of what a portion size should be, and eat one at a time. You can have seconds later if you need it, but don't put 2 person's worth of food on your plate at once.

A guideline I really like is this system from Precision Nutrition. A handful of carbs, a palm of protein, a thumb of fat and a fist of veg. That's dinner sorted. Here's a handy infographic.

Eat like a healthy person

This is am much about mindset as choices. The recommendations for healthy eating are right here, and actually the Precision Nutrition portion system handles that for you too.

Get it into your head that you are a healthy person and make healthy choices. Don't tell yourself "I can't eat a whole pack of doughnuts", tell yourself "I'm not into that, I'm choosing this option because my body feels better for it". It sounds daft, but it does work. Focus on what you are doing for your body. Get away from the "I'm on a diet" mindset and into "I'm a healthy person, and I eat good food".

That doesn't mean you can't eat doughnuts either. Healthy people eat doughnuts (well I do...). Health is about your mind and your social interactions as much as it is about your body, so if you need to sit and eat ice cream with your best friend now and again, you can do that. Just keep in mind portion size (one at at time) and balance. You don't need to do it every day, or several times a day!

Take a look in your trolley when you are shopping. Does it look like a healthy person's groceries? What you buy ultimately becomes what you eat, so get it right before the checkout.

Some trainers advocate eating an appropriate diet for your goal body - that is the calories and balance you would need to maintain good health at your goal weight - as a weight loss method. Feed your body right and it will find it's own balance. Takes longer than the quick fix diet, but you are laying the foundation for sustaining a healthy body in the long term.

Eat mindfully

Being aware of what you are putting in your body can make an enormous difference. Here's a game, try to write down everything you ate in the last 24 hours. I bet that you missed something. Unless you are used to recording your food intake it's completely normal to eat and not really take notice.

When you are busy it's easy to keep grabbing snacks out of habit, when you aren't busy it's easy to do the same out of boredom.

One thing Personal Trainers often ask new clients to do is to keep a food diary. It's a good way to work out what recommendations we can make, but the process of keeping a diary can be a real revelation. If you are writing a paper diary, it's worth making a note of things like, what you were doing before you ate, how hungry you felt before and after you ate and your activity for that day.

Recording your food makes you accountable, even if you are the only person who sees it, it incentivises you to eat better and reflect on your choices.

When I began recording my food intake on smartphone apps, I also noticed a discrepancy between my activity levels and my eating. I was actually eating more on days when I was less active. I realised that on heavy training days, I wasn't fuelling myself adequately, because I was busy, but on rest days, I got bored and sought stimulation through food. Being aware of this allowed me to correct it.

Take time to reflect on why you are eating, and what the consequences of your choices are. Read up and remind yourself of the basics of healthy eating. During the nutrition elements of my PT training, I found myself much more driven to eat healthy - not because I had a great revelation, but because I was persistently being reminded of what good choices look like and why I should be making them.

Learn to read your needs

Think about why you are eating, is it because you are hungry, or are you actually bored, tired or thirsty? Are you waiting so long to eat that you are too hungry, then overdoing it? Your food diary can really help you analyse this, but over time, pausing to take stock of your motivations will become a habit.

When you get used to eating appropriately to your body's needs, and listening to the signals your body sends you, eating in a healthy, balanced way becomes your normal. It takes around 6 months to form a habit, but trust that whatever way you choose to record or monitor your eating will become a normal part of your routine pretty quickly.

Eating in accordance with your needs gives you more energy, more vitality, you feel better you do more things, you get stronger, good times.

Calories in vs calories out

The calorie equation is simple.If you consume equivalent calories to those you expend, you will roughly maintain your weight. If you consume less, you lose weight, from somewhere. If you consume more, you will store it as excess weight.

There are no "weird tricks"


Exercising more, expends more calories.
Building muscle which requires energy to maintain raises your basal metabolic rate - you expend more calories.
Eating unprocessed foods that take more energy to digest expends more calories.

Eating avocados does not make you lose weight. Though you may find them more filling than your usual alternative and that might make you less likely to snack. Simply adding an avocado to your current diet just adds an extra 300 calories a day.

Drinking more water does not make you lose weight. Though doing so before eating might help if you tend to snack when you are thirsty, and it might help you feel more full.

I don't need to go on do I?

Say it with me.

There are no "weird tricks"

Calorie counting is notoriously boring. It's a lot easier now than it used to be. You don't need to carry a book around and weigh everything, we have software for that now. You can scan barcodes and all sorts.

Let me be clear here though, that I am not advocating a "diet" that involves eating a set number of calories a day, I am advocating eating an appropriate number of calories for your activity on *that* day. There's a few ways you can do this. Fitness trackers are excellent tech for keeping on top of your calorie equation. Or you can calculate your basal metabolic rate, add on an appropriate activity modifier (this calculator includes that) and any extra you burn through activity, to work out where you are for the day. Again, this is the sort of habit that eventually becomes easy - I'm at a point now where I know the calories of most of the stuff I usually eat, and I have become a much better judge of how far I am into my nutritional needs for the day.

If you want to lose weight sensibly, you can consider a calorie deficit of no more than 500 calories a day. That equates to roughly a pound a week, but don't forget that changes in body composition (muscle gain, water retention) can mask this, so don't  get to scale happy, eat healthily and feel the benefit.

A simpler way of using calories for sustainable fat loss is to aim to do at least 250 calories worth of exercise, and try and cut back 250 calories of intake. My silly memes project is there to give you some ideas of what that looks like. The images aren't a plan for you to follow (please don't...) but might give you some ideas of the scale of healthy weight management. It really isn't about cabbage soup and meal replacement biscuits.

So can we now ditch the idea of "get thin quick" plans that stress our bodies and shred our self esteem, and work towards giving our bodies the nutrition they deserve to be strong and well?

Need support in establishing healthy routines? The first few months are always the toughest and many people do much better with a little expert support. Why not check out my online and in-person personal training plans? It's an investment in your future well being.


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