Nutrition Success: Beyond Numbers

There exists a debate between advocates of weighing and measuring all your food versus intuitive eating. My stance on intuitive eating is that it doesn’t exist the way it’s been posited. In the world of intuitive eating, we’re “listening” to our body and eating when we’re hungry, stopping when we’re full and generally choosing food sources that fit the needs of our particular physiology.

Don’t get me wrong, I do understand the allure of being at one with your body and just having these random thoughts or intuitive drives that tell you exactly what food to eat and how much. But that mechanism doesn’t exist (that we know of) and often I find those who tout intuitive eating are those who have spent a lot of time weighing, measuring and tracking before developing that intuition.

What's intuitive about eating?

Intuition would tell our physiology to eat any available food, any time we get the chance because more calories means more chance of survival and reproduction. We’re constantly trying to look at our physiology though the lens of the past millennium when in fact modern humans as we know them have existed for 200,000 years.

Naturally, most humans do some accounting of their food intake. Breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner. It’s not detailed but it certainly points towards the fact that you have regular access to food. Salad instead of nachos. There’s some basic calorie control right there. To assume that people need to be told what over-eating is or which foods are really high in calories is not giving the average person enough credit.

While many clients of mine have mistaken peanut butter as a protein source rather than a fat source, we don’t need a bomb calorimeter to confirm that peanut butter has more calories than celery. Everyone, with zero food education knows that. Really palatable foods generally mean they are safe to eat and calorie dense. Even your dog knows enough to gobble down a piece of fatty steak but would give your kombucha a derisive sniff.

You already know this

To have the argument that the general public doesn’t know extremely palatable foods like soda, ice cream and cereal are calorie-dense but nutritionally void is really quite asinine. I believe it also leads to trying to solve problems that don’t really exist.

With some minor exceptions here and there, we don’t need to tell people which foods are going to help them get lean and feel good. We need to help them manage their environment, decision making skills and preparedness so that they don’t revert back to previous choices when shit hits the fan.

If you ever have a conversation with someone who believes that people are overweight because they don’t track calories or simply don’t want to put in the work, you can be pretty sure they’ve never been overweight themselves.  I don't advocate doing so just for the experience, but it certainly opens your eyes to some key issues.

It takes quite a bit of emotional drive to override the many fullness cues sent to our brain, both from the stretching of our stomach to hormones like insulin, CCK and PYY. If you ate a baked sweet potato, grilled chicken breast and a huge green salad, you’d be full. Cue full stomach and tons of hormonal signaling to the brain for satiety. To eat more is not really appealing. It takes a strong emotional/psychological drive to override these hunger and fullness cues to keep eating. Likewise, for comfort, boredom of self-loathing , many people switch to more calorically dense and palatable foods which allow them to eat even MORE.

So it’s not laziness, lack of motivation, stupidity or desire that leads to obesity in many cases. It’s often a reaction, defense mechanism or self-medication to something very emotionally painful that perpetuates this behavior. Speaking for myself and many clients who have shared their stories, life presented an awful circumstance and food just happened to be the variable that worked for them. For others it’s drug, sex, gambling, working. or any other vice.

The catch-22 is that once you look in the mirror with the realization of “I’m fat”, it’s far too easy to hate yourself even more and this perpetuates the overeating. Now you can punish yourself for being overweight – with more food.

File under "things people never said"

When was the last time you ate an entire pizza and said, “can’t wait to look shredded tomorrow”?

There’s really no delusion that pizza will get you shredded. Find me one person who thinks that being completely sedentary is healthy. Why try to solve a problem that isn’t really the problem?

People make these choices because they’re stuck, they don’t like something about themselves or their lives. Maybe they feel hopeless or helpless and can’t make a decision on where to start.

Intuitive eating assumes you can get people to a place where they forget all the choices they made before – in fact it is helping them make informed decisions in a more conducive environment to success that just happens to look like intuition.

Intuitive eating is better served for the rare few who have zero food hang-ups. They do exist, but are quite elusive, like the Sasquatch or Yeti (cue conspiracy theories!).

Metrics are great but...

Weighing, measuring and tracking is excellent for educating a person and giving them information they can act on. It’s an incredible powerful tool because, if things are tracked correctly, you can make very informed decisions with a high confidence in the outcome.

Unfortunately, most people just look at numbers. And our physiology cannot be represented so easily in numbers . An increase in weight on the scale after 4 successive weeks of dieting success doesn’t mean you’ve gained fat. Maybe it just means you are experiencing some stress and the subsequent rise in cortisol caused some water retention. Was this diet-induced or some outside factor? Water weight can take 1-2 weeks to normalize in many cases; are you making a reactionary change or waiting 2 weeks to see if weight normalizes as your stress does?

These are deeper factors that can have profound effects on the numbers we’re tracking, but without an understanding of the physiology or enough experience to know that sometimes you just need to WAIT, many people start driving themselves crazy with numbers. Another example might be taking a lean mass reading on a Bioelectrical Impedance device, that essentially measures body water to get an assessment of lean mass vs fat mass.

Lean mass is not to be confused with skeletal muscle. Muscle is more than 60% water so transient changes in hydration status, electrolyte status and hormonal factors like cortisol and insulin will modify that number as well. Carb loading someone and seeing their lean mass go up simply from the water stored alongside the increased muscle glycogen is NOT muscle tissue.

Fat is about 15% lean mass (cellular machinery and structural elements). Someone losing 50lbs of fat will actually see a significant change down in lean mass even if they lose no muscle. 15% of 50lbs is 7.5lbs, if you don’t know that this drop in lean mass could very likely be from the lost fat tissue, you might think your diet is failing!

I do think it is important to allow people the level of calorie and macronutrient management that they can implement...without being a neurotic mess. For some this might be weighing and measuring every last morsel and for others, it might just be helping them choose better foods when shopping at the grocery store.

But no matter what your level of metric management, there certainly needs to be the backbone of ingrained habits and environmental control. Without those two, you are just a diet relapse waiting to happen.

Habits, metrics, baggage

This is probably the most common trait among those looking to lean out: going all-in followed by a complete collapse of all their progress. Habits always need to be built and reinforced because, with enough time, they require no effort. Environment is critically important because it reinforces your habits and gives them a place to grow without negative influence. When you are in a situation where you cannot control your environment, your habits do the heavy lifting for you.

The key to much of this is dealing with whatever emotional or psychological issue might be driving your choices that lead to over-eating. Death in the family, divorce, mid-life crisis, not wanting to disappoint those offering food to you, a desire for control, self-pity, anger or self-hatred. Apathy.

I hear more often than anything else that people gain weight when they start prioritizing everyone else but themselves, this is especially true of new parents or those taking care of sick loved ones. Prioritizing yourself might make you feel guilty and selfish. Maybe you feel like you don’t deserve to look and feel your best. Inevitably when the weight is lost the second most common phrase is that they realize being healthier and feeling better about themselves allows them to take care of their loved ones even better.

Step one is thinking about why you are making the choices you are and then recognizing the problem. Once there is a problem identified, it can be addressed. All of the measuring, habit building and environmental changes make dealing with that issue easier but if you never address it, it will always be there.

 If your habits are the foundation to your house then surely your psychology is the ground the foundation is built into. You can measure all the metrics you want but it won't get to the root cause.


If, as Dan Garner likes to say, “the mind is the body and the body is the mind”,  changing your body requires changing how you think.