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Strong Kitchen

Why some people fail counting macros


Do you remember in the past 5+ years how popular counting macros (macronutrients) has become?


And in the most recent year or two, how many people have started stepping away from the IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros lifestyle)?


What is it about the inherent ability to distill all of your food choices, from grocery store items, restaurants, gas station snacks or fruit you find trapped in a storm drain. down to three numbers? Part of this is the desire to make the overwhelming choice of food quality and sources less meaningful (hey a carb is a carb, right?) and the other is to have the ability to fit less healthy food choices into an otherwise healthy diet.


The Lie of Intuitive Eating

The most successful macro-tracking clients I have coached and spoken to seem to be those people with good "intuitive eating" skills.  They tend to know how to estimate how many calories or protein are in a meal in a restaurant or can pretty well judge their portions for fat loss or muscle gain just by eyeballing.  Sure, they track their macros and calories but they don't really have to.


The biggest lie (and I do call it a lie, whether it's intentional or not) is that all we need to do is listen to our bodies.  Well, that's practically impossible for most people these days with the overwhelming assault on our senses from advertising and social media.  The number of sensory input coming in makes it REALLY difficult for people to have a clear and objective relationship with their hunger and fullness.  Not to mention the adaptation their taste buds have gone through from their current diet, their social life, habits and familial pressures. Quiet moments alone in introspection don't happen for a lot of people these days.  It's not that they can't, it's just that it is much harder than we want to believe.


So on your drive home past 20 fast food joints, listening to ads on the radio or a podcast, seeing and smelling your co-workers food and then being tired and stressed really muddy the waters of your intuition.  Poor sleep alone not only makes your insulin sensitivity very poor but also cranks up your desire for sugary foods.  So if you are "listening" to yourself after a poor night's sleep, then yor body is telling you to go for the easy, tasty and nutrient-devoid calories.


I can never intuitively eat again.  Anyone with a prior history of eating disorders probably can't as well.  But it appears that we do because we have educated ourselves so much that we can adhere to nutrition that we don't have to track....because we already know the calories and macros of most foods. 


Clients who have tracked (and I mean weighed and measured) their food for years have seen and experienced how much protein, fat, carbs, fiber and calories are in so many foods that they just KNOW the nutrition content of that food without weighing.  It's kind of like how you leanr multiplication tables.  At first you need to learn the math but after so many years you tend to remember that 9 x 6  = 54 more than you actually need to calculate it in your head. You KNOW 10 x 10 = 100 and none of us have to do any mental math to figure it out, we've seen it so many times it's just programmed into us.


Intuitive eating advocates pretend that all you need to do is listen to your body but the truth is, education needs to come first.  When you are educated, practiced and consistent with your nutrition you become much more aware of how different foods affect you and their calorie and macronutrient contents - to the lay person it looks like you are just a spirit being so in-tuned with your food that it calls out to you.  But the reality is if you've been tracking for some time that you've got your own little internal My Fitness Pal running at all times.


Quality or Quantity?

Some will tell you that only one of the above matters for your goals.


Dogma, luckily, is easy to spot and as soon as someone tells you something like "all you need to do is....", immediately stop listening.  Dogma is dangerous because it always comes with emotional attachment in the individual which means they aren't defending science, much less an idea, they are defending themselves.  When you've attached yourself to a notion that only one critical thing matters and everything else is meaningless, you inherently have to defend that choice all the time.  And defending that choice means defending yourself - any adult will tell you that plenty of adults defend ideas they know are wrong because they are too dug-in emotionally. For instance, Gary Taubes published his own paid-for research to prove that switching from a standard American diet to a low-carb diet (on the same number of calories) would make them lose more weight and improve their health.  The problem was that subjects lost weight on the standard American diet prescription before they ever switched to the low-carb prescription. 


The prevailing theory that insulin (from ingesting carbohydrates) is the reason so many Americans are overweight.  But time and again we've seen research (including this one funded by a low-carb advocate) proves otherwise.  The insulin hypothesis, according to Kevin Hall, M.D who was the lead researcher on this study, is essentially dead.


Howver, in a debate with Alan Aragon regarding Taubes' failed research, he said his viewpoints on the insulin hypothesis have not changed.  Upwards of $40 million in research funding for his Nutrition Science Initiative and increasing research that does NOT support his hypothesis and still Taubes' digs in. 


If someone so intrenched in the industry and with the money and connections to get the best science available cannot change his mind when given solid evidence otherwise, who can we trust?


There are over 30 met-analyses showing that protein and calorie matched diets get very similar results in fat loss. Obviously we all have our epigenetic diffferences where merely hitting protein and calories with any carb or fat intake working just fine for 70% of us.  Outliers will do somewhat better at 10% on either end of that and there will be 5% who do well on more extreme numbers.  But anyone following a solid plan can tailor it for themselves as they go along.


Research also shows that protein is more thermogenic than any other macronutrient, check.  Whole foods give us 15% higher thermic effect of eating compared to liquid foods, check.  Fiber keeps us full, lowers cholesterol and improves gut bacteria among a zillion other things, check.  Plant have the highest nutrient density of any food, check.  Fruit doesn't make you fat (it's only 10-15% fructose anyway), check.  Carbs and insulin don't make you fat, check.  We've got enough solid evidence to push us in the direction where we can feel pretty darn good about two things:


1. A higher food quality with mostly whole foods reaps more benefits than a lower quality diet from liquid and processed foods

2. If you eat adequate protein and balance your calories, you can probably lose weight eating any combo of fat and carbs - outliers not withstanding


So....quality AND quantity.  WHY ARE WE STILL DEBATING THIS??


Restrained or Disinhibited?

So why do some people still fail when counting their macros?  They might have their boxes ticked for protein and calorie management.  They might  be able to recite the macros for an egg or an apple.  Surely this level of adherence and knowledge should guarantee success?


But for plenty of people, it doesn't.


Many people struggle with one of two main things.  There are many more nuances and situational factors of course but when chppsing a dietary approach, people tend to like these two choices:


-High restraint, low disinhibition

-Low restraint, high disinhibition


High restraint, low disinhibition

For those who have low disinhibition, they do not struggle with impulse control and risk management. These are the people who can have a 1/4 of a cookie and move on. In this camp, a highly restrained person can follow a very specific program and have room for other "non-plan" foods here and there because have a small treat does not throw them completely off the wagon.


This is the group of people who are very successful with My Fitness Pal type programs and following an IIFYM approach.  Give them a highly restrained set of numbers to follow for calories, protein, carbs, fat and fiber.  Give them a higher calorie day, give them a lower calorie day.  Give them a protein-sparing modified fast day,  These people can and will follow it because they have inherent high restraint.  And within the bounds of the numbers they have to follow, they can fit in "less healthy" choices without it causing them to raid the fridge, order a pizza and tip over an ice cream truck for another cone.


Give this person 200g carbs for the day and maybe 40g of that will be from 1/2 cup cereal and a mini candy bar and the rest will be veggies, sweet potatoes and berries.  Absolute numbers work for them and within that restraint they can add foods that do not increase inhibition.


Low restraint, high disinhibition

On the flipside, we have the group of people who tend to do poorly with following IIFYM.  On the surface, it would appear that having low restraint would play into following strict numbers.  But since IIFYM literally means you can have whatever food you want "if it fits your macros" these people tend to start working in more low-quality foods, less high-quality foods and soon enough they aren't tracking anymore and they're at a buffet convincing themselves it's just a "cheat day".


The problem is, this cycle repeats itself over and over.  It CAN be broken but it won't be broken until this person has had months if not years on a program that plays to their strengths.  Once they have gone through a long period of eating quality foods and being successful they can try other methods that allow for more freedom.  I've seem IIFYM reports from My Fitness Pal that look like an 8 year old's Halloween stash was eaten in one day with some protein powder thrown in.  At this point the macros fit but the food quality is so poor and the brain chemistry is so affected that the person is surely going to binge again.


Many of these clients do well on Atkins.  One of the reasons is you do not need restraint as long as a certain food group is off-limits.  If you can tell someone that all they need to do is avoid carbs but literally everything else, in any quantity is on the table and A-OK, then they can be as disinhibited as they want.  And the only restraint they need to practice is avoiding ONE type of food. You'll see the same with people who only eat gluten free, avoid meat, only drinks shakes....you name it.


Want to prove this theory right?  Give the person super-successful on Atkins a slice of bread and watch the ensuing calamity.  A slice of bread is only 100 calories or so.  Sandwiches are OK.  Wheat is OK.  But the struggle they have with carbs in general might be so high that a piece of bread kicks that disinhibition into high gear.  And this isn't me mocking them, it's really an issue people have with certain food groups or foods in particular.  Mine is peanut butter.  There is no hope for me if it's in the house.  I am not sure if there is a limit to what I'd do to eat more and more true, what I tell myself to convince my little inner voice that eating more is OK.


So - I don't have peanut butter in the house.  For me it's a high disinhibition food and it just can't be around.


Choosing a path

Of course, there are many more approaches to follow and nuances to nutrition plans.  When working on ANY dietary approach there should be a strong focus on food quality and quantity.  But there should also be a focus on sleep, relaxation and recovery, hydration, stress-management, having fun, reading or practicing a hobby, spending time with family.  Your food cannot exist in a vacuum and I have seen too many people try to live that way.  Those are called old-schoolbodybuilders and you can find them eating talapia, rice and broccoli on a Saturday night that also happens to be their mom's birth day and sorry,  they'd love to stay and spend time with you but they have to get home to take their fish oil.  That might work for your physique but it doesn't really work for anyone with a life.


Even when choosing a nutrition plan that works for you, you still have to reconcile that you exist in an imperfect world.  What about when you go out to eat?  Or you're tired?  Or you're broke and can't afford organic food?  What happens to you on vacation or the time between Thansgiving and Christmas?


Sure, choose a plan that plays to your strengths.  But if you have fallen many times on the same exact nutrition path then it's time to look at other life factors.  You might find following a healthy eating plan is easier when you laugh more, sleep more, get more sunlight, take a couple deep breaths in traffic rather than raging against the doofus in front of you.  There are so many physiological factors that affects how your nutrition impacts you and the way you lead and live your life can greatly impact that. You are an input-obsessed organism and unlike other animals we don't just focus on food, sleep, sun and safety.  We have money, home repairs, musical tastes, play dates, alarm clocks, co-workers, screens and so many other things to input and manage that are affecting how we approach and adhere to a nutrition plan.


Choose a path that works for your strengths then make sure your lifestyle supports your plan. You will probably find things you chronically struggle with (like sugar cravings) go away when you are less stressed, better rested and get more sun.  Suddenly physiology responds VERY well to nutrition.


Like all of my posts, I never just stay on one topic. Sorry, I just can't.  In writing this I realize that even after finding a program you can follow it won't work as well if your lifestyle is in competition with it. 


Hopefully this reveals that success or failure while following something like IIFYM is much more than just will-power and wanting it enough.