How many times have you looked yourself in the mirror and thought, “Crap. I’ve got to go on a diet!”?
I know that this is where my thoughts would always go when I first started prioritizing my health and fitness. I had the idea of dieting so ingrained in my head that I spent a few years doing it – bouncing from one thing to the next – but couldn’t find any way of eating that worked for me to sustainably lose a little fat, build a little muscle, and feel a little better.
While it’s true that food plays a tremendous role in how we look and feel, this doesn’t necessarily meant that going on a diet – what we’ll refer to as “the diet mentality” – is the best strategy to start facilitating the physical changes we want to see. When it comes to making adjustments to what and how we eat, I’m a big advocate for what’s called “habits-based nutrition“, a concept I picked up from the good folks over at the Precision Nutrition.
The intent of this article is to talk about some of the more common problems that typically arise with “the diet mentality”, how habits-based nutrition addresses addresses these problems, and how you can start implementing habits-based nutrition to start moving towards the lean, strong, healthy body you want.
The Diet Mentality
Before we start, let me be clear – there are many people out there who have successfully reached their body composition goals by “going on a diet”. For me to ignore this fact would be ridiculous. However, many of us are still struggling to figure out how to get food to work with us and not against us. It’s my opinion that “the diet mentality” carries much of the blame here. Below are some of the problematic characteristics of the diet mentality.
The diet mentality typically involves some form of restriction.
Some of us restrict by counting calories, carbs, or points; others of us restrict by making lists of “good” or “bad” foods, while others of us do this just forcing ourselves to eat as little as possible. However we go about it, there is usually restriction or elimination involved with the diet mentality. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve decided to completely eliminate something from my diet, very rigidly. It was nearly never based on what effects that food actually did or did not have on my body, but primarily based on what I read on some blog or article. The diet mentality almost always involves restriction in some way, shape, or form.
The diet mentality often works only in the short term.
Typically, we set out “on a diet” with an end goal – be that a specific weight, clothing size, or look. If we DO reach that end goal, we either say “f*ck it” and end up right back where we started, or we keep moving our goal lower and lower. Many of us get frustrated and quit before we even reach our goal, or (worse) end up in a cycle of restriction and bingeing. No bueno. Rarely do we ever just reach and maintain our goal – at least not without much effort – when stuck in the diet mentality. The diet mentality often works only in the short term.
The diet mentality relies heavily on discipline, willpower, and motivation.
When embarking “on a diet”, every day we have to make the conscious decision NOT to eat things that don’t align with “our diet”. We skip grabbing something fast (or simply appealing) and instead choose something that’s “good for us”. We check our tracking app to see how many calories or carbs we have left for the day and work to fit those numbers. Every one of these decisions drains from our finite pool willpower, which is also depleted by decisions at work, with friends and family, or even trivial things like what to wear (although I don’t typically struggle too much with what to wear). The diet mentality relies heavily on discipline, willpower, and motivation – all of which are limited resources.
The diet mentality leads to feeling like a victim and, often, a failure.
The entire dieting process sets us up to think about all the things we “can’t” or “aren’t allowed” to do or eat. When we eventually break, and indulge in something that falls under one of these categories, or satisfies a craving (or even just plain hunger), it’s easy to then experience feelings of resignation, frustration, and failure. We spend our time focusing on all the things we can’t do, which is a bummer, and then when we break down and go off course or off plan, we feel like a failure, which is an even bigger bummer. The diet mentality leads to feeling like a victim and, often, a failure.
Now that we’ve talked about how much dieting sucks, let’s talk about an alternative – habits-based nutrition. This is an approach the emphasizes building long-term, sustainable eating habits, rather than deliberately going on a set diet plan of some sort. Below are some advantages of habits-based nutrition when compared to the diet mentality.
Habits-based nutrition prioritizes what we do eat over what we don’t eat.
A habits-based approach to nutrition is one that, rather than being based on some form of blanket restriction, is based on shifting our focus from what we don’t eat, to what we do eat. We practice finding what eating habits help us look, feel, and perform awesome, and prioritizing practicing those habits consistently. We no longer see foods as “good” or “bad” but instead as lying on a continuum of “moving me closer to my goals” and “not moving me closer to my goals”. Rather than ignore our hunger, we satisfy it. Habits-based nutrition prioritizes what we do eat over what we don’t eat.
Habits-based nutrition trades short-term outcomes for long-term progress.
Since we’re building and practicing habits that become automatic, and not “going on a diet”, sticking to eating in a way that keeps us lean, strong, and healthy becomes much more sustainable and requires much less effort than constantly dieting. Even we occasionally eat something that we know doesn’t necessarily contribute to peak physical health – as mentioned before, I love me some barbecue cheese fries – we know that these occasions amount to pretty much nothing in the context of the rest of our eating habits. Habits-based nutrition trades short-term outcomes for long-term progress.
Habits-based nutrition eliminates discipline, willpower, and motivation from the equation.
Building habits, by definition, makes the actions that move us closer to our goals automatic, and much easier to consistently practice day in and day out. There is no more mental struggle about what to eat, or whether to go to the gym. We’re no longer wasting our precious mental resources on deciding because we’re too busy doing. Obviously, there will be some effort required to form the habit but, once the habits are established, they become nearly effortless. Habits-based nutrition eliminates discipline, willpower, and motivation from the equation.
Habits-based nutrition allows us to celebrate regular, small victories.
Shifting our focus from the “negative” things that we’re not supposed to do, which we inevitably WILL do, to the “positive” things that we proactively do, sets us up for celebrating small victories every time we practice our habit. Rather than beating ourselves up for eating something that doesn’t align with our goals, we’re instead patting ourselves on the back for all the things we ate that aligned with our goals. We’re no longer getting hung up on the steps backward, but instead appreciating all of the steps forward. Habits-based nutrition allows us to celebrate regular, small victories.
Implementing Habits-based Nutrition
Now you’re probable thinking to yourself, “Damn, Rob. This whole habits thing sounds like the bee’s knees. How do I start?”
You’re in luck. Below we’re going to break down how to implement habits-based nutrition into three steps.
Identify the behaviors that lead to the outcomes you want.
We can’t necessarily wake up one day, say, “I’m going to be lean, strong, and healthy today”, and then just have that magically occur. These are outcomes that are – often – subject to factors out of our control. Instead, we start with identifying the behaviors that we understand to move us towards these outcomes. We can’t always control outcomes, but we can always control actions. We’ll cover these behaviors in upcoming posts, but the key thing to remember here is to focus on behaviors (which we can control), not outcomes (which we can’t control). Identify the behaviors that lead to the outcomes yant.
Practice one new behavior until it becomes habit.
Changing everything at once works in some circumstances does can be an effective approach in some circumstance. However, most of the time this is overwhelming and short-lived. Most of us will have much better success choosing just one thing – something that seems super easy – and practicing that one thing until it becomes habit. Eating healthily is a skill, and it should be treated as such – break the large, general skill of “eating healthily” into smaller, more manageable skills, and practice each of those skills until they are effortless. Practice one new behavior until it becomes habit.
Choose another behavior, rinse, and repeat.
Once you’re consistently practicing your new habit with minimal effort, identify the next behavior you want to become habit and repeat the process. Over time, you’ll develop a broad set of habits, all of which help you build momentum moving you towards your goals. Choose another behavior, rinse, and repeat.
Over the coming weeks, we’re going to identify and explore the eating habits that move us towards the having the bodies we want. If you want to start practicing these habits as we go, that’s totally cool. If not, that’s totally cool, too. Once we’re done covering food, we’ll start talking about exercise, sleep, and stress management.
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