Choosing a nutrition program: What most people won't tell you
Talk to anyone early 2019 and I’m sure you’ll run across someone following a new nutrition program. And by someone I mean probably the first person you run into.
It’s really difficult not to look back at the nutrition debauchery you may have participated in over the Holiday season and feel a pang of guilt. A touch of regret. Throw some self-loathing in there too.
The average person is feeling very vulnerable and frustrated at this point if they’ve put on some weight and realized this is a cycle they’ve been repeating every year for as long as they can remember. If you weren’t overweight as a kid (like I was) then having huge holiday meals, multiple servings of dessert and a dried eggnog mustache was just another day in the books.
But then, somewhere in your 20s, maybe 30s you notice that with the introduction of alcohol, less exercise and more stress, the weight starts to pile on a little more each year. Don’t overlook the fact that your subconscious is saturated with advertising and you don’t even know it. Your hypothalamus controls hunger and fullness and this is a subconscious mechanism. You aren’t consciously controlling when you get hungry just like you don’t consciously control your stress response or heart rate. By the time you’ve driven home from work, scrolled through Instagram, watched a couple of Youtube videos and sifted through a magazine, you’ve been exposed to dozens, if not hundreds, of ads. And a select few you’ll remember but the rest are quietly influencing your subconscious; if you haven’t already overeaten from this ad onslaught then all most people need is a simple, gentle push over the edge:
Stress, peer pressure, cheap and accessible food, a low desire to shop, prep and cook and the general expectation that between Halloween and New Year’s Day that you’ll be eating for two: you and your subconscious.
So tell me again why it isn’t hard to stay lean?
Who’s normal these days?
If you are in the fitness industry, it’s really easy to forget that most people don’t go to the gym. Or do any formal exercise at all. About 2% of the population regularly goes to the gym but if you train clients or simply happen to exercise and see the same people each week you probably think that exercising is a cultural norm.
Somehow, adults with kids, multiple jobs, financial stress and years of poor eating habits are looking to the most athletic, ripped and (in many cases) Photoshopped and drug-using Instagram models as the norm they should be mirroring. Because social media is so prevalent and influences nearly everything we do, if we follow a myriad of people like this our perception of “normal” changes too.
Look at the top Crossfit games competitors. These people are not only extremely athletic but they carry a lot of muscle mass, they are lean, they are strong and have a huge aerobic capacity. But walk into your average Crossfit and the majority of people are just normal people; and the kicker is that this is FINE. The average person exercising has average genetics, a small to moderate amount of time each week to devote to training and probably hasn’t been training since they were 8 years old. The best athletes have been doing what they do their entire lives and they have the time to devote to developing a wide range of skills and adaptations.
I’ve heard the same thing from people (usually guys) who love MMA. They see a fighter who has a moderate amount of muscle mass and is decently lean and think “I could get that body which means I could also fight in the UFC”. Even taking up MMA in your 30s means you are decades behind the men and women who have been wrestling, kickboxing and practicing martial arts their entire lives. Rich Franklin you are not: the average math teacher who decides to start training in their shed is not going to make it into the UFC. Once again, this is FINE.
Why do we think like this?
If we surround ourselves with the idea of elite being the standard for how we should look, then anything less feels like failure.
Some people could never achieve an Fat Free Mass Index of 26. You’d be large, muscular and lean. Some people work their entire lives, without drugs, to achieve this number. Others might have so many years of inactivity, hundreds of pounds to lose or simply lack the time or drive to ever shoot for such a lofty goal. But instead of thinking that the top end of drug-free muscle mass would be great, they follow 20 Insta models who have FFMI’s of 29 and assume that is the goal they should be shooting for.
Mike Robertson once said that the effort it will take some people to achieve a six pack is far beyond the things they will need to give up to get there. I have friends who have had six packs their entire lives; looking shredded for them just means not eating ice cream at night for 2 months. Others might have insulin resistance, low muscle mass, really poor sleep, 4 kids and very little free time. What can they give up or change to achieve a six pack? What if they need to work at it for two years, have to get babysitters to watch the kids for all of their gym sessions and do a complete overhaul of their home environment to push them in the right direction?
Maybe for these clientele we just work on getting them to clean up their environment, being more mindful of how they eat, optimize their protein and fiber and get them strength training 2-3 times per week. That will get them leaner and more muscular. It also doesn’t require so many life changes that the stress of trying to get a six pack actually interferes with their ability to get a six pack!
Enter: quick fixes
With the clients I described above, they often express an interest in making a change which is great. But I find two scenarios happen over and over again which do not lead to long-term changes.
Tricking out a junker
Scenario one involves someone who really needs an engine overhaul. Their food quality is poor, they don’t eat enough protein or fiber and they rely on highly palatable and processed foods . This is the person with a small engine, some dings and dents to the frame of the car and I’m guessing they need an oil change and exhaust repair.
Essentially the car’s driving forces (their metabolism) is so under-performing that even though the car gets them from A to B it’s really clunking along like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Like Dr. Ben House says, these people need to work on pulling more energy through the system, not pushing. They need exercise, less stress, better food quality and controlled calories. The actual moving parts of the system are functioning way below capacity.
Inevitably, someone in this situation will be more interested in adding a spoiler, some new rims and one of those “fuel booster” additives you add to the gas tank. None of this addresses the problem and none of it does one lick of good.
This client associates anything shiny and new with a positive change. So they’ll start taking different supplements every month, they constantly want to change their exercise modality (if they do exercise), they buy heart rate monitors and start drinking fitness water – seriously, what is fitness water?!
But the bels and whistles don’t affect the engines performance, how clogged the fuel filter is or how thin and dirty the oil is. The car still drives poorly. Basic maintenance for these people like eating more whole food and not eating in front of the TV at every meal would get them so much further ahead with their goals but none of this appeals to them because their fitness idols tell them all they need is “x” supplement or secret program.
Leasing a better vehicle
The second scenario is just as problematic. We have another client but with the same clunker of a car. This person isn’t interested in all the bells and whistles, what appeals to this person is a total overhaul: essentially putting their car in the garage and leasing a brand new one for the next month.
Everything has to be new and completely different for these clients. Trade in an automatic for stick shift, convertible for a truck, black for red. For them it's all-in, which seems ideal but it shows an issue with how they approach a goal.
As soon as the novelty has worn off, the new car (or nutrition program) has lost all of it’s appeal. And you already know what happens next. These clients go right back to the clunker and drive it around, unhappy and dissatisfied until they have enough cash to lease something completely different again.
And while you might think the first scenario is just as bad, the reason the second scenario irks me so much is because following a program blindly, especially if it works, confirms whatever bias you already had. And if you did not have a bias, it works pretty well to create one.
Each subsequent new lease shifts your mindset further and further away from sustainable, rational and achievable and you stockpile a junkyard of nutrition bias that you simple cannot shed. Every new lease promises the answer and every single one ends in the novelty wearing off and the realization that a car is still just a car and can’t make you happy.
But people who sell these programs already know that, and if they don’t, I am of the mind that their ignorance is just as damning. For me, listening to someone explain why carbohydrates are the sole reason everyone is overweight or that you need to detox to lean out is insanely frustrating.
One reason I have clients eat stuff like rice, Ezekiel bread, protein powders, white potatoes and other shunned foods is because as long as there isn’t a psychological or immunological implication that they should not eat that food, making them off-limits easily creates an issue for many people, though not everyone of course.
Somehow these programs forget that at some point, people will eat things that ARE NOT ON THE PROGRAM. They are going to go out for sushi (gasp! rice) or have a sandwich (gasp! wheat) and most likely the biggest influencer on how they respond is how they’ve been told to think about that food. I love hearing someone explain why white rice is off-limits because it violates the Paleo rule of being low inflammatory while you’ll find white rice as one of the only carbohydrates people can eat on strict autoimmune protocols.
Personally, I don’t eat wheat very often and it’s mainly because I don’t care that much for pasta and I avoid processed foods that have gluten added to them. But I occasionally do have sandwiches and it would be absurd for my world to come crashing down around me because two pieces of bread passed my lips. But that is exactly what happens when someone is told “x” program is the key and any non-approved foods are problematic. Even the much derided sugar has it’s place in athletic populations; it’s all context. And you should be able to have a piece of cake once in a while without having to worry about upsetting the butter/sugar/gluten gods.
What to do about this
If you remember anything, please remember this: the program you will follow long-term is probably the best program for you.
The caveats being that it isn't overly restrictive in a manner that you will follow because you have disordered eating or it requires you to become a fruititarian or something else that signals at larger unhealthy food relationships. Otherwise if protein is sufficient, you are getting fiber, a variety of nutrients and your energy, workout productivity and sleep are solid (not to mention bloodwork) then it is largely open to WHATEVER you want to do.
Even though John may do his best with very high carbs and low fat if you feel better with those numbers flipped or modified in some way, then don't worry about what John thinks. People have such a wide inout that determines their calorie and macronutrient needs that you simply couldn't replicate everything about John and his lifestyle to exactly match his nutrition, so why even bother trying?
You have some good objective measures of whether your program is working nutrition-wise.
Are you progressing in your workouts?
Are you sleeping well?
Is your daily energy solid?
Are you having regular and healthy bowel movements?
Is your bloodwork healthy? Check glucose, hormones, cholesterol and other basic parameters. if you have good insurance or disposable income get a vitamin/mineral status too.
For a program you choose for fat loss to work, you have to be in a calorie deficit.
Keep in mind that long-term dieting will start to affect the above markers. After leaning out for months your sleep might become interrupted, your energy may dip and you might see stalled gains in the gym. Some of that is a trade-off from getting leaner (usually only when you are really lean or have been in a calorie deficit for months) so these things let you know when it's time to take a break, work on maintenance or change your goals. It's really just about feedback. For most people, losing body fat improves health markers (insulin resistance, blood sugar control, cholesterol, most all-cause mortality risks) so unless the diet is extreme or has been very long-term, it should improve health outcomes.
Remember, this is the average person getting leaner and improving blood work, not trying to get 8% bodyfat. For lofty goals like that, get a coach.
With a calorie surplus most people should see an increase in gains in the gym, better recovery, larger or more frequent bowel movements plus a good feeling of satiety. A calorie surplus for most people doesn't need to be that big though for muscle gain, a few hundred calories over maintenance is ideal and you cannot force muscle growth through simply eating more.
But even the best muscle gain diet (aside from newbies or those advanced athletes doing a recomp) will bring some fat gain alongside. If you gain too much body fat then all the health markers we see improving from losing weight might start to trend in the opposite direction for gaining weight. Having a bigger bench press but a 42 inch waist means you traded strength for some insulin resistance and increasing your risk of all-cause mortality. So again, the parameters above are good markers of when the mass gain should end. if your blood work is not as good, you look flabby, you're tired all the time and get winded walking up stairs then you got to pull it back.
This is where most people live their entire lives for the most part It also happens to be the place we all seem to be running from. We think it always has to be gain muscle or lose fat!
In many populations, eating at maintenance (if you are already a healthy weight) still allows you to get stronger while maintaining your health. And with good training, recovery and a very solid diet, some people see a body recomposition effect here, losing a bit of fat while gaining some muscle.
With all the nutriiton programs we follow, we should essentially be looking to spend most of our time around maintenance. If your goal is to get maximally strong, you still don't need to deviate that far from maintenance calories unlss you want to gain a lot of body fat. And for those looking to lean out, your fat loss efforts should come is 12-16 week spurts, not the weird middle ground most people spend their entire lives in of swinging from extreme deficits to extreme surpluses. If you are smart about leaning out and adhere to your program then once you shed the weight, just maintain!
The problem I see recurring from many programs is that there is no end game. Gain or lose. Many people have no concept of trying to achieve a good body composition and then just hanging out there most of the time. I've seen the majority of people in gyms and friend circles who lose weight gain it all back (and then some). A program that promises "X" is like blindly following a map that takes you to a destination with no idea of how to get back. This leads to many lost people wandering around in the nutrition wilderness feeling lost and frutrated.
In the New Year, with big goals and aspirations, remind yourself that you ultimately want to find your way back to maintenance. After you achieve your goal, what can you implement that will maintain your new gains or fat loss while also allowing you to train, sleep, recovery and operate in a normal and healthy way? This does not mean find your way back to where you started - it means finding that center again without swinging back in the opposite direction.
So what is my big gripe choosing a nutrition program? No end game. No obective measures like bloodwork. No subjective measures like energy and desire to train. No plan for what to do when the diet ends.
Before you start your next program think about what you want to accomplish, how you'll measure your gains and monitor your health and what you'll do when the program ends.
A coach should help you with this but if you are self-coaching then your responsibility to yourself is to come up with a plan for all of these things. And if it all seems overwhelming then maybe a really aggressive approach is not for you. More water, more veggies, more sleep, exercise, whole food and lean protein don't require much of a "program" and are perfectly sustainable long-term.
It's what WILL you do, not what CAN you do.