Dieting is hard. It’s confusing. Most people struggle with where to start, so often they don’t start. Or they make an effort, eat chicken and broccoli for a few days, then freak out and spoon in an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s. I’ve seen it all when it comes to food logs. I promise I’m not judging because the struggle is real. I waded through that struggle hundreds of times. Yes, hundreds is a good estimate so I have a no judgment zone when it comes to clients and others.
I can usually make an educated guess who is going to go through some challenges from looking at their food log progression. That’s not to say that the ones who struggle won’t be successful, but it takes a bit more effort and diligence on their part. The way I make my guess might surprise you. It’s not the logs full of fast food that stand out to me. That’s not what I notice and say “Ohhhhhh.” It’s actually the presence of chicken, tuna, broccoli, lettuce that makes my eyebrows go up. 🙂
Your Weight Is Simple Math
Your scale weight is determined by how much you eat. Calories in vs. calories out. Simple math. If you eat more than you burn off consistently, you will gain weight. If you eat less, you will lose. This fact is not changed by what you eat. When I first start working with a client who has a diet with a lot of fast food, microwaveable meals, sweets, coffee drinks and things like that, I don’t even try to change what they’re eating in the first few weeks.
It can really be overwhelming to have to worry about what to eat, how to cook it, plan meals, grocery shop, deal with feelings of deprivation. I want them to succeed, not fall apart the first week in misery. I work to get their calories and portion sizes under control eating the same foods they always do. Burgers and fries, ice cream, cookies, whatev. I focus on simple things like eating normally but leaving a little behind instead of finishing it and cutting out between meal snacks.
I’m typically met with resistance because it’s not what they usually hear from a weight loss coach as they start a diet. They often fight me and still stress over changing their meals to make them “healthy.” Suddenly I see tuna or lettuce or protein shakes. If I can strong arm them into trying my suggestion, they lose weight those first few weeks and are pleasantly shocked. Side note: I love getting those emails by the way. The incredulous surprise is so exciting just as it was for me when I began my own journey. 🙂
As exciting as that is, it’s only part of the story. To make this a health change that lasts and not a diet to lose weight, it goes beyond the scale. All the stuff going on under the surface along with your body fat levels is determined by what you eat. Your cholesterol, body fat, blood pressure, energy, strength – these are all impacted by what you’re eating. So after nailing a few weeks of portion and calorie control, you really need to take a hard look at what you’re eating. Gradually and not all at once, but it does need to happen.
If you eat cookies, ice cream, chicken tenders and fries, granola, cereal, etc for a good portion of your food, you will not be giving your body what it needs. I don’t care if the label says fortified with vitamins and minerals or contains whole grains. Fortified is not the same as the vitamins, minerals and whole grains that nature created.
Eating minimally processed foods gives you energy. That energy translates to your every day activities as well as your workouts. I promise you that you’ll feel better. You will start to naturally move more instead of dragging yourself home to sit in front of the TV. Your workouts will be more powerful and you’ll burn more calories.
Eating minimally processed foods requires more calories to digest. Maybe I should have listed this one first, LOL. All that processing that manufacturers do with the food makes it easier for your body to digest and saves it the effort. If you eat minimally processed foods, your body needs to do that work. So 100 calories of old fashioned oats takes more calories to digest than 100 calories in a hamburger bun.
Eating minimally processed foods keeps you full longer. All that work to digest takes time so you’re full longer in the process. This helps you automatically eat less since you aren’t stuck with the munchies or hungry as often. Protein takes longer to digest than refined carbs, veggies give you volume at your meals. All these things are very good things when you’re eating fewer calories.
A study by Mozaffarian et al. (2011) in the New England Journal of Medicine found that eating behaviors associated with progressive weight gain over multiple 4-year periods included regular consumption of
- potato chips and french fries;
- processed meats (bacon, salami, sausage, burgers and luncheon meats) ;
- butter, sweets and desserts; and
- refined grains (white flour and white rice).
The study also found that eating foods such as nuts, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, yogurt, cheese and milk (low-fat, skim and whole) appeared to curb weight gain. Mozaffarian et al. (2011) explain that these foods have slower digestion rates (some being high in fiber) and appear to enhance satiety—the feeling of being full after a meal.
The Bottom Line
Does this mean that you can’t or shouldn’t eat fast food, cookies, lattes, and fun foods?! Heck no, but they shouldn’t be eaten as the majority of your calories or you aren’t really making a sustainable change. You may change the number on the scale in the short term, but not much will change under the surface. It’s also quite easy to overeat the processed foods so once you become less diligent in tracking, the weight starts coming back on.
Once you get your portions and calories under control, look for simple swaps that you can make in your meals. Make healthier versions of chicken fingers with baked “fries” at home. Have ice cream and a cookie a couple times a week. Have old fashioned oats instead of sugary granola or breakfast cookies. Pick one or two things to swap out each week and slowly make the transition.
If you make a few changes and start to notice tension or feelings of deprivation building, slow down. It’s not a race and it’s better to make modifications little by little than to rip off the band aid and rebel as a result. There’s no real magical number, but a rule of thumb is to ultimately eat about 80 – 90% of your calories from minimally processed foods and the rest from fun things like granola, chicken tenders, fries.
For some that might be a small treat daily and for others maybe it’s an entire meal once or twice a week. There’s no one size fits all. So if you think you need to suddenly choke down flocks of chicken, schools of tuna, and fields of broccoli to lose weight, rethink that process and have a little fun along the way. Your taste buds and your body will be much happier in the long run.
It’s all about the habits built little by little which is why I focus on those when working with clients and not a sudden diet overhaul. If you are tired of diets that don’t work, a one on one habit based nutrition program may be the perfect fit for your life.