Improving Nutritional Habits - Where to Start
If you've performed a body composition test at the gym, you have a baseline ratio for muscle mass vs. body fat. Now what? Strength training is important in regards to your daily calorie expenditure as well as how your body uses the food you provide it with. But as much as I’d love to say that you can come to my workouts 2 or 3 times a week and all of your dreams will come true, the reality is that your sleep and nutritional habits in the other 23 hours of the day will largely dictate your success. This doesn’t mean I can’t play a role in that part. I’m here to answer any questions you may have and serve as the accountability you may need to begin making changes in your nutrition.
The following is a segment from Chapter 8 of my book, Improving the Health, Wellness, and Performance of the Adaptive Athlete. Of course a singular chapter doesn’t (nor could an entire book) encompass all things nutrition; but hopefully you can utilize a couple pieces of information from it.
How to Form Better Nutritional Habits
The idea that it takes 21 days to form a habit originated in the mid 1900s with a surgeon that analyzed how long it took for his patients to adjust to the changes made to their body. This idea was passed on like folklore until people assumed it to be factual. However, psychologists that study human behavior have found that changes in routine may actually take more than two months before becoming “automatic”. That is why in the following pages we take what may be deemed a “conservative” approach to nutritional changes and weight loss when compared to the timeline of "fixes" *(Disclaimer below) that are frequently marketed. It is not easy to change a habit or routine but making small changes over time will increase the likelihood that these changes become habits. The following is a four to five step process for you to follow.
* While cleanses and detoxes are met with polarizing views, largely due to false advertising; people either swear by their effectiveness or people hate them, if the use of a cleanse or detox gets an individual moving in the right direction with his or her weight which in turn allows them to train harder and stay motivated, then it would be irresponsible to completely dismiss them.
1.) Identify what aspects of your diet aren’t helping you work towards your goal (performance, weight loss, etc)
2.) Choose a couple of these areas (not necessarily all of them) that need improvement, decide what changes you’re going to make, and come up with strategies that will help you make them part of your routine
3.) Implement and sustain these changes for at least 8 weeks
4.) During this time frame, consistently analyze how you’re feeling: energy level, mood, cravings, performance, etc
5.) If you find the characteristics above to be too negatively impacted, adjust accordingly and resume
Additional Strategies to Improve Your Nutrition:
TAKE YOUR TIME WHEN EATING
It takes your brain some time to recognize that you’re ‘full’ so if time permits, eat slowly and drink water. Cut up your food and chew it fully.
DRINK WATER WITH EVERY MEAL
Your body can sometimes misperceive dehydration as hunger. Eliminate the possibility of this, as well as enjoy a host of other benefits, by drinking water consistently throughout the day
EAT PROTEIN WITH EVERY MEAL
Of the Macronutrients, protein has the highest satiety index (how ‘full’ a food makes you feel). If you incorporate a protein source into every meal, it is less likely that you will overeat one of the other Macronutrients (carbohydrates and fats).
PREPARE MEALS IN ADVANCE
People often resort to fast food and snacks because they are more convenient than cooking a full meal. If you have well-balanced meals prepared in advance and stored in Tupperware, it will increase the likelihood that you grab one of these rather than a bag of chips.
PREPARE HEALTHY SNACKS IN ADVANCE
An issue with athletes, especially those still in school, is that they aren’t fueling up properly throughout the course of a school day. Some can go as long as 10 hours without eating if they have practice right after school. Pack healthy snacks with protein and carbohydrates in advance.
It appears that improving nutritional habits comes down more to the behavioral sciences than it does to the biological systems of digestion, nutrient absorption, etc. Do you ever notice that you can be well-disciplined throughout the day, workout early, make healthy choices, and then when the sun goes down, no bag of chips is safe? I recently read the book Peak Performance which dove deep into this “phenomenon”. Essentially all sources of stress, emotional, cognitive, physical, etc. are pooled together and received by the body in a similar manner. Studies have demonstrated this during food temptation studies and in cycling time trials. Participants are less willing to tolerate discomfort on the bike or muster up the willpower to resist tempting foods after they perform a cognitively demanding task. It appears you may only be able to tolerate a certain amount of daily/weekly stress before performance elsewhere is compromised. Seems obvious when you think about it, but are we taking this into consideration when attempting to revamp our nutritional habits? Knowing this, how can you set yourself up for success?
Whether you plan on following a specific diet, cutting out a certain food or drink (processed carbohydrates, alcohol, etc), I am not here to say one is better than the other or that you will only be successful if you do a, b, and c, but rather help you find what changes you can make that doesn’t add more stress to the pool. If you look at your nutritional habits and are unable to pick out a couple that you can attack head on, here are a few suggestions.
1.) Remove liquid calories and calories related to these drinks. If you drink soda or juice every day, by removing and replacing them with water, you are eliminating a couple hundred calories. Over the course of 8 weeks this could amount to 10,000+ calories, or three pounds of fat.
2.) Consume more protein and vegetables. Protein is the main macronutrient responsible for recovery and building muscle and it is likely that you aren’t getting enough. Protein also has the highest “fullness factor”. Combine this with vegetables that are less calorie dense (you can eat a much larger volume of vegetables at the same calorie total as processed junk food), and you will feel more full.
3.) Be aware of foods marketed as healthy. Just because something is organic, contains “superfoods”, or is low fat does not mean it is a lower calorie substitute and more favorable for weight loss/muscle gain. While food quality is very important, you simply cannot lose weight if you are consuming more calories than you’re burning. Understanding how you can fit in foods that you enjoy but may not be the healthiest, is an important part of sustaining nutritional practices. You can enjoy a bag of chips, understand that it hasn’t “ruined the day so I might as well eat ice cream too and start over tomorrow”, and then get back on track.
4.) Plan ahead and get temptations out of sight. Pack healthy snacks to bring to work and cook large quantities of healthy meals that can be packaged and taken throughout the week. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Circling back to the discussion on the willpower of resisting unhealthy foods and how it can be negatively impacted by the stressors of the day, how are you setting yourself up for success? If you know that you will struggle to keep the freezer closed when there is ice cream in there, don’t buy it in the first place; it is truly the only way to guarantee success in avoiding unhealthy foods.
Questions? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if there is any way that I can be of help.