Today I’ve chosen to write about how diet is often more about restriction and less about being nutritionally appropriate to our individual needs, and the issue I have with many of the various approaches to managing diet in order to live healthier lives. As with dieting, so too with exercise and in particular whether a regular workout is particularly beneficial to someone who is trying to lose or even maintain a healthy weight. I’ve gone to town on this article, and I apologise if for some of you it seems a little long, so I hope you’ll take the time, or even read it in sections as time permits. I believe that it’s worth the time to read, and the topic wouldn’t have been as complete if I hadn’t written about all of this stuff.
Yeah.. I know I could have broken it down over a couple of days into several posts, but I’m loath to do so as I wanted all of this information in the one place. Perhaps I’ll break it out into separate pages sometime in the future. In the meantime, let’s see if I can expose a couple of myths, or at least get you thinking abut diet and exercise from a slightly different perspective.
The idea behind the cheat day concept is that it is supposed to help people to deal with cravings by encouraging them to exert willpower for a period of time with a reward at the end of that time period when the dietary restriction can be relaxed and the craved foods can be consumed.
The problem that I have with cheat days is that the psychology behind the idea is totally wrong for most people. It is an acknowledgement that you will fail to stick to your restrictions and so you are encouraged to try to control that failure on a schedule. Unfortunately the cheat day is sometimes taken by some people as a license to indulge in a kind of wanton gluttony, where they can eat all of the crap that they are otherwise supposed to deny themselves without restriction on food type or quantity, and with an assumption that they will have the control the next day to deal with the aftermath of stepping boldly off their dietary wagon.
The cheat day is also often suggested as a control for those substances that the body craves. This is quite frankly unsubstantiated garbage. Cravings are a psychological response to stimuli. A smell or a taste sensation linked to hunger triggering a thinking pattern which results in a person wanting to have something at that moment in time. Craving is an addiction response and not an actual need of the body, so all that the cheat day does is to provide an avenue for the addiction to be satisfied without dealing with the problem of the addiction itself. Sure, some people have the willpower to overcome an addiction while indulging occasionally in the substances that led to the addiction in the first place, but for the vast majority of people out there with weight control problems, willpower alone won’t help them to overcome their addiction.
“But, it’s OK because it’s my cheat day…”
No, it really isn’t “OK”, it’s wrong for you. When I say it is “wrong” to use cheat days I’m not being judgemental, I’m saying that it is most probably “wrong” for you individually in terms of your own capacity to deal with the problems that are the reasons for why you may think you “need” a cheat day. When you use a cheat day you are building an excuse for failing your goals into the same dietary system that is supposed to be helping you to reach those goals. You aren’t offering yourself a chance to learn what your triggers are for overindulging in the foods that aren’t healthy for you or that you are addicted to, and you sidestep the learning opportunity by simply ignoring it and accepting regular cyclical failure within your diet without finding better ways to deal with the problems that led you to overindulge in the first place. Then when you encounter an unscheduled meltdown later on, you end up feeling guilty, perhaps disgusted with yourself, you feel like a failure, and getting yourself back on track becomes so much more difficult because now you are scared that your willpower will fail you again.
Rather than building failure in, it’s better to accept that failures will happen from time to time and to accept the consequences when they occur. Instead of indulging in feelings of shame or guilt, seek instead to examine objectively why the failure occurred. Not as an excuse that might allow the failure to be repeated, but instead as an opportunity to identify any triggers for failure so that you can take steps to remove them. so that the next time you fall off the wagon you’ll have the benefit of experience and knowledge to help you to get back on the wagon faster and with more confidence that any future failures will likely be easier to deal with.
Calorie counting, understanding that the amount of energy in will either equal the energy stored or the energy used… it all sounds good on the surface doesn’t it? The idea behind this approach is to calculate the amount of energy that your body needs, and to ensure that you do not exceed this caloric requirement during the day. You can effectively eat whatever you want but you must keep your calories below a certain number if you wish to lose weight.
I see two problems with this approach. The first is that your individual caloric requirements can vary from day to day. If you are a couch potato one week and then working hard the next you might be able to manage your calorie counting to a certain degree, but daily fluctuations in activity and intake can make it tricky to work out how many calories you’ve consumed and burned in a day.
To make things more difficult, unless you have all of your meals pre-packaged with an accurate calorie count recorded, you’re going to find it hard to gauge the actual number of calories you eat without careful measurement of every ingredient and portion and calculating the calories, and when it comes to eating fruits and vegetables, your caloric intake will only ever be an estimate based on what the average sugar content of a particular food type is supposed to be. This won’t take into account whether a fruit is particularly ripe, or has had more or less water content than the average measured. In many cases, while the calories might be guessed as a whole, there are often lots of “hidden” calories that are difficult to account for in foods given it can be difficult to determine which calories are more likely to be absorbed when digested, and which are likely to remain as waste due to the composition of the food source itself, how well it is chewed, and so on.
The other problem that I see with calorie restriction is in terms of nutrition. It takes work to ensure that you are getting all of the essential nutrients in a day when the caloric intake is limited. It reduces your margin for error, and leaves you with a situation where – to use a rather extreme example – you could quite easily consume all of your daily calories in the form of processed sugar, and yet be unsatisfied both in terms of quantity of food leaving you hungry, and with quality of food, leaving you malnourished. Any single food type could result in an insulin spike or could push you quite far outside your calculated caloric intake.
There can be a benefit in keeping track of the number of calories you consume if in terms of managing your diet provided you make very careful choices in terms of types and quantities of foods eaten. An effort needs to be made to ensure that everything consumed is checked, measured, and counted, however a satisfying meal may result in keeping to a reduced subset of “safe” foods in order to avoid feeling hungry while consuming adequate nutrients. If inadequate calories are consumed you may be able to lose weight, or if weight management isn’t really an issue you may be left with little energy and feeling tired. It seems to me to be a system that can be made to work with great effort, but also seems to be prone to error and failure, particularly given the food types themselves aren’t necessarily called into question which means that unhealthy meal choices can be made just so long as the calorie targets are being met.
In terms of dealing with people who are physically quite obese in particular, the effort of counting calories seems again to be an inadequate approach given the psychological nature of the condition that keeps a person obese. When coupled with depression and/or compulsive behaviour, calorie counting would seem at best to be an approach that would be given up almost as soon as the first dietary setback would occur, and the effort to keep up with the calorie counting deemed unsustainable in the longer term.
I’m sure I’m about to quote here, but I can’t remember who coined this particular phrase:
“Fat doesn’t make people fat”.
It is a shame that fat has become the target of such dietary shame ever since a connection was made between fatty acids in the blood stream, and heart conditions. It’s true also that certain long chained fatty acids are at the heart of many diseases of the central nervous system. Yes, there are many fats that are very bad for your health if consumed in quantities. There are however many fats that are good for our health. Essential in fact, and so much so that our body naturally synthesises many of it’s own fatty acids if it doesn’t have enough of the right fats in the system.
Restricting dietary fat intake is generally a good idea, provided you limit the fats that are harmful to you which in general are the saturated fats and man made unsaturated Trans fats. Natural unsaturated fats on the other hand can be a valuable carbohydrate source in limited quantities – particularly in colder climates – or, when used in cooking will do little harm if ingested in moderate amounts. Omega 3 and 6 are a couple of the fatty acids that have been proven to be highly beneficial to humans, and yet if we label all fats with a broad brush as being bad for us, we risk limiting our intake of the good fats that our bodies need. Worse still, by restricting the good fats we risk affecting the balance of fats in our bodies such that the imbalance itself of beneficial vs dangerous fats becomes unhealthy, and this can occur quite easily as some of the bad fats in our bodies are generated as waste products within our cells.
Even if we could eliminate eating all sources of fat – impossible given there are fatty substances in every living thing – we would still see people becoming overweight and obese because it is starches and sugars – particularly within heavily refined foods – that are the real culprits in terms of the fat stored within the human body. A low-refined-sugary-foods approach would serve people better than attempting to eliminate fats altogether.
Restricting carbohydrates is kind of like restricting calories, kind of like lowering fats, and can incorporate either/both approaches. The idea is that all carbohydrates create problems, so therefore removing the carbs will reduce the energy you consume and force your body to burn the carbs in your fatty tissues, and reducing the carbs will ensure your body doesn’t store the energy and make you fat.
Many carb restriction approaches advocate eating more protein than carbs, and even cutting the carbs almost entirely when on a meat-heavy diet under the premise that the fats in meat will provide for all of your carbohydrate needs. Few approaches make a distinction between carbohydrate sources, so a particularly sweet banana or carrot can be treated with disdain equal to refined sugars or donuts.
As with fats, not all carbohydrate sources are equal. Some are more beneficial than others, but the real issue isn’t so much the quality, but rather the quantity. Even if you chose to remove all “sugar” from your diet, you would find sugars creeping into your foods simply because they are present in many of the foods we eat day to day. Breads, condiments, carbonated drinks, juice boxes, energy drinks, jams, dried fruits… there are so many hidden sources of sugars in manufactured foods that you can’t help but overindulge.
As if sugar itself wasn’t enough of a problem to deal with, there are other sources of carbs that aren’t always so obvious to people, such as cereal grains, starchy tubers, legumes, nuts, and many other foods. Some of which are healthy sources of energy, but which may contain high concentrations of other things such as fats and lipids, or substances that our bodies would be better off avoiding such as natural arsenic and cyanide.
So on the surface, simply cutting the carbs would seem to be a quick and effective way to deal with all of these potential problems that might come up. The problem is really the same as with calorie counting, in that it is difficult to know just how much carbohydrate is needed. You either slip into a calorie counting method simply because it’s easier to quantify carbs as calories, or you end up restricting carbs in a way that risks creating an imbalance nutritionally. Even if you stick to strictly restricting carbohydrate sources, it’s more than likely you’ll end up consuming carbs from sneaky sources that will ultimately make any effort and restriction only that much harder to manage.
This seems another approach that would ultimately be prone to failure. On the plus side it seems to be trying to get closer to the truth about what makes you fat and addresses the human fat/insulin connection far better than some of the other approaches. On the other it seems like a more extreme approach to take that might show some gains in the short term, but would likely become more difficult to manage effectively in the longer term. Given the sheer effort to keep on top of which foods are low carb and which aren’t, I would think that most people would give up on it after a while, particularly in cases where cravings for carb-rich foods occur.
In some ways, portion control would seem to be the safest and most balanced approach to ensuring that nutritional requirements are met, while addressing the issue of excessive caloric intake. You eat so many serves of this, with so many serves of that, and so long as you stick to the appropriate number of serves within each of the food groups for the day, you’ll lose weight or you’ll avoid gaining weight. I actually like the idea of portion control simply because it attempts to simplify everything to say “if you eat too much you’ll gain wait, and if you eat less you won’t, but at at least you’ll eat from all of the food groups and cover all of your bases nutritionally”.
Many food labels these days will tell you how many servings there are in a packet, and will even tell you the size of a serving. So many spoons, so many grams, so many individually wrapped items, and so on. These servings are often show in such a way that it looks like a reasonable amount of food according to the nutritional label when compared side by side with the 100 gram or whole packet column that more often than not shows a serving as having less calories/fat/carbs than some other amount that would be considered by the manufacture to be an “overindulgence” if consumed above the recommended serving.
It all seems reasonable, and there are several weight loss companies that have made their fortunes around the concept of portion control. The single biggest problem with the portion control systems however is the size of a portion. How big is a serving of food X, and how does that apply to an individual? A shot of tequila might barely touch the average 75kg person, but give that same shot of tequila to a 30kg child and you’ll see some seriously impaired motor control, even though the shot might be considered a single serve. Now I’m not suggesting you all go and experiment on your children or use alcohol as an example of a serving. What I am trying to highlight a little graphically however is that the amount of a portion is going to affect each person quite differently based on all sorts of factors including size, health, age, genetics, metabolism, activity levels and so on.
Even if you have a system to scale up the portion numbers or portion sizes, it is still a restrictive process. Less food is less food, and many of the portion control diets end up as little more than a “starvation protocol” to be perfectly blunt. For some users, these diets can work and require a certain amount of willpower to overcome the hunger pangs that will invariably occur, while for others even mild hunger will be enough to cheat on the portion control. Oh, and please don’t go telling me that you can fix temporary hunger with water, because water doesn’t satisfy real hunger. It only satisfies thirst, and you can tell a hungry person to drink all of the water in the world and I will guarantee you that they will still feel hungry even with a belly full to bursting with water.
Portion control will have great benefits for some people ion the short term, however I wonder how easily it can be managed on your own, and whether it can be a sustainable and practical approach over a lifetime, or whether it is seen primarily as a means to an end, and forgotten once the goals are achieved. Although I suppose the same can be said of any dietary regiment to a certain degree.
A with managing diet, managing exercise is important to your health. Actually, I can’t imagine how a diet can work without a least some daily exercise, given there is a definite link between the efficiency of your digestive processes and the amount of physical movement you engage in. The real question is whether doing a 30 minute workout 2 to 3 times per week is an adequate level of activity to maintain healthy weight and a healthy metabolism. This is a question that becomes particularly pertinent when injury restricts your ability to work out.
Something else to bear in mind is that no two workouts are created equal, and there is no guarantee that a workout will always be performed at the same intensity every single time, due to motivational and physical factors that can change on a daily basis. For many, the regular workout becomes a way of life and is an enjoyable process in and of itself, while for many others a workout is merely working out, a chore, and something done just as a means to an end. In both cases, the regular workout can go on for very long time, until life gets in the way and the workout is relegated to being something that should be done, yet isn’t done as often as might be needed.
I’m of two minds on the issue of the regular workout. I see great benefits to working out regularly, yet I know from experience how difficult it can be to make workout time a priority when there are so many other claims on your time that can be just as equally important to you. One of the problems I see with working out is that the vast majority of people out there don’t really know how to work their muscles properly, and will either risk repeatedly injuring themselves over the years or will not work out effectively so that in both cases, the benefits are minimal and generally short term.
In terms of an effective weight loss strategy, regular workouts can allow you to see short term gains on the scales very quickly, and the elevated levels of exercise can certainly aid in the relatively rapid reduction of fat overall. However, if you simply go from the couch to the gym, and back to the couch again, are you really achieving anything truly beneficial in the longer term? Is this approach going to improve your metabolism? Is it sustainable?
Another concern when using workouts to aid in weight loss is the psychological aspect of how you go about it, particularly when there is an expectation to see a direct causal relationship between a workout and the scale. Poor hydration practices can result in a seemingly rapid loss of weight, yet this can often simply be an indication of the water losses incurred by a workout which would then need to be replenished in order to avoid dehydration. The subsequent fluctuations on the scale can be misleading to the uninformed and can do more harm to an individual’s motivation than the exercise does good.
Short and intense bursts of activity are great techniques to use when training athletes, but the question remains as to whether this approach is particularly beneficial to the ordinary person who simply wants to stay fit and healthy, or whether high intensity workouts have any lasting effect in terms of endurance and overall fitness.
A balanced approach is the key
Order vs Chaos. Ying and Yang. However you want to see it, our bodies come into his world in balance. We know that everything that happens to our bodies is governed by a kind of unwritten law of cause and effect. Eat poorly, and your body reacts poorly. Fail to exercise, and your body fails to remain physically conditioned.
I am a strong believer that in terms of losing weight, 90+% is making an effort with your diet, and the rest is the effort you make in terms of your exercise. This reflects the effort required to bring a body out of balance back into a healthy balance. In maintaining your weight and your health however, I believe that the effort between diet and exercise becomes more… well… balanced over time.
I also see that there are balances within balances. Take diet for example. If you eat a nutritionally balanced diet, your body will be assured to receive all of the nutrients that it needs. In terms of your vitamins and minerals, you need to eat from a wide variety of food sources to ensure that balance. Looking a little deeper, you also need to balance your requirements between hunger and satiation, and between the need for energy to fuel the body and the need for the building materials that help to maintain the body. We’re talking about balancing the carbs and the proteins.
I make not apologies for believing that our bodies are built to process meats, and limited vegetable sources. I subscribe to the Paleo approach because I believe that this is the way our bodies are genetically made to work at their best, but I certainly won’t assume that it’s necessarily “wrong” per-se to be vegetarian or vegan. However, regardless of the choice of diet, it is clear to me that the diet must be balanced, and I believe this should be to eat healthy unprocessed foods, with an equal balance of good protein and carbohydrate sources, sparing use of oils & spices, avoiding primarily saturated and trans fats while consuming moderate amounts of the good mono and polyunsaturated fats, and to keep things easy to manage over a lifetime, focussing less on restricting diets by counting things like calories and portions, and more on food quality. I also believe that the key to making this work is to maintain adequate levels of hydration with good clean drinking water.
I also see that there needs to be a balance between rest and exercise, but not in the sense that you should spend 1/2 of your waking hours moving and the other half sitting down. Our bodies are made for movement, not sitting. That movement drives our metabolic processes and keeps us from accumulating more than our essential amount fo fat. I believe it is less important to attend regularly scheduled workouts, and more important to remain physically active all of the time, even if that physical activity is simply standing or walking. Our bodies require a minimum level of activity for healthy metabolic function, but as to what that actual level is, I couldn’t tell you because I don’t know exact figures. Anecdotally from my own weight loss journey however, I can tell you that with a minimum of workouts, and by simply increasing my activity levels by standing for longer periods each day, combined with eating a healthy diet I am losing weight and feeling more alert and physically better than I’ve ever felt.
I know that for myself I will increase my activity levels and will myself be working out more regularly, but as time goes on, I suspect that I too will workout less in the future once I have achieved a few more of my health goals. I firmly believe however that maintaining that condition in the future will require much less effort and will be supported simply by continuing to live a more physically active lifestyle, even if I don’t specifically focus on working out.
I know it isn’t necessarily scientific stating my conclusions through my own beliefs, nor is it as entirely objective to base my opinions on those beliefs. What is clear to me however, is that your body ultimately and naturally wants to work at its best, and it’s up to you to determine the balance that will provide your body with the best opportunity to be its strongest and healthiest. So take everything that I have written as food for thought, and I hope that it is useful in helping you to decide for yourself which dietary and physical balance will be best for you.