Blowing it all out in the New Year

ter Just last night I overheard a fellow gym go-er telling his coach that before he starts a new, strict diet that he goes ALL OUT the week before, eating as much junk and ingesting as many calories as possible.  Then he's ready for his new and exciting strict diet!

While I can understand that it feels good to indulge because you know you're going to be steadfast after that, it rarely works out the way people plan.  Personally, I can tell you from experience that indulging in all vices before a strict phase can really turn you off from the things you crave.  Too much of a good thing does exist.  It won't take long for most people to get sick of ice cream, pizza, candy or cheese if they're cramming it down like their life depends on it.

But what happens after?

The Aftermath

The reality is that even if you have the "oh my God, I can't look at another piece of cake or I'll explode" mentality after a pre-diet binge, that doesn't last very long.  Most people also accrue guilt, self-loathing and frustration along with all those pre-diet calories.  So now, alongside the extra body fat they have to lose from the binge, they have to deal with the emotional baggage accumulated from that period.

Most people don't shed either of them.

Flip flopping from one extreme to the other always brings people back to the cold hard truth that neither approach is sustainable.  Sure, there are a few diet sociopaths out there who revel and thrive in extremism but that doesn't mean they don't have disordered eating, maybe they've just learned how to channel that disorder into physical success.  But still we have the lingering emotional and mental baggage, no matter how shredded you are.

What I see is what Seinfeld referred to as "Morning Guy, Night Guy"

Morning Guy, Night Guy

In season 5 of Seinfeld, in his opening comedy sketch, Jerry laments that his "Night Guy" always wants to stay up late, but then "Morning Guy" must bear the cost of not getting enough sleep. This is a great example of the dual-self problem discussed in behavioral economics. The present you has NO problem loading all sorts of expectation on the future you because it doesn't have to be dealt with yet.  It seems ideal to enjoy all present indulgences with no care for how you'll handle it in the future. But you eventually become the future you, the Morning Guy and then what?

Holiday bingeing is 100% Night Guy territory.  You absolutely have the intention of nailing your diet and exercise in the New Yeat and expect the future you to handle it with aplomb. So the bingeing, lowered activity and alcohol consumption are all taken in with the assumption that in the New Year, the Morning Guy will simply handle it.  Not sure about you, but Morning Guy usually hates the choices made by Night Guy because all choices have consequences.  And when something with high enoiugh stakes like losing 40lbs, going to the gym 4x per week and getting 8 hours of sleep a night, it's hard to put that off to the future with no plan for how it will all go down.

Relate this to anything you want; starting a business, taking better care of your skin, calling your grandmother, whatever. A desire doesn't become anything tangible until there is action.  And action takes some sort of planning and vision to execute. If you start taking action with no plan it usually ends up going poorly or fizzles out after a short period.

Statistics on New Year's Resolution Behavior

In the New Year, America sees a lot of resolutions taking place. More gym memberships, more dieting, more shakes, pills and extreme nutrition approaches.  This leads us to the question of "how many of these dieters are successful long-term". The stats don't favor resolutions much and you'll see that below:

-About 45 million Americans try to diet every year, many of those beginning in the New Year

-Out of all New Year's resolutions, the top resolution is saving more money immediately followed by losing weight.  This beats out having more sex and finding love. People would rather lose weight than find love!

-About 12% of gym memberships purchased each year are purchased in January

-After 24 weeks, most new members of gyms stop going

-Only 14% of the U.S has a gym membership but of those 14%, most only go 2 times per week

-80% of those with a gym membership don't even use it, meaning less than 3% of Americans actually regularly go to the gym

When we look at these numbers we can see that most people don't have a gym membership and even those who do rarely, if ever, use it.  And out of all the new memberships each year, most people quit after a maximum of 6 months. Now you can make really solid and substantial changes in 6 months but if the following 6 months are resuming your previous behavior of little to no exercise and more calories, you are probably right back to where you started at the end of the year.

Furthermore, if you engage in bingeing behavior in the last couple of months each year the reality is that you might end up gaining a little more each year that you never lose, resulting in more body fat every single year. If you aren't training then you can also expect muscle mass to go down as you age - about 3-5% per decade after the age of thirty. Each year sees many of these folks with less muscle and more fat which makes each subsequent New Year's resolution harder to fulfill.

The American Journal of Preventative Medicine published a study which had over 4,000 adults with a BMI of 30 or more who engaged in some form of weight loss behavior. Of those obese adults, 63% reported trying to lose weight the previos year. About 40% of them lost 5% or more bodyfat and 20% of them lost 10% or more bodyfat. For those who lost 5% of more, they were eating less fat, exercising more and using prescription weight loss drugs. Those who lost 10% or more also engaged in those things but also participated in weight loss programs.

Clearly, having some sort of nutrition structure and support helped people lose more weight. But it is disheartening that a large part of that statistic is using prescription weight loss drugs. Having someone adhere to a low-fat diet, relying on lots of exercise or simply giving them pills are not true long-term solutions.  What about eating whole foods, more protein, more fiber?  Unfortunately these are not the mainstream things people look to, instead they assume that exercising 6 times per week will be they key to weight loss, good luck doing that with a job, family and other responsibilities. The average person can't do it. And pills don't create new behavior, they simply put a bandaid on a gushing wound.

Interestingly, researchers found that fad diets, non-prescription diet pills and liquid diets didn't result in any significant success for these participants. Instead we find that most people are not successful with dieting and those who are don't sustain it. Only about 20% (this number varies depending on what you read) of dieters successfully lose and keep off 10% or more of their bodyweight. And the real kicker is that greater success rates are seen with those who keep it off for 2-5 years.

Ocean's 11 vs Heat

So this begs the question: What can you change, implement and sustain for the next 2-5 years this January? It probably isn't fat burners, putting butter in your morning coffee, exercising 12 hours a week or consuming only liquid calories. If making more money is the only resolution that beats out losing weight, what can we assume from strategies used to make more money?  Most people won't try a bank heist, scamming the IRS or pulling off some sort of Ocean's 11 type-scheme. Yet those behaviors are exactly what most people choose when losing weight.

If you want a more realistic version of what a big-time heist (like your crash diet) will look like, don't look to Ocean's 11. It's fun and everyone is good looking but that isn't real life.  It's more like the movie Heat. There are big things on the line, it's hard to pull off and it doesn't work out for anyone in the end...just ask Robert Deniro's character. 

Pulling it off

I don't write any of this to discourage you.  In fact I write this to give some insight into strategies that don't work so we can avoid wasting your time.  In the past I have covered what governs hunger, with hormones like CCK, leptin and ghrelin signalled from the gut to the brain to help regulate hunger. But the hypothalamus takes information in from central and peripheral pathways to help govern appetite as a whole, whether it's to tell you that you're full or signal you to eat.

The hypothalamus operates subconsciously though, you don't have any control over your subconscious.  While better food choices like more protein, more fiber, whole foods and evenly timed meals will absolutely help, we now live in a society where we are influenced by much more than just our meals. We are bombarded with advertisements and social cues to eat. Those act on your subconscious to drive hunger whether you've eaten or not. And your environment is the largest contributor to that subconscious activity.

To make long-term nutrition and exercises changes, you need to have environmental changes that will drive better eating habits and hunger/satiety cues. This will help reinforce the good habits you ae trying to build.

Some practical tips

-Only take on a realistic gym schedule. For most people, 3-4 weekly sessions is a good starting point. You can always add another session down the road if you are ready for it

-Don't try to do a diet overhaul. Good habits are rarely built this way, think of how threatening that is to your normal routine and schedule if one day to the next your entire habits of eating and food choices change! Most people cannot make sweeping changes like that without their subconscious driving them back to the old habits

-Surround yourself with people who reinforce these good habits though! Gym buddies are a great way to hold accountability.  Or hire a coach! Having an accountability person will give you support when you are having a hard time staying the course and can celebrate your success with you.

-Hit the big rocks first.  Eat a ton of veggies. Make sure each meal has protein. Maybe give up one of your weeknight drinking sessions. Start eating breakfast. Eat mostly whole food.  None of these are extreme or impossible and these have the biggest effects. Remember that weight loss is also about calorie control.  Focusing on a couple of new HABITS that drive calorie control make this easier.  Most people will et fewer calories by focusing on more veggies, fruit, protein and water.

-Set short and long term goals.  Want to lose 30lbs? That's a long term goal.  Great, see you in 6 months.  But that 6 months won't come around if you aren't hitting short term goals in the meantime that reinforce the long term ones.  You need to do things like strive to add more weight and reps to your training.  Be diligent about rest periods. Make sure you eat breakfast every day. Have one day per week where you prep your food and set your training schedule.

Don't forget that we want to build habits that our environment reinforces. Then you can basically be on cruise control. Once you make a habit of eating breakfast, it just becomes "what you do" and it's not something you have to consciously plan every day. Once you develop a habit like this it makes your long term success much more assured. 

-Consistent inaccuracy is better than inconsistent accuracy.  Even if you think your gym session burned 500 calories but it only burned 300, its more important that your training is consistent than it is that your recognition of the calories burned is accurate. 

-Physiology responds to consistent input over time.  Your body wants homeostasis - you need to send consistent signalling in one direction for it to make a lasting change.  It's like teaching a puppy not to pee in the house, if you only reinforce it half the time, it'll always keep the bad behavior.  It takes consistent training before that puppy develops the habit of holding it while inside.

Some specific tips

-Log your food. No better way to learn than seeing how your food choices affect your calories and macros.  I'm loving Cronometer.

-Track your morning heart rate and blood pressure. I use a wrist blood pressure monitor that also takes my pulse. You can see just how weel a good night's sleep impacts these things and how poorly your HR and BP will be when you aren't enforcing good sleeping habits.  Did I mention you can log these into Cronometer as well?

-Add weight, reps, or change the rest period with every training session.  Have markers you can judge your training by. Then push those markers up. This is the law of averages physiology responds to.

-Set a moderate calorie deficit. 15-20% to start works great for most people.

-Remember that hunger will be a reality when leaning out.  Hunger is a signal that it's time to eat to maintain homeostasis so, like Alan Aragon says, you can think of hunger as a signal that you are burning body fat. Pretty cool, huh? Just make sure not to CHASE that feeling.  Nothing will back fire harder than striving to be hungry.  If you eat enough protein, veggies, fibrous carbs and fats then you should only be hungry for a short time before each meal (or perhaps only a couple times per day).

-Take progress pics.  Get in your underwear and snap some photos.  Just don't post them on Instagram. Every week get a front/back/side shot and you will be amazed at how much easier it is to be subjective when you have photos to compare.

-Allow one or two meals per week to be off-plan.  It's the equivalent of throwing yourself a bone.  Don't seek these meals out with the intent of overeating.  Rather, just acknowledge that off-plan meals will happen and you can roll with them - but this isn't carte blanche to stuff yourself and get hammered. It just means not beating yourself up for eating some pasta when you would have normally had a salad. If you find that more than 1-2 meals per week are happening, reassess your habits and environment and address those environmental triggers.

-Get 8,000-10,000 steps per day.  If you aren't doing this it will improve your health and fat loss outcomes quickly.  Get a Fitbit.

-Track your weekly weight and measurements.  If you are chasing 10lbs a week of weight loss then you wont sustain that at all.  Losing 1-2% bodyweight per week is the best most people can do long term and even if it slows down you are probably still doing fine. I'd rather you lose 1/2 lb a week of 40 weeks than drop 8lbs in two weeks then gain 15lbs more from the rebound that will inevitably occur.

None of these things required an all-liquid diet, pills, zero carbs or 15 hours a week of training.  That's because anecdotally and from research we have evidence that those things don't work for permanent changes. But it's easy to get caught up in the thrill of trying something new. How about as a New Year resolution you try out consistency or habit building? Ease off the emotional gas pedal connected with most fat loss decisions and committ to changing how you approach nutrition rather than committing to an arbritrary scale number.


Jacinda M. Nicklas, MD, MPH, MA, Karen W. Huskey, MPH, Roger B. Davis, ScD, and Christina C. Wee,Am J Prev Med. 2012 May; 42(5): 481–485.

doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2012.01.005

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