When I first started personal training and teaching fitness classes in 1999, it initially surprised me that all my clients would also ask me about nutrition. “Can I tell you what I eat and you can tell me if I should change anything?” Or, “Just tell me what to eat and I’ll do whatever you say.”
But, what did I know? I was slamming Bud Lights and late-night Wendy’s a few nights a week. And on my “non-drinking” nights it was bagels, pizza, and mac and cheese. I was ill-equipped to give nutrition advice at 19. Nor did I have any interest in it. I simply loved working out. In fact, I exercised precisely so I could eat whatever I wanted.
Fast-forward to seven years later. I was in school getting my masters in Clinical Nutrition and had done half a dozen fitness competitions. I was in the dieting world, completely. And surprise, surprise, my clients were still asking my advice for nutrition.
BUT. I had a dieter’s mindset. You “start your diet” on this date and then go hardcore for 12 weeks, no cheats, no going off-plan and if you mess up, I don’t know what to tell you because, “You just have to be compliant. Sorry!”
Regrettably, I didn’t understand the psychology of change, and I had zero experience.
I thought you just had to “try harder” and “be stronger” and “have more willpower.”
And if you didn’t, then I really didn’t have any tools for you. This is bad coaching.
It’s a strategy I now call, “Comply or die,” and it’s a terrible approach. Why? Because it’s lazy and unoriginal. It leaves zero room for growth and learning and most importantly, it leaves clients and “dieters” more defeated than ever.
“Dieting” is a tenuous thing, isn’t it?
It’s like that game where you throw an egg back and forth with a partner. Once the egg falls and breaks, the game is over. Dieting, in the way that most do it, is the exact same: one slip up, and oops, sorry, the plan is over. No. One piece of candy does not have to turn into 20.
We often allow one single bad choice to mean, “Welp, I guess this one isn’t the one! Yet another waste of money and time. Le sigh.” And then we’re off looking for the next plan, program or expert who has the most amazing meal plan ever, that will get us all the results we desire with no struggle.
We all want effortless. We want easy. At the slightest hint of a tough day or week, we decide we just can’t do it, so we might was well say screw it, and go all-in on sweets and treats.
In psychology research, this is called The “What-The-Hell” Effect. We use a single off-plan food choice as an opportunity to say, “What the hell, I’ve already messed this week up, might as well call it a wash, I’ll start again on Monday!”
The reality is that only unsuccessful people “start on Monday.”
Alternatively, successful people are resilient. They don’t let one single slip up mean they’re no good and a failure. They weather the ups and downs of the process and get right back on the wagon at their next meal. You are always one meal away from being back in fat-burning mode, and people who get and stay lean understand and practice this.
And so it all comes back to the psychology of change. Is willpower important? Yes. But you don’t just go from having none to having iron-clad willpower like an elite figure pro.
The average person will need some wiggle room, some time to figure it all out, and a coach that understands that fat loss is a process and not a protocol. The path to success isn’t always linear.
Alwyn Cosgrove says, “If your client isn’t getting results, it’s your fault.” And I actually agree with this insofar as it’s up to the coach to navigate the journey, help make adjustments as needed and help the client learn their body better than anyone else ever could, including a top coach, expert or guru.
This may sound counter-intuitive considering most of us have heard the phrase, “You can lead a horse to water, but can’t make them drink.” So many coaches will throw their hands up and say, “I can’t help it if they’re not listening to me!” Fine. BUT.
A good coach doesn’t just tell someone what to eat and expect it to be followed to the letter. They know it won’t work because body transformation is not about the information; it’s about the implementation. Google “weight loss meal plan” and get thousands of free plans right this second. Ninety-five percent of them are the same.
Healthy nutrition isn’t rocket science, and designing a meal plan is not a skill. Coaching to success is a skill.
There’s a process here. A “comply or die” approach simply doesn’t work. It leads to a forever-failure mentality, an all-or-nothing mindset and ultimately program-jumping and a defeatist attitude.
On the other hand, good coaching has to do with guiding the process and understanding the psychology of change. People need options, they need room to breathe and struggle. They need someone to help them hone their resiliency. Effective coaches have perspective and empathy. They help us stay consistent, even when we’re slipping up at times. Especially when we’re slipping up. Otherwise, if I’m not slipping up, why do I need you?? Good coaches help us build our willpower and approach over time so that eventually we don’t need them anymore.
If I’m a good coach, I want my clients to eventually not need me anymore. I want them to know themselves, their bodies and their process better than anyone.
Over the past four years, I’ve lost the dieting mindset and have coached hundreds of women to successful weight loss, but more importantly, helped them develop the skills necessary to do it on their own. Many of the techniques I’ve used include ways to develop a more moderate approach in order to drop the obsession with food. As a result, over time, my clients have more awareness around food. They are less likely to binge. They don’t see eating as all-or-nothing and they actually like themselves, too!
I kind of hate the word mindfulness because it feels so woo-woo. We have a hard time conceptualizing it. But really, mindfulness is just one stop on the awareness spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, we have obsessive awareness, which isn’t useful or healthy—and it’s certainly a distraction. On the other end, we have zero awareness where, before we know it, the food is in our mouths. In the middle—the top of the bell-shaped curve—is a level of mindfulness that serves you.
Mindfulness is simply a time-creating mechanism. It elongates the period from not eating to eating. In other words, it helps us actually feel hunger, actually feel when we are craving, and then gives us that tiny bit of time to actually formulate a strategic plan to deal with it.
Mindfulness is a practice. How do you get better at it? You simply begin. It’s just thinking a leeeeeetle bit harder than usual, corralling your consciousness. Start with honing in on your physical sensations of hunger and cravings throughout the day.
Many people don’t even know when they’re hungry or craving, so think, right now, “What are my trigger times?” and then tomorrow, hone in on those times. Once you can tease out those sensations, now you have a chance of making a better choice. I love the book, ‘The Willpower Instinct’ by Kelly McGonigal for honing mindfulness.
I had someone say to me once, “Moderation feels like failure.”
This is the precise reason why we fail on diet after diet, because when we can’t be perfect, we give up, whether that’s in two hours, two days or two months. Perfection isn’t possible, and perpetuating the lie that it is possible only keeps us struggling.
Start by throwing yourself a bone. Next Monday, instead of trying to eat perfectly because “it’s Monday,” I want you to go off-plan. I want you to deliberately have something that is more moderate—cream in your coffee, cheese and bacon on your salad, a couple protein bars instead of meals. I call these “preemptive cheats” because they are lesser treats that help prevent you from getting the point of total binging later on. I want you to actively pursue moderate choices.
This insight is important because eating does not happen in isolation. What you choose to have for breakfast affects what you choose to have for lunch, and then for dinner. And if you feel more satisfied at breakfast, and then at lunch (via moderate choices), you’ll be less likely to binge at night. Because you’ve taken the edge off. Furthermore, how you eat on Monday influences how you eat on Friday. Yes! The more deprived you feel hitting the weekend, the more binge-y you’ll be Friday through Sunday.
Seven days at 90% tight will always beat 4 days of total compliance and three days of straight binging in terms of results—and sanity!—any day.
McGonigal includes this technique in her book, above, and it’s essentially the tools to practice building willpower. I have two that have been effective for me:
My house, purse and gym bag are littered with half-eaten protein bars. Yes, it’s a touch gross but it serves a purpose. It’s part of what I call “intermittent sampling” and it’s a practice in moderation. I used to eat 5 protein bars in a row, never mind a half or third of a bar. But over time, I started practicing not eating the whole thing.
I’d get a bar out and take 1/3 of it, eat it, get the taste and put the rest back into the cabinet or into my purse. Then, I’d go do something for at least 10 minutes. If I was still thinking about the bar, I’d go back and eat another third. Then I’d put it back. Same thing. This time I’d wait at least 20 minutes, and if I still wanted more, I’d go back and finish it. Over time, more often than not, I was able to take a third or a half and forget about the rest until later.
This may seem silly but the idea that you can just go cold turkey is a little shortsighted. And besides, I don’t want to have to go cold turkey. I want to be able to control my cravings and use a moderate approach to feel satisfied with less. I used to be someone who would have to finish the whole bag/package/roll of whatever it was. And this was a practice that helped me overcome that. You can do this with any food that you tend to overeat.
The One Fry Rule:
My brother Danny is 23 years old and he lives with my husband and me. Like most 23-year-old guys, he orders a burger and fries 90% of the time we go to dinner. So I started just plucking one single fry from his plate every dinner. Even when I didn’t really want one. Simply to reinforce that I can taste something and then move on. I’d grab a fry, douse it in ranch and then proceed to eat my huge salad or protein & veggies. This became a practice that has carried over into all meals and all my interactions with food.
These are examples of tasting everything and binging on nothing. And if you want to eventually break the dieting cycle of being “on” or “off” your plan, you have to find ways to feel satisfied more often and build your resiliency. Be okay with slip-ups and realize they don’t signal the end of the your work. Besides, the most effective diet is the one that never ends!
This journey begins with the realization that it’s a process, and not a protocol. Your success will depend on how patient you can be and how introspective you can be. Over time, it starts to effortless.
But a 12-week competition prep or a 30-day detox or giving up sugar for 21 days—while they are fun challenges to try—are not long-term solutions because they will always require that you “comply or die.” It perpetuates the quick-fix, instant-gratification dieting model most of us are working from.
One thing to remember: “Don’t wish for easy. Easy is earned.” Love this from Dr. Jade Teta at Metabolic Effect. If you want real, long-term success, you have to be ready to get your hands dirty.
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