“I want to lose weight, but I don’t think I could give up chocolate”
I hear this a lot. For you, maybe it’s not chocolate. Maybe it’s carbs or cheese or bacon or some other food you know conflicts with your fitness goals.
There’s a problem here though.
You don’t actually need to entirely give up any single food, or food group for that matter, for the majority of fitness goals.
This is one area, of many, where the fitness industry has served people poorly. By perpetuating this myth that you need to take drastic, all or nothing, measures to improve your fitness and quality of life. That if you’re not “hardcore”, you’re making excuses.
You see it everywhere. Popular diets are defined by the foods they restrict, rather than how to make changes sustainably. In addition, the discussion around nutrition is almost always about what foods are “bad” and which foods are “good”. There's no mention of "good for what?" or "good in certain amounts".
While we could go down the rabbit hole of how this culturally accepted attitude towards nutrition and weight loss came about, but we’ll save that for another day.
For now the point is this:
There is no mathematical or scientific reason to completely cut out specific foods or categories of foods from your diet.
Depending on your current relationship with food, there could be psychological grounds for eliminating certain foods temporarily, but we’ll return to that in a minute.
In nutrition, sustainability and consistency is everything
Whatever you do the most consistently and for the longest period of time has the greatest impact on your body and health.
Fat loss is math. Regardless of what anyone says about hormones or whether the body is using fat or carbs as a fuel source, fat loss comes down to the following maths:
- Calories Consumed < Burned Calories => Weight Loss (Scale goes down)
- Calories Consumed = Burned Calories => Weight Maintenance (Scale stays the same)
- Calories Consumed > Burned Calories => Weight Gain (Scale goes up)
Now, that’s not quite the entire picture, but for all practical purposes, this is how it works.
If you maintain a caloric deficit (math 1) for long enough, you lose weight. Therefore, that’s really the goal with any weight loss program:
Stay in a caloric deficit for long enough.
That last bolded sentence is the key here, so let’s break it down into two sections.
“Stay in a caloric deficit”
A caloric deficit is literally just addition, which is great. Because that means you can occasionally eat chocolate with zero, or negligible, negative effect on your fat loss. You can’t eat unlimited chocolate, but you can eat it once or twice a week and keep losing weight.
Here’s what I mean:
Say you need to eat 1750 calories a day to lose half a pound per week. If you eat three meals a day, each being 500 calories (not a small quantity of food if the meals are mainly lean protein and veggies), then you’d still have 250 calories left you could spend on chocolate.
Thinking longer term (weekly calories) the numbers will be different, but the concept is exactly the same. The math is simply easier when we’re just looking at a days worth of eating.
Knowing this math will help you conquer the all or nothing mentality that always rears its ugly head when trying to lose weight e.g., “I already ruined my diet by eating that cookie… might as well eat the whole box”.
Had you stayed at one cookie you may have stayed in a caloric deficit. On the other hand, a caloric deficit is unlikely after eating the whole box on the other hand. Putting the cookies down at any time is still better than continuing. Because being 300 calories over your caloric goal is certainly better than being 600 calories over.
Below is a screenshot of one of my Online Nutrition Coaching clients food logs who decided he wanted to try tracking calories.
He need to eat under 2,100 calories to achieve a caloric deficit.
In the past few months since he started food logging he's only been over his calorie goal twice, and only by 90ish calories. Needless to say, he's been kicking ass and has managed to lose weight despite being mega busy and overworked with juggling school and work.
You’ll see in the grand scheme of things, a few occasional treats really didn’t have any noticeable impact. Sure, it added to the total caloric intake at the end of the day. But if you don’t overdo it, you can enjoy your favorite treats multiple times per week without “ruining” your diet.
This brings us to the next, and arguably more important, part.
“For long enough”
This is the psychological bit. People tend to stay on a diet for two weeks. After two weeks, they stop giving a shit and throw in the towel until the next time they’re inspired to go on a diet.
It doesn’t matter how perfect your diet is if you can’t stick with it for at least a year, ideally longer. Because what’s the point of losing tons of weight in a short amount of time if you haven’t built the lifestyle to prevent the weight from coming back?
Diets, in my opinion, are too strict. They don’t account for reality, preference, or personality.
Diets don’t contribute anything towards building nutrition habits that get you the body and the lifestyle you want.
And that’s the important part: balancing the two.
Because, presumably, that’s the point of this whole thing.
What’s the point of looking great when you take your shirt off if you’re lonely because you don’t go out with friends anymore so you can stick to your diet?
Now, it’s definitely possible to stick with a nutrition plan that makes you miserable for a long period of time, it’s just unnecessarily difficult. The more deprived you feel, the more likely you are to say “Fuck it” and quit until next time you decide to diet.
So what’s the point? Especially when there’s a better way.
It’s key to think long term when devising a nutritional strategy, to think about how you want to eat on a day to day basis.
Find a way of eating that not only yields the body you want from a mathematical/caloric standpoint, but also lets you enjoy eating, so you don’t feel guilty or deprived.
This ensures you stick with your plan long enough to see results, but also to engrain this way of eating into your routine, into your habits.
Because that’s how you really make results stick: turn the action into a routine you enjoy.
How to create balance
Ok, so I’ve finally convinced you that you don’t need to give up chocolate entirely if you want a flat stomach.
But how do you actually engineer such balance? How do you find the happy medium between healthy eating and enjoyment?
First, go through the following questions:
Envision you’ve already achieved your health and fitness goals:
- What do your daily routines look like? What do you eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack?
- How many times a week do you go out to eat? Eat treats? Drink alcohol?
- What’s your relationship like with food? How do you feel emotionally around healthy foods, treats, hunger, eating in social settings, etc.
- How often do you exercise? What kind of exercise do you do?
- How’s your social life? How often do you meet with friends? And when you do, what activities do you do together?
- What’s your relationship like with your body? How do you feel when you look in the mirror? What kind of things do you say to yourself? What language do you use?
- What’s your mood like in general? How do you carry yourself?
- How do you act towards friends, acquaintances, and loved ones? How do you respond to stress and anger?
So yeah, there’s a lot going on here. That’s because there’s a lot going on with you!
The logic behind these questions is to help you generate a really vivid picture of what you want your life to be like, fitness and all. Once you’ve answered these questions in detail, you'll have a good compass that tells you where to go.
That said, not all fitness goals correspond with all lifestyles of course. Otherwise your decisions wouldn’t affect your body at all.
After you’ve answered those questions, weigh them against what you’d like to achieve from a body composition standpoint. See if it lines up with how you want to live.
If it doesn’t, then decide whether there’s a middle ground, or whether the necessary sacrifices are “worth it”.
For example, say ideally you’d be able to go out for a few drinks every night with coworkers. That will conflict with the goal of getting a really defined six pack. At this point you have to decide: Are you OK with not having the six pack, or not having the the six pack (see what I did there? I’ll see myself out...). Puns aside, what I mean is you decide whether the after-work drinks are more important than seeing your ab muscles, or if there’s some middle ground. Maybe going out with coworkers twice a week -- your tummy will be pretty lean, just not mega chiseled six pack lean.
If you’re still not sure how to go about this, you can always facebook message, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and ask.
The point isn’t to say one way is better than the other. It’s to say you need to decide what’s worth it and what isn’t based on how you want to live and what you want your body to be like.
Again, it’s not all or nothing.
It’s a spectrum. You just have to find the proper balance. This usually comes down to figuring out what’s important to you and acting accordingly. Put another way, it’s about prioritizing your lifestyle choices.
For example, one of my online clients realized he goes out drinking strictly for the social aspect.
For starters, he has an iron liver so it’s nearly impossible to get drunk without spending his life savings on booze. Besides, that’s not why he goes out anyway.
It’s to be with friends. Now when he goes out, he alternates between glasses of whiskey and water. This way his drink lasts longer because he can sip it, he always has a drink in his hand, and he doesn’t consume extra calories for no reason. Plus, he likes the taste of fancy whiskey. He’s effectively minimized the caloric impact of nights out while still getting everything he wants out of said night out.
What I hope is that these questions give you clarity on what your real goal is, beyond “I want to lose weight”.
It’s all about balance and figuring out what you want.
I obviously can’t answer these questions for you. But what I can say is that beyond getting really really shredded, most goals can be met with what I’d consider a pretty reasonable level of indulgence, as my online client's food log demonstrated.
You don’t need to live in the gym. You don’t need to lock yourself in your house away from temptations or off-plan foods.
Having 2 or 3 moderately portioned treats a week will get most people to the level of leanness they want (outside of six pack bodybuilder land) assuming the rest of your 3 meals a day are composed of lean protein and veggies eaten to about 80% fullness, with a healthy snack thrown in for good measure.
If you’re just looking to maintain the weight you've already lost, you have a bit more wiggle room in terms of treats. So that’s something to consider too.
Point is, in most cases you don’t need to give up everything you love to get the body you want. So let’s put that myth to bed and make fitness more accessible for people who don’t care if they can see every muscle fiber in their abs.
This is the main reason I’m writing this -- because fitness can feel daunting and impenetrable to those new to it. All these “no excuses” memes are great for people who love doing fitnessy shit. As for the rest, the people whom the fitness industry should be listening to, it’s just one more reason why they feel like they won’t fit in at the gym.
You don’t need to live and breathe fitness to improve your health, make daily life easier, and feel better in your body.
That’s what I want you to take away from this.
Make reasonable changes you can stick to and the results will follow.
Below are what I consider to be the foundations for any health or fitness related goal:
- Eat lots of protein and veggies
- Get 8 hours of sleep a night
- Move a decent amount everyday -- about an hour or so
- Strength train 2 or 3 times a week.
- Have fun.
No need to make it more complicated than that.
Work towards getting those basics down in a way that compliments your answers to the “compass questions”. Not only will this fitness stuff become more natural, but you’ll enjoy better, faster results.
Oh yeah, and it won’t feel like a chore, which is pretty awesome.