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Dieting, calories, food choices and weight loss. Part 1.

November 22, 2012
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What I’m going to talk about today is the HUGE subject of food and dieting. I won’t be able to cover everything I want to, in this one post, but I am going to do a series of posts covering the basics of what I feel are important principles to understand when it comes to successfully managing your weight. I am going to touch on how to lose weight, but more importantly how to MAINTAIN your weight. (Fad dieters I’m looking at YOU).

Dieting and food is a very touchy topic for a lot of people in the health industry/fitness circles. People tend to get so caught up in "being right" about their opinions and  emotionally defending a position when it comes to food and training practices. I personally don’t like taking an emotional stance on these type of things. I am more interested in finding out not only what works and gives me and my clients results, but also what works WELL as a long-term, lifestyle approach.

Remember, these posts will be specifically geared to those who want/need to lose bodyfat. Later I will address eating for performance and fitness goals, as this is something very important to me and it should be important for anyone who trains on a regular basis.

You can’t “out-train” a bad diet!

Before I say anything else I need to say this. You can’t “out-train” a bad diet. A lot of people believe that their exercise program will somehow make up for a poor diet. They use the excuse that they can eat whatever they want because their exercise offsets the excess calories taken in. This way of thinking will typically set you up to fail. Remember, successful weight loss comes down to about 80-90 % diet!  You have to understand this before you can go any further.

Do food choices or total calories matter most?

I’ve noticed people are disagreeing a lot on what is more important: what you eat or how much you eat. To me, they both matter and are important. (I think if you have performance and health goals in mind, what you eat becomes even MORE important.)

From my personal experience and the experience I’ve had with my clients, I know for a FACT that 1. The amount of food you eat matters and 2. The type of food you eat matters. And for long-term success in weight management, you can’t have one without the other.

I’ll start with why the amount of food you eat matters.

From what I’ve seen, a lot of people just eat too much food. Plain and simple. They can be eating wholesome bars filled with all manner of healthy, natural things, but if they eat too many of those yummy bars (more calories eaten than they burn) they will not lose weight. It is a scientifically proven fact. I’m all for making proper, good food choices, but let’s keep things real. You cannot overeat, even if it’s “healthy” foods and think you won’t gain body fat. Because it’s just simply not true.

Even if people that tell you they didn’t change their portion sizes or count calories at all to lose weight, they would have changed something in their diet (i.e. stopped eating grains) which amounted to eating less calories overall, unbeknownst to them. Or they would have started exercising or being more active which burned extra calories.

You have to create a deficit either by eating less energy (food), or by burning more energy, in order to lose weight.

In saying that, I will now add that food choices most certainly matter. People can end up spending years fixing their hormones and metabolisms because they didn’t think about the macro-nutrients they were eating; they only ever focused on counting calories their whole lives and/or yoyo dieting. Also, research has shown that certain diets/types of food have an increased thermic effect in your body. This basically means your body will spend more energy burning/digesting certain foods (like protein) than others, and you will have greater weight loss results at equal calorie intakes of these foods, compared to other foods (i.e. refined carbs). So it isn’t all about the calories. It’s also about food choices.

…Diets high in protein and high fiber have both shown to reduce hunger compared to a higher carbohydrate or reduced fiber diet…Additionally, research has demonstrated that high protein diets have an increased thermic effect of food, allowing for greater weight loss at ‘equal’ calorie intakes when compared to higher carbohydrate diets. The big take home points however, are that eating ‘good’ foods will allow you to keep total calories higher but eating the occasional ‘bad’ food won’t wreck your diet as long as it controlled within the context of total caloric intake. Therefore, the most successful strategy in achieving limited fat gain/maximizing fat loss is to practice cognitive restraint while consuming a diet high in protein and dietary fiber.

From Is a calorie truly a calorie by Layne Norton

This is where both weight watchers type programs and paleo type diets fail. The one type (counting calories/weight watchers) says you can eat whatever you want as long as you stick to an allotted amount of calories, not realising that different foods affect your hormones, appetite, blood sugar levels, metabolism, digestion, gut health, etc. differently, which in turn affects your weight.  The other (paleo/primal) says you can eat as much as you want of the "right" foods, not realising that if you eat more of anything than you burn, you will not lose bodyfat. Both on their own = recipe for failure.

So where do I start? My number 1 tip for losing body fat. 

My number 1 tip for weight loss is: Feed your body more nutrients with fewer calories. As I mentioned above, there’s really no way to get around the fact that burning fat requires you to give your body fewer calories than you burn. But where people really screw up is with their food choices.

Most people don’t get enough of certain key nutrients as it is, to feed their bodies what it needs to keep all your hormones working properly, without even thinking about fat loss. So then when they then drastically cut calories, their metabolism completely shuts down because they’re getting even fewer nutrients than they were before.

If they would instead drop the low-quality/higher-calorie food choices and replace them with nutrient rich foods, their body will be able to burn the fat while keeping their hormones at healthy levels, because it will be getting the nutrients it needs.For example, eating a serving of fresh blueberries instead of two pieces of white bread at lunch will do this. Or having steamed vegetables instead of a baked potato at dinner. These two changes alone will give your muscles and metabolism more nutrients with fewer calories.

What diet approach should I use? Should I track calories?

How people go about deciding what to eat and how much they should be eating for their body composition goals, is different for each person. There are all sorts of different diet approaches. Diet is a very individual and personal thing. I can’t tell you what works for everyone but I can tell you what works for me. I like to keep things very simple, especially when it comes to nutrition. I follow a few simple guidelines. I eat real, whole, quality foods and limit processed food. I eat high protein. I eat when I am hungry, and I enjoy “treats” occasionally. If my nutrition method causes me any stress or uses up too much mental energy, I simplify and change things immediately.

I am AMAZED at how complicated nutrition is made out to be. It’s really the most simple thing (and the most important) when it comes to good health and fitness.

Be smart about your diet, but don't overthink it. The easier you can make something, the greater the likelihood that you'll be consistent with it. Consistency in the long term is what equals success. Clients often come to me with some of the most intricate, complicated diet and supplement plans I've ever seen, comprised of about 90 % useless bullshit and 10 % fundamentals. I change the ratio to 90% fundamentals and 10% "tweaking" or individualizing, and suddenly they start getting good results. Don't over-complicate the process.

As for my experience with clients, I think it’s been helpful for some of them to measure their food portions or count calories when they in the process of losing weight. However, once they reach their goal weight, I’ve encouraged them to also develop a more natural approach with their diet habits. Learning to know when your body is hungry, knowing what foods to feed it, in what amounts, and how often. This kind of “intuitive dieting” is something that is not nearly encouraged enough in the health and fitness industry (people are so often encouraging following A SPECIFIC diet or diet protocol), and something that I think is so important for people to develop, especially in this day and age when food has become such a compulsive and emotionally driven thing.

Which brings me to my next point.

Learning to listen to your body. How to eat intuitively.

This is where I am on the fence about religiously counting calories as a long-term lifestyle approach. On one hand, I see the importance of it. I like how it gives people a better understanding of food, of what calories are: what a carb is, what fats and protein are, etc. It’s also very useful because it can be far too easy to overeat by a couple hundred calories every day and gain unwanted weight. It can also give a greater sense of accountability. But then on the other hand, I see it a crutch somewhat, working against the idea of developing intuitive eating. If you are always relying on counting calories and weighing food, you aren’t learning to really know your body. To know how to rely on its hunger signals, its hormonal signals, even its thirst signals.

I don’t like what has become of people and food nowadays. Millions of individuals have stopped listening to their bodies and have taken to obsessive, compulsive eating. This mindless eating has become such a universal habit that we now expect to constantly be eating or thinking about food. We make so much of our life revolve around it, to the point that it’s unnatural and unhealthy.

The ability to pay close attention to your body’s signals and actually respect and honour them is no longer the norm. This frustrates me because I know it is possible to maintain a healthy, non-obsessive relationship with food. Why can’t we go back to the way it was before? Eating when we were actually hungry and stopping when we were sufficiently full? The art of intuitive, non-obsessive eating has been lost. This makes me sad.

The mind is a tricky thing; it loves to be out of control. And with all the fast food, 2 minute meals, TV dinners, and easy access drive-throughs, food has become so readily available in this day and age. We as humans are also very irrational by nature. In order to control all our many urges, we have to make a conscious effort. We have to retrain our mind and our body to practice mindful eating. If we do this enough it will become a habit. I think this is something that is so worth developing. If you only learn how to track macros and calories, you will have to depend on doing that for the rest of your life. But if you learn how to eat intuitively and mindfully, you won’t need to track, weigh and count every bite and morsel of food all the time.

What is mindful eating? To me it’s being mindful of your body. Taking note of how you feel after you eat different foods. Taking note of they affect you the whole day. How your body looks and feels after you eat them. How they affect you mentally. How they affect your performance in the gym, your work, your sleep at night, your overall energy. Knowing the difference between what real hunger is and what “emotional” hunger is.

In order to change this mentality, we should first change the way we think of food!

Food is fuel for the body!

Food is not an antidepressant! It is not something to do for fun (okay well sometimes it is :))! It is not a way to prove our love to somebody! It’s not the answer to every problem and the cure for every bad feeling. Food is fuel for the body! And that is its number 1 purpose! Food shouldn’t constantly be used as a reward, a party in our mouth, or eaten emotionally. When we are able to distinguish between real hunger and “emotional hunger” that’s when we start to learn how to eat intuitively.

I think we should respect our food. Look at it as the fuel and natural medicine that it is. The quality of your food will = the quality of your health. I never feel better than I feel when I know I am giving my body high quality, real, unprocessed, nutrient-rich food. The way we were meant to eat food. I use food as my fuel, to make my body work better.

Once you begin to look at food in this way you will start to have more of a balance with food. You will find it easier to manage what you eat, both the amount and the type of food. You’ll find it easier to deal with cravings, and hunger won’t mean the end of the world to you. Your hormones will become more balanced. You will know how to enjoy food and treats and holidays and occasional splurges without the crazy, compulsive, eating-the-whole-tub-of-icecream-in-one-go-because-I-am-so-goddamn-desperate type of obsessive behaviour.

There is something empowering about taking care of yourself, your body and your health!

(Stay tuned for part 2, including topics like: Yoyo dieting = long term disaster and The oxymoron: Are you eating enough to lose weight?)

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