What makes a certain approach to food succesful in relation to helping you develop long term health, build a leaner body, lose weight, or even gain weight if that is your goal?
Nutritional approaches are many, and we all know someone who did one particular diet or another, and got amazing results. I would bet my ass as well that we all know someone who got amazing results on a certain approach, only to find that the results were swiftly reversed, and then some, as soon as they fell back into their default habits, sometime after finishing up on the diet. Whether the diet was unsustainable, unpleasant, or downright miserable, is always a factor in the rebounding effect of diets, but there is no denying that for a period of time, it helped you or your friend lose weight at a satisfactory rate for the time that you were committed to it. For example, I have spoken with people who went on diets that depended largely on shakes, who lost a lot of weight initially, but when they reverted back to eating their ordinary food, the weight went back on. Similarly, I know quite a few people who went hell for leather on an intense course of physical exercise, only to get injured, burnt out, distracted, or bored by the approach, and lost the success of the initial burst of momentum.
What I would like to do in this post, is draw attention to the things that actually help the long term success of a nutritional approach. The essential ingredients that are required for your approach to bring real long lasting results. It is not uncommon for fad diets to contain elements of the positive ingredients that follow (which help to bring the initial success), but are married with other ingredients that are sure to make the overall approach destined to fail. Examples of the negative ingredients include an over-reliance on supplements or shakes, high cost of maintaining the approach, the approach being based on an ongoing subscription to some product or another, being overly restrictive, or being very time consuming.
1. Habit based approach
We all know what our bad habits are, and how much of a cumulative negative effect they can have on us. For example, staying up late at night on your computer now and again is unlikely to have a long term effect on your health. Doing it habitually will most certainly have a negative effect on your quality of sleep, energy levels the next day, stress levels, and your long term health. Positive habits work in the exact same way. 20 minutes of mindfulness practice or meditation in the morning is not going to do anything for your long term health if done as a once off. Done every morning, or on a more regular basis, it could have a dramatic effect on your mental clarity, overall attitude and approach to life, and your productivity. The same applies to your approach to eating and to nutrition. When your eating habits are positive, and on autopilot, you do them like water off a duck's back. No stress, no thinking, and always moving in the right direction. I personally think that this raises a much deeper question on the benefits of having a culture that is handed down from generation to generation. The adults teaching the young how to eat, what to eat, when to eat, in a manner that secures the healthy continuation of the community/ tribe etc. This type of culture is still found in indigenous communities, and in certain part of Europe, but is arguably non-existent in Ireland in the general sense, due to the saturation of our food culture with fast food outlets, multi-national advertising campaigns, and our ever-busier lifestyles that dictate to us that we must always be on the go. However, let's leave that one there for a while, and agree that to eat for long term health, the most effective and efficient way is to create a habit that supports this end.
2. In Line With Your Values
It is very possible that you get swept up in the frenzy of some flashy diet or another when you seen the ‘unbelievable results’, ‘clinically proven’ method, ‘revolutionary product’, or countless before and after photos of people with their tops off. These things are made to suck you in. They are made to sell. To sell you a product mostly. You might jump on the bandwagon, subscribe to the supplement delivery each month, but the infomercial product, dink the expensive ‘fat burning tea’, spend an hour a day pounding the treadmill, or take to doing 30 minutes of burpees in front of your TV. However, eventually, your innermost values will come to the fore and tell you to quit the nonsense. Your primal self will let you know that there is no real nutrition to be found in non perishable chocolate protein bars, boxes of powder that look more like they should be used for making cement, or even that cycling on a stationary bike is quite a pointless exercise.
Whether we know it or not, i believe that we are hardwired to eat the foods that grow in our locality as opposed to highly processed goods or food imported from the other side of the world, and that whatever form of physical exertion we undertake must serve some sort of purpose other than simply getting hot and sweaty, and burning off that chocolate bar that you indulged in at lunch time.
It makes sense to me when I consider that in the not so distant past, physical exertion was done on the basis of life or death for us humans. Run from the predator, climb a tree to harvest its fruit, hunt an animal to feed your village, plough a field to sow essential seeds. I know that we are living in the age of convenience, but sitting at a desk, ordering your food on a smartphone app, or having our every desire at our fingertips does not override millions of years of purposeful and meaningful physical exertion. Our ancestors would fall over laughing at the thought of human beings willingly deciding to expend one of their most valuable resources, energy, running on the spot, going nowhere, achieving nothing, all while running down the batteries at the expense of being able to escape from the impending attack from some predator, or 20 mile hike to the next village.
Now, I am not saying that we must all take to the hills, burn our smartphones, and live in a cave. I am however, imploring you to seek out forms of physical exertion that have a meaning, purpose, or reward. Cycle to work, walk to the shops, practice a form of physical movement that has a learning or skill component to it. Learn how to rock-climb, take up strength training or basic gymnastic training. Do things that have a reward at the end of the tunnel that give more that the perception that you have ‘burned enough calories’. With the right form of movement practice, or physical exercise, you should hope to be saving your energy for an enjoyable pursuit of mastery of new skills, getting home from work in a faster time, or even reaping the tasty rewards of the labour that you put in your ‘Grow It Yourself’ garden.
3. A Supportive Social Structure
Social support is essential to long term success. When you are surrounded by peers who share similar values, are on the same path, and are there to help you along, dropping out is not an issue, and sticking to the path becomes a pleasure and a non-issue.
Certain weight-loss businesses create a social structure amongst their members by having weekly weigh-ins, and the crossfit community have the social structure of training together, eating a ‘Paleo’ diet etc. Whether you agree with the merits of having to ‘weigh-in’ every week, or the Paleo diet, there is no denying that those elements help form the glue that holds those particular groups together, and form a social structure that the members can use to keep themselves moving forward.
The peers that you decide to surround yourself with should be influenced by your values when it comes to food, and be in-line with your beliefs on training and exercise (see point #2). Falling into a social structure that does not lend itself to your long term health will obviously make the path a more difficult one to tread, and similarly, being in a group that has an approach that in unconducive to long term, and sustainable participation, and not congruent with your food and exercise values will ultimately lead to failure.
4. Being Able to Measure and See Progress
The ability to see that you are making progress is an important element of sticking the course to success. The little victories along the way help you keep on going through the hard times, and get over the obstacles along the way, of which there can be many. The easiest, and probably most common measure of progress is often your body weight. This can sure be useful along the way, but doesn't tell the whole story. You could easily lose 5 kg of body fat, and add 5 kg of muscle mass with the right nutrition and training approach. On the scales, you are the same weight, but in the mirror you could be drastically different. The bummer is that, from experience, I know that you will personally be the last person to notice these types of changes in yourself. Your friends and family could be thinking to themselves that you look amazing, but you may not see it. To get around this, I recommend that you take some photos of yourself at the beginning of your journey, and once per month thereafter. You can measure your body weight once per week or once per fortnight, and take a tape measure of your waist and hips at monthly intervals as well. Over the course of a year, you will notice a great change.
5. Financially Sustainable
Needless to say, any approach that you take should be financially sustainable. You must believe that the money you are spending is bringing real value. Personally speaking, I see great value in buying whole foods and locally produced products, as they are generally a much better product, and support the local farming industry, and local businesses. On the other hand, I perceive little to no value in spending money on powdered goods, or prepackaged non perishable ‘health foods’. I do not see the point in paying for months old carrots from the other side of the world, when I can buy a big bag of them directly from the farmer at the market, with the likelihood that they were taken out of the ground earlier that week. There are numerous companies and diets that promote their own brands of pre-packaged meals as they represent a particular number of ‘points’ etc, and others that encourage you to take monthly subscriptions to their fat burning supplements. To this I say baloney! Real food is not expensive, and you do not need fat burning supplements to get lean and healthy. Skip the marketing talk and self promotion of these companies and get back to basics.
In relation to your training, learning how to train, and acquiring the skills to perform functional bodyweight exercises represents good value to me, as you are improving how your body moves, and giving yourself a pain free body to work with. When you know how to train properly, you can bang out a body weight training session at no expense, at any time!
6. Credibility and Proof
It is important to know that the approach you are taking is credible, and that there is proof in existence that it is an effective and sustainable method. This is where you need to be wise to the marketing tack of the sales people! It is easy to throw out terms that allude to the credibility and effectiveness of a method, but the key is getting down to the crux of the approach and assessing whether or not they are congruent with your core values. A company may say that their product has got great fat burning properties, but if it is filled with preservatives, sweeteners, and colourings, does this match what you really feel that eating should be about? If an exercise approach promises to deliver washboard abs in just 10 minutes per day, but means that you have to train yourself to within an inch of a heart attack in your sitting room every day for a couple of months, does this line up with what you believe a physically active and healthy lifestyle should be?
Who is behind the approach that you are considering? Is it a sales team? An anonymous website, or some mystical guru on the other side of the world that you otherwise have not heard off? Personally speaking, I like to be able to speak with the person behind the method directly. I want to know that they have worked with people just like me in the past, that they follow their own teachings, lead by example, and are dedicated to the things that they are promoting themselves.
7. Part of an Overall Approach
As you may have guessed, nutrition is best placed as a part of the overall puzzle when it comes to developing long term health. The social structures, and the physical movement components are absolutely essential as well. When the nutrition, training, social structure, and positive mindset come together, they form a beautiful change in your overall lifestyle that makes being healthy, pain free, lean, and energetic a piece of cake!
When the pieces of the puzzle are in place, it is much easier to get back on track when you fall of the wagon, and it is less of a mental burden from day to day. You can allow yourself to eat treat meals now and again during the week, take a few days away from training when you feel like you need a break or are going on holiday, and get right back on course afterwards. Your health is a long term proposition, and you should have inbuilt structures in your days and weeks that help you maintain a strong healthy body, and help you get the most out of every day.
This article is by Ainle Ó Cairealláin MSc CSCS.