Food-for-Thought Before Starting a Diet or Weight Loss Plan

Will this be you?

I sincerely sympathize with people who struggle with their diet. Having known the confusion of bouncing from one fad to another, getting your hopes up when you hear of a new “method”, feeling the rush of losing 5 lbs (water weight dear) and then having the hunger and frustration set in. The thoughts that you should be stronger than this. That willpower is all it takes. The secret “wish” that something would JUST DO IT. That this time it would work!!!! And work without work!!! Work without having to accept that it is work!

Its work.

But an understanding of principles can make work easier. It can make work WORK! It can make the work worth it.

Now if you like lots of work and and no lasting success, while you chase the latest “newest” method, than feel free to stop reading.

Yeah, you are done. Thats it.

If on the other hand (like me) you abhor the idea of any kind of effort without some kind of lasting gains to show for it, than perhaps this will help you get started on the right foot, or at least give you something to think about before you go traipsing down the path of “Im on a diet”.

Any kind of change requires that you learn about the requirements for that change. That doesn’t mean you need to be an expert, but you just can’t expect to get good results without putting some effort into learning what will get them. Unfortunately this is what the multitude of “diet” authors and creators bank on. Its easier to follow some plan or believe in some method or jump on something that is convincing because its, well, easier to just follow along and have “faith” in the method. But its also why diets like that don’t work for the most part. Its why the first thing you need to change is the idea of “going on a diet”. There is no such thing (bear in mind I am talking to your average individual, not physique athletes for whom the concept of dieting is a performance issue and a controlled cycle for specific results).

You either change the way you eat permanently, or you will be endlessly “going on diets”. Losing fat isn’t hard. There are a million and one ways to do it from complicated shakes and meal plans to just not eating at all! But the holy grail is a nice shapely body with decent muscle tone and good aesthetics. That means flat abs, firm buttocks, jiggle free arms, healthy skin etc all in the grand context of the variety of body shapes and sizes in this world.

I was reading something interesting the other day about peak effort and maximum muscle recruitment (using as much muscle cell contraction as possible). This was an article in Sports Illustrated about pushing your body to the ultimate limit, but the gist of it was that the body never truly uses all its strength potential. To do so the mind has to be presented with a extreme either/or. Either I lift this, or I will die. This phenomenon explains some people can do extraordinary physical feats in life threatening situations. They also examined studies relating to performance when athletes “knew” where the finish line was, and how it affected performance if the anticipated “end” was extended, or they were just told to perform until unable to. Having an “end” in sight increased performance capabilities, sometimes even beyond what was expected. A possible example (and I am correlating) to this is seeing some CrossFit athletes hit huge PR’s during competitions. Sometimes jumping up 10-20lbs, which is a huge difference in a 1RM for an experienced athlete. The reason I bring this point up is because I believe it applies to one of the biggest underlying factors as to why people like to “go on diets”. They like to see an end in sight. There’s a start and a finish. Its nice and neat and means you don’t have to think about it to much. I just don’t eat this, this and this, and I don’t do this at this time, and WHAM = banging body. But in the context of dieting, this is a recipe for failure. Small, consistent and progressive goals can fullfill that “end” need while satisfying the requirements for long term success. Understand that your brain doesn’t appreciate endless uncertainty, and that to instigate long lasting change, you need to set measurable goals that you can end at, and then move on to the next one. You need to give your brain the positive experience of success (through small “ends”) WITH the consistency of patience and effort that long term change requires. The challenge of changing your diet to where its not such a HUGE and silent weight on your shoulders all the time, will take a good amount of effort, for a good amount of time.

Its easy to accept, once you accept that is not going to be super easy. 

Let’s consider another important point before the grand “START OF MY DIET” (btw the start is the best part, you feel so gungho, clean, in control…..enjoy it, you’re gonna fuck up eventually, but its what you do after that counts most)!!!!!!!!!!! People are loyal to what has worked for them, but this is not the main factor in whether its gonna work for you. Let me reiterate

When it comes to diet, there are a wide variety of factors to choose from to create individual success. That is why anything can work, but anything can work for only so long if you choose to ignore WHAT WORKS FOR YOU and just jump on the latest great sounding program. 

Before you start debating food choices, meal timing, meal sizes, food preferences, foods I can’t live without, foods I won’t give up, foods that don’t sit well with me, foods I can’t eat with other foods, foods that I ve been told are the DEVIL, foods that are superfoods, foods that are MUST foods, foods that are magic weightloss foods (grapefruits, apple cider vinegar anyone)…. blah blah blah, you need to have an elementary nutrition lesson, well provided HERE by Lyle McDonald. If you can’t take the time to read these two short articles for the fastest nutrition lesson fundamentals, well than you, my friend, have your priorities screwed.

A Primer on Nutrition 1

A Primer on Nutrition 2

If you happen to click through Lyle’s blog, you will find so many tasty articles, and they are titled temptingly. Personally I find his writing very refreshing, straight to the point and full of common senses that resonates even with those who don’t have a scientific and formal nutritional education base. He takes all those “studies” and “theories” that you hear about or that are thrown around marketing and tells you what REALLY matters, and what ACTUALLY applies to real life scenarios with average Janes and Joes. Another person who does this as well is Alan Aragon, and I be quoting from a great article he wrote in his research review about plateaus in a bit.

So now that you are on the path to diet enlightenment, before you pick your diet strategy (and my friend, there ARE MANY) stop and consider these points

1. What does my usual schedule look like? People don’t truly consider the value of convenience when it comes to dieting. Change is hard enough, why make it harder by trying to implement stuff that doesn’t match your regular routine thats already well established? This includes a LACK of routine in your day. Do you work set hours? When do you normally eat? Do you snack alot on the fly, or do you actually stay home and cook? There is no wrong answer, just consider what your usual routine looks like. You want a diet change to fit YOUR LIFE. Not try to make your life fit dieting. That’s gonna feel fucked and lead to frustration. Arranging a diet so it is easy for you adhere to is of paramount importance. A diet is no good if you don’t stick to it.  Give yourself that consideration.

2.While food choice is very important it is also the one that raises the most controversy. Dairy or no dairy? Paleo is the only way to go? Fructose is fat waiting to happen? Fruit is the devil? Meat will contaminate you? Soy is shit or asians know where its at? Grains are a tool of the government to make us all fat and dependent….. etc. Imagining that you took the time to read the articles above, you can put a lot of this into context. Its much too hard to breakdown the specifics of individual fads and food choice styles in one article, but a grasp of the principles helps you to put everything you hear into personal context. Believe me, I know. I used to preach this method and that…. but it all boils down to

Is this food whole, naturally based and  not chock full of all kinds of ingredients you don’t recognize? If the majority of your food isn’t in numerous packages, cans, and boxes, and you can recognize the ingredients listed….. you are on the right track.

Do I LIKE this food, and can I eat it consistently? Choking down foods you abhor or are tasteless to you, makes dieting harder. Once again, give yourself that consideration.

How do I normally prepare food? For me, I hate washing and drying lettuce, so I gave up buying big heads of lettuce. I buy the bags of baby lettuce mix from my farmers market and baby spinach, so I can just grab and throw in a bowl. I also hate cooking my veggies. I dislike lots of chopping, so I eat a lot of cucumbers, baby zucchini, and cherry tomatoes. I’ve had bags of broccoli rot in my fridge cause I put off cooking it. Now of course, the proper context of this is not using it as an excuse to eat crap, but just understand your habits. I don’t like cooking my veggies, but I do need to eat them, so I buy veggies that cater to that convenience.

– Forget the notion and reams of convincing arguments that meat/dairy/grains are bad and/or good for you, and that there are certain foods you HAVE TO EAT or foods you can only eat in certain combinations. The answer to all that is “it depends”. And every detail needs to be placed in context, but details don’t matter without the basics. This is the hardest concept for people to grasp. But if you want to be honest, the USA is practically the only country that has gone bonkers about demonizing this food or that food. Okinawans eat white rice endlessly and have one of the best longevity scores. Asians eat soy all the time and are considered heart healthy. Europeans chug milk and cheese and wine. Italians drink olive oil. Africans eat raw meat. Buddhists don’t eat any meat. You can make a case for/against just about any food. What matters is good quality, minimally processed, enjoyable and works well with your body. Sure, I advocate local, organic, grass-fed meats, less processed grains etc BUT the biggest factor is that people overcomplicate it SO much. Can we even remember what un-obsessive health looked like? Meat, salad and potatoes and reasonable portion sizes maybe?

Calories in vs calories out DOES matter. People hate to hear it, but a big reason why certain diets will work is because they create a calorie deficit by default. Its not the magic combination of foods, or timing or sizes etc etc. You are FEEDING your body, so good nutrients in high quality food is essential but you still won’t lose fat if you are just PLAIN EATING TOO MUCH. Don’t try to get around it. You can’t. That is why I advocate that everyone tracks their food intake for at least 6 weeks. Going by “how you feel” ….. well figure it out. Counting calories is not a MUST forever, but I find it a good idea for most people in the beginning. Tracking your food for awhile even if you don’t do it long term will give you an excellent awareness of portion size, percentages of carbs/fats/protein and a better idea of what your body needs.

Put exercise into its proper context. Exercise is essential. It does so much good for you. Some good strength and conditioning will do wonders for your looks, energy, muscles etc, but you can’t expect great body composition results without diet. And if the goal is big muscles, minimal fat, or good sport performance….Diet is key. In the absence of training goals exercise helps tip the “energy out” equation in your favor, but it does not do the work of eating properly. Exercising for an hour at a decent rate will burn a couple hundred calories. It can take you five minutes or less to eat double that. Do the math. And save yourself time too.

– Read about The importance of protein for dieters and the huge part in plays in successful dieting. Even if you are a vegan, vegetarian or fruitarian or whatever. Your body doesn’t give a fuck, it wants its macronutrients, so understand that, and than play with your food choices however you will.

On a final note, check out this short q/a article by Alan Aragon. Short, simple, to the point. I have to thank him and Lyle immensely for their well-written and thoroughly researched, articles, books and research reviews from which I am finally making proper progress in my nutrition education. I hope I have whetted your appetite to learn more, and if, like me, you want the BEST information and won’t settle till you get it right and it works…. check them out.

All the usual questions – by Alan Aragon

Happy Dieting!

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  2. Sorry about the caps lock i did not mean it.

  3. Everyone does not tolerate foods that same. Some people can handle carbs better, and some do better on lower carb. Same for dairy, nuts, and grains which are the food groups people might run into problems with. Calories in vs out is the baseline factor, but food choice cannot be ignored. Some people find they get more bloated eating more grains. It really is a personal choice. But of course, food that is local, organic and whole is superior to any other options. If you find foods that you enjoy and sit well with you, than stick to those!

  4. the same*

  5. I agree, instead of dieting a change in lifestyle should take place. You should be eating healthy on a consistent basis instead of having to change your eating habits all the time. That creates a lot of frustration and anger, a lot of uncertainty.

  6. Great article, and thank you for recommending Lyle’s blog, it has plenty of great articles and information.