Habits or Education: What Comes First?

So you've finished your "diet", now what?  Most people choose one of two things: fade back into whatever problematic food issues made them want to diet in the first place OR hop on another diet.

If you speak to people who have really healthy and normal relationships with food, they rarely use the word diet when talking about their food choices.  They might be the kind of people who like a large variety of things and don't overly limit any one thing like fat or carbohydrates.  Perhaps they don't have enough food knowledge to tell if peanut butter is a fat or a protein but they understand that some foods are inherently more calorie dense than others like desserts, sausage, cheese and fruit juice. 

Habits and Practices

My dad is a perfect example of this person.

My grandmother brought her whole family from Krakow, Poland to Norwich, CT when my dad was eight or so. Perhaps it was being able to leave behind bread lines and work camps that a greater appreciation for basic things like food was born.  And like most immigrant families, our grandparents were food obsessed.  No matter what weight you were, Babci (my grandmother) declared you were "too skinny".  Most of the people on my dad's side of the family are overweight so that food environment plus genetic pre-disposition led to weight gain, heart disease and high cholesterol.  But not Babci who continued to mow her own lawn with a pushmower into her 80s nor my dad.

I can't say definitively how my dad stayed thin and in shape his whole life but there are some pretty big clues.  For one, he's stayed "active" his whole life.  He's never gotten seriously into a specific sport or activity but he used to ride long distances on bikes, dabbled with weights, hiked and had relatively physical jobs.  Simply hitting a healthy requirement of steps nearly every day combined with years engaging in some sort of aerobic or weight focused activity thrown in paid off.

All he's ever mentioned about food was cutting back on desserts or full-fat dairy, maybe not going for a second helping of something, that's it.  His view of eating less food is simply eating less of the sweet or fatty stuff.  It's a form of calorie control on a very basic level but it absolutely creates a deficit and is the sort of food knowledge almost everyone has. It's employing really simple feedback like eating until you're satisfied, not stuffed. 

An active lifestyle plus life-long basic intuitive food choices is a a simple approach that takes a basic diet and whittles away any sort of rules, measuring or time spans.  It's simply eating the way you like unless it causes fat gain.  If it causes fat gain you cut back on the more calorie dense foods until you like how you look.  Then you eat those foods only occasionally. This can be employed at any time and for any length of time.  However, I think this only works if you haven't been through the wringer of diet after diet.

Can you actually intuitively eat?

This is what so many diet promise and ultimately cannot deliver on because you can't un-teach all the stuff people learn and experience by dieting their entire lives  You've simple absorbed too much information and tried too many things to practice what I just described with zero awareness of anything else. It's like reading a book before it's made into a movie.  Those who only read the book might have a more pure experience of the story, imagining the characters faces.  Those who only watched the movies can read the book after, but they'll still be aware of the actor's faces and probably project those onto the characters when reading. They can't "un-imagine" the actor's faces.  

Pure intuitive eating is how I would describe my dad eats and if you didn't grow up and sustain doing that into adulthood, I doubt you can get there by just practicing "eating intuitively". Memories and experiences have been implemented and there they stay.  

My belief is that people need to build habits so that they can practice healthy eating strategies that mimic intuitive eating without specifics.  How people get there is where the division comes.

On one side you have people like my dad who have so little knowledge of calories, macros or other dietary strategies that you can truly give them un-spoiled information like habit-based eating.  Simply saying "eat a protein at every meal" and then giving them examples of what proteins are is all they need.  It's so basic that it immediately sets them on course if they need some help. You can discuss how full a meal should make you and perhaps eating slowly and mindfully.  What is so basic and boring to some is actually the information that gets these people looking how they want.  It's the equivalent of your parent telling you not to accept candy from a stranger; extremely simple and basic and a good rule of thumb pretty much all the time.

For those who have run the gauntlet of diets and practiced low-fat, low-carb, fasting, shake diets, keto, you name it, they might know all those things didn't work but to help them from falling into the same trap you have to educate them so much that they can tell WHY those things didn't work....and how they actually could.  Keto is a great example of this because so many people try it and by limiting all carbs so extremely and rapidly that almost everyone sees a huge water weight loss along with fat loss the first few weeks.  Inevitably people fall off because they either eat too much protein, too much saturated fat, too many sugar alcohols or some other keto "hack" that gets in the way of what makes keto work in the first place.  If you educate them enough they can see exactly why keto is unnecessary but also how you could successfully do it if you still wanted to.

This level of education is what helps all the diet-damaged people out there un-fu** their own brains.  

Logic Vs Emotions

When deep emotional connections are built with food and food choices you can't just reason with people.  Emotions that are that deeply dug-in are beyond reason and discussion, I know my own memories of being overweight don't just make me think of my scale weight but how winded I was when I ran, how uncomfortable I was to go swimming and the sights, smells and feel of those memories.  You can't reason those out of my head.  Education, however, can tell you what is true and what is not and that allows you to approach situations, feel those old emotions but make the better choice anyway because you have the knowledge of why those old emotions and thoughts are not true. Someone who's afraid of carbs might need insulin and it's effects on physiology explained to them before they can eat a carb without fear. And with enough time practicing those new habits with science to back them up, they can create a new relationship with that food. 

This is, unfortunately, the long way home.  It also happens to be what so many of us need.  It's like pulling back the curtain to see who Oz really is.  You have to have that reveal to be able to see how things truly are.

I'll leave you with this little story. 

Once Bitten, Twice Shy

Somewhere around 2008 I was going to pick my friend Mike up at his house so we could get dinner with our group of friends. I had been to his house a number of times and knew he had a Pitbull hat I both interacted with and probably pet at some point. The dog was going wild as I walked up the drive way to their front door and it was leaping in front of the window, but it always did this.  It was one of those dogs that went crazy when people came around but was generally friendly.  On this occasion however, Mike was on the phone and walking to the front door to let me in and the dog had run to the front door too.  As he opened the solid door I opened the screen door and then second I did, his dog leaped up and bit me on the chest and collarbone and then tore up my arm. 

It happened so fast that all I could do was slam the screen shut and stumble back.  I immediately had blood dripping down my hand onto the ground, my shirt was shredded and I had deep bloody bite marks on my chest and arm.  I ended up going to the hospital and getting stitches. 

In the days and weeks after, I started to become afraid of dogs.  Every dog, including my best friend's dog and even tiny ones like French Bulldogs, it was becoming a problem.  Then my mom adopted a pitbull puppy.  As months went by I became more cofortable around dogs I already knew, small dogs and eventually, big dogs.  But not pitbulls and certainly not my mom's pitbull. As Levi, her pitbull, grew I became more afraid of him.  He was such a smart and friendly dog but I simply couldn't stop myself from feeling fear and wouldn't go over the house if no one else was there.

Since I felt afraid from my previous history with Pitbulls, I could not act normally around Levi.  The more uncomfortable I was, the more he sensed something was off, became nervous himself and this only fed back into the loop.

Even as time passed and I was comfortable with most dogs, all I saw when looking at Levi was a dog leaping out to bite my face and attack me.  I could not erase the images I was projecting.  In an effort to get over this because I knew it wasn't healthy I started watching Cesar Milan videos.  I know some people disagree with his methods but I found much of his advice helpful One thing he discussed was taking a dog  you are uncomfortable around on a walk.  Even though I was afraid of Levi, if we were walking he obeyed me and since I was pre-occupied I didn't feel nervous, in fact I felt pretty good. Establishing a circumstance in which I was comfortable and allowing me to see the dog as he was, not as how I imagined, opened up the possiblity of re-programming how I felt.

I realized that I needed to be educated about dogs and then practice that knowledge over and over before I could change how I felt.  But if you just put me in a room with Levi and said "act normal" I never could have done it.  I used to watch people who only had positive experiences with dogs let Levi lick their face and get close to him and I would think, "wow I wish I could do that without imagining him attacking me".  That could never happen until I was educated enough to know that I was making Levi nervous, not just the other way around and that we needed positive exercise time for us to trust each other.

Once I was comfortable and felt safe around Levi, I didn't imagine him leaping to tear my face off anymore, phew! I could still remember being attacked and feeling afraid but  I wasn't projecting it onto him.

Stop projecting

That educating journey is what many people need before they can stop projecting all their past dietary experiences onto intuitive eating.  They might remember all those wacky diets and self-loathing but they don't have to project those things.  For someone like my dad, there's nothing to project so there's nothing standing in the way of intuitive eating.

This unique distinction is something that can really be the path to a healthy relationship with food for someone who's been burned by every diet out there.  While it would be tough to claim that there are people with ZERO food issues I think the case can still be made that if you've never been on a "diet" then you probably don't need the level of education someone else might.

If you're a chronic dieter then I would encourage you to seek out a coach who will give a guidance and then educate you on the choices and foods along the way so you can work at dispelling all your preconceived notions.  If you have never been on a diet then seek out someone who can give you some general advice and habits to practice,. You might not benefit from complicating it with the level of education a chronic dieter needs.

Like many things in life, projection from the past can affect how we act in the future.  While wisdom comes from experience, when we are the only party involved, it's hard to be objective. You cannot be objective if all you have to rely on is feelings that only involve yourself.  As you accrue more objective data, you can apply objective reasoning but it won't happen if you simply wade in feelings from the past.  This is one of the reasons I love continuing education so much, it allows me to detach my past emotions from food and create new ones that use objective reasoning.  The same "cheat meal" out might lead to one person get right back on track because they understand how it fits into the context of their week while another person falls down a shame spiral of binge eating.  The food didn't change, the person did.

As I was discussing this topic with my wife she stated that a chronic dieter thinks there's always a "secret" or a "food to avoid" and each pass at a new diet builds an unhealthy relationship with an aspect of nutrition. As they latch onto new systems and structures they'll actually build a list of good and bad foods in their mind; if I had to guess I would say the list of good foods only gets shorter while the list of bad foods gets longer.  Pretty soon your entire nutrition approach is built upon being "good" or "bad" and as that list of what you think is good gets shorter you become more desperate and open to any wild claim to dig you out of your hole. 

If the above sounds like you, I encourage you to listen to and research nutrition from scientific and credible sources.  While I don't expect you to read research, follow the people who confuct and/or interpret it for the nutrition community.  If you don't know any names on this list, that's a good thing, you're about to have your myths dispeled.  This could be the beginning of the end of "dieting" for you.

Eric Helms

Mike Israetel

Ben House

Menno Henselmans

Lyle McDonald

Layne Norton

John Berardi

Alan Aragon

Brad Schoenfeld

I'd unfollow any Instagram model or celebrity, anyone selling only supplements or juices and especially Dr. Oz.  Follow and read the information from the list above.  Immerse yourself in good, quality, researched information and let that go to work on your nutrition views.