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.
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.
This is about how my client Niss was able to turn the negative COVID restrictions into a learning opportunity and break through her weight loss plateau. And as the weight came down, so did her back pain.
When the shroud of COVID restrictions came down in the late March, they bulldozed Niss’ training routine overnight. Her goals to build strength for running, keep back pain at bay, and drop 10kg got an unwelcome flavor of difficulty.
Pour in a cup of working from home, a pinch of moving to online training and a few spoonfuls of social distancing. She had all the ingredients for an adventurous few months ahead of her navigating fitness goals in the times of social distancing.
Mo’ sitting mo’ back pain
Pre-COVID, I referred Niss to an osteopath for an assessment and further guidance on how to best manage and reduce her back pain. The three of us worked together and had success in improving her back.
But this was Pre-COVID. Working from home now meant marathon sits at the computer. Something that most backs, painful or not, are not too fond of.
A few weeks into the restrictions, Niss’ pain started to creep in and increase in intensity. She was forced to pull back with training. Instead, she set a schedule to go for a walk every single morning.
In the times of challenge you do what you can to keep moving in the direction of your goals.
Mo’ awareness mo’ fat loss
Slow is the name of the game for sustainable weight loss, and Niss made good initial progress. But in the month leading up to the restrictions, her weight wasn’t coming down with consistency we’d both hoped to see. Regardless of all the changes she implemented with eating, and all the hard work she put in the gym, her weight loss plateaued.
On a typical weekend in her pre-COVID life (remember that?) she would have a one long, drawn out lunch or dinner with friends. Then, in March, all the hardcore introverts in Australia rejoiced as their day dreams became a reality.
Being social was banned by the forces that be. With the restaurants, pubs, cafes, even friends’ front doors slammed and masked shut, Niss’ social meals came to a halt.
But there was a silver lining.
This created some room to build awareness about her social eating habits.
And it helped Niss to find the culprit for her weight loss plateau. She was already cooking most of her own meals. Now she replaced the social gatherings with more of the same. It became easier to keep a track of what and how much she was eating. And the digital needle on the scale started to move down again.
This has made her back feel better too.
With the combination of increased walking, weight coming off, a more ergonomic work space and return to training in the park, her back improved. We got creative with the few pieces of equipment she had (and was willing to haul to her local park) and created a plan for her.
Niss’ weight is down 2.5kg since the start of COVID restrictions.
Yes, the weekly meals with friends will probably come back post-COVID
As they should! Progress is not about forcing an eternal ban of eating out. That’s not where it’s at. Most of us don’t want to march through life eating and behaving like a robot that runs on steamed broccoli.
Regardless, I am 100% that the awareness and results that Niss has gained from these forced changes will positively carry over into her post-COVID life.
She was able to make a good out of a negative by using a forced socialess time to increase her awareness on what was holding back her results. She took something that was out of her control and molded it to her benefit.
And it will help her immensely in the future in maintaining her goal weight.
It’s not sexy, but little changes compound over time
Walk daily. Cook most of your meals at home. Pay close attention to your eating habits when out and about. And if you’re a high roller who hates cooking with the intensity of hundred high-wired lawnmowers, hire someone to do the cooking for you.
Stick with those habits 90% of the time, add in some strength training two to three times a week and that might just cover most of your fat loss needs.
Definitely not the sexiest fat loss advice out there. In fact it’s probably as exciting as watching two turtles compete in a marathon. In the dark.
Small changes require dedication and a certain level of hard headedness as the change won’t happen overnight, or in a month. But just like compounding investing, it’ll add up in the long run. You’re more likely to keep all that you reap.
And since you’ll end up carrying less weight, the back and joints will feel better too.
This is something I often hear when people state their reasons for training. Everyone’s entitled to have their reasons but I don’t like this one. It’s a doomed thought process that easily leads into train more, eat less-, or train more, eat more – mentality. …
I had a great dinner the other night when I caught up for beers with few mates. I ate beer battered fish and chips with tartar sauce and shared two massive plates of chilli cheese fries. I flushed it all down with four beers and two ciders. It was glorious. And although some people might call it a “cheat meal”, it wasn’t anything of sort. It was just another meal.…
There is no doubt that training more and with higher intensities will give you more flexibility with your diet. It can help you build a buffer zone calorie-wise so that the extra piece of aunt Betty’s cheese cake is less likely to park itself on your hips. …
For most people the first introduction to exercise is all about losing weight or keeping the weight off. Sure, there are those few rare exceptions that just start because of some other reason, but even then it’s often “I have a [insert a non-fat loss problem or an injury]. But I would also like to lose weight”.…
When a long-lasting fat loss struggle has been synonymous with your life it might be tempting to jump into a short, extremely restricted diet that promises the loss of 10kg in 10 weeks. It is tempting because these programs are marketed as those shiny, silver bullets that I, so greatly, despise. I mean that’s what you see in the Biggest Loser and other shows so it must the way to go. Well, no.…
“There is another word for self-discipline. It is patience”. – Henepola Gunaratana
There is no “secret sauces” in achieving the body that you want. There is no magic tricks or lifestyle hacks to speed up your process of improving how your body feels, looks and functions. There’s only so many books you can read because eventually you’ll have to bite the bullet and do the hard stuff. And fat loss can be as hard at it gets. There is no special pill for you to swallow that’ll take all your problems and issues away. Not even Dr. Oz can help you here, no matter what he might want you to believe. …