Most of us would do just fine getting a seven and a half, an eight at most, out of ten. No, that doesn’t put us on top of the class. And no, we probably won’t win competitions where we’re judged by our performance or how we look in our underwear. But do we really care? Because seven and a half gets us where we want to go.
Seven and a half gets us the strength to enjoy the activities we love, the health for longevity, and the body that we can feel confident in. And long term we’ll do better than trying to be a straight-a student.
Most of us don’t have the time, energy, and let’s be honest, the enthusiasm to get the perfect marks in health and fitness. Not 52 weeks a year. Accepting only 10 or nothing will remove the flexibility we need from a sustainable approach to health and fitness.
Because despite our best efforts, life will kick in. And when we cannot get a ten, it eats into our motivation. It can make us feel like a failure when we can’t give health and fitness our full effort. Leading us to a cyclical all-or-nothing approach.
But once we aim for a seven and a half, we’ll give ourselves the permission to not be perfect. We accept that good enough is, well, good enough.
Often the afternoon sweet cravings are nothing more than hunger carried over from the first half of the day. The solution could be as simple as eating bigger meals for breakfast and lunch.
For breakfast, vegemite or peanut butter on toast just won’t cut it. As delicious as they are, neither will keep you full. Instead, more calories are in order. Most of us do well with around 400-500 calories. Including at least a palm size (or two) of protein and some fruit/berries or veg. Or both. Whatever.
As for lunch, that light salad isn’t enough for a human who wants to rage all afternoon. Instead, try having a full grown up meal with some carbs and fat in the mix. 600-800 calories sounds about right. Including at least a fist size or two of protein and a minimum of two fist sizes (or 1/3 – 2/3 of the plate) of vegetables.
But dammit, sometimes it’s just nice to have a cookie. And that’s cool, too.
Few years back I had the (almost) irresistible opportunity to get the latest Apple Watch for free. There were a lot of us, kind of like the right place at the right time sort of moment. Anyhow, all I had to do was to show up for training for an hour and the watch was mine.
I said no thanks. I didn’t have an iPhone, so it was a kind of pointless. Well, now I have the phone. And I would still say no thank you to the watch. But my beef is not with the Apple Watch or any other specific brand. Rather, it’s with most of the fitness trackers on the market.
The modern world has messed us up
We already have a disconnection with our bodies. We struggle listening to how our bodies are doing, how they’re feeling and how the last night’s cabbage casserole sits in our gut. Often we don’t know when we’ve had enough to eat. Let alone to drink.
We ignore the aches and pains by masking symptoms with medication, tequila and YouTube binges. Or we train through pain hoping that whatever made us ache will cure it. Sometimes it will, sometimes it can’t.
Having a fitness tracker on the wrist will only increase this void
Instead of asking ourselves if I feel like training today and waiting for an honest answer, we look at our fitness tracker to tell us how we feel based on whatever data it might have on us.
Instead of tuning in to our body to see if we should do a high-intensity kettlebell session or just go for a walk, we look at our watch. Instead of introspecting whether we’ve been active enough today, we look at our watch to see if we reached ten thousand steps.
Instead of listening to ourselves on our run and keeping the pace that feels moderate, we become fixated on the heart rate on the screen. We’re swapping a rejuvenating outdoor moment with more screen time.
So the fitness trackers adding to the disconnection with our bodies is the first issue. Ironically, the other beef I have with just smartwatches is the intensified connection we end up having with everything and everyone, but ourselves.
Smartwatches make us slaves
Both to technology and to other people’s agendas. However well meaning they might be. We’re always available for interruption. Notifications, phone calls, calendar alerts. The variety of apps for watches is ever expanding. And so there is always something to look up.
Something to check when we are overcome with the slightest feeling of frustration or boredom. Instead of allowing ourselves time and space to zone in with our mind and body, we scroll, tap and yell at our watch.
Yes, there’s ‘do not disturb’
There are all kinds of apps that block our access to apps and other functions we want to limit. But even when installed, most of us will get around them. We’re like teenagers evading our parental control settings. Except that we’re both the parent and the teenager.
Here’s an outstanding example
I asked my wife to set a password on my phone to block me from using the internet after 7pm. But I found a way to use the browser in a recipe app instead. The problem wasn’t the device itself. It was the fact that it was always next to me.
This didn’t change until I left my phone in another room, so getting online wasn’t as easy as picking up the phone. I know I wouldn’t have the self-control to not check my watch if it’s on my wrist. Hence I ain’t getting one.
Fitness trackers and smartwatches aren’t all bad
They might motivate an otherwise inactive person to complete their daily steps.
Seeing concrete numbers on the screen could act as a wake up call for some. If you constantly see visual reminders of how poor your sleep is, you might be more inclined to do something about it.
The big shifts in heart rate variability, temperature, breathing (do they tell that?) might give us clues how we’re about to come down with an illness before we feel a thing. Making us pull back on training and prioritising sleep and recovery to counteract whatever virus we’re fighting.
Now, a heart rate monitor on its own might be worth it
We can make our interval training super specific. Instead of going for time, we can go until we hit a specific heart rate. Then recover until we come down to a specific heart rate before going again. It’s hard to get a more specific conditioning session than that. And the numbers don’t lie. It’s hard to coast through a session. Something we all do now and then.
Then there’s the chance to keep your heart rate at a specific range throughout the cardio session instead of guessing if you’re there. However, as I mentioned earlier, I think this again pulls us away from “How do I feel? Am I going too fast, too slow, or is this just right for me today?”
An accurate heart rate monitor often requires a chest strap, so they’re usually only on you when training. Meaning that instead of adding more distraction to our days, we can leave the monitor in the drawer until we train next time.
But perhaps even a heart rate monitor is still an overkill for a general fitness trainee who wants to lose a bit of fat, get strong and live a long, active life. Unless you dig numbers. I tried using one about a decade ago, but got a little out of it.
For now, I’m just fine without one.
How Stress Affects Fat Loss (and How to Not Let It)
You probably have all the nutrition related information you could ever need to lose fat. You already know that to lose fat you should eat less of that and more of this.
Often the question is not what to do to lose fat, but how to stick to doing what you already know you should do. And it’s often the underlying (or overpowering) and unmanaged stress that makes following healthy eating habits a challenge.
Stress pushes hormones on to a rollercoaster
When stress gets a stranglehold, the hunger hormone ghrelin goes up. Now, while ghrelin goes up and hunger kicks in, the satiety hormone leptin goes down. Yikes.
While ghrelin and leptin are having a ball on a rollercoaster, your hunger and fullness signals are all over the place. Just eating more fibre won’t solve your stress hunger.
And as the stress falsifies your hunger signals, it will also cause your body to push its metabolism down. So you end up eating more while alsoburning fewer calories. Not great for fat loss.
Throw some stress related sleeping issues in the mix
Ever been stressed up to your eyeballs and struggled to fall asleep? Or you’ve gotten to sleep alright, but woken up feeling like you’ve barely closed an eyelid? Me too. Stress and restful sleep get along just about as well as the Gallagher brothers.
When you’re not getting a good night’s rest, you’re more likely to feel tired, impulsive, and hazy. Which can then cause you to make poor food choices.
Now, combine elevated food cravings, lack of satiety, poor decision making and lower metabolism, and we are getting an idea of why stress management needs to be a part of any fat loss plan.
But that’s not quite the worst of it yet
With the lack of sleep comes increased self-doubt. And as we are wired to find eating comforting (probably because of some pre-historic lizard brain thing), it’s common to turn to it to “manage” emotions instead of dealing with whatever is really the source of our stress. Hence why emotional eating is such a common problem.
The habit loop’s role in stress eating
Like any habit, stress eating follows a craving event that sets off the whole cascade of a habit loop1. Let’s (over) simplify and use working at home as an example.
Cue You are working at your desk, trying to make the deadline of whatever you’re working on. (Come on, I don’t know the ins and outs of your professional life. Make something up. Ok fine, you’re trying to solve a math question. Happy? I’m sorry it’s come to this. I didn’t want it to be math either. But here we are, so let’s move along.)
Craving or a sense that something is missing You get stuck with a challenging task and feel an unstoppable urge to relieve the tension immediately. (I told you, this math thing was bound to be a stress inducing choice.)
Response You walk to the kitchen, rummage through the pantry, find an old Easter egg and eat it. (I already picked math earlier, so it doesn’t really matter which holiday treat I put in here. This is all just ridiculous now.)
Reward You feel brief pleasure for satisfying your craving. Eating something becomes associated with getting stuck in a challenging math task.
How to stop stress eating
Reduce stress eating by managing and limiting your stress sources
Tolerance to stress is highly individual. Some are more resilient to it and can tolerate multiple taps filling the stress bucket at the same time. While others get easily overwhelmed by less. You’ll likely know where you stand in this universal stress tolerance scale.
Here are just some common sources of stress:
Parenthood troubles, or just parenthood. It’s great to be a parent. But it’s also relentless.
Toxic relationships (dicks whose company makes you feel yuck)
Excessive screen time
Too many coffees and beers and potato chips and reality television shows
Noise and pollution. (Not the AC/DC song)
Your neighbours, in case they are dicks too
What gets often neglected is that stress from the things that we think are good for us also live in the same bucket:
Type-A mentality (like when you can’t let other people win in the escalators)
It’s irrelevant whether we think the source of stress as bad. It all fills the same bucket. Having too many of these taps of stress open at once can make our stress bucket overflow.
What’s more important than trying to find stress releasing activities is to limit how many stress taps we have open at once.
Once some taps are taken care of, it’s helpful to implement a few stress reducing activities as well.
Side-Show Box about severe emotional eating For anyone in that situation, getting help is step number one. The reasons behind uncontrollable emotional eating often go deeper than just everyday worries.
When we can’t handle our stress, or struggle with anxiety and depression from financial troubles, relationship problems, childhood traumas, or the like, it’s important to understand those issues and work through them with an appropriately qualified mental health professional.
Regardless of your current resilience to stress, there are ways to improve by incorporating some of these into your life:
Meditation, mindfulness or slow breathing exercises
Art (drawing, painting, sculpting, carving a laughing donkey out of marmor)
Spending time in the nature
Keeping a gratitude diary and noticing beauty in everyday moments
Helping others and expecting nothing in return
Hot sauna, warm bath, long shower
Before you starting changing them habit loops
I left this one last since working on a habit loop on its own rarely brings on a sustainable change. Hence it sits at the top of the pyramid, cherry on top, sort of thing.
Think of it this way: working on negative eating habits without addressing the source of stress is like trying to renovate that second bathroom with a pack Hello Kitty bandaids. Whereas addressing the source of stress first is like starting the renovation with a sledgehammer to remove the mouldy tiles.
But don’t discard Hello Kitty bandaids altogether. No room for hate in here. Focusing on the habit loop can bring crucial awareness to our everyday eating habits.
Keep a stress eating diary and brainstorm a good vibes menu
After a week, you’ll likely start seeing patterns in your stress eating. You can then change your responses to your triggers by creating a list of actions other than eating, aka good vibes menu:
Take few deep breaths
Stand up for a quick stretch
Drink a glass of water
Chew a piece of dental gum (debatable, but works for some. Ehm, me)
Listen to a song you like
Balance a pencil on your nose
Juggle while balancing a pencil on your nose
For good habits to last, they need to be enjoyable
Resisting temptation is about as rewarding as using a toothpick to open a safe box. It quickly depletes your willpower. Use instant gratification to your advantage by choosing your responses to cravings from actions that bring you immediate pleasure. If you love music, but hate stretching (me too), choose accordingly.
Sticking with these responses is easier if you can rid your cupboards of foods that you’ll likely crave when the trigger happens. Tricky for anyone who doesn’t live on their own. Unless you have an unchallenged authority on what gets eaten in your house.
Be kind to yourself and show self-compassion
Changing stress eating is hard. No one is going to nail it 100% of the time, and we all slip. Instead of beating yourself up for it, try to be kind to yourself and find the bright spots in what you’re doing.
It’s helpful to keep asking yourself these two questions each time you’ve dealt with a trigger. Regardless of whether you fell for food or used an alternative from the good vibes menu.
What went well?
What did I learn?
Then build on it. One by one.
Most of us have all the information we could ever need for fat loss. It’s often the unmanaged stress that makes following every other healthy eating habit a challenge.
When we let stress get a stranglehold, the hunger hormone ghrelin goes up and satiety hormone leptin goes down. As the stress elevates our food cravings and hunger with false signals, it will also push our metabolism down.
Stress also affects our sleep. As we’re not getting a good night’s rest, we are more likely to feel tired, impulsive, and hazy. All of which can then make us more prone to making poor food choices. With the lack of sleep comes increased self-doubt. And it’s common to turn to eating to manage our emotions instead of dealing with whatever is really stressing us.
All the stress fills the same bucket. The first thing to do is to reduce the sources of stress we have at once. While also including relaxing activities into our days.
We can then keep a stress eating diary to figure out triggers for cravings. Then, we can slowly move away from food related responses by having a good vibes menu of things that bring us pleasure.
The first domino falls. Maybe you swore to quit sugar (nooooo), carbs (say it isn’t so) or coconut ice cream (I can’t even). And now the initial burning motivation and excitement have worn off.
This attempt at a diet is becoming yet another prematurely ended diet in the mausoleum of failed diets. You might find yourself in despair. Questioning how you could better stick to a diet plan.
It requires a change of perspective
What if you would move away from trying to stick to a strict diet? By committing to a non-diet-diet. By resisting the urge to follow the template that everyone else does: setting on fire all that is delicious before the ultimate willpower stretching, and eventually breaking, attempt at an intense body transformation based on deprivation.
No. You can succeed by embracing the opposite. By being reasonable. Let the others focus on what they can achieve in a month or two. Only to fail yet again. You can play the long game. Focus on what results you can achieve in a year. And to keep them for another twenty years.
Commit to showing up for foundational changes
Give your willpower a break and ban nothing. You can eat whatever you want, within reasonable quantities of course. And sometimes less so. Because occasionally there are days when it’s impossible to choose between chocolate and vanilla ice cream. So you’ll end up having both.
And reasonable isn’t just easier on willpower. It’s also better for your health. A recent study from The University of Helsinki1 suggests that people (even those with normal weight) with a history of failed diet attempts (“I gotta get heaps shredded for Barcelona”) have a higher chance of developing type II diabetes compared to the non-diet folks.
We also know that failed dieting may also lead to repeated weight loss attempts and therefore weight cycling. It’s a vicious cycle once it gets going.
Implementing small changes that eventually topple over
What if you’d commit to making changes that almost feel too easy? Like you’re cheating the gods of diet (Atkins?) by making up your own rules that require only a little willpower.
Changes that are small enough not to even valid a social media update. Because they don’t sound diehard. Because they’re not. In the world of diets, being reasonable and focusing on small changes is lame and boring. Unless of course you like sustainable, long-lasting results.
But a reasonable diet isn’t all pretty butterflies made of sparkling fairy floss
Following simple, reasonable eating habits requires resilience. If you choose to follow “I will duct tape my mouth shut for a month so please text if you want to communicate” – diet you can just muster through hell for a month. It won’t be easy. But most of us can deal with that sort of tribulation for 30 days.
Reasonable approach in contrast requires persistence, even blind faith. It’s about repeating unsexy habits for a long time. It’s trusting the process that eventually there will be progress. Perhaps without seeing initial results for weeks.
Maybe you’ll end up stacking small habits on top of another for a while with no noticeable physical changes. Until one day that old friend compliments how you now somehow look better in the wind.
Being reasonable requires stubborn resistance to boredom
Trying to eat slowly until 80% full is not as arousing and concrete as damning sugar, eliminating biscuits that look like the 80s sitcom star Alf, or literally working out a donut on a rower. Eventually things get boring.
The challenge of boredom seven folds if you’re still starting out and haven’t seen substantial results from your efforts. Your mind naturally questions if the methods deserve your attention.
But instead of quitting when the boredom kicks in, you’ll double down on what you started. You re-focus on the small daily actions over the fluctuating excitement and motivation rollercoaster.
Because the internet is trying to convince you to stop being reasonable
Your news feed is filled with the excitement of new, more intense, fast diets. The ones that promise excellent results in only a few funny weeks. But you can counteract them by acknowledging what’s happening in your head:
While being stuck at doing the challenging work of your current diet, you are seeing the possibility of a different diet. Something that perhaps sounds better than what you are currently doing. The comparison in your head is far from fair.
You are comparing the hard parts of the current diet to the upsides and promises of something new. The new thing will always look better. Because you are not in it right now doing the work.
Notice when this is happening, and it makes it easier to refocus on what you are currently doing. And to keep showing up.
The thing that makes a reasonable diet so powerful for a sustainable fat loss
It requires frequent self-reflection. You need to keep looking back at what you did, why you did it, and what were the results based on those decisions.
Then there are the continuous adjustments that go with it. You have guidelines, not strict templates to follow. It’s not plug and play. It’s reflect-plug-adjust-play-reflect-plug-adjust-play repeat, repeat, repeat. You learn as you go.
This need for self-reflection stops some from sticking with a reasonable diet for long enough to see results. Especially in the beginning, when it’s all new and you are still trying to figure things out. But sticking with it really pays off.
Bringing it all together
The beauty of learning reasonable eating habits is that nothing is completely off limits. Being reasonable has it’s challenges, but it doesn’t require an intense amount of willpower. Especially when compared to the more strict duck tape diets.
It’s about learning mindful eating, performing frequent self-reflection, and discovering what foods work the best, foryou. Then building your eating habits around them.
It’s not about being perfect. But about doing it well enough to get the results you want. And then keeping them for life.
Even if it takes longer than the typical 30 days that the internet wants you to believe.
Finding opportunities for movement instead of a specific time for exercise.
Maybe all we need is a shift in thinking. To move away from prescribed exercise and toward random vigorous movement. Instead of asking “how to do more exercise”, we can seek opportunities for physical activity and movement in our day-to-day life.
Exercise, physical activity and movement are all the same thing
We could call it ‘fat loss’’ or ‘looking sexy and desirable so my ex-boyfriend/girlfriend would feel bad about leaving me six years ago and now I finally get my revenge haha you can’t have this anymore I am awesome’.
Regardless of what we say our goal is, the aim of exercise is to elevate heart rate and challenge the muscles, joints and all the rest to achieve and maintain a resilient and healthy body.
If our only goals are health and longevity, then it doesn’t matter what we do to achieve those things. We can start looking past of what we can do in a gym. Or with a specific piece of equipment. Whether the activity fits the mold of traditional exercise is irrelevant. All that matters is that we hit The World Health Organizations’ recommended weekly physical activity targets.
The only reason the modern idea of exercise even exists is to combat the downsides of the modern sedentary lifestyle. Today, whenever someone doesn’t take part in any form of exercise, they’re the odd one out. But we only have to go back 40 (if that?) years and the one doing exercise would have been the oddball.
Let’s agree that the reason for exercise is to replace the physical activity we no longer do in our daily lives. This opens up the possibilities beyond formal exercise routines.
Adding more physical activity and movement into our day
One way to look at it is to increase the physical challenges in our comfortable suburban popcorn-like existence. To seek opportunities for needless every day “hardship”. Activities that we don’t need to do to survive. But we do it because it’s good for us. If not always fun.
I understand I am not making this sound appealing to anyone right now. But this is the stuff that makes us feel great after we’ve done it. Both physically and mentally:
Parking the car unnecessarily far from the store and heaving the groceries back into the car without a trolly and oh my god get out of the way!
Walking to the shops to get soap. Then carrying two bags of kitty litter home even though we already have four bags.
Speed walking or even sprinting up hills when doing a casual stroll with the family.
Using the stairs and taking multiple steps at once if you have the legs for it.
Buying 100kg of soil for the garden and not letting anyone else carry a single bag.
But it can also be fun:
Throwing a kid up and down at the beach (kid swings, if you will. Only use your own children).
Carrying kids on the shoulders.
Hanging from the bars at the playground – can you tell I’ve got young kids?
Opportunities like these are everywhere. Movement and “exercise” that doesn’t involve counting reps or timing rest periods or tracking the weights. Activities done while living.
We just have to learn to see them. And then take action without worrying what others might think of us.
It might not feel like it makes a difference, but it does
Seeking to increase our physical activity in everyday moments moves (har har) us away from thinking exercise as this one dimensional thing that we have to do in a certain environment, with specific music, while being inundated with the hairy strangers’ body odours and only if we have 45 minutes to spare and our nipple flashing tight top on.
Breaking these mental chains of what we consider “exercise” brings back the freedom, fun and excitement into movement. While also removing the ego and competition from the equation.
So, we don’t need to exercise? Ever?
Well… If your goals are general health and longevity and if you can get your weekly activity levels to those aforementioned WHO levels, no, I don’t think you don’t need to participate in traditional exercise. Things change if your reason for exercise has a specific end goal beyond longevity and health.
Such as training for a sport, rehab, significantly increasing muscle mass, changing body composition beyond just getting slim, and the like. In which case, the entire term changes from exercise to training.
But I know most of you enjoy training, as do I. So we might as well keep doing what we enjoy doing. While adding some movement hardship on top.
Guideline for leanness, health, longevity, and let’s be honest here, looks
Here’s how I would structure a perfect week of training and physical activity for health, longevity and looks. Keeping in mind that this is the perfect scenario, which almost never happens.
Two or three 30-45 minute full body strength training sessions at the 8-12 rep range using full ranges of motion and following a gradually progressive plan. Like this or this.
One or two short, high-intensity cardio workouts.
45-60 minutes of daily moderate cardio at a conversational level. Anything goes. The more enjoyable you find it, the better.
Then I would look for any opportunity (such as those listed earlier) to increase the moderate activity throughout the week.
Also, it would be three strength workouts or two high-intensity cardio sessions. I wouldn’t max out on both columns in the same week. Because recovery and life. Perhaps three strength sessions and one high-intensity cardio suits best for most of us.
But yoga for mindfulness and stress release? Yep, I’m down(ward dog) for that.
Physical activity, movement and exercise are all the same thing. We think of exercise as this thing that we need to do in a certain environment (gym), with specific programs and equipment.
This thinking limits us from finding opportunities for movement in everyday situations.
A better alternative is to look for opportunities for vigorous physical activity and movement in our daily life. As ways to increase the physical challenges in our comfortable suburban popcorn-like existence.
To seek opportunities for needless every day “hardship”. For the lack of a better term. And then combining this with some more structured training sessions.
Having more specific goals beyond health and longevity means that we move away from random exercise and toward training. Something that’s done for narrow goals. Be it significant muscle building, rehab or sports performance.
As for overall health and longevity, anything goes as long as we reach the WHO’s targets for weekly physical activity.
Maybe it’s because of its simplicity and unsexiness that it doesn’t sell a ton of books. Or make splashing headlines in the newspapers. Or lead to sexy Instagram posts. And maybe that’s why I am so drawn to recommending a daily walk for fat loss.
Let’s explore why even a seemingly insignificant 20 minute daily walk can lead to serious result over the course a year. Since I am known to making obvious more obvious than necessary, I’ll dig deeper than obviously necessary.
Breaking this 20 minute average into a weekly habit could be any of the following scenarios:
Two 70 minute walks
Three 46 minute walks
Four 35 minute walks
Five 28 minute walks
Six 24 minute walks
Seven 20 minute walks (duh)
What does this daily 20 minutes add up to in a year?
20 minutes x 365 days = 121 hours 40 minutes.
Just over five full days walking from sunrise to sunrise. That’s 1.37% of the entire year for those of you who love knowing percentages. I know I do.
How much distance could we cover over the course of a year?
According to Google Maps, the average walking speed is 4.82km per hour. That’s over 586km of distance we could cover in a year if we walk by Google’s conservative walk speed estimates.
Now, let’s say you’re like me and prefer a slightly faster walk. Still staying on the more conservative side (we’re not running anywhere here) so let’s settle on a speed of 6km per hour.
Over the course of a year, that’s 730km. Now, because this is interesting, let’s get a bit better idea of the distance by putting it in context.
Where could we go with 730km?
The 7 Bridges Walk (28km) in Sydney 26 times
A conservative estimate of 100 Bondi to Coogee Walks (6km)
A 186km short of getting from the Sydney Opera House to Melbourne Square. But with only 20 minutes of walking a day, I’m sure we could pick up the pace to make the difference.
A return trip from the Sydney Opera House to the Parliament House in Canberra (620km). And another four 7 Bridges Walks once back in Sydney. Although, why you’d decide to go to Canberra is another thing altogether.
Three and a half return trips to The Three Sisters lookout in the Blue Mountains (214km), again leaving from the Opera House
Crossing the Airbus A350 wingspan (64.75m) 11 274 times
Ok, I’ll stop there. I think we all got the idea.
What would happen with your fat loss goals if you could do this for a year?
Or, maybe we should all walk daily to boost up cardiovascular fitness and not get fat. Whatever. But apparently it’s good for us. I probably wouldn’t use that mileage to go to Canberra though. As lovely as it is in there.
How To Lose Fat Without Counting Calories, Strict Diets or Developing a Burning Hatred for Social Life
A detailed guide to a sustainable fat loss and healthier eating.
When trying to lose fat (get toned, lean out and all the other sexy marketing terms), the default action for most of us is to count calories. Spending multiple moons deep in the dietary math to figure out how many calories each food item has.
Did that pink lady apple weigh 100 grams? Or perhaps it was closer to 95 grams? Then painstakingly entering it into a calorie counting app. Repeat ad nauseam.
Some eventually take it a step further. They’ll investigate if it’s the combination of different macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, fats) that’s holding back their fat loss. Playing the next level scientist with their food to unearth the intricacies of their individual thermodynamics.
Yawn. Please excuse me while my boredom makes me jump out of a third-floor window. I don’t know about you, but I rather spend my time doing something else.
Counting calories is as enjoyable as trying to open a can of chickpeas with your eyelids
Obsessive calorie counting sounds like a path to a lifetime of distorted relationship with food. By obsessing over the minutiae that’s unnecessary for most us. I should know. I’ve been there. And it’s not a place worth going.
Yes, calories determine whether you’ll lose weight. That’s an inescapable fact of science. But counting them as a sustainable way to wellbeing for an average person (that’s both you and me)?
The one who wants to enjoy our food instead of downgrading into an exercise in math? The one who doesn’t have the urge to prance on stage in underwear trying to win the Miss Bikini Fitness Pennant Hills competition? No thank you.
Counting calories is just another invention that moves us away from intuitive eating. It reduces the whole exercise of meal times into a robot-like nutrient orgy where feelings, thoughts and mindful eating gets replaced by computerised actions. So yeah, no. I am not a fan of calorie counting.
If you already know what is generally considered healthy and what is not, you can do all the problem solving yourself without ever counting a single calorie. Here’s how.
Start keeping a diet diary (or journal, for those with an aversion to the word ‘diary’)
This is exactly what it says on the tin. A diet diary. You know how in the traditional diary you would write how you saw three seagulls, went jogging while holding hands with Robo (how awkward does it look when people do this?), and bought a banjo.
Straightforward, right? Well, in the simplest form of a diet diary you write how you ate porridge with blueberries, shared a caramel latte with Robo (one straw, cute!), and drank a Mojito while playing the banjo.
A detailed diet diary is a goldmine of information
We often eat without really thinking about what we’re doing. Especially when sharing a meal with friends, eating in a rush or while watching tv. Eating is part of the event, but it’s rare we’re fully present.
Then we get to the end of the week wondering why the weight is not coming off. Or why we suddenly have man-boobs. And connecting nipple piercings.
Anyhow. Our memory has the tendency to make our eating more glorious and healthy than what it really is. We like happy and positive memories to cloud our head like a rainbow in a spray bottle.
The only piece of information we need to get unstuck is woven in the pages of the diary. No need to buy into trendy diets, or even hiring a coach (initial accountability is another story).
Keeping a diet diary eliminates the end of the week confusion of why we’re not seeing results. The answers are beaming you in the eyeballs. Written by you.
“Wow. I was not aware that I did that.”
That’s a statement I often hear from clients when they read back on what they’ve eaten throughout the week. In fact, it’s not uncommon that I say it to myself when I occasionally reflect on my own diet diary.
One of my clients, an avid camper, noticed how she eats well when at the campsite, but the food choices she makes when getting there and back don’t align with her goals. And so she started packing healthier options for herself to take on the road. It’s actions like this done with consistency that shape into measurable results.
How to keep a diet diary
So, what the hell are you supposed to write in your diet diary? Yes, food. But wait! There’s more.
I recommend starting at a note keeping level that you find easy. As in, a level you feel 90-100% confident you can do every single day. Don’t feel you have to be the Patti Smith of diet diaries from the start (or ever, if you don’t want to).
If you currently keep no diet diary, start with an absolute barebones version. Then milk it for all the results you can get. If you get stuck and can’t see results for a few weeks, it’s probably time to add some additional details. Let’s cover these one by one.
And yes, these are in the descending order of importance.
What did I have?
Write what you had. Include everything that passes your lips. I mean, you could write “I saw an airplane” instead of “a muesli bar”. But as entertaining as that diet diary would be to read, it doesn’t always carry its weight when it comes time to adjusting your diet to see results.
How much did I eat?
Another one that falls into the important, although not essential, category. The more specific you can be, the better. And no, you don’t have to pull out a portable scale while having your lunch. Instead, I like the Precision Nutrition method of using hands for eyeballing serving sizes.
If you find the thought of writing your food more daunting than running into a pack of bazooka carrying zombie elephants driving a tractor who somehow look like Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit, don’t dwell on this for now. Just stick with the food items and grow from there.
Was I hungry?
This is a simple “yes” or “no”. It helps to build the awareness on whether you ate because of an actual hunger. Or whether you just felt thirsty (same signal in the brain).
We also often eat not because we are hungry, or even thirsty, needing food and water to survive and to live another moment. But because of our psychological state. This is especially true with snacking, as you’ll find out below.
How did I feel before eating?
This builds on to the hunger question above. Perhaps you were in the depths of boredom, stress, or anxiety for having that banjo sit on your credit card gaining interest.
Let’s talk about snacking again. That afternoon snack we crave is often just a signal of something else. It can be a habit triggered by the smell of freshly brewed coffee. That’s the case for me. Reflecting and getting in touch with our feelings (yikes) helps to dissect why we eat.
How eating this food made me feel?
This is an advanced level of detail when you’re at a point of wanting to figure out which foods suit you better than others. Not just for fat loss (it’s still about calories), but for fullness, energy levels, alertness, the glow of your skin, and the tenderness of your fingertips.
Whether it’s adjusting your carbohydrate to fat ratio, meal sizes, the types of food you eat and whether you do better with foods that grow, or not grow on dry sand.
You will have discovered a lot about yourself once you get to a point of having a few weeks or a month’s worth of all the details listed above. Some of which will take you by surprise.
Analog or digital? (Some) options for where to log in your diet diary
The general rule in here is, well, general. I’d love to say that using a specific app leads to 99% success. An app that would ideally give me a kickback for each referral I send their way. But it isn’t so. Instead, whatever works for you is the right answer.
For the sake of stationery inspiration, here are some ways my clients have kept a diet diary:
Digital notes on the phone (Google Keep is good and free, but anything works)
A folded A4 and a pen in the pocket for a quick access
Part of the traditional daily journal (as in, “Today I saw a plane. And then I ate a taco.”)
Dedicated physical notebook
MyFitnessPal app (the downside being that writing notes in can be a pain. And it’s too easy to get distracted by the calorie numbers)
iPad with a digital pen (whatever fancy and sexy and marketable Apple calls it)
A photo of each food or drink you have (great for those who feel repulsive aversion to writing)
The medium in which you do this is irrelevant. Pick a one that has the path of least resistance. Whatever that may be for you. Ideally something that allows you to scribble detailed notes as you progress in your diet diary career.
Here’s an example of one of my client’s diet diary
Super simple. And yet a deep well of information when stringing a week’s worth of days together.
When to check your diet diary
I like the idea of checking the diary on a day of the week you gauge your physical/mental progress. It might be a step on the scale, taking the waist measurement, looking in the mirror, trying on clothes that previously felt tight. Or simply sitting down and reflecting how you’re feeling compared to a week or two ago.
Again, our memory is not always something we should rely on, so it helps to have something physical to compare to. For those not keen on any physical measurements, it helps to scribble your feels each week.
The questions to answer when doing your weekly diet diary reflection
Start by answering these two questions each week:
What went well this week?
What did I learn?
You could just stop at this and see how far it takes you. Like with any other skill, building better eating habits is a gradual process. Every week you’ll learn something new about yourself and your food related behaviour.
Sometimes fat loss struggles don’t really have anything to do with food. As in, the relationship with food is just a symptom of whatever else is going on in your life.
If you after a few weekly reflections you realise you’re an emotional eater, it’s worth stopping here and digging in what drives that behaviour. That will do more for your results and wellbeing than knowing the nuts and bolts of what you eat.
It might also be worth considering working together with a professional who specialises in complicated food related behaviour. That’s not me, but I am happy to recommend others if you reach out.
When comparing your results to the previous week, they’re likely one of the three:
You’re progressing towards your goal → Whatever you do is working. Do more of the same.
No change → What could you change to progress? What could you do more of?
You’re moving away from your goal → What could you change to progress?
And tadaa. All the answers will be in the diet diary. Say you do your weekly measurement (whatever that may be) and are not happy with the results. It’s time to take a mental deep dive into what’s holding back your progress.
Here are the fundamental things to keep an eye out for when reading your diet diary.
The things that contain a lot of calories in a little portion of food. Stuff like:
Drinks other than straight up teas, black coffee, water
Muesli bars (and let’s be honest, most muesli), protein bars (aka candy bars with clever, misleading marketing)
Nuts and nut butters
Chips, lollies, cakes, pastries, ice cream (the sweet stuff that lives in the ‘occasionally’ column).
Fast-food, pizza, creamy cheeses, meat with a lot of fat (the salty stuff that also lives in the ‘occasionally’ column). Also, how delicious are hot chips?
Any combination of the above that you’d buy blended in a cup from the Starbucks
Oil you might cook with or use on salads*. But don’t worry about this until all the above is in the ‘occasionally’ column.
*I only bring this up because of a guy I used to coach who’s only reason for not getting results was generous pours of olive oil on everything. Yes, it’s good for your health. But also super dense in calories.
We, the people, like to get real emotional about the things we eat. Here’s an idea. Let’s learn to move away from it.
Reflecting on the foods we ate is not about judging whether it’s good or bad. Rather, it’s about gathering information on our eating habits. That’s all it is. Information without feelings. As hard as that may be to do with food.
Found a lot of the above? Getting anxious about the pending “cut them all out” statement I am about to write next? Chill. You don’t have to cut them all out. In fact, I recommend against it to keep a sanity in your life. What can I say? I’m nice like that.
Instead, reduce some items for a few weeks, re-measure, revisit your diet diary, and revisit this exercise.
Nutrient dense food
You know, the real food section. Things like:
Fruit and vegetables (fresh or frozen, it’s all the same)
Beans and legumes
High-fibre whole grains
Seeing a lot of these? Do more of them. Not seeing a lot? Start adding them in. Doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.
For those of you just tuning in, I am really hammering home this snacking point. For those who’ve so far read every word of this article, I apologise. Onwards, because this is important. Reducing, or stopping snacking, has to be one of the easiest ways to lose fat.
As I mentioned earlier, often snacks are just things we eat because of boredom or some other emotional inconvenience we might experience. One can easily skip snacking when eating nutrient-dense foods during proper meal times.
Here’s where I stand. If snacking is a daily fixture in your diary, cutting it out might be the only thing you’ll need to do to change how your body feels and looks.
Most of us eat way past the feeling of fullness. Usually because we simply eat too fast. I know I am as guilty of this as anyone.
Sounds familiar? Put less food on your plate, slow down, chew your food, cut the distractions, lock the toddler in the bathroom with a Rubik’s cube and a trampoline if you have to.
Wait for five minutes before going in for the second serve. If you’re still hungry, have at it. Otherwise, it’s time to stop and move away from the table.
Ok Joonas, keeping a diet diary sounds cute. But isn’t counting calories more accurate?
Sure, sort of. But the calorie amounts in foods are estimates. Ballpark figures with up to 20% wiggle1. And there are similar problems when estimating our individual calorie burning abilities2.
But the real downfall of counting calories is that it’s way too much work for most people. Most of us don’t want to carry Tupperware containers and a scale with us whenever we leave the house. Or to add food items in an app during, or after each meal.
And I still sometimes check calories in certain foods when I eat them. Just out of pure curiosity. I like to know stuff. Sad? Probably. Either way, I wouldn’t recommend calorie counting for average punters (you and me) as the go-to long-term solution.
The exception might be those who are already extremely lean and need to get leaner for a competition and stand on a stage in their underwear. Or something. I don’t know. That’s not really something I am into. Because, life.
Counting calories to lose weight sucks, hard. It restricts the enjoyment we should have when sitting down for a meal. It also runs the risk of leading into a lifetime of tangled and distorted relationship with food.
I also looks kind of dorky when one has to carry their microwave containers everywhere. You know, when everyone else is just trying to have a good time.
Enter the diet diary. The better fat loss solution for most people who are not into food related maths. It’s flexible, easy to do, and helps to develop a greater awareness with eating habits.
While at the same time building a better, more intuitive relationship with food.