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Archive for category: Dieting
This is a post that I wrote together with my colleague Georgie Fear. Georgie is a registered dietitian and nutrition coach whose interests align closely with mine. Find her on Facebook and Instagram and check her out at her coaching website!
How many of you have foods that you try to steer clear from because you know – you just know! – that once you start, you can’t stop? Or perhaps you find yourself intentionally seeking that specific food out after a particularly trying day.
A trigger food is a food that you have a difficult time eating a reasonable portion of. Eating a little bit, in other words, usually leads to cleaning off the rest of the plate. These are oftentimes highly palatable foods including chips, cookies, or chocolate. Usually, individuals have an ongoing, tumultuous relationship with said trigger food, and while they may love the taste of it in the moment, it usually doesn’t end well.
Fortunately, it’s entirely possible to conquer trigger foods. Follow this 4-step process below to break free.
1. Accept that you are in control
Forgive the bluntness of this next statement, but it’s crucial to establish as a fact. Your brain controls the movement of your voluntary muscles, so moving your limbs, reaching out to put the food into your mouth, and swallowing it, is your choice. No person or potato chip or slick marketing can take over your limbs and jaws, even if you feel powerless or aren’t aware of your thoughts.
The reason that our sole locus of control is so important to hash out is that the facts can be very different from the way things feel to experience. We can find a lot of evidence (if we look for it) to build a case that we weren’t in control because it felt really compelling to do something. If we regret something after eating it, our natural cognitive protection mechanisms look for a way to not feel as bad, and that can lead to justifications to decrease the amount of responsibility we feel. “I didn’t want to eat the chips, but I just couldn’t help it,” “My brain shuts off when there’s chocolate around”, and the like.
These insinuations that we weren’t in control in the moment do not help you change your behavior. You can’t effectively work on changing something you’re still partially in denial of. And if you’re reading this article, we can conclude you want to know how to change the phenomenon of trigger foods leading to overeating for yourself or someone else.
Commit with us right here that eating is a choice, and it’s a choice we can control. That’s doesn’t mean it’s easy! That doesn’t mean we always choose in line with our values and goals — far from it. It just means we accept our place as Head Honcho of Things Consumed, the most empowered stance to take. In fact, better to chuck the term “trigger food” altogether. It’s a food you have overeaten in the past. It’s a food you have struggled with moderating, perhaps — but no special status. It’s one of thousands of foods, made of carbon and oxygen and some nitrogen and other chemicals. There’s no wizardry; it’s just ordinary edible stuff, even if you have a bit of checkered history in how you chose to consume it.
2. Break the cycle
Okay, Head Honcho, time to use those executive powers for good. Sounds like there’s a pattern that you’ve picked up on, and that is that your hands + a certain food = a situation that hasn’t ended well. And that’s okay. There’s exactly zero helpfulness in blaming yourself or looking at why, so let’s focus on breaking that pattern. You and your so-called trigger food can always reunite down the road, but a little separation for now will stop the recurring negative experience.
Do you need to get the food out of your kitchen or house? Do you need to chuck it, donate it, or just commit to a week of not seeing each other? Take charge and do it. Break the cycle of hurt and abuse, then you can re-form a healthy relationship.
3. Create Safe, Supported Scenarios for Reintroduction
Think about the negative experiences you had with that specific food in the past. What was going on? Where were you? What were you feeling? What time of day was it? Were you at home, in your car, at the office or your parents’ house? These factors all contribute to the ease or difficulty of eating in line with our values. This means you can engineer an easier scenario by thinking about when and where and with whom you are least likely to overeat a particular food. You don’t want to just rendezvous any old time and place; you want things to be different this time. Let’s use some examples.
Easier not to overeat ice cream:
I’ve bought a portion from the ice cream shop with my friends, mid-afternoon on Saturday, and I’m walk around the park eating it. What are the odds of going back for seconds? Pretty low. I’d have to go back, wait on line again, make another purchase… and it would be odd to do with the other people around who are doing the usual buy-and-eat-one pattern. If I were trying to establish a healthy moderate relationship with ice cream, this would be a good situation to put together. Invite a couple friends and you could make this happen. In the end, you’re likely to have scored one experience of your eating ice cream in the way you want to. High five.
Now, a situation in which it’s much much harder:
I get pulled over after a stressful day at work, and a rude cop gives me a hefty fine. I get home to see fraudulent charges on my credit card which now I have to deal with also. It’s cold and raining and my husband is away — I feel alone and sad. I have no decent food in the fridge, and there’s a large container of Oreo ice cream in the freezer.
This is not a helpful scenario in which to decide it’s a good time to try eating ice cream again. If you have had difficulty moderating consumption of a particular food, it’s generally not favorable to try and change that when you’re emotional, stressed, not well slept, in the later hours of the day, alone, and have multiple servings in easy reach.
You can control when you choose to have the food again after your break from it. Do it when and where you are feeling assured of your success. Rig the game so you win.
4. Gradually Ease Up On Parameters As You Gain Confidence
Once you’ve had a chance to eat the food and stop at a place you feel good about, it’s not over. It will probably take many repetitions to bolster your confidence that this food is not, in fact, a volition-sapping delicacy.
Keep going. Get those positive experiences in when you are confident it will go your way. And over time, you’ll notice that confidence growing. Maybe after 6 or 7 times having ice cream from the shop with your friends, you feel okay to go on your own and buy a single serving and walk around the park enjoying it. You might not want to jump right away to having 16 flavors at home in bulk supply, so take small steps. You don’t HAVE to keep anything at home, and many people find their peace with sweets and alcohol when they choose to leave them at the store, not bring into their homes. Consider progressions like this (again, no need to go all the way to the last one if your life is easier without it):
Having the food with company, out of the house
Having the food on your own, out of the house
Having the food with company at home (buying just enough for no leftovers)
Having the food on your own at home (buying just enough for no leftovers)
Having the food on your own at home, even if there’s leftovers
You are in control of what and how much you eat. If you have particular difficulty with a certain food, that’s normal and not permanent. You can change that. Start with a commitment to stop repeating what isn’t working so you don’t keep rehearsing the overeating experience with that food. Take a break from the food long enough to think of a specific situation in which you are darned sure you will not (even cannot) overeat it. When you’d like to have the food again, have it under your terms. Keep the supports in place to rack up many experiences where you eat that food in a way you are happy with. Ease off the supports if you feel you don’t need them any longer, but keep the ones which make your life easiest.
Here’s a summary graphic to help keep it all fresh in your mind:
There are no medals for withstanding temptation, so consider it your lifetime right to choose where, when and how you meet particularly tempting foods.
Hi everyone, I’ll be continuing with the podcast transcriptions for those of you who prefer to read rather than listen. This one’s the very first Physique Science Radio episode from waaaay back when. Funny, I was still living in New York City during this recording. Oh how times have changed! Nevertheless, re-reading everything here, I can assure you the content is still very good. Enjoy!
LAYNE: Hi and welcome to the first episode of Physique Science Radio, presented by BioLayne LLC. I’m here with Sohee Lee. How are you doing, Sohee?
SOHEE: I’m doing great! I’m super excited. I’m pumped!
LAYNE: I can hear it – you’re about to break the desk over there. I’m assuming a lot of our listeners will know a little bit about us, but for those that don’t, we’ll give a brief introduction. I got into nutrition and fitness because of the whole story – I was picked on as a kid, all that kind of stuff. I ended up parlaying that into a love for bodybuilding that extended into a bachelor’s in biochemistry and a PhD in Nutritional Science, and went on to get a pro card in natural bodybuilding and powerlifting. All that jazz. Today, I have kind of gotten to the point where I’m known as fighting the invisible war against “bro-science”. It’s funny, you and I kind of came across each other in a funny way. You were writing an article. Why don’t you tell our listeners about yourself and how you got into fitness and where you are now.
SOHEE: Sure, well, I got my beginnings when I was 13. I was going through anorexia and bulimia. The funny thing is I was able to hide it from my friends and family and nobody knew anything about it. At the time, I didn’t recognize that it was an eating disorder. I didn’t see it as a problem until later on. I went to high school, I continued to struggle. I was running 10-15 miles a day. I was terrified of gaining weight. My senior year of high school, after I had gotten into college, I got into weightlifting. I saw an Oxygen magazine actually and I loved the look of the cover model. That’s the first time I realized that it’s possible to look like that [muscular while still being feminine] without being a professional athlete. I just didn’t know.
LAYNE: It’s interesting that you talked about getting into it from an eating disorder. We hear that story a lot. We also hear the opposite story that people get into fitness and then get eating disorders. One of the things that you and I are both passionate about are trying to help people with eating disorders because we see it so much as coaches. I never realized how problematic and prevalent it is in the fitness industry. I’ve seen it destroy people’s lives. They can’t do anything without obsessing about food.
I’ve worked with some of the top physiques in the country and you wouldn’t believe how self-conscious some of them are. I think that what will set this show apart from other shows is we will touch on the physiological and psychological.
You and I met – we are about balance and the scientific method, about not being a zealot or dogmatic about any one point. We look for the most optimal way with the minimal amount of suffering. I tell people, yes, you’ll have to make sacrifices in fitness. What I see is people sacrificing for the sake of sacrificing so that they can brag the most about having sacrificed the most. That’s completely stupid. You were writing an article about intermittent fasting, correct?
SOHEE: Yes, it was the middle of the night. I was beginning to build my brand. I was an intern at Cressey Performance at the time so I had to go to work the next day. I was on GChat a lot and was referred to you as someone who was an expert and a contact offered to reach out to you. I emailed you in July of 2012, and I think you got back to me in less than an hour, really late at night, and you gave me a paragraph, and I added to my article and the next day it exploded.
LAYNE: You actually liked a lot of things about intermittent fasting, right?
SOHEE: Yes, I was actually doing intermittent fasting at the time, which is why I wrote the article.
LAYNE: I think that’s where we’re going with this – a lot of the people that are zealot followers. I got people that are almost the same way about me. I appreciate the support, but I want people to take things and research them themselves. I really didn’t say anything bad about intermittent fasting. I said that I thought that it was fine for fat loss and if it fits their lifestyle well. Based on the research that I had done in school, I didn’t think it was optimal for muscle mass. That was pretty much the gist of what I said.
We both got a significant amount of blowback for that. It was like we went in and kicked people’s dogs and pissed in their cereal. I don’t want to say it’s surprising because I know people get that way. In science, there are no beliefs – either you support a hypothesis with data or you don’t. When you have beliefs, you get very emotionally tied to that. It was very interesting to see how that whole thing went down.
We kind of chatted back and forth over the years. Last year, after I had done the whole metabolic damage video, I was getting so many inquiries a day. I was spending 1-2 hours per day writing people back that I couldn’t work with them. It was taking so much of my time. I had always prided myself on answering every email that I got, but it got to the point where I posted on Twitter that if you’re not a client I can’t promise that I’ll get back to your emails.
You then sent me an email that you wanted to help. I said that I wouldn’t let you help for free, I wanted you to get something for your time. You were either the first or second person that I hired. [After that,] I went on a hiring spree. Ben Esgro was the first. Ben was the staff registered dietician for BioLayne, and then Sohee does basically everything else. I handle the client interaction. Basically what you did for me was free up a lot of my time so that I could work with clients. Now you screen the clients and help to refer people that we can’t take on. I don’t think you knew what you were getting into, did you?
SOHEE: Uh, no. But I came prepared with my tricks to be more efficient and I figured out my own system, so we’re good now.
LAYNE: I still get inquiries, but now people know that I’m pretty full and they are serious. Now we get to expand and do this podcast. A few of the things that we are going to cover – nutrition, training, and we may even tackle news every once in a while.
We want to make the focus on the science and bringing it to a level that people can understand. The people that aren’t scientists just give up because they can’t understand anyway. We are going to try and distill that down. Give you guys the research and the tools and relate that with our own practical experiences with ourselves and our clients. This is just to introduce you guys to us and what we do. Sohee, why don’t you list your credentials so people know.
SOHEE: Well, I have my background in pre-med in college, but I majored in Human Biology. In my senior year, I tweaked my major to Psychological and Biological Determinants of Health, which is a fuzzy way of saying everything to do with being human. I made up my own concentration. I interned at Cressey after I graduated. Now I’m in New York and I’m a trainer at Peak Performance. I have my NSCA-CSCS and I’m studying for my Precision Nutrition certification.
LAYNE: I have my Bachelors in Biochemistry and then I did my PhD in Nutritional Sciences with an emphasis in protein metabolism. And that’s it. I didn’t want to go out and get any more certifications. All my academics drained all the life out of me in terms of letters behind my name.
I think a strong science background is great, but one of the reasons I wanted you on the show as my co-host is I wanted a woman’s perspective and I also wanted someone else who is a coach, who could understand the day-to-day interactions.
I plan to have one guest per month. Maybe two shows per month, but a lot of guests. We have some that I’m so excited to bring to you guys. We picked a couple of questions from Twitter and we’ll answer some of those.
The first question that I got was, “What is your favorite way to determine baseline metabolism for setting macros?” Sohee, what do you use?
SOHEE: Most of my clients are fat-loss clients, mostly women. I have them fill out a comprehensive client questionnaire. Dieting history, how much they are training. Very generally, I like to set at 12x bodyweight calories. I like to set total calories first. Then, I’ll set protein, and carbs and then remaining for fats. I have a spreadsheet that helps me for this. If someone has a lot of weight to lose, I can start at 10x bodyweight. If I have a 200lb client and they have very low protein, I don’t set them at 200g protein a day, they won’t get anywhere close. Maybe I’ll do 0.8g of protein. I take everything into account.
Notes: I determine calories and macronutrient needs very differently for clients now. Over the years, I’ve learned that most people can get away with higher dieting calories than previously believed. I’ve got many people dieting on 13x bodyweight (in lbs) calories, and every now and then I can get people to drop body fat on as high as 15x bodyweight (in lbs) calories. This all depends on the person’s activity level, dieting history, genetics, and more. For protein, I now prescribe 1g per 1lb lean body mass for most individuals.
LAYNE: I’m a little different – not too dissimilar. I do dietary recall. I have them track their numbers for about a week and tell me if they are gaining, maintaining, or losing. I will sometimes do bodyweight times a number. But based on that number is where I may start them out. I have a gal who was getting ready for a show because she was 35 lbs over her show weight. She only gave me 18-20 weeks to get her ready. It’s a lot of body fat for a woman to lose in that period of time. It turns out she was maintaining on over 3500 calories a day at 170 lbs. I was able to diet her down on 2500 calories a day, if it was 12x it would have been 2040. Bodyweight x a certain number will work for most people. You’ll have the opposite at times when you’ll have someone maintaining on 1200 calories and doing a ton of cardio and 12x bodyweight won’t work, but in that case, I tell them to consider reverse dieting. We will also have a show covering that for sure. I set calories first and protein I set around 1g per pound mark, unless someone is obese. Age also comes into play, other factors.
I had a gal come to me that was 140lbs and ate 300g of protein per day. She got guru’d as we like to say. Coming from that perspective, I dropped her to 220. I knew that if I dropped her to 140, it’s hard to convince someone once they’ve been doing something. I look at protein first, fat second. I like to have a minimum of 20% of fat. There’s some evidence that if you have fat too low you can have hormonal issues. I’ll go anywhere from 20-40% of calories from fat. If someone was eating really high fat, I might do 30-40% it may be easier for someone to transition. And then the remainder of calories, I will do carbohydrates. I think you and I will agree that the real function of a coach is not at the beginning it’s the upkeep and correspondence that makes a difference.
This question comes from another client of mine, Lori Pyper, IFPA Figure Pro. She’s badass.
A post shared by Lori Pyper Ifpa Pro (@pyperifpapro) on
She had a question: Why is it important to only make small adjustments in your calories rather than cutting them a bunch? You are going to have plateaus, but her question is why you’d want to do that slowly rather than take big chunks. What do you think, Sohee?
SOHEE: We can approach this from a number of different angles but from a practical standpoint, I want to be able to feed my clients as much as possible while also getting them to their goals. If I can get them eating 150g of carbs a day and they are making progress on that, I have no good reason to get them down to 100g of carbs a day. Maybe they would make faster progress in the beginning but eventually they are going to stall and once you get there, you are backed into a corner where you are going to have to drop calories even more.
LAYNE: This is where you get into metabolic capacity. If you had two people and they are exactly the same and they have the same amount of fat to lose, but one maintains on 2,500 calories a day and the other on 4,000 calories a day, who is going to have an easier time dropping body fat? It’s going to be the 4,000 calories a day because their metabolic rate is faster.
I’m with you – I want them to diet on the most calories they can diet on and still make progress. For every individual person, that will be a different numbers. Why would I drop them lower than that? It doesn’t make sense. Unfortunately, there are a lot of coaches out there, that say 800 calories, 1000 calories, 1200 calories. What happens when you stall – and you will stall – four body will adapt. The goal is to have something left in the tank to cut from.
If you have a gal and you start her out and she can diet on 150g of carbs and then you cut her to 120 or 130 and then she stalls again and you cut her to 100 and she picks back up. You see people who stall and they cut their calories massively. Your metabolic rate is the biggest asset you can give yourself and you see people destroy their metabolic rate with the way they diet over time. It’s extremely important to keep calories as high as you possibly can.
SOHEE: On the flipside, a point that doesn’t get brought up nearly enough by coaches is, “If I’m working with you as a client, then you should change my plan every 2-4 weeks.” Especially when it comes to nutrition. I’ve kept a client on the same macros for 8 weeks because there was no reason to change the numbers. The job of a coach is to know when to change numbers. If you think that you don’t need me because you think I’m being lazy, think about what you would have done without me. You would have said, “Oh, I think I’m making progress but it’s been 2-3 weeks, let’s cut more calories” without needing to at all.
LAYNE: You are 100% right. Are you interested in optimal results or are you interested in my doing busy work so I can look busy? It doesn’t take a bunch of time to say keep things the same or change the numbers.
I had a guy and put him on a prep plan and I never had to make a single adjustment to his diet. He was an outlier. Most people will typically stall everywhere from 2-4 or 4-6 weeks. That means in an 18-week diet, you could have about 6 different sticking points if on average you stall every 3 weeks. That’s why you want to be on as many calories as you possibly can. That’s important to keep in mind. If you’re dropping just for the sake of dropping you are encouraging your body to make these negative adaptations which is exactly what you don’t want. I think that’s an extremely important point.
I will have people say, “Hey, as you lose weight, do you reconfigure macros?” So if you started out with 12 x bodyweight for something, since I lost 2lbs, should I then take my new bodyweight and be 12 x that? Or should I decrease my calories by 5% per week?” I’ll tell people no. You only make adjustments as needed, and that’s kind of the same thing with reverse dieting. There’s a little bit of difference because with reverse dieting, you want to make adjustments because you’re feeding people more. But let’s say they put on a little bit of weight and put on a little bit of body fat, you don’t make an adjustment just because it’s time to make an adjustment.
You want training periodized, and I get people who want a new program or this or that. But I believe in the adage of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” You don’t want to set your threshold too high for training volume or too low for calories.
I think that covers it! Obviously, we picked out 3 or 4 questions that we were gonna answer and then, of course, I got talking. But we wanted to give you guys a taste of what we’d be discussing on this show.
A few years ago, I started noticing a trend with people who would come to me for help with their diets. When asked what their biggest struggle with nutrition was, an alarming majority would confess that they usually had no problem being strict with their eating during the week, but all hell would break loose over the weekends. Usually, this would be due to having a busy routine from Monday to Friday with little time to unwind, and then being hit with a slew of social events and downtime on Saturday and Sunday.
In light of this, I’ve been switching more and more of my clients over to a different kind of nutrition structure.
Enter the Weekday Diet.
During the week, I provide more structure to individuals, with a set number of grams of proteins, carbs, and fats that they are to hit. The whole point is to take advantage of the very fact that they’re busy and not focused so much on food to really drive home that energy deficit, so their Calories are typically in the lower range.
However, on the weekends, I let them unwind a little – they can relax their intake and kick back. A crucial point here, however, is not to let the weekend spiral out of control. It’s still somewhat structured, but they do have a limit. I’ll use this time to either set them on the high end of their dieting Calories or bring them back up to maintenance Calories.
To do this, I simply set a caloric ceiling and a protein minimum. That’s it. It looks something like:
2,100 total Calories
120g protein minimum
Any combination of carbs and fats
In other words, they are to hit a 120g protein minimum but specific carb and fat numbers are entirely up to them so long as they hit 2,100 total Calories for the day. (Remember that 1g protein = 4 Calories, 1g carb = 4 Calories, and 1g fat = 9 Calories.) The protein and Calorie recommendations will vary from one person to the next, of course.
Do you see what I did here?
I took into account the individual’s nutrition struggles and made it work for them. I used to prescribe an isocaloric diet to everyone to came to me, meaning that they consumed the same number of calories every single day. But if their weekly average intake puts them in a deficit, why can’t we take a few hundred calories from the week and pad them onto the weekend?
Here’s a visual representation of what it could look like:
The red solid line represents the hypothetical daily caloric intake of someone on an extreme diet. I say hypothetical here, but the truth of the matter is I’ve seen very similar variations of this manifested in countless individuals (particularly women, but men as well). There are even some folks to take it even more extreme, with sub-1,000 Calories during the week and then binge eating with well over 5,000 Calories over the weekend.
The blue solid line is the hypothetical daily Calorie intake of someone on the Weekday Diet. Notice how the Calories during the week are higher than that of the extreme diet, and on the weekends, the Calories are lower that of the extreme diet (by a good bit).
Why is this important? Because as you can see from the dotted lines that represent the weekly average Calories, the Weekday Diet ends up consuming far fewer Calories.
Alternatively, if you’re someone who likes eating the same way over the weekend as you do during the week (such as myself), you might do well with a more moderate approach.
Again, the red solid line represents the Caloric intake on an extreme diet. The yellow solid line represents the moderate diet. Since the daily Calories are the same, the weekly average is going to be at that same number (hence why you can’t see the yellow dotted line – the yellow solid line is directly on top of it), and as this graph shows, the weekly average of the extreme diet is still several hundred Calories higher.
The point is that you want to structure your Calories (and carbs and fats) throughout the week such that you can feel good and keep dietary adherence high. That’s going to look different for everyone.
Here are some important reminders about dieting:
The more restrictive you are with your diet, the more likely you are to engage in binge eating and have higher bodyweight. This has been shown time and time and time and time and time again. This sounds completely counterintuitive to people at first, but what you have to take into consideration is that no matter what kind of diet you’re on, you need to actually be able to adhere to it.
Speaking of, dietary adherence is the most important determinant of weight loss success. I love this study in particular because it so eloquently demonstrates that there’s no magic formula out there that’s going to yield lasting results except consistency, consistency, consistency.
The typical dieting mentality – that of deprivation and suffering – is enough to trigger severe incidences of overeating. The colloquial term for this is Last Chance Syndrome, as in, “This is the last chance I get to eat this [forbidden food] until next week, so I’d better eat as much as of it as I can!” Urbszat, Herman, and Polivy found this in their 2002 study in which restrained eaters (those who had been told to diet for several weeks) consumed significantly more of a ‘forbidden food’ during a taste test than unrestrained eating (non-dieters). (Sidenote: Herman and Polivy are two researchers who have been very involved in the research on dieting, so familiarize yourself with those names.)
“Just try harder” or “be more strict” is rarely ever the answer when it comes to achieving diet success. Wendy Wood stands out in the field of habits, and this study of hers in particular shows that healthy dietary habits (rather than white-knuckling behaviors) are key in meeting self-regulatory goals. In other words, it’s not that you need more self-control per se, but better dietary habits overall.
A weekend of irresponsible eating can absolutely erase a whole week’s worth of hard work. I’m sure you or someone you know has been through this before. It’s a slippery slope to an endlessly frustrating cycle of restrict, binge, restrict binge. What’s worse, you don’t make any forward progress – and in fact, you may even find yourself regressing. This is why it’s so crucial to keep everything in check.
The Weekday Diet came about because it really only feels like you’re dieting during the week, when in actuality you’re still making successful fat loss progress because your weekly average puts you in a deficit. The whole premise of this method is that you push a little harder during the week so you can relax a bit more on the weekend. Contrast this with going all out and then crashing and burning.
Obviously, the two higher Calorie days can fall on any two days throughout the week. I recommend that you choose the days when you know you’re going to be the most social or when you know you could really use that mental break. That might be Wednesday and Saturday, or Friday and Saturday… it’s entirely up to you. (And to take it even further, yes, you could make your Weekday Diet four days long and give yourself a three-day weekend with higher Calories. That would either mean, however, that your weekday Calories would have to be a smidge lower than what they would otherwise be so that your weekly average works out to keep you in a deficit, or that you’ll see slower fat loss progress. Your choice!)
I’ve yet to see another coach implement this specific strategy with the sole purpose of providing psychological relief and thereby increasing enjoyment of the program and overall dietary adherence – hence this post.
This is about making your nutrition work for your life and not the other way around.
If you’re a coach who has online clients, I encourage you to try out this method with some of your clients for whom you think this might be a good fit for. If you’re a fitness buff yourself, perhaps you’ll want to try it out on yourself. This has worked beautifully with many of my clients and I suspect I’ll be converting more and more of them over in the months and years to come.
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Gallant, A. R., Tremblay, A., Pérusse, L., Bouchard, C., Després, J. P., & Drapeau, V. (2010). The Three-Factor Eating Questionnaire and BMI in adolescents: results from the Quebec family study. British Journal of Nutrition, 104(07), 1074-1079.
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Timko, C. A., & Perone, J. (2005). Rigid and flexible control of eating behavior in a college population. Eating Behaviors, 6(2), 119-125.
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Hi guys, this is the first Physique Science Radio episode that’s been transcribed for those of you who would prefer to read, rather than listen to, the podcast. Cohost Layne Norton and I sat down with Steve Cook, Courtney King, and Bret Contreras to discuss all things flexible dieting. I have to be honest – this was my favorite episode yet! It’s a topic that’s directly related to my research interest, and it was really encouraging to discuss how flexible dieting has really taken off in the fitness industry.
For your convenience, I’ve added in hyperlinks below to relevant studies/articles mentioned, plus additional commentary where needed. You can also find the video version of this episode at the end of this post.
LAYNE: Hey guys, welcome to the latest episode of Physique Science! I’m here with my co-host Sohee Lee. We also have a few special guests. Bret Contreras, Steve Cook, and Miss Bikini Olympia, Courtney King. I came out to Arizona because I am prepping Steve and helping Courtney. I wanted to get a chance to talk to them because they kind of shook the mold in terms of big names in the fitness industry who do flexible dieting. For a long time there, it was very taboo for anybody to admit that they ate anything outside of the “bro foods”. I wanted to get your guys’s opinion and have a round table on this. One, what drew you to flexible dieting? And two, why do you think it was shunned for so long in the fitness industry?
COURTNEY: See for me, I’m someone who is fairly new into flexible dieting, I am not as good at eyeballing stuff as Steve, but Steve is very very good and he can look at something and think, “Oh, this will fit”. I am not that experienced, I guess. I still do take that approach where I am not so restricted and crazy and, “It has to be these meals, six times a day”.
STEVE: I’ll start. I think our favorite game, and this is when you know you’re prepping and you don’t have a lot of entertainment in your life, my favorite game is to guess the grams on the scale before I put it on the scale.
LAYNE: Steve and I, we did this earlier. We went to eat poke. “Okay, lets try this, whatever I get, you write down what you think it is, protein-, carb-, and fat-wise, and I’ll write it down”, and we were within 5 grams of each other.
STEVE: And I think I was probably overcompensating because when you’re the one dieting, you’ll overshoot. But yeah, the way I got started off with flexible dieting was with Layne. When I did my first NGA show with a bodybuilder in Idaho and he wrote out a meal plan for me. And it was my first introduction to bodybuilding and it was great. I was a volunteer firefighter and I looked forward every night to my protein bar that I got to eat. That was my highlight of my day. And this was around the time I started doing stuff with bodybuilding.com and Layne was really big on there and I started reading about it and Dr. Joe.
I actually prepped one show, Muscle and Fitness Male Model, with Dr. Joe and then he kinda led me into what Layne was doing and I think it was right about that time that Men’s Physique started taking off, so I did a lot of my Men’s Physique. I won my pro card with Layne. I had transitioned to the NPC and then the IFBB. Did one NPC show, pro card, and then I kinda took some time off but it was really working with Layne that was hard for me for a while. I had this mentality that I had to be perfect. It’s like a badge of honor to eat cold tilapia, sweet potato, and asparagus. Like, “you have to get lean this way.” And I realized that I came to a breaking point. I was either going to burn out in this industry and totally go crazy. I remember getting done, before I worked with Layne, like, “I don’t know how go back to eating normal. I can have a sandwich? That apple is bad!” It was so weird. I remember talking to people like “I can’t do this. I am not cut out.”
Really, it’s that negative voice in your head. It’s not that you’re not cut out for it. You’re not meant to do stuff like that! And so working with Layne, I think really helped me to do that. And even since then I’ve prepped eating “set meals” eating the same thing over and over again and it’s not a lifestyle for me. I’ve taken the last 2.5-3 years off and this prep, I’ll be stepping on stage in 2.5 weeks and it’s been really easy, like today. Also in part because Courtney prepares a lot of my meals. Courtney is amazing at making low calorie things taste good. My favorite thing she does is she puts stevia on everything. I call her the stevia fairy. Wherever she goes there is a stevia trail behind her.
COURTNEY: I sweeten everything.
STEVE: It’s this mustard with coconut aminos with some stevia and, to be honest, it is the best dressing on everything. I put a little on my hair.
COURTNEY: You know what is so funny, when I first got into this industry I was with a team that was super cookie cutter. Every girl had the same plan, we were doing two hours of cardio a day. No lifting really, just plyometrics and stuff. And on our meal plans sodium was forbidden. You couldn’t salt anything. And now I can’t believe that. You couldn’t use mustard or anything with salt. Isn’t that crazy?
STEVE: You probably get 3g, I probably get 5g.
LAYNE: I had a girl that was consuming 20,000mg of sodium a day.
STEVE: Wow, really?
LAYNE: That was probably a little bit excessive. But she also drank almost four gallons of water a day. So why do you guys think that now it’s getting more accepted? A lot of times I felt like I was the guy, and Bret probably feels this way with the hip thrust, that I was out there taking shots from people like, “this can’t work”. Now it’s become more accepted. Do you guys have any idea, why with this method of dieting, that people would look negatively upon it?
SOHEE: I think people take a lot of pride in taking the more hardcore approach. I think it was you (Layne) that wrote a post on Facebook that people try to be hardcore about being stricter with their diets. But you said you know what is really hardcore? People who stay lean year round, and that’s harder to do.
One of my clients a few years ago said that “extremes are so easy and moderation is so hard.” For someone to say, January 1st, I’m gonna go on this extreme diet and lose 50lbs. The people around them say “Oh wow, look at you go!” And they say “look at all these things I can’t eat.”
This is what I’m studying right now with my master’s in psychology so it’s interesting for me to talk about this but the more people restrain their diets you think it makes sense you’re stricter you’re gonna get results faster so why would I not go that route? The problem is it would be fine as long as you were actually able to adhere to it day in and day out, but what happens with most people is that there comes a point with me, and I’m sure with you guys too, that after a certain number of weeks or months that you reach a point of burnout where you’re like, “I can’t do this anymore,” and all of a sudden your adherence is dropping.
For me, I know when I was working with my first coach, I was on a meal plan and eventually, I was on 900-something calories and six days of cardio a week and I was a full-time college student. I was a freshman also and trying to juggle all that so by the end of the six-month period I had gotten to the point where I was following the meal plan for three days and then bingeing every third day. And then my weight started creeping up and I’d start thinking, “this isn’t working because I’m not being strict enough.” But that’s actually the opposite of what you should be doing. One of my clients just last week was telling me that “since working with you I’ve prepped for a show, and put on maybe to two three pounds in the four months since my show, I’m eating more than ever, I’m not spending my life in the gym, I’m doing no extra cardio, I feel good. My co-workers ask me what I’m doing to stay this way and I tell them ‘I don’t restrict foods, I have a little bit of junk food,’” They actually got mad at her, like,“well, if it’s that easy, if it’s that sustainable then I have no excuse to not do it.”
LAYNE: But it was easy, because you had to learn how to do that.
SOHEE: Getting to that point mentally is the hardest thing I feel like. That’s why it’s important to teach people the ways of flexible dieting from the get go rather than just eat clean first and then we’ll teach you how later, because that’s a really hard transition to make.
STEVE: We were talking about this and I think the biggest thing, not necessarily with competitors but with people out there that want to lose weight just in every day life, that they think that there’s some secret.
LAYNE: Yeah, like, “Steve Cook has this ripped eight pack because he’s not eating this one particular food.”
STEVE: Right, they would rather be given one particular meal plan than say, “Hey, I have to take it upon myself to read labels,” and they don’t realize that long term it would be so much easier. It’s gonna be a pain in the butt for a week, you have to look at everything and have to read or write everything down or get familiar with a meal tracking app and that’s always hard to do. But guess what, if you do it, if you get familiar with it, a month or two goes by and all of a sudden you’re able to eyeball things and it’s mindful eating at that point. That’s where you’re actually seeing that it’s really not too bad.
I know that I have this budget in my day and I know the food that I was eating, the Monster energy drink that is not sugar free, that has 42g of carbs. This is my brother talking – he’s been trying to lose weight this year. He had a pretzel and a monster. I’m like, “Do you realize for that same 42g carbs you could have had this, this, this, and this?” And you’re gonna feel so much better but if you love that Monster drink you have that set amount of macros, spend it on something else that you want. Have that pretzel maybe.
LAYNE: The budget analogy makes so much sense. That Monster energy drink – that’s an $80,000 sports car. It’s a depreciating asset.
SOHEE: Unless you really really love that sports car.
LAYNE: But if you make 90k a year or 100k a year should you buy a sports car 80k cash if you can’t pay your mortgage or utilities? So that’s what that Monster is. If drinking that or eating something that isn’t very filling, if that causes you to not be able to take care of the things that you need to take care of and hit your proteins carbs and fats and fiber, then you can’t do it. So flexible dieting done properly is self-regulating. And I bring up your (Sohee) example of the Snickers during contest prep.
COURTNEY: Oh you were the Snickers girl!
LAYNE: We had Dr. Mark Haub on our show, he did the Twinkie diet.
SOHEE: He’s a nutrition professor at Kansas State. He ate Twinkies for 90 days and lost a good amount of weight and his health markers actually improved – they all got better because he was still losing weight.
Dr. Mark Haubs on the Twinkie Diet
LAYNE: That’s the thing, the markers of health — your markers of inflammation, your blood cholesterol, blood lipids — all these things, it’s a weight loss effect. It’s not a healthy foods effect. There’s a health study by Surwit – and I always reference this because it’s a great example – they compared over 100g of sugar intake per day to 10g of sugar intake per day and they had them calorically restrict, same total calories. Both groups lost the same amount of weight, same amount of body fat, and all of them had improvements in their health markers. There was only a slight greater improvement in cholesterol in the group that had lower sugar. Both groups improved, and you can easily explain this by fiber intake because fiber binds cholesterol and causes you to excrete it. The group that had lower sugar had higher fiber, and that is how you can explain the difference. If you equated for fiber you wouldn’t see a difference. Even their markers of inflammation went down.
Mark Haub, when he would give a speech on what he did, he would go up and put up a profile of his nutrition, protein, carbs, fats, fiber. The vitamins and minerals and he would say, “Is this a healthy diet?” And people were like yeah, maybe you’re a little low in vitamin K but other than that you’re dead on. And then he would put up a picture of the foods he ate to get there. And he would say, “is this a healthy diet?” and people would say, “Oh, no no.” He said, “What if I told you these things were the same?”
SOHEE: That’s a really powerful teaching strategy.
LAYNE: Actually I was supposed to debate a guy at ISSN “flexible dieting vs clean eating” and of course, he backed out. In my opening statement for this was going to be, and it was very persuasive. I went to his Instagram and I went to his cheat meal, one day a week. I calculated up the calories he had from junk food. It was about 7,000 calories. And then I went back to calculate how much junk food I ate flexible dieting and it was about 4,000 calories. And I was eating less junk food than the so-called “clean eater”.
COURTNEY: Layne, that was what we talked about too, in our previous video. I thought it was super good because I’d go hard Monday through Friday. And Saturday night rolls around and it’s like, “alright, have a little something or a cheat meal” and then you kind of break it.
STEVE: You reward yourself.
COURTNEY: And then it’s like you just go off the bandwagon. And then all those calories I just consumed in the last 24 hours Saturday night into Sunday, it just kind of puts you in a yo-yo effect.
LAYNE: One of the more brilliant memes I’ve put online was “Binge on chocolate and no one bats an eye but make it fit your macros and everyone loses their mind!”
BRET: When you had the question, “Why is there backlash?” That’s one of the main reasons. I mean I’m guilty of this. You don’t want to take a picture of your clean meals. It’s not fun so when you splurge you want to take a picture of it and put it on your Instagram and hash tagging #IIFYM.
Think if you’re a hardcore bodybuilder and you’ve always done it this way. First of all, we have to get in the minds of how much BS do we see every day, on Facebook or things that are sponsored. Your initial response is, “this is so stupid.” We are trained to kind of roll our eyes at everything that comes by. Then you start hearing about IIFYM and it wasn’t the bodybuilders doing it, it was some skinny kid on the message board. I can see why they’d initially be skeptical.
STEVE: They want to show how much junk food they can actually eat on it.
COURTNEY: That’s just abusing it.
SOHEE: That’s not what it’s supposed to be.
COURTNEY: When people think IIFYM, they think it’s people that only eat donuts and Poptarts. That’s not essentially the case. You can still track and still eat your “clean bro food” or whatever.
BRET: Look at Ronnie Coleman DVD’s from back in the day. He was flexible dieting! He didn’t call it that. He’d have steak and fries at Outback 6 weeks out.
Layne: Exactly. What was funny was that everyone freaked out about the Ketchup.
STEVE: I also think it’s interesting because, really, it comes down to — and this is more psychological — that “bad food” you love posting, it’s almost that excitement like you get from the same part of your brain. It becomes almost like this naughty thing that you feel like you’re doing something bad.
I told you when I was prepping years ago strict that I was working at Texas Roadhouse pounding ice cream in the back because it kind of gave me a rush. I got off on this, “I shouldn’t be doing this”. It’s almost like I was trying to cover up a porn addiction.
But what I’m getting at is that food can become so taboo like you shouldn’t eat that and we tell ourselves that and all of a sudden we get weird relationships with it where it’s totally unhealthy. I think that’s where the normal person just can’t wrap their head around it. Society just says it’s so taboo.
LAYNE: Let’s just say you’ve been doing it [clean eating] for a long time, you’ve had to suffer, you’ve only eaten certain foods. And you’ve seen someone who can get in shape doing this kind of thing –you’re not going to feel happy for them. You’re going to feel like, “I did this for a reason, this has to be the way it works.” So if you’ve only eaten broccoli and asparagus and brown rice and chicken to get in shape and you see people doing different.
The science is there to show that there is no difference. If you want to eat clean, that’s fine, but flexible dieting is just as good. And then they’ll say, “Well show me and IFBB pro who has done it and won a show?” And you know what it is – it just doesn’t look cool. It’s like wearing a hoodie when you’re doing cardio. There’s no extra fat-burning effect to that. It just looks kinda cool. So some of them do it, but they just don’t talk about it.
BRET: But they have a cheat meal and it’s like if you were to split it out across the week, first of all. Second of all, some of them did it, like Ronnie Coleman. Third of all, a lot of them are really dumb. They don’t think to try it.
STEVE: If you broke down clean vs. unclean foods in a flexible dieter, what percent of your diet would be deemed unclean? Maybe 30?
STEVE: You have that 80/20 rule, and again looking at someone that is not a flexible dieter, they’re eating more junk food than you! So really you’re the clean eater! Whoa!
LAYNE: So now we go back and we have tens of thousands of examples of natural guys who do flexible dieting and they get shredded. Are you gonna tell me there’s an IFBB pro that gets more shredded than Alberto Nunez? Good luck! So then they say, “There’s no IFBB pro that’s doing that.”
Okay so you’re telling me that steroids make it harder to get leaner? Okay… so you can get shredded. Can they not building as much muscle? So when you break down the argument, there really is no argument. It’s just an emotional thing where it’s, “I want to justify the suffering that I’ve had to go through,” and it looks cool to suffer.
When I started flexible dieting, I didn’t do it because I wanted to eat Poptarts and stuff. I wanted to win! I am an athlete, and I want to win, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to win. If I thought eating clean was best to win, I would do that.
The reason I started this was because I found myself blowing up in the off season and getting so far out of contest shape that I would lose a lot of lean body mass trying to get back down to contest shape as a natural. Every single case study we have of natural bodybuilders shows they lose at least 5lbs of lean body mass dieting down for a contest. Every single case study. Contest prep on a natural bodybuilder crushes your lean body mass. Regardless if you do it right, you’re going to lose lean body mass. And the harder you have to diet, the more likely you are to lose lean body mass. So I thought that if I could stay closer to contest weight and I’m not getting so far outside of that, then maybe I can maintain more of my size going in. And what I found was that introducing some more flexibility rather than doing a cheat meal was good. I’d try to figure out the macros on a piece of pizza.
SOHEE: You kind of thought of this on your own.
LAYNE: Yeah. And then I found the science afterwards.
COURTNEY: People ask me when my last cheat meal was and I haven’t had a cheat meal in a long time.
LAYNE: I haven’t had a cheat meal in eight years because I’m always eating mindfully. Even if I’m not weighing it out to the gram, I’m looking at it like, “it probably has this, this, and this”.
BRET: I’m 40 years old. I remember reading all the bodybuilding magazines when I was 16 years old and thinking, “Why do they always eat oats and brown rice and whole wheat stuff?” And, “What if you wanted a glass of orange juice? Couldn’t you substitute that?” And, “What if you wanted a yogurt? Where does yogurt fit in?” And, “What if you like milk? Couldn’t you have a little less meat or a little less rice and have some milk?”
I remember thinking about flexible dieting when I was 16 that none of it made sense but none of the bodybuilders did it that way. I feel bad because I said that most of them were stupid and it’s not that. It’s that they don’t experiment enough. If they did, they might say, “I’m gonna experiment during the off season,” but substitute things and they wouldn’t have a problem if they substitute turkey for fish.
LAYNE: Joe talked about this on our podcast. Joe had a contest prep guy that had him eating green beans and he said, “I don’t like green beans, can I eat peas?” and the guys said no but couldn’t give an answer. I think the science guys in the industry are drawn towards flexible dieting. You’d be hard pressed to find a guy with a background in science who advocates for clean eating over flexible dieting. I don’t know of any to be honest. Maybe there’s a couple. A scientific person, the actual nature is to be inquisitive and not just accept what somebody tells you. I’m very skeptical just by nature. That was how Joe came to it, I came to it. And then on the message boards people would say, “Is an apple okay?” And I’d say, “Yeah it’s fine, if it fits your macros.” And I don’t want to say that I came up with it. I think it was Eric Koenreich that came up with “IIFYM”.
STEVE: One thing I’ve often thought about is, does it have to be a 24 hour thing? Can you spread it out over the week? Maybe one day do a day that is all veggies? And another day do a super super high day? There’s some people that I know that are like, “I don’t want only one cookie, I want five cookies.” It’s their personality type. There are people that can have a bite of chocolate and put it away. When you’re carb cycling can you do something like that?
LAYNE: Like a weekly balance?
BRET: I think so. The leanest I ever got was 224lbs and DEXA said I was 16% body fat. I looked great for me. As soon as I got leaner, I was going to make a product called Putting the Flex in Flexible Dieting. We are not flexible enough.
First of all, one day a week we could do an If It Fits Your Calories day, not If It Fits Your Macros day. You could set minimums for proteins and fats. As I got leaner, one day a week, I felt like it helped with adherence. I can eat a lot of calories, about 6,000, but 3,800 was my lowest. Could I get to 6% body fat like that? No. Even with protein if you get 1.6 grams one day and 2.2 the next and then carbs and fats are interchangeable. If you’re the type that that affects your training maybe not, but I found that it didn’t affect my training.
LAYNE: So we don’t really have any data about carb cycling. I think you’re looking at a hierarchy. Yes, it’s probably weekly calories that are the most important and then below that is weekly macros, and then below that is your daily calories, and then below that is your daily macros. At the absolute lowest rung is meal timing and these sorts of things.
What I tell people is that I prefer that they get closer to their macros because there is something to be said for consistency in terms of what you’re feeding your body. If you are used to a certain amount of carbohydrate, if one day you flip it, your body is used to metabolizing carbohydrates and not used to metabolizing that much fat. If you flip it and you’re doing high fat, low carb, there is a lag time for your body to get adjusted to that.
I sometimes have clients who tell me that they’re going on a two day vacation and eating this and that and so I’ll cut 300 calories off of their daily intake to give them more flexibility when they go out there. If you know you’re going to be traveling, the meals that you can control, go low carb and low fat. So the meals that you have less control over, you have more flexibility to fit it in. I really try to have lower fat, lower carb breakfast, if I’m traveling. If you have a pretty high fat, high carb breakfast, now you’ve roped yourself into what you have available to you later in the day.
STEVE: And speaking to that, your self control is a muscle. The more you use it, the weaker you get. You start out in the beginning of the day and we’re going to be on our diet, and we’re going to hit our macros to a T, and what happens at 10 o’clock when you’ve had to make a million other choices in the day. At the end of the day, you don’t have more strength to give that willpower.
BRET: It’s called ego depletion. There was a meta-analysis that came out.
SOHEE: It’s my first year of my masters thesis right now and I’m studying the psychology of eating behavior. The first 10 weeks of my semester I was talking with my advisor and trying to do a study on ego-depletion which is the idea that self control is limited and he was iffy about it. Not long ago, the meta-analysis came out [Correction: It was a pre-registered replication report, which you can read about here] where they had 47 different labs around the world replicate the same exact self control protocol and they found that the effect size was not as big as they initially thought so now they are trying to say that maybe ego-depletion is not an actual phenomenon.
There’s actually a study by Carol Dweck at Stanford who showed that whether or not you are limited in self control depends on your belief that you are limited in self control. If you are taught, “hey, you have self control and it’s unlimited,” and then you guys would perform better on some cognitive task and then I’d say to another group ,“self control is limited. The more you use it, the less you have,” and then that group would go in that direction. So there is some conflicting evidence and I don’t really know what to think right now, but there’s a lot of evidence for it and there’s some against it.
LAYNE: Do you remember what Kori Propst said on our show?
SOHEE: Self control is fatiguing!
BRET: Is flexible dieting bad for decision fatigue?
SOHEE: There’s a balance!
LAYNE: Some people will trade one disorder for another. “I have 2g of carbs left and 1g of fat left, what can I fit in?” and you don’t need to. You’re fine [fret about it]. If you’re within 5-10g of your macros, you’re fine.
SOHEE: I read a blog post 14 months ago called “No One Gives a Shit About Your Macros”. If that’s what you’re talking about all the time, it’s a form of orthorexia. There’s a big misconception that being lean or adhering to a diet is about self control. That’s not true. There’s so much research that shows that it’s people who rely on their habits more than self control are healthier year round. They have lower BMI and healthier lifestyles overall. It’s not that you need more self control; you actually need to build better habits. They are two sides of the same coin. With habits, you don’t rely on self control. There’s no cognitive effort involved.
LAYNE: People will ask me “Doesn’t it bother you to track like that?” No.
SOHEE: Layne, when you were visiting last fall – I like to pay attention to peoples eating behaviors and I noticed this with Spencer Nadolsky — the way that you eat, you go for the low calorie, you go for the Splenda, egg whites over whole eggs, spray butter over natural butter. These things add up throughout the day. I’m looking at it knowing that it’s your default. But these are your habits; it takes no extra effort for you. For someone else to replicate the same behaviors it might be a lot more difficult because they are not there yet, but for you that’s your automatic and that’s why you can stay lean year round. It makes a lot of sense.
LAYNE: It doesn’t cause me extra stress. It’s just something that I’m so used to doing that it’s become a habit. If I go up a level and I’m prepping for a contest because to get that lean, it does take another level of commitment and precision. That will be fatiguing for me. I will get to a certain point where I would just love to take a bite of a protein bar and not track it. That sort of thing.
SOHEE: Detail matters for you guys and that’s really extreme, but that’s not what you do year round. Short periods of time, it’s fine.
STEVE: This is one of the hardest things for competitors is going from stressed because you have kicked it up a notch to back to mindful eating. That reverse diet is so important.
LAYNE: Most people diet for something. The transition period is very crucial. I see people put a few pounds on and the negative place it puts them in. They go into fuck-it mode. And then all of a sudden, they’re back on a diet again.
I binged after every show except for my last series of shows. I dieted for 35 weeks for those shows. I didn’t count macros when I was done because I didn’t want to. I just said, “You know what? I’m going to eat until I feel physically full, and I am not going to eat past that”. Physically full and mentally full are two different things.
SOHEE: Binge eaters are familiar with that.
STEVE: It’s a weird feeling to feel so full but still want more food.
LAYNE: That was my goal going into it. I’m going to have a few bites backstage. It was a guest posing, had a few things backstage, went to a restaurant and did deep dish Chicago style pizza from Giordano’s. I had two slices of that, a Corona, and I felt physically full. I still felt the compulsion to eat but I felt physically full so I said, okay, I’m done. Got back to the hotel, and some beef jerky and then I went to bed. I gained a pound. But I felt pretty good and I hit my goal of practicing cognitive restraint. The rest of that reverse went so well because I was in a good mental place.
STEVE: Because you were realistic.
LAYNE: You have to have some form of cognitive restraint. What we usually see is a prayer to the heavens and then they act shocked when they gained 5lbs. Of course it happened! Your metabolism is the lowest it’s ever going to be and you ate whatever you wanted. If there is a mental checklist in your head and you are okay with gaining body fat, then go ahead. But you have to have that inner conversation with yourself. If you want to stay shredded, it’s not going to happen eating whatever you want.
SOHEE: It’s so gratifying seeing more and more competitors moving in that direction. When I first competed, I was bingeing on almond butter before I even went out for finals, and within two weeks, I had gained back about 15lbs that I had lost. I realized over time that it doesn’t have to be that way.
When Paul promoted his first OCB show in Tampa, that was my comeback show where I did a 20 week prep and I didn’t want to tell anyone about it because I didn’t want to pressure myself. That was the first time that I took my time getting the body fat off. I also had a very clear understanding that once I competed, that was not the end goal. That was just a pit stop and I had so much more ahead of me. My first thought was just do the show and worry about the aftermath after the show. Now I had a plan in place, I want to get this weight off and I want to keep it off.
Now it’s been over two years post-show and I stay within 5lbs of stage weight. I stay lean year round. It’s not that hard. I’ve made this my norm.
STEVE: Did you have an immediate goal when you stepped off stage? I have an immediate goal that’s not look-related. I want to do a sprint triathlon a couple of months after my show. I need goals. I don’t want to always be about looks. That gets old. I think it’s important for the competitors out there to have something that is not physically related in terms of how you look. Maybe you have a goal to deadlift 500lbs.
SOHEE: Even if it’s not fitness related anymore, your priorities are allowed to shift. You don’t always need to make lifting and bikini competitions your first priority.
STEVE: The more focused you are on it, the more hypersensitive you are about it.
SOHEE: And sometimes you can’t enjoy it anymore.
COURTNEY: Yeah, because it becomes exhausting.
STEVE: They should put a pamphlet outside every auditorium. “Here’s your trophy, and here’s a pamphlet on reverse dieting.”
LAYNE: I have a small group of women that we are teaching flexible dieting to, and they’re using Avatar Nutrition. We have a private Facebook group for them. We want to see if there are any mental health improvements. They are having a difficult time jumping into macros. They keep saying, “I want a meal plan.” Some people do need those training wheels to start. It’s a skill. It’s budgeting. If you want to get wealthy without budgeting, you can, but you’re going to need to make a lot more money. If you budget, you can get there faster. If I teach you the skill of tracking, it’s going to take a few weeks and you’re going to mess up, but once you’ve gotten that skill down.
Sohee said something brilliant a few years ago that I quote to this day, “If you can’t see yourself doing this diet in 3 months, 6 months, or 12 months, then you need to rethink your plan because it’s going to fail.” And it fits with exactly what the data says.
BRET: I can tell you as a trainer who used to give meal plans — it [the meal plan] was so strict, and they’d get shredded. And they’d quit training with me and then they’d blow up. I gave them the worst system. I did not teach them, and I feel bad about that.
LAYNE: The most I ever learned about my nutrition was tracking my intake. I’ve done a PhD in nutritional science, and the most I’ve ever learned was having to go to the store. I had a complete book of food counts.
STEVE: My first competition I had that too. I had a list in the back of my training journal of all the foods and their calorie counts.
LAYNE: I had to do all the math. I learned so much. I didn’t know what a high protein food was. I didn’t know what a low carb, high fat food was. I’m a data-driven guy. If there is a system out there that works better, I’m all for it. But right now, I feel like this is the best system we have. Hopefully, we can give people better resources so we can give them those training wheels to get them to a better spot.
With Avatar one of the things that has helped was the Facebook Group we have with several thousand members. The support between the people is great. We have the flexible dieting queen, Kate Robertson, The Macro Experiment. She is the best at macro-friendly recipes. There are so many options out there now.
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BRET: A lot of the criticisms against flexible dieting are if people like to eat “clean”, whatever that is. If you compete, and some foods tend to make you bloat, you can eat them in small amounts at certain times of the year and not during prep. The criticisms just don’t hold up.
STEVE: I don’t really mind. I had Chick-fil-A, I had poke, and I had some popcorn. It’s not my normal foods, it’s much better than me taking a bite of something on a “clean eating” program and then cheat. That is the point. Invest some time into learning about macros, and then take two weeks, don’t even adjust your diet, just start tracking. Just become aware.
SOHEE: There was a survey in the early 2000’s where they surveyed a bunch of Americans and it came out to something like 40-80% of Americans didn’t understand what a calorie was. They don’t understand their own energy needs. That is a shockingly high proportion of people who have no clue. They have no idea how to interpret it or put it into any kind of context. If you asked someone how many calories they need to maintain their bodyweight, they have no clue. Even the most basic instruction of, “Here’s around what you might need for your day”.
LAYNE: Why don’t we teach people budgeting, taxes, nutrition and things like this in school? This is information they actually need. There was a survey done in 2007. “Is a calorie a calorie” and 70% of Americans believe what you ate was more important than the amount of calories you consumed. We had to argue for and against. They made a lot of emphasis about the thermic effect of food. Protein has a higher thermic effect. You still have to account for those calories. If you have a food that tends to be better for body composition, it’s not because it’s magic, it’s because it has higher protein or higher fiber. You just don’t see differences in studies. If you equalize for calories most of the differences go away. If you equalize for protein and fiber, virtually all of the differences go away. If you equalize for fiber, you have zero differences.
BRET: That’s what I was going to ask you. I think if you do track and you’re fit and healthy, you could get all of your carbs from sugars, and your physique and health wouldn’t change at all.
STEVE: It may change how you feel.
BRET: Yes, but if I eat fruit it doesn’t make me feel bad.
LAYNE: People say that sugar is associated with obesity. Sugar consumption over the last 10 years has gone down and obesity has continued to rise linearly. People have largely done what the government tells them to do in terms of food. In the 70’s, they said to stop eating fat, and fat intake went down. In the early 2000’s, they said stop eating sugar, and we went down in sugar intake and obesity continued to go up.
The association with sugar is because people tend to overconsume it because it’s not satiating. If you drink a Coke, it’s 50g of carbs, take 50g of carbs out of what you eat.
People who eat fruit tend to be leaner and healthier. Why is that? Because fruit has fiber in it. People don’t tend to overeat on fruit. It’s a calorie, protein, and fiber issue. I think you can take anything to an extreme and make it ridiculous.
BRET: There is a study that showed that one groups carbs was all sugar and the other was all complex, the calories were equal, and the all sugar group lost more weight.
LAYNE: It’s funny when you show that to someone like Gary Taubes or someone who is a low sugar, low carb zealot, their response is always an emotional, visceral, “I don’t believe that!”. We were at Epic [Fitness Summit], and Gary Taubes is giving a talk. Alan Aragon and him were debating and Alan was crushing Gary and quoting all these studies. Gary says, “I don’t believe that one”. Then he has the audacity to say that he’s funding studies that are going to prove that. So I raised my hand and said, “Let me get this straight. The studies that were funded for Alan you don’t believe, but the one that you’re going to fund is okay?” When the study came out it disproved his hypothesis, and he didn’t believe it!
BRET: Remember Alan asked if given enough research would he change his mind, and Gary said “No, would you?” That means you are not a scientist; you are a zealot.
LAYNE: For my fifth video log, I did one on intermittent fasting. I think it’s fine for fat loss, and maybe sub-optimal for muscle mass based on the data we have for protein distribution. He took that and went on a rant on Twitter about me. I think people like the about belonging to something.
BRET: When I met Brad Schoenfeld, I said “Fitness is like religion,” and a few years later he said I was so right.
LAYNE: Crossfit, Paleo, Ketogenic diets. I have anti-ketogenic diet people and pro-ketogenic diet people both mad at me! Don’t hate me, hate the data. I went into my PhD trying to find magic foods.
STEVE: The takeaway is a lot of the people who aren’t familiar or the every day dieter, it’s the easy route to cut things completely out of your diet. When you really invest in learning about your diet and how to count macros and how to eat mindfully, there aren’t such things as good foods and bad foods. It’s eating in moderation. When you learn to count macros, it changes your life.
SOHEE: What is really encouraging about flexible dieting is I don’t know a single person who has been a flexible dieter who said, “I liked clean eating better.”
LAYNE: In Laurin Conlin and Bill Campbell’s study, they polled them [the participants] after the study, and asked, “If you had a choice, what would you choose?” and every single person aside from one said they’d choose a flexible diet [versus a meal plan]. Even people who crushed it on their meal plan would choose a flexible diet.
SOHEE: If you can stick to a meal plan and adhere to it, that’s awesome. However, if your quality of life has gone to shit because of that, that’s not a win. You are not better off for it. You don’t want to just look at your adherence, you also want to look at how it’s affecting your day to day life and how you feel physically and mentally. Flexible dieting in that regard allows you to maintain high dietary adherence. It allows you to adhere and have a semblance of life.
Buchholz, A. C., & Schoeller, D. A. (2004). Is a calorie a calorie?. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 79(5), 899S-906S.
Hagger, M. S., Chatzisarantis, N. L., Alberts, H., Anggono, C. O., Batailler, C., Birt, A. R., … & Calvillo, D. P. (2016). A multilab preregistered replication of the ego-depletion effect. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(4), 546-573.
Job, V., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2010). Ego depletion—Is it all in your head? Implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological science.
Krukowski, R. A., Harvey-Berino, J., Kolodinsky, J., Narsana, R. T., & DeSisto, T. P. (2006). Consumers may not use or understand calorie labeling in restaurants. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 106(6), 917-920.
Surwit, R. S., Feinglos, M. N., McCaskill, C. C., Clay, S. L., Babyak, M. A., Brownlow, B. S., … & Lin, P. H. (1997). Metabolic and behavioral effects of a high-sucrose diet during weight loss. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 65(4), 908-915.
In 2006, I stumbled across a popular fitness blog that was promoting a new kind of diet challenge. The blogger invited any and all of his readers to join in on adhering to the 20 nutrition rules he’d made for himself. The purpose, he wrote, was to crack down on his eating behaviors and become the pinnacle of nutrition perfection. Anytime you broke one of the rules, you would add a point to your running total. By the end of the challenge, the individual with the fewest number of points was the winner.
Drink a gallon of water, eat six meals, and consume three servings of vegetables a day. No more than X number of calories per meal. Don’t go longer than 3 waking hours between meals. Eat half a grapefruit within 30 minutes of waking up. No added sugars. No artificial sweeteners. No trans fats.
Wow! I remember reading the list with astonishment. I was so impressed at how strict he was going to be with himself, and I excitedly shot an email to my dad that same night urging him to hop in on the challenge with me. Instead of 20 rules, however, I somehow came up with a whopping 100 rules that I was to adhere to every day — because the stricter I was, the better I’d do, right?
Looking back, I almost feel that I should slow clap for having the creativity to have come up with so many nutrition rules. Or perhaps I should be groaning in embarrassment that these were the kinds of things that occupied my free time at the age of 16.
In any case, my dad politely declined the challenge (much to my surprise at the time), and I forged ahead on my own – for a heroic three days. It didn’t take long for me to realize that 100 freakin’ rules was way too many for me to keep track of, and I quickly grew tired of my rapidly accruing points. Argh!
What had I done wrong?
I mistakenly believed for many years that eating perfectly and getting lean was all about being really, really strict on myself. Anytime I slipped up and ate the chocolate chip cookie I swore I’d never touch, I’d find myself clearing off the entire plate in a panic, then berating myself for obviously not trying hard enough. I’d vow to do better and never let this mistake happen again – but only after I’d inhaled the box of sugary cereal, too. Oh, and the ice cream.
That strategy never worked. And yet, I continued to stubbornly persist (unsuccessfully so) for years. It never crossed my mind that anything other than a black-and-white approach would elicit the results that I so desperately wanted.
As it turns out, however, rigid dieting is not a realistic long-term strategy, and it’s far from the most effective way to get and stay lean year-round.
Rigid vs. Flexible Eating
Westenhoefer (1991) defines rigid eating as adopting an “all or nothing” approach to eating, dieting, and bodyweight. Some examples of this include deeming some foods “good” and others “bad,” having a forbidden foods list (or conversely, a very short approved foods list), thinking of yourself as a failure if you exceed a given bodyweight, and crash dieting, starving, and binge eating.
Salmon, avocado, and tomatoes over rice
On the other hand, flexible eating entails a far more “graduated” mentality towards eating, dieting, and bodyweight. Rather than characterizing foods as good or bad, there are foods that should be consumed more frequently and those that should be consumed less frequently.
One hundred and eighty-eight female undergraduate students and community members were recruited for this study. The researchers assessed the following via questionnaires: degree of rigid vs. flexible control of eating, BMI, depression, eating attitudes (to measure eating disorder symptoms), body dissatisfaction, anxiety, and dietary restraint, disinhibition, and perceived hunger.
Analysis of results revealed that those who engaged in rigid eating strategies had higher BMI, higher anxiety, and experienced greater mood disturbances and eating disorder symptoms, including binge eating. Interestingly, the majority of participants were found to employ a mix of both rigid and flexible dieting strategies.
This explains a lot, doesn’t it?
Granted, the study by Stewart and colleagues (2002) was cross-sectional, meaning that we can’t establish a causal relationship between flexible eating and lower BMI. However:
Rigid control of eating behaviors in men and women is associated with more eating disorder symptoms and greater mood disturbances than was flexible control of eating behaviors (Timkho and Perone, 2005).
A monotonous diet (such as one with little variety due to elimination of “forbidden” foods) triggers food cravings (Pelchat and Schaeffer, 2000), which has found to be associated with higher BMI and binge eating behaviors (Abilés et al., 2010; Moreno, Warren, Rodríguez, Fernández, & Cepeda-Benito, 2009).
Rigid dieting control strategies have been found to be inversely correlated with dieting success, while flexible dieting control strategies has been found to be positively correlated with dieting success (Meule, Westenhöfer, and Kübler, 2011).
What does this all mean?
Rigid eating is not an effective strategy for long-term weight loss maintenance.
Though the research on this topic is not abundant, the evidence that does exist is pretty difficult to refute. On an anecdotal level, I can tell numerous stories of my clients (and myself) who have reported great success, both with their mindsets and with their body fat levels, by making the transition from black-and-white thinking with their eating to a more moderate, flexible eating approach.
For me personally, I struggled with binge eating for 10+ years. It wasn’t until I finally let go of my stringent dieting rules (that never, ever worked – go figure) and forced myself to get comfortable with moderation that my eating behaviors started to normalize.
I now eat cookies, ice cream, and chips every now and then, and I enjoy every scrumptious bite.
I’ve been maintaining a healthy bodyweight within a 5lb range for the past two and a half years with ease.
I haven’t binged a single time since then.
You may think that the above points are paradoxical, but actually, they are absolutely, absolutely related. And it’s precisely this more lax approach with my eating that has contributed to my success.
How to Approach Flexible Eating
Flexible eating, of course, is not license to eat whatever. It’s not akin to ad libitum food consumption, as most people tend to think.
The very word “flexible” implies that there is still some degree of structure to your eating. Namely, here’s what should form the backbone of your diet:
Approximately 1g protein per 1lb bodyweight per day
Majority of calories coming from nutrient-dense foods
Carbs and fats tailored to suit your personal preferences while providing sufficient energy
As well, there should be no feelings of guilt associated with food consumption, including the more nutrient-devoid treats. Calorie intake should never get out of hand – neither too high nor too low – and portion control should be exercised at all times.
And the rest of the details? Well, that’s for you as the individual to decide.
I would be remiss not to include the caveat that there does happen to be a handful of people who genuinely enjoy eating nutrient-dense foods 24/7 and find no pleasure in chips or sweets (I, sadly, am not one of them). For these individuals, the lack of junk food in their diets is due to the fact that they don’t care for them, not that they are forbidden themselves from consuming the treats. In their case, they are still practicing flexible eating strategies because they are not “violating” any of their own food rules.
If you’ve found that many of the nutrition rules you’ve implemented for yourself haven’t been working so well, I urge you to loosen the reins on your eating.
Find a nutrition strategy that you enjoy and can adhere to long-term.
Nip cravings in the bud before they spiral out of control.
Enjoy your food guilt-free.
Become a master of nutrition moderation.
Maintain your weight loss results for good.
Bacon-wrapped filet mignon with twice-baked potato: “good” or “bad”? With flexible dieting, that’s missing the point entirely.
Abilés, V., Rodríguez-Ruiz, S., Abilés, J., Mellado, C., García, A., de la Cruz, A. P., & Fernández-Santaella, M. C. (2010). Psychological characteristics of morbidly obese candidates for bariatric surgery. Obesity Surgery, 20(2), 161-167.
Meule, A., Westenhöfer, J., & Kübler, A. (2011). Food cravings mediate the relationship between rigid, but not flexible control of eating behavior and dieting success. Appetite, 57(3), 582-584.
Moreno, S., Warren, C. S., Rodríguez, S., Fernández, M. C., & Cepeda-Benito, A. (2009). Food cravings discriminate between anorexia and bulimia nervosa. Implications for “success” versus “failure” in dietary restriction. Appetite, 52(3), 588-594.
Pelchat, M. L., & Schaefer, S. (2000). Dietary monotony and food cravings in young and elderly adults. Physiology & behavior, 68(3), 353-359.
Stewart, T. M., Williamson, D. A., & White, M. A. (2002). Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite, 38(1), 39-44.
Timko, C. A., & Perone, J. (2005). Rigid and flexible control of eating behavior in a college population. Eating behaviors, 6(2), 119-125
Westenhoefer, J. (1991). Dietary restraint and disinhibition: is restraint a homogeneous construct?. Appetite, 16(1), 45-55.
Every now and then, I have a reader or a client whose body seems incredibly resistant to losing bodyweight. No matter how low we drop their calories relative to their bodyweight, regardless of how high their dietary adherence, and irrespective of how well they manage their sleep and stress, there is no fat loss progress to be made.
What’s the issue? Is it just that they’re still eating too many calories? Are they not trying hard enough?
Metabolic adaptation, also known as adaptive thermogenesis, is the phenomenon by which the body’s resting metabolic rate (RMR) is disproportionately affected due to changes in calorie intake. You can undergo numerous metabolic adaptations with a prolonged caloric deficit, making weight loss increasingly difficult. Conversely, when you consume more food above your typical baseline, the body can increase its metabolic rate to match your intake and thereby prevent, or mitigate, weight gain.
But in those who engage in crash dieting, the degree of metabolic adaptation is far more severe.
The study involved 14 out of 16 competitors from “The Biggest Loser” who agreed to participate. Dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) was used to measure body composition, and RMR was calculated via indirect calorimetry at three different time points: the start of the competition, the end of the competition (30 weeks later), and six years after the fact.
At the end of the competition, average bodyweight was decreased by 58.3kg, and RMR was reduced by 610 kcal/day. However, six years later, 41.0 of the 58.3kg was regained, RMR was decreased 704 kcal/day below baseline, and metabolic adaptation was measured at -499 kcal/day.
See the table below to view the results.
Notice how the participants gained back almost all of the weight that they’d lost. Their body fat percentage, more importantly, was almost back to their starting point. And their RMR was actually below what it was at the end of the competition.
What This Means for All of Us
The participants in this study undoubtedly went through a unique experience that the vast majority of us will never have to go through. We also have to take into consideration the fact that we do not know the specifics of how they lived their lives in the six years after the show was done – what and how much they ate, whether or not they consumed sufficient protein, whether or not they resistance trained or stayed active in other ways. These are certainly all confounding variables that could have influenced the results.
Nevertheless, the numbers themselves are very alarming. Some of you may be disheartened, while others may be relieved that it’s not anything you’re doing wrong, per se.
On the flipside, don’t be too quick to use metabolic adaptation as a scapegoat for why you haven’t seen any body composition changes over the past several months. (Fun fact: I tried to do this once about six years ago, when the culprit was actually that I was simply eating too much food. I just didn’t want to own up to it and be confronted with actually having to do the work of consuming less; it was far easier to blame something else).
Make sure you’ve first ruled out all the other potential variables: calorie intake (Are you actually in a deficit?), macronutrient breakdown (Are you consuming sufficient protein?), sleep and stress management, training program specifics (Are you on a program based on progressive overload, or are you just going through the motions?), and overall consistency.
I’ve been saying for a long time that the thinking that all you need is enough willpower to elicit body composition changes is misguided, first and foremost, but also not helpful.
Lasting change is not about willpower.
I’ve tried white-knuckling my way to fat loss before – perhaps you have as well. The only thing that it did for me was make me rebound and pile on 25 pounds on my 5’2” frame in a span of less than three months. Then, because I still believed that it was all about willpower, I spun my wheels for five straight years, trying and failing to lose the weight over and over.
Relying on willpower in the long run is a losing strategy.
As well, if there’s an underlying physiological issue, don’t ignore it, and don’t try to push your way through it. You don’t “fix” metabolic adaptation by dropping calories even more and consuming a low-calorie diet for months and months on end; that may, in fact, exacerbate the problem.
If you do decide that you want to shed some body fat, be methodical about how you go about it. Mindlessly slashing calories left and right is irresponsible and could cost you in the long run. And while you want to rely on sustainable methods in order to achieve sustainable results, you also don’t want to drag out the process longer than needed. That means that you should prioritize fat loss for a few months, keep dietary adherence high, and then pull yourself out a caloric deficit within a reasonable timeframe.
Key Takeaway Points
Sometimes, the answer is not “just try harder.” In fact, as a physique and strength coach, this is the last piece of advice that I ever give to a client. Typically, there’s something else going on – physiological obstacle, lack of skill (to meet dietary adherence), lack of knowledge, or generally not prioritizing goals – that, when addressed, can lead to some pretty drastic changes in the individual.
It’s not always about having more self-control or willpower. Yes, there are instances whereby exerting willpower can help you make the better health decision – but these opportunities should be minimized whenever possible. Rather, relying on lifestyle changes and habits is a far more effective long-term strategy. Utilizing self-control should be reserved for special situations and done sparingly.
The harder you diet, the higher the potential costs in the long run. Extremes are rarely ever worth it. If it’s not too late for you, avoid crash dieting. There are far more sustainable ways to go about achieving fat loss results.
If you do have an extensive crash dieting history and your body is not responding to what should be a caloric deficit, a 3-month reverse dieting stint (or at the very least, keeping your calories at a healthy intake) probably will not be enough time for you to “fix” things. Note that the suppressed RMR that the participants in this study had six years after the conclusion of “The Biggest Loser.” If you’ve crashed dieted on and off for the past eight years, you’re probably looking at a recovery period of several years. I’ve worked with several clients before with extensive, extensive crash dieting backgrounds, and for them, not even a full year of reverse dieting (or even just staying out of a deficit and consuming ample calories) was enough time. Frustrating? Yes. But you can’t rush the process.
Today’s guest post comes courtesy of Stephanie Dorworth of BeautifultotheCore.com. She and her husband Zach are launching a free four-week e-course on flexible dieting that you may want to check out – details at the end!
There was once a 20-year old college student who was afraid of gaining weight again. She had gained the freshman fifteen and worked really hard to lose it. She was not going to re-live that, no matter what. So she did what she thought was best: she restricted her carbohydrate intake, which resulted in consuming fewer calories. In her mind, carbs were evil, necessarily led to weight gain, and resulted in her unhappiness.
Her diet was limited to mostly fruits, veggies, meat, and salads, and she never took a day off of exercise. As a result of her efforts, she was able to maintain bodyweight. Success!
She felt awful, though. She was tired, sore, unhappy, hungry, and weak. Her body was not functioning optimally.
Several years later, she realized she needed to make a positive change because she felt exhausted all the time. She transformed her life by reverse dieting and slowly eating more carbs. Her carbohydrate intake gradually increased to over 200 grams per day and became her main energy source again. Because of this, she was no longer tired, she was in a better mood, she felt happier, and she was stronger in the gym. She started ovulating again and having regular bowel movements.
Take a look at the carbs she used to eat versus the carbs she eats now and then answer that question.
Then: Wheat Thins, fruits, and veggies.
Now: Rice cakes, rice, cookies, sweet potato, oatmeal, beans, pop tarts, pretzels, granola, bread, Cheez-Its, donuts, chips, and pasta.
You may assume this person doubled in size, body fat, and weight. This is not what happened.
Let me be honest: that woman was me in my college years. And no, I did not blow up. Just the opposite, in fact. I got healthier, stronger, and happier. I can yell it from the mountain tops now that I love carbs!
As it turns out, my body needed more carbs – desperately.
Why do people assume that carbs cause an increase in weight or body fat? Possibly due to the negative stigma carbs have gotten for years. Possibly due to the foods associated with carbs like bread and pasta.
All these fad diets have brainwashed us into thinking low carb diets are required to lose weight. That is a myth.
Do they work for some people? They can work, yes, because restricting a food group is an easy way to also restrict calories. However, this method is by no means required and, for most people, is not sustainable.
Breaking the “Carbs are Bad” Myth
Carbohydrates can either be simple or complex. Simple carbs are made up of just one or two sugar molecules and they include foods like syrups, jams, juice, and candy. Complex carbs are made up of a coil of sugar molecules that are often rich in fiber, micronutrients, and vitamins.
Carbohydrates are important for your brain function, muscle function, intestinal function, and lastly providing you with energy for your workouts. If you’re someone who works out regularly, you can understand how a low-carb diet could hinder your ability to fuel through a workout and recover from training sessions properly.
Here are some signs you may be eating too little carbs:
Bowel/digestive problems (due to lack of fiber)
Decreased physical performance
Poor muscle recovery after workouts
Difficulty building muscle
The negative stigma surrounding carbohydrates goes back to the infamous Atkin’s diet when people were taught that they had to cut carbs to lose weight.
Here’s what actually happens: during the first few days of making a drastic change to a low carb diet, water weight is lost as the body’s glycogen stores are depleted – not body fat. And when people eliminate carbs, they cut out all the garbage they were eating in the first place. This in turn leads to a decreased calorie intake.
This is a classic case of correlation being confused with causation.
You may then think that you’re getting more fit, but as soon as you go back to eating more carbs again, you will gain that water weight right back.
Carbs are not bad; for most people, they’re a necessity.
Don’t Hate the Carbs, Hate the Calorie Game
Weight gain is based upon the energy balance relationship of energy in versus energy out. In the most basic sense, if the number of calories consumed is higher than the number of calories expended, you will gain weight.
Proteins, carbs, and fats make up the three macronutrients in your diet. One gram of protein has four calories, one gram of carbohydrates has four calories, and one gram of fats has nine calories. A little bit of arithmetic will yield your total calorie intake for each day.
As long as you have a solid balance of macros that equate to a number of calories equal to how many calories you expend, you’ll maintain your bodyweight. Ingest too much and you’ll put on weight; eat in a deficit and you’ll lose weight.
It’s not the carbs themselves that induce weight gain, then, but an excess of calories. If you consume an excess of protein which then tips you over your energy balance for the day (unlikely, but possible), then you can absolutely gain weight from that. The same goes for fats.
You should be getting 30-65% of your total daily energy from carbohydrates. For example, if you eat 2000 calories a day, your carbohydrate intake should be between 150g-325g. Stick to the lower end of the range if you are trying to lose fat, working out less frequently or intensely, or are sensitive to carbohydrates. Consume in the higher end of the range if you are reverse dieting, working out frequently and intensely, or if you simply feel better on a higher carb diet. When in doubt, eat in the higher end of the range.
If your carb allotment is higher, you increase the likelihood you will adhere to your diet since you have more freedom with what you eat. That is crucial to fat loss success.
Does that sound like a lot?
I encourage you to consider eating more carbs. Not only will you feel better, stronger, and happier, but you will also be able to get leaner. For me personally, the largest hurdle to get over was my fear of carbs. Anytime I ate more than fruits or veggies as carb sources, I felt guilty. Eating ice cream, pasta, or bread felt foreign to me. In order to jump that hurdle, I reintroduced it back into my diet slowly with reverse dieting and macronutrient redistribution.
If you think you are eating too little carbs and want to work on slowly increasing your carbohydrate intake, then use reverse dieting like I did. For reverse dieting, you would increase your carbohydrate intake by anywhere between 5-10% every one or two weeks. Continue doing this as long as you are maintaining weight. If you start to gain weight, then hold that number steady until you are able to maintain again or decrease fat values a little if using redistribution. It’s slow process, but well worth the patience. See if you can join the 200g club!
When choosing which carbs to eat to meet your macro allotment, keep the rules of flexible dieting in mind. Flexible dieting consists of an 80/20 approach. This means 80% of your daily food intake should come from nutritious, wholesome, and minimally processed foods, while 20% can come from other foods you enjoy.
This course will teach you everything you need to know about getting started with Flexible dieting. Here’s what the course covers:
Basics of flexible dieting
Intro to macronutrients
How to read nutrition labels
How to use a kitchen food scale
How to use the MyMacros+ app
How to eyeball portion sizes
How to track when eating out
How to find your maintenance calories
How to adjust macros for your goals
In addition, you get membership to a Facebook support group where you can communicate with other course students and receive support.
Sign up by July 6th, 2016 at midnight to join this four-week course! Did I mention that it’s free?
Flexible dieting gives you the freedom of mixing in the foods you crave will ensure long-term nutrition adherence and accomplishment of your goals. If you get 80% of your energy from wholesome complex carbs, that will help you get the recommended daily fiber intake. Make carbs your BFF this summer and your body will thank you.
1. Carbs are good for you and your body needs them to function properly.
2. There are two types of carbs: simple and complex.
3. Carbs improve the function of your brain, muscles, intestines, and provide you with energy.
4. If you experience any of the signs of eating too little carbs, practice reverse dieting to increase your carb intake.
5. Remember, you can enjoy what you eat and not feel guilty about eating carbs because carbs are good for you.
I'm a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA-CSCS) and a Certified Sports Nutritionist from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (CISSN). I'm an IFPA bikini pro and amateur powerlifter, and I specialize in helping women learn how to eat well, lift heavy, and thrive in all aspects of their lives. See more