When starting any nutrition program, I could list so many things I want to tell clients from the start. Whether it is just observations of their own food journal, personal experience or expectations I have for them, there are many grips we have to come to. Sure, you could “accidentally” get leaner, bigger or stronger by following any nutrition program but you’d most likely have to try a myriad of them before finding the one that works best for you. And that sort of guess and check, for me, just takes too much time, effort and troubleshooting to be worth it. I know Infomercials work because they catch you at your weakest; late at night, under slept and feeling bad about yourself. They’re basically audio-visual predators.
Every “system” or plan wants you to have the gotcha moment: that part of the commercial or ad where you think “THIS is the thing that will work for me”. I know, I used to be that way. I thought I needed a system, something that was somehow so special and magical that it could only work for me and a small group of people just like me. That is exactly what fad diets, systems and magazine articles want. They want that buy-in that makes you so desperate for something that you believe you NEED it.
Guess what? You don’t need it. You need some structure, a system of measurement, but not a system that says these foods at these times equals ripped abs, huge chest, firm butt, tan skin. I’ll take the last one though; I need a tan for sure. (In fact exercise may not come in a bottle, but I know for a fact tans do!).
In fact, continuing on the above, you can find so much research to back up or shoot down almost any nutrition disclaimer you want to make. True, we know the morning and post-workout are the most insulin sensitive times of the day. We know that certain foods are high and low-glycemic. We know that grass-fed dairy and meat is better than corn fed.
Research has also shown that two, three or six meals a day makes almost no difference; total calories matter most. All the grass-fed meat and dairy in the world won’t make you lean if you are overeating or lactose intolerant. We also know the glycemic index of foods change when eaten in a mixed meal with protein and fat and fiber, because I would never recommend rice just on its own.
What does this mean? It means most of nutrition is personal. You’ve got to meet some basic guidelines but much of it is individual and dare I say preference! Even when I start a nutrition program for a client, there is no way I can predict exactly what will happen. They meet some basic hydration, protein, sleep and vegetable requirements and then we have to adjust fat, carbs and to an extent protein again based on their response. That’s it.
Implement, measure, respond. John Berardi calls it the “how’s that workin’ for ya?” system. Basically, you make a small, measured change, do it consistently for one or two weeks and measure your response. Honestly, anything else is just giving it a whirl, which sometimes works but unless you have done it before you are really just shooting in the dark.
So what do you need to realize?
You Aren’t Broken
Barring some medical issue or possible obesity, there likely isn’t something wrong with you. Like it or not, most of us just end up slipping and lose our way because we make exceptions, slack or just flat-out eat poorly and end up with less than stellar results. People are afraid of carbohydrates, fats, caffeine, salt, too much water, fish oil and even protein (I know, that seems nuts!).
When I was 10 or 11 I was overweight and my mom took me to the doctor to see if something was wrong with my thyroid or some other hormonal levels. The doctor came in, saw me with my shirt off, weighed me and talked to me about my diet. His response was “you probably just eat too much”. I was sort of shocked and devastated but he was the first person to bring up the elephant in the room. Can’t lose body fat or gain muscle? Stop acting like you aren’t drinking like a fish on the weekends, binge eating before bed or only sleeping 4 hours a night.
This isn’t to say there can’t be genetic or environmental factors that are hindering you but if you dig a little with people, they usually reveal what is holding them back through conversation. It can be easy to either blind yourself or convince yourself that you are doing everything right, but do some real soul searching and be honest; do you need to take some responsibility?
Be Ready for Change
I debated whether this should go first or second as it really can determine how everything happens on your journey. Some people have the time, money, resources and support from family to make these changes to their diet, hit the gym hard and sleep well. But they just aren’t ready.
What does it mean to be ready? For everyone it is different but I see it all the time and I can’t say you NEED to be ready now, because I don’t know that you are. When I decided to lose weight in high school I basically gave my stomach the middle finger and said f*@# you. I know that sounds harsh and inappropriate, but that was the tipping point for me. I chose to no longer feel sorry for myself, make excuses or justify my actions. I went head first and it was that moment I needed to be ready. I also became the guy who wouldn’t eat birthday cake on my own birthday (sorry, Mom) but I have since reformed. You need to find that balance but also need to be ready for your world to change.
Just take a step.
So many of us look for someone else to either justify our decisions or tell us we are ok the way we are. Listen, don’t do it for your family. They’ll love you no matter what. Do it for you. Whatever you are doing now is keeping you at status quo. How could you expect things to improve with more of the same? But you need to be the change, not your family, friends, trainer or therapist. You’ve got to lay the groundwork though? Do you REALLY want it? If it is just too much to cook all that food to gain a bunch of muscle or exercise more to help with fat loss, just lay ground work. Walk. Try new healthier recipes. Take fish oil. Drink more water. When that moment comes though, it’s time to get to work.
If you have accepted there isn’t something wrong with you, if you are ready for change, the next step is alignment. Align your life to your goals. My friend Cory used to always say his girlfriends and friends would get mad that he would never miss a workout or wouldn’t eat fried food etc. when they wanted him to loosen up, but he had some goals and aligned his life to achieving them. He deadlifted 730lbs in the 220 weight class. That doesn’t happen on accident, your LIFE needs to be aligned to those goals. Even when clients tell me they are ready and I believe they are, it often becomes quickly apparent that they don’t realize how much of their life needs to be realigned. They’ll do the work they just need a roadmap to their destination.
A box of wine on Friday night isn’t alignment.
Sleeping 5 hours a night isn’t alignment.
Skipping workouts isn’t alignment
Missing meals isn’t alignment.
When a client emails me and says they need to lose 20lbs of fat (how they arrived at that number I never know) in three months for their wedding, haven’t been training for months and have a knee injury I have to say, your whole life needs to be shifted and aligned to this goal. If you already train hard, eat smart and just need some tweaks to lose that last inch of your waist, your scope just needs some adjusting. If you are more of the above, you don’t own a scope, you don’t even own a gun or know where the shooting range is.
Alignment takes work which leads me to my next point.
Go At It Hard
Whatever it is, you need to use effort. Trying isn’t doing, doing is doing. Just showing up to the gym is not enough. You’ll hear strength coaches all over say that intensity trumps everything. Sure, you can get hurt and become imbalanced from just 100% effort and no thought but you can achieve some decent results along the way. Same with my nutrition clients. When I hand someone their goals, we discuss them and then they get after it for two weeks, you can tell. They come back psyched. They’re stronger, leaner, have more energy and want to keep going.
These are the people that leave our nutrition session and buy the groceries I recommended. They pack all their food in Tupperware for tomorrow’s meals. They turn the T.V off early so they can sleep. They lift 5lbs more than they did last week.
Remember that going at it hard doesn’t mean you have to cook a different dinner each night. It can mean grilling chicken for the week on Sunday. It can mean buying a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken from Stop and Shop. It can mean just throwing some chicken sausage in the oven while you are cleaning the house so it’s done when you finish (my personal tactic).
Remember that nothing worth doing happens by accident.
You won’t accidentally get abs, accidentally bench 400lbs, accidentally heal that labral tear, accidentally marry the person of your dreams or accidentally become C.E.O of a company. The point is this: just showing up does not mean results will happen. It is a start but you still have to work for it.
This last one is really critical for success. Measurements are one way to keep you honest, on course and objective. When I see people I the gym who don’t know what weight they used last time they squatted or benched it is a pretty fair guess they won’t be getting stronger. So it is also fair to assume that if you start cutting calories with no idea of starting weight, waist size or pictures, how will you know when you’ve made a positive change?
You can use the mirror but that is a tricky and slippery slope because most of us see ourselves every single day in the mirror so measuring progress that way is way too subjective and unpredictable. I know the scale has come under attack but it I still a good broad measuring tool of how things are going; listen if you are down 5lbs it is a sign things are moving well on your fat loss plan.
However, I think measuring waist and possibly some other sites like chest, hips and arms are great to keep you honest on days and weeks where the scale doesn’t move or you think you look terrible in the mirror. I have had numerous clients who drop two or three inches off their waist with almost no change on the scale. And remember that weight changes much more irregularly than measurements do. You might see no change for a week and then a sudden loss or especially with men, you may experience daily fluctuations up and down.
For those of us (which is most of us) who experience a lot of self-doubt, self-sabotage, anxiety or fear of doing things wrong on a nutrition plan, you can’t argue with clothes fitting better, before and after pictures and girth measurements. If anything, just do it for your own sanity.
Once a week is a great place to start for weight, measurements and pictures. It’s long enough to see some change but not so long that you can’t easily redirect if you need to. I want to have this conversation with so many people:
Me: See, we had you eat more protein, carbohydrates and drink more water and your waist is smaller.
Client: But my weight hasn’t changed.
Me: But you lost abdominal fat.
Client: Aren’t carbs bad?
Me: But you lost abdominal fat.
Client: But I always feel full and I am never hungry.
Me: But you lost abdominal fat.
With some people, the fear of change and unwillingness to try any other measure than the ONE they set prevents them from seeing any and all success. That, or they have accepted defeat and failure so many times that success is almost unacceptable. They expect to fail and through that lens they cannot see positive change.
I swear there are people who, if they woke up tomorrow with the body of their dreams, could still not see it for what it really was. Doubt, fear, body dysmorphia, self-hatred or anything else it can be named is powerful. Remember that fear is the anticipation of something bad happening, not necessarily a reaction to a negative event.
So my bonus #6 realization would be: Do not be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don’t expect to fail. Don’t expect to waste your time, lose hope or energy or end up the same as you started. Don’t fear success and start your nutrition plan with the intention, every day, of succeeding on it.
There are so many variables and so many obstacles in the way of achieving your goals. There will be parties, late nights, social pressure, fatigue, time constraints and so on. However, I think the above realizations remove a lot of those so it is up to you from this point on not to get in your own way.
If you can start with number one and work your way down the list, I can’t see how success couldn’t happen. The only way it wouldn’t is if you don’t adhere to number 6. If it helps, tell other people your goals, write them down, mark them on the calendar, hire a coach or anything else that keeps you accountable. Don’t leave room for failure and then continue to do the right things day in and day out, that’s how you win.