Is it a will of iron, or are you chained to your routines?
A while back I was having a conversation with a bodybuilder. He was, in line with many people in fitness, strictly focussed on his passion, and how it was superior to other strength training.
"Powerlifters" he said to me, "they eat all wrong and they're too fat, they've got no discipline see."
He said this, gesticulating with his fork, as he ate his usual meal of chicken breast with cold rice and broccoli.
As a powerlifter I thanked him for sharing his perspective and went on with my day!
Reflecting upon this from a coach's perspective, I started to look past his assumption that an individual's choice not to be as lean as they can and to eat in a way of their choosing could only be a lack of commitment. I started to consider the nature of "discipline" and how this works.
Meal plans and meal prep
Eating pre-prepared meals to the same recipe, multiple times a day, every day is fairly usual for bodybuilders. It's convenient, macro counted and becomes part of the lifestyle.
It's not however, what I would consider "disciplined". Or to use a clearer turn of phrase, it does not require an enormous amount of willpower.
Once a decision has been made to stick to a meal plan, and especially if the food is already prepared, it actually takes remarkably little mental energy to stick to it.
"What shall I have for lunch?" - Chicken and rice, like usual, question is moot.
"Shall I grab a doughnut from that bakery for a snack" - No, because there's a tub of chicken and rice in your bag. Simples.
It's actually genius.
Making decisions is a drain your your mental capacity. The more choices you have to make, the harder it gets and the more likely you are to make rash or poor decisions. It's called decision fatigue.
Having a lot of things going on in your head makes it harder to make healthy food choices. So does tiredness (which is another reason why we need to rest), and low blood sugar.
Do you see now why it's so hard to make a healthy choice when you are hungry, tired and busy? You aren't weak, your mental capacity is exhausted.
Eating to a strict plan takes that all away, there is no question, there is no stress. It requires a level of sacrifice, but on a moment by moment level, it is the easiest way. And it's also pretty effective.
Which is why a lot of gym Personal Trainers (especially those with an interest in physique competition or training for aesthetics) will suggest this way of eating to clients interested in weight loss.
So why don't we all just do meal plans?
What happens when you are caught short? What about the people who aren't willing to take the long term trade offs that this method requires?
Sometimes you are going to find yourself without a tupperware of lunch. Or at a work event at a restaurant, or a wedding, or you want to hang with friends, or eat with your family, or try new foods, or you just fancy a change...
Many people who lose weight on a meal plan programme, aim to go back into "maintenance", a way of eating that supposedly keeps them resting at their goal weight. In periodised nutrition planning, maintenance is a controlled phase where you are neither losing or gaining weight, but it is still part of the plan - or "diet" if you will. Quick fix diets sell us maintenance like some magic place where we will eat as we like "but in moderation". They don't often teach us how. So most people rebound, and rebounding means.... the diet didn't work.
It gives the illusion of working while you are "on plan" because eating according to the plan might take forethought and sacrifice, but it doesn't take willpower. Sticking through the plan gives us the illusion that we are now nutrition masters who have total control over our appetite urges.
In reality the programme has failed to give us an opportunity to practice making the right kind of decisions. It has also detached us from our bodies' signals of hunger and satiety - the very mechanisms that tell you, with the greatest accuracy, how much food your unique body actually needs today.
Why habit based change gives you better long term results
So what's the alternative? My favoured method, both in my own weight management, and that for nutrition coaching clients, is to work on a combination of intuitive eating and habit based change. So what do I mean by that?
Building better habitsI've already said that when we are short on willpower, we default to what is easiest, and how we define easy is a little more complex than you might think.
Imagine I'm ready for lunch, but I haven't decided what to eat (lunch is my absolute worst meal for this, I'm working on it through my own coaching programme right now). I have a box of eggs in my kitchen, and someone walks through the door and offers me a burger from a popular drive thru fast food restaurant. What do I do?
I make scrambled eggs. I haven't eaten fast food burgers since I was a kid, the thought of it in my mouth is confusing, it would be a massive break from my "comfort zone". So I will make a little more physical effort to eat something I can handle better psychologically. That is my "easy" option.
When I work with clients on habit change, what we are doing is "installing" new versions of the easy, go-to option. I don't say "never eat a doughnut, have a supershake". What we do is we spend a couple of weeks working on the shake being the default choice. Until it becomes natural to make that choice. It doesn't mean you never have a doughnut, it just means that your mindless choice should be the one that aligns with your goals, if you want to deviate from that by choice, that's your call. Just don't be a doughnut munching zombie.
Changing habits takes a while, I like to work on a single habit, and nothing else, for 2 weeks at a time, which is why my coaching programme takes 12 months to turn your nutrition world around. But that's also why it sticks.
And it will stick. Did you brush your teeth today? Why? Was it discipline? Was it willpower? Or was it because you do it every day and it seems weird not to?
Making your best choices easier
So if building habits makes it psychologically easier to eat in accordance with your goals, then it's also possible to make it easier in other ways - and that's a bit quicker.
Shopping and pre-preparing to make sure that the right foods are available is good. Remember Dr John Berardi's first law of nutrition:
"If a food is in your possession or located in your residence, you will eventually eat it."
Which is why I always have that box of eggs in my kitchen. If I didn't have the eggs, but I had a packet of cookies, what would be the easiest lunch?
Part of my current "operation lunch" is to keep my freezer stocked with frozen veggies and easy protein (like chicken breasts, lean burgers and fish). So that even if my fresh food shopping didn't work out, I've got something to grab.
There are other things that make your choices difficult, like the time you have available or the people you hang out with. Gameplan these situations in advance, so you know exactly what you are going to do before you get cornered.
Listening to your body
Your body is incredible. It has built in mechanisms for determining what food you need and how much that are way more accurate than any smartphone app or trainer could ever hope to be.
The problem is we don't listen to them. We learn to clear our plates as kids, or ignore our hunger as dieters. We wolf down our food in front of the television and don't give our stomach a chance to realise what's happening to it! We eat foods that are way more nutritionally dense than our bodies evolved to consume, tricking our systems into thinking we need more. And we throw our hormones out of whack by not sleeping enough, or by living in chronic stress.
We can "fix" all of this by taking care of our bodies as part of our plan to meet our weight management goals (and yes, I coach all those things too...)
Using habit setting to support your training routine
So once we understand how habits, decision making and willpower work, we can make it work for us! Check out this Instagram post I did on a particularly grumpy morning...
I have my training times written into my weekly schedule. I don't miss a session unless I'm really ill or I have to reschedule for work. If I'm a bit ill I still use that time window for appropriate training, whether it's lighter work, yoga or focussed rest.
I write down my workout before I start. Even if I'm "playing" and writing it just before I train. Once it's on paper, I have to do it, unless it feels the wrong kind of difficult. If I wrote down I was doing 4 hypertrophy sets, I'm doing it, even if my muscles are on fire and I feel the call of my postworkout snack. I don't have to make the decision whether or not to keep going. It's in the book, it gets done. Easy.
Making decisions is hard. Changing plans is hard. So plan to do the things and make the choices that fit your goals. That's the hardest part done.
Working your willpower
There's lots of cool things you can do to increase your capacity for willpower. Like mindfulness meditation - that stuff is awesome (and it helps with your stress levels too). If you are into that I would thoroughly recommend you read this book, Maximum Willpower.
You can also take the pressure off yourself by reducing the number of decisions you need to make, and making the "right" decisions (whatever that means for you) easier.
Too often when people feel they "lack discipline" what they really lack is the uncluttered environment and headspace that makes decision making less taxing. It's a skill, not a talent.
I want you to be able to eat the foods you love, with the people you love being around, and also be healthy, strong, and as lean as you want to be.
I help people achieve this with tailored online and in-person nutrition coaching, powered by Precision Nutrition's proven curriculum. See what it's all about here.