8 questions about your next diet you should be able to answer

So, hows the new diet? 3 weeks into the New Year and there are plenty of resolutions and motivated people around. But just like every year, many will try a new diet and most will probably fail to maintain the weight they have lost. There are lots of reasons for this, but one aspect is to do with the suitability and motive behind the goals being set. Below I've written out some key questions for you to assess the suitability of your motivations for your latest or next weight loss attempt. If you are to achieve sustainable weight loss from lasting lifestyle changes, you'll likely have convincing answers to the following questions.

Why are you doing it? 

If you think losing weight will make you feel better about yourself. It might. But it might not. I have worked with countless individuals who have probably been their most unhappy at their lowest adult weight. Both body image and self-esteem are complex things and rarely influenced for long by just a number on a scale. Will your reason endure and continue to keep you motivated?

How much weight are you actually going/hoping to lose?

Numerous studies now indicate that there is quite a large disparity between an individual’s expectations, and actual weight loss. If you think of a variety of levels of weight loss – ideal (self-explanatory), happy (not ideal but satisfying), acceptable (not satisfying but reasonable), and disappointing (better than nothing but not acceptable), you are quite likely to achieve less weight loss than you expect. Perhaps somewhere between ‘acceptable’ and ‘disappointing’. If this is wildly out of line with your expectations, what are the chances you will be motivated to maintain the lifestyle changes you have likely worked hard to install?

image of a female measuring her waist
Consider alternative measures to weight loss to help stay motivated

Hint: Have some alternative goals to losing weight. What (objective milestones) might a healthier and more active lifestyle allow you to achieve? E.g. Being able to walk to work? Play games with the kids for 20 mins a day? Failing that, waist size, waist to height ratio and waist to hip ratio are quite strongly associated with mortality due to type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease. You could track these – weight loss is rarely linear.

How much will it cost?

Importantly, consider that weight loss, like most things, has a cost. This is likely to be a behavioural more than a financial cost. Weight loss is often sold as a win-win, but some enjoyable and desirable behaviours will likely have to go. Write a list of what your weight loss will give you against what it might cost you. Take your time on this. A consideration of the realities can be enlightening.

What is the nature of your intention to diet?

Is it rooted in self-hatred, loathing and disgust or is it a positive intent. Negative motivation can be powerful, but I’m not sure anyone wants, needs or deserves to live with negative self-talk to keep them in line for the rest of their life. "Chocolate? Get down and give me 50 you miserable little worm!" Most are more likely to adhere to behaviours fuelled by an internal dialogue that speaks of self-care and personal investment in your health/well-being vs being your personal boot-camp drill-sergeant!

Is now a good time, or even the right time to diet?

Just because you are motivated, doesn’t mean you are ready or now is a good time to commit to a change in lifestyle. A climber, (well a sensible one anyway) don’t just charge up a mountain without reading the weather forecast. They normally wait for at least some vaguely favourable weather.  Sustainable lifestyle changes often come with the accumulation of lots of tiny changes and skills that you learn. Simultaneous wholesale changes to multiple domains of your life will leave a lot to chance and hugely increase the number of spinning plates. You don’t likely just want weight loss, you want maintenance of that loss. Most diets fail for the simple reason, they are unsustainable. Taking on new dietary and lifestyle changes while training for a marathon, looking after the kids, volunteering at your local club, doing extra at work and getting a new personal trainer all at the same time might be unwise. Check your schedule and don’t get summit fever! If other things come up, be kind to yourself, take your foot off the pedal and reassess the timeliness of your efforts! It could save a lot of heartache and exasperation.

A chopping board with a tape measure on
A successful diet requires planning and lifestyle change. Is now the right time?

Remember we want these changes to work not just now, but forever.  Ask yourself, can I actually give this what it needs? Is there actually anything different about now? 

So whether you are on a diet or not, planning one or not, hopefully this might be useful for you or someone you might know to help understand the nature of the undertaking. Sitting down and thinking about these questions can be surprisingly motivating for some. I also think with convincing answers, you’ve got a better understanding of what it might take to make your next diet, your last!

Excuses, excuses, excuses

Excuses can be frustrating. Working in a school, I hear some of the worst excuses out there, normally just before a PE lesson starts.  Excuses, if left unaddressed, can interfere with progress and are an untapped resource in coaching of any kind.

In particular, when it comes to working with people to improve their relationship with food, excuses tell a story.  Eliciting the hidden meaning behind these excuses can be a powerful tool in understanding an individual’s values, beliefs, personality and intentions.

Picture of excuses
What story do your excuses say about you, your values, beliefs and intentions?

3 classics to watch out for are ‘forgetting’ ‘not having time’ and ‘indulgence’. Lets explore these below.

“I just fancied it"

It might not seem like much, but people who feel the need to reward themselves with food might have quite a dichotomous and unhelpful relationship with it. If they treat themselves with food, do they punish themselves with other choices around food too? What does that say about us if we have to punish ourselves to get control of our eating? How sustainable is this?

“I didn’t have the time"

This one is one of my favourites, as it can be a real can of worms. Sometimes this can just mean, "I don’t see the purpose in this". The individual is not engaged enough with the idea to put in the effort to behave in a certain way. So they don’t. But instead of telling you this, ‘I didn’t have time’ is much easier to say, its far less personal.

If an issue is really important to someone, then they will be able to make time. They must make time. This type of excuse can be a signal of self-neglect, self-deception or just poor planning. Do they have too many priorities? (I always thought the plural of the word priority was oxymoronic). Do they have poor time-management skills? Or are their assertion skills poor - do they find it difficult to maintain boundaries and say ‘no’?

“I forgot"

Forgetting things might seem like a weak excuse, but can be a good example of an unconscious defence. The individual involved might not realise it, but it can sometimes be quite purposeful to forget to do something. To explore this one further, a good follow up question is ‘If you chose to forget, why might that be?'

So while excuses can feel frustrating, inviting them into the conversation and exploring their hidden meaning can help path the way for progress in a variety of contexts. When you know what to look for, there are plenty out there.

4 tips on how to prevent dietary lapses

Dietary lapses happen. Whether you are recovering from an eating disorder or trying to adhere to a healthier way of eating in order to lose weight, you will have probably noticed this by now.

What is a dietary lapse? A lapse is a just a bit of a slip-up. A divergence from the guidelines to which we were hoping to adhere. On its own, it will often do little harm. Without the correct skills and mindset however, a lapse can spiral into relapse (a string or collective succession of dietary/behavioural slip ups), or even total collapse. A collapse is fairly self-explanatory, and would represent an individual reverting entirely back to the way things used to be.

The mechanics of a dietary lapse

The key to dealing with dietary lapses, is understanding their mechanics. On any journey where an individual is looking to achieve sustainable behavioural change, we have a few key ingredients:

First, the individual’s motivation. Their commitment to the goal, and mixed up with that, their self-efficacy and belief that they are capable of achieving their goals. Can they follow the plan they have set out?

Next up are the ‘rules’. These are the processes by which the individual wants to adhere to achieve their goal. Along with these rules however is the dynamic they bring with them. These are the 'inner-rebel' and the sublet feelings of claustrophobia imposed upon us by removal of our autonomy. I’ve talked about the inner-rebel before, which in some individuals can even extend to unconscious setting up of risky situations (as far as your goals are concerned) that might be completely secret to their conscious self. If you’ve ever wondered how you keep ending up in certain situations and not behaving in the way you want, but can’t put your finger on what has happened or why, then this secretive self-sabotage might be happening with you!

When you combine these rules with an individual’s motivation and challenge them in a trigger situation (which could be emotional, physical, or social) a sense of conflict is created. The individual will either reduce the conflict by deploying problem solving skills to negotiate the issue, or reduce the conflict through denial and submission to the challenge.

dietary lapse
Understanding the mechanics of dietary lapses is crucial in negotiating them

If for example you were on an unrealistic diet plan where you were looking to avoid all carbs and sugar, and found yourself in a bakery without having planned your food for the day, just after a great workout session, this might be a trigger situation. You might either decide to order just a bottle of water and leave (a contingency plan you had created), or cave and buy yourself two…no, three of those delicious looking pastel de nata! If you followed the first option, you’ve helped yourself move towards your goal, great, lapse averted! If you followed the second option however, some arousal would be created by the digression (those cups of custardy delight tasted SO GOOD!) but it will also create dissonance. You can’t be the best low-carb clean-eater in town AND eat pastries. What would your paleo buddies think?!

picture of a pastel de nata
You can either chose to negotiate, or submit to trigger situations

Even after this lapse, how the individual responds to the cognitive dissonance is another opportunity to manage the lapse. All is not lost. If they are able to attribute it to an outside influence, (my boiler broke at home and I didn’t have time to plan my food this week, I was starving and stressed and I needed to eat something, it might as well have been something I enjoyed, I’ll remember that going to the bakery after the gym with no food and no plan might not be that helpful for me) then little damage is likely to have been done. If the individual blames themselves, and internalises and catasrophises the event (I’ve blown my diet, I’m a failure, I’ll never lose that weight now) then their self-efficacy will be dented, and by the time the next challenging trigger situation comes around, they will have less self-confidence to manage the scenario! Remember, with individuals with low self-esteem the negative self-evaluation and extreme thinking is completely normal, and expected.

So now I know what a dietary lapses are, what can I do about it?

There are 3 main strategies to help manage dietary lapses that can be deployed before, during or after the event has occurred.

  1. Prevention - we can work to prevent them from happening entirely
  2. During - we can learn to respond differently in situ to the event
  3. Recovery - we can learn to cope and deal with the dietary lapses more effectively The old adage 'prevention is better than cure’ certainly holds true here.

While the way we respond and evaluate dietary lapses is certainly important, to stop this post running away with itself, let’s focus on how we can better prevent dietary lapses in the first place. There are a range of strategies you can deploy here but some of the most effective long term methods will be:

Learn to relax your rules….

Dieters will have lots of rules. Things they shouldn’t or mustn’t do. This is not helpful. The more rules the more opportunity to break them. Relax or change your rules. ‘No food is off limits’ is a great principle to start to apply here. If its not ‘banned’ then it can’t create additional stress from eating it! This leaves time and resources to work on more important decisions.

Plan

Even I can feel myself rolling my eyes when I tell people to ‘plan' ahead. But you can’t underestimate how effective this can be. Strategy beats willpower especially when you are tired! Recording a food diary and understanding your own trigger situations will help you notice your behaviour chains, both helpful and unhelpful. Which ones can you strengthen, which ones do you want to break?

Recognise (and avoid) ‘set-ups'

Use a diary and a reflective process to understand and honestly appraise what are risky situations for you. Would you recommend a recovering alcoholic spends his/her evenings at a pub? Unlikely. It doesn’t mean you can never engage in these higher risk scenarios again, but perhaps it is better to do so when you have developed more robust skills to manage them. These can be really subtle situations, for example do you upset yourself when going clothes shopping and make poor decisions thereafter? Do find yourself purchasing foods at service stations by going into the kiosk when you could pay at the pump? Before you have planned and practiced strategies and contingencies to handle these environments, don’t make things harder than they need to be.

Be realistic

Perhaps most importantly, cravings and dietary lapses happen. They actually NEED to happen for you to learn new skills. Viewing dietary lapses as a necessary part of the process of improving your relationship with food is essential in remaining motivated. Each and every event, desirable or not, is an opportunity to learn and improve. No one gets everything right first time, and there is a reason that tales of the most successful people in all walks of life are underscored by repeated ‘failure’. In another blog I’ll write about how one can better manage lapse situations in situ and ‘recover’ from them more effectively. In the mean time, please do try and implement some of the above hints and tips. If you’ve found this article useful, please do share it with others who you feel might benefit. Any questions or feedback, please do not hesitate to contact me on twitter (@acbcoaching) or by email (andy@acbcoacing.com).

Thinking differently – Which wolf are you feeding?

I recently came across a T Nation article that made reference to the old Cherokee 'tale of two wolves'. This got me thinking, on 'thinking differently'.

A tale of two wolves - thinking differently
A tale of two wolves

I really liked the article which I would recommend you all read. While it applies to gym environment, the idea that we can learn to see obstacles in our life as a challenge or opportunity, is a crucial and transferable one. Importantly, it is also a simple idea that can have a profound influence on our relationship with food. It is an idea that falls under the umbrella I call 'thinking differently'.

What is thinking differently?

Many individuals who have an unhappy relationship with food often fall into the trap of seeing a momentary lapse or distraction from the dietary guidelines to which they are trying to adhere, as a failure. This type of 'all or nothing' thinking  is not helpful when it comes to fostering a sustainable and healthy relationship with food. Any self-perceived failure, can then result in negative thoughts and feelings that spiral into subsequent compensatory behaviours. These compensatory behaviours, such as eating a comfort food without awareness, again breach the guidelines the individual is trying to follow, and so the cycle continues. I talked a little about this cycle here, but one of the best ways to leverage as opposed to fall foul of this scenario is to shift our perspective.

A great way to do this, especially when it comes to food is to adopt the principle that nothing is off limits. This doesn't mean we should seek out junk food of high caloric density and scant nutritional value, but it appreciates variety and 'fancy' are a natural and healthy part of a balanced and sustainable way of eating. If it is not 'disallowed' it removes many of the habitual associations of failure with which many are familiar when attempting to adhere to a dietary protocol.

The author also explores how the tale of two wolves can teach us that we can all practice seeing and thinking about the world around us differently. In my the article linked above, I talk about a lot of the ways in which obese or overweight people tend to think. For many different and varied reasons, these ways of thinking have arisen and then become habitual. This is why I frequently encourage clients who complete a food diary with me to annotate their lapses or self-perceived 'dietary failures' as learning experiences (LE). So engrained are their responses that even recognising opportunities to note down LE can be tricky at first. But if they can habitually learn to seek out improvement as opposed to the self-defeating negative spiral of failure, then they are well on their way to creating a perpetually self-improving way of thinking. We can literally practise our way to a healthier and more sustainable relationship with food, by thinking differently. We just need to feed the right wolf.

Where I would disagree with the article is the author's assertion that those we see who tend not to 'feed the right wolf' are either pathetic and/or annoying. We all have been on our own individual journey to where we are now, and it is crucial that we do not rush to judge so readily anyone's behaviour. Thinking differently is something we can all learn to do, and just because someone isn't there yet, doesn't mean they can never be.

Image of a wolf eating the tale of two wolves helps remind us to think differently
Which wolf are you feeding? The tale of two wolves can be a great reminder about thinking differently

That said, the article, the transferable nature and the imagery of the 'tale of two wolves' is a great one to apply to the gym, our relationship with food, or life in general. Have a read of the T Nation article linked below and of course please do share this article if you enjoyed it. As ever, I'm always keen to hear your thoughts. Tweet me @acbcoaching or email me andy@acbcoaching.com.

https://www.t-nation.com/powerful-words/which-wolf-are-you-feeding

‘I just need a diet plan’ – No you don’t!

A frequent and recurring theme I hear from those interested in weight loss is one where the client asks for, or thinks that they 'just need a diet plan'. They say, ‘What I really need is just a diet plan. I mean I know what I need to do, *insert nostalgic mention of when they used to be in shape or similar* but it would just be really helpful if I had it all written down, you know I think that would be all I need'.

diet plan
Although it seems like it, we often my need more than just a diet plan

If you are someone who has lost weight on multiple occasions, and struggled to keep the weight off, this blog is about why I don’t believe that ‘just a diet plan' is really what you need or want. This blog is about how when it comes to weight loss and maintenance of that lower weight ‘just a diet plan’ rarely cuts the mustard.

Its not what they actually want

In any coaching relationship, part of the role of the coach to help the coachee to get from A to B. Many people looking to lose weight will have lost weight before, only to have regained it. Sadly, in the obesogenic environment within which we live, due to the way the body tends to respond, frequently, they might weigh even more now than when they first started! This can understandably be exasperating for the client and is often referred to as ‘yo-yo’ dieting.

If this is the client, then they definitely DON’T need ‘just a plan’. Just losing weight is not their ‘B’. They’ve followed plans before, which if you look at their ‘A’ (where they are now) either didn’t help, or maybe made things worse. They THINK they need a plan because it will help them lose weight. It might. What they likely want is to achieve a healthier and more sustainable relationship with food. I’m not here to tell you what you want, but this is a great ‘B’ for anyone to aim for.  What most people actually want, is to get to a lower weight, and to be able to maintain it. This is not just semantics, saying what you mean and being able to describe exactly what you want are actually two very important skills in developing and maintaining a sustainable and healthy relationship with food.

Its not what they actually need

When the individual has lost weight on several occasions previously, there is more than likely something else going on. The chances are, its not actually just the technicalities of putting an appropriate plate of food together that have led to their current predicament. That is, its not JUST about food. Losing weight and then maintaining a lower weight is a complex problem that requires self-awareness, honesty, problem-solving skills, planning skills, emotional intelligence, and a host of other abilities. In order to respond to the complexities of life and its competing, unpredictable demands, just a short-term plan is rarely suitable for anyone (for very long anyway). We make many decisions around food every single day, in a variety of contexts. We need a flexible, adaptable skill set to deal with multiple eventualities.

What’s worse, is that the longer a client goes on believing it is just about what they eat (with this notion being reinforced by the enthusiastic line of dogmatic nutrition gurus lining up to sell them the next big plan to solve all their problems once and for all), the longer they will be distracted from what is important. I believe that any practitioner who operates in the realm of health & wellbeing has an overarching responsibility to 'do no harm’ to their clients. By ‘just' giving someone a plan, I think certain practitioners might be guilty of contributing to a disempowering environment, which is already challenging enough for the individuals involved. We are complicit in harming those we engage with by giving our clients more of the same, through our inaction to do something different. Practically speaking, anyone who is looking to lose weight and keep it off (especially those who have tried and failed before), must understand that what they need are a host of skills to manage an ongoing process. Not an instruction booklet on what to do, when, forever more.

I implore practitioners and clients alike to buck the trend and start to shift the status quo, seek out something different, and don’t settle for the old dynamic. 'Just a diet plan’ probably isn’t suitable for what you want, or what you need. Any questions, please reach out to me on twitter, or drop me an email andy@acbcoaching.com