How To Tell If Your Diet Is Working
How do you know if your diet is working? No, seriously....how can you be SURE what you are doing is working?
I often have clients come to me having tried lots of different pre-set programs that have them cut out entire food groups, rely heavily on supplements or drastically cut all calories. Sometimes these approaches work (and it's almost always short term) but rarely and I mean rarely do these changes STICK.
The reason you can cut out all carbohydrates and see some massive progress on the scale is simple. You've slashed calories, maybe reduced some inflammation and are dropping water weight from glycogen. So this all funnels positively for the client to feel like this program is the "answer". But what most people never consider is how any of this fits into the next 50-60 years of their life and the implications for their day to day structure. So you are positive you'll never eat bread again? And if not, what happens when you have a slice? Do you gain all that weight back, do te gluten police show up and arrest you or is that more of a bread-induced citation? I'm guessing it'd be like a $75 fine.
All jokes aside, these questions matter. And they matter way more than the diet you randonly chose off of a magazine rack, blog post (including mine!) or Facebook ad if you have no compelling reason fordoing it that is rooted in reality. When someone goes super low-carb, they often have the strong confirmation that the program "works". After all, losing 18lbs in three weeks doesn't happen by accident and there's no way it's just all water weight. And these are true statements.....some of that weight lost has to be fat unless you've consumed zero protein.
Then why don't these approaches work? Why do we see so many people try and fail at the under-eating and over-exercising route like I touched on last week right here.
You Need To Know Your Maintenance
Whenever I figure out a client's calories for their goals, whether it's fat loss, muscle gain or something in between my first pit stop is their maintenance calories. How do I know how much food to add or take away to help you reach your goals if I don't know what you are currently eating? What if the surplus I gave you was too big and you gained way too much bodyfat or the deficit I created was too big and your leptin, N.E.A.T, motivation and muscle mass all tanked? Not very good for adherence, long-term results or health.
Knowing your baseline also puts into context the things you need to work on. Maybe one client already eats a lot of vegetables and if they want to gain muscle mass we have to cut back a bit so we have more room for calorie-dense foods? It's all context, always.
Of course, I don't expect the average person to have a good calorie calculator or know how to intuit a strategy just based off the intale questionnaire. So for the lay population, the easist way is to quantify what you are doing first. For this population I'd have them do the following:
- Keep a detailed food journal for two weeks, weighing and measuring everything they eat
- Weigh themselves on Day 1, Day 7 and Day 14 (or if they are up for it, every day)
- Get a weekly average of their weight
- Get a weekly average of their calories
This does a few great things. As a coach or for your own personal education, seeing everything you eat can quickly show you areas that need work. If you swear you eat a ton of veggies but you never had more than one cup spinach per day, you'll see that. Second is that you'll have a calorie measurement for each week. Third is we'll know if your weight changed.
If you know your weekly weight average it tells us a few things:
- If it stayed the same we know you're at maintenance and the average calories are your maintenance calories. Boom
- If it went down, we know your average calories are putting you in a deficit
- If it went up we know your calories are putting you into a surplus
From there the daily average change tells us how large your surplus or deficit is. Here's an example:
|Day||Weight||Calorie Average||Weight Change||Calorie Change||Result|
I kept this kind of simple but you can see his starting weight and calories. Week 1 tells us nothing because we have nothing to compare it to - for all we know it is a deficit. But Week 2 puts this into perspective, now we know his weight went up and his calories increased by 200 per day telling us that he is obviously in a surplus because both went up. Day 14 shows the calories drop back down a bit as does his weight. This helps to confirm that the 2200 calories per day is keeping him weight stable at 175 pounds and thus it is his maintenance.
Now, every day might have some variation as most people do. Monday might be 2000 calories, Tuesday might be 3000 calories and Wednesday might be 2200 calories. But we take the AVERAGE because almost every single human will have daily fluctuations.
And you can do this for yourself! Record your weight butt naked first thing in the morning on Days 1, 7 and 14 and simply weigh and measure all your food for two weeks. Calculate each week's average daily calories and then see if your weight fluctuations correspond with higher or lower calorie intakes. It's actually not hard and it will be a super educational two weeks for you.
You Need Subjective and Objective Measurements
I have each client I work with send me both subjective and objective information each week in their check-in. The reason is two-fold. For one, I need objective information like waist and hip measurements, skin-fold testing, weight and pictures so we have metrics to track. Secondly, we need subjective measurements like energy, motivation, digestion, adherence and more so I know if the client has buy-in and if they actually feel good and enjoy the program. If the waist is coming down but the client is hating life, it won't last. And these check-ins always help me steer the client in the right direction - it tends to dig up underlying issue they wouldn't see themselves.
Lets say (and this happened recently) a client checks in and their weight is stable but their waist is up. They report feeling bloated, gassy and uncomfortable, possibly retaining water. I know they most likely haven't gained fat if their weight is stable. But the other information clues me in that their mght be a digestion issue. From there we go back to a food journal which reveals a bunch of foods that promote gas, bloating and water retention. We remove those and suddenly we have improved markers across the board.
If you don't pay attention to how you feel, look and even THINK then it's hard to say if something is going to work for you long-term. The scale is just one metric and alone it is almost useless unless someone is morbidly obese in which case we'll see positive changes for a long time in the numbers going down. But if you're always gassy from beans and garlic it can really mask the decreases in your waist measurements.
You can measure what you don't track and after all, isn't losing body fat literally about changing measurements? Try paying attention to these bullet points and don't focus exclusively on one metric just because you're feeling like a basket case. Deep breath, lets get some context!
- Waist and hip measurements
- Caliper measurements if possible
- Clothes fitting differently
- Compliments or positive comments from friends/family
- Strength Increases (or any increased fitness modality)
Make Small, Measurable Adjustments
Nothing will derail you like losing your cool after not seeing the scale move and deciding you're going to add daily cardio to your already packed gym schedule. It's a disaster waiting to happen. For most people, once their exercising 3-5 times per week, more exercise is not the answer. Maybe more walking, hiking and other fun leisure stuff to increase N.E.A.T but nothing that will sap your recovery.
Your adjustments will largely come from changes in calories. And you want' small measurable adjustments because those are easier to implement and stick with long-term, since they're measurable you can actually quantify if they are working and if you feel like crap it's easy to reverse the change. It also gives you some wiggle room: did you try cutting out 200 calories from carbs and hated how you felt? Maybe add them back in and cut out those calories from fat. Or replace a bit of both with protein calories. Maybe you cut out one daily snack or if you notice you are really stressed your first move is improving sleep.
One of the main reasons for hiring a coach is that you have someone objectively removed from all the daily crazy things that run through your head. And trust me, those crazy things run through everyone's head. Oooh! I'll copy The Rock's diet plan. Or look at all those Crossfit Games athletes, I'll start doing two daily training sessions. We all think that but a coach says "hey, lets get back to reality and make good decisions that aren't based on fear or anxiety".
Small measurable adjustments are the guiding light for your program - maybe 21 year old guys can get away with switching from Keto one month to high-protein low-fat the next. But that amazing period of being able to smash 10 beers the night before, sleep 5 hours and still maintain a flat stomach doesn't last long for most of the population. Think about taking your car to the mechanic. The mechanic runs a diagnostic, inspects the mechanical and electrical systems, uses their previous experience to make informed decisions and then tests them out. You wouldn't want your mechanic to just replace the engine and hope that fixes it - if they didn't use a methodical and informed approach then you'd spend a lot more money, waste time and ultimately never visit that mechanic again. Sounds pretty similar to a dietary approach, doesn't it?
One reason the mechanic doesn't do that (hopefully!) is that they don't have an emotional connection to your car running well. They want to make money, see you satisfied and make sure that things run smoothly, they don't fix the car to help themselves sleep better at night - they do it because primarily it is good for business.
Bonus Tip: You Don't Want Your Mom As Your Surgeon
Who would you want operating on you? Your mom who loves you more than anything in the world or some surgeon you don't know who only cares about fixing the problem? Your mom would be too emotionally invested (skills aside) to make rational and clear choices. Being caught up in her responsibility for your life would have her second guessing everything. Of course the surgeon WANTS you to get better but they aren't going to let emotions rule their decisions.
When you are dealing with physiology on the micro scale, your emotions don't matter quite as much. Digestion, assimilation, respiration....it all happens without your direct input, opinion or control. But the food you put in your mouth on the MACRO scale can easily be ruled by emotions. This presents a potential problem. You are asking for your physiology to deal objectively with the food you eat subjectively. Feeling good and stable? "Hey system, I am going to throw you some lean protein and veggies". Feeling upset and out of balance? "Hey system, deal with these three Red Bulls, a Pop Tart and a pack of cigarettes". And the system has to go......"OK, lets try to run as normally as possible with all these things you are throwing at me".
So it's actually not a surprise when people develop insulin resistance. Maybe your cells are insulin resistant because they are bombarded with a positive calorie balance. Insulin resistance might actually be a positive adaptation to keep the cells running as normally as possible - the mitochondira are maxed out turning food into fuel and fat cells are a safer storage in the meantime.
But these are the problems people often fall face-first into. Operating purely on an emotionally driven scale, repeating damaging cycles and asking the body to adapt to wild changes in dietary approaches, calorie status, sleep, recovery, energy utilization and more.
Maybe instead of trying to force change, we need to coax it.
Maybe instead of drastic changes to your nutrition every month, you need small measurable steps.
Maybe instead of purely operating in your emotions and thoughts, you apply some metrics to track.
And understand that while you are still functioning, going to work, taking care of your kids and even getting to the gym.....your health might need some help. Merely executing tasks doesn't mean you are healthy. Does only drinking shakes sound healthy? How about skipping meals? Bingeing at night? Self-hating after making a certain food choice or seeing the scale go up. These cycles are a plague. A plague to your health. And they are too easy to fall back into.
Systems allow us to hang onto something when everything else is going to shit.
Having a system is like running fire drills. You do it enough and in a panicked, terrifying and rare moment of a REAL fire, you have a system that you fall into to get you out safely. All the points we covered above are your nutrition fire drills. And systems allow you to operate no matter what changes on a day to day basis.
Our wonderful Outreach Coordinator, Jessie from The Strong Kitchen even has her own acronymn for systems.
And you better believe your nutrition encompasses all those points. Even just the first three.....Save Your Self. You have the ability to save yourself. Now what are you going to do about it?