What I’m writing to you about today is one the most important mindset switches you can make to stop sabotaging your results.
Imagine you’re on the treadmill. Every 10 minutes or so you check the “calories burned” section on the treadmill interface.
You watch the number steadily climb. Seeing how many calories you’ve burned is motivating. So you keep running to see that number continue increasing.
You finish your workout and see that number has risen to 700 calories. Awesome. You pack up your gym things and head home.
So far so good.
You make yourself dinner. Then, you plop down to watch something on Netflix. You start feeling a little restless, not to mention exhausted.
You start doing that thing where you putter around, opening cabinets and the fridge over and over as if expecting there to be different food in there than the first 10 times (hey, we’ve all done it).
Debating the pint of Americone Dream, you start to have a conversation with yourself.
“I really shouldn’t”
“I’ll just have one bite”
“It’ll be fine. I worked out today, so I can have some”
“I’ll just workout extra hard tomorrow to burn it off”
So you bust out the Ben & Jerry’s.
However, you probably don’t exactly feel good about it i.e., the way you should feel when eating something that delicious. Because when it really comes down to it, you know this way of thinking is what’s made you gain weight in the first place.
And in a way, this attitude makes sense given the whole “calories in, calories out” thing.
Yes, “calories in, calories out” is overly simplistic, but for practical purposes this is how weight loss works. If you eat less calories than you burn over a long enough period of time, you lose weight.
There are some important nuances though. For a full write up on the shortcomings and nuances of “calories in calories out”, check out this profanity laden post by James Fell.
The problem we’re going to discuss here is with the “calories out” part of the equation.
If you’re constantly trying to outrun your dietary slip ups, you’re basically treading water. You’re not really gaining any ground for all of your effort. You’re just wearing yourself out.
Regardless of any discussion about weight loss, cardio has health benefits in its own right. So if cardio is your jam, or even your jelly for that matter, no need to stop doing cardio.
In this post, I’m just using cardio as an example to demonstrate a point about how the role of exercise in a fitness journey ought to be viewed for the best results.
So here it is in a sound byte, here’s how :
Exercise for health, strength, and muscle. Nutrition for health and weight management.
Can you outrun a bad diet? Certainly.
However, it’s simply not feasible for most people.
It’s a very inefficient way to drop pounds. Burning off a 500 calories doughnut takes significantly more time and physical effort than not eating the 500 calorie doughnut in the first place.
Plus, say you overeat by 500 calories because of said doughnut. If you outrun those 500 calories, you’ve broke even by hitting your maintenance calories i.e. no weight loss.
To achieve a 500 calorie deficit in this scenario you’d then have to outrun an additional 500 calories.
Burning 1000 calories in a workout isn’t exactly reasonable. Especially on a daily basis. And what you do on a daily basis is all that matters.
As for the calorie counters on cardio machines:
- Who knows how accurate they are.
- They leave out a crucial piece of the puzzle -- your body burns calories just by being alive.
In fact, the vast majority of calories you burn throughout the day will be burned by your body simply not letting you die.
Humans tend to underestimate what they eat by about 40% and overestimate how much they burn from exercise by about 50%. This is a massive double whammy in terms preventing results.
Using the example above, this can lead to further overeating. Think about it. If you think you burned an extra 100 calories in a workout, would you eat less than if you thought you burned 800?
Fat loss is objectively hard.
It’s a game of inches, of small wins that compound over the long term. In a world where I can message you from the other side of the world in a matter of seconds, this is hard to reconcile.
Think about it. People used to freaking die of dysentery just getting across the US (if we’re to believe the Oregon Trail’s historical accuracy). Now you can make that journey in less than a day.
So racking up little wins over the long term requires a special kind of patience and big picture thinking.
This is why weekends are such a huge obstacle for people looking to lose weight.
They’ll be on point throughout the week, maybe achieving a 300 calorie deficit every day, totalling 1500 calories by the end of the week. Then they go out partying and they’re back at maintenance calories within a day. So their weight stays the same, which gets frustrating and demoralizing after a while.
Think about it like a budget
Say you’re trying to save money. You save 20 dollars every weekday. So by Friday you have 100 dollars saved.
Then, on the weekend you say, “I’ve been sooo good this week... I can splurge a little bit... I mean, I’ve earned it!”.
Come Monday, you look at your bank account and see you’ve pissed away that week’s savings. Maybe you even have a negative balance because that’s how tequila works.
It’s the exact same thing with weight loss. The only difference is, with weight loss, we don’t know how much is in our “savings” at any given time.
We can only rely on what are, most likely, inaccurate measurements and our own estimations which, as shown earlier, aren’t reliable.
This makes it super easy to overeat. Especially, if you don’t have your mindset right.
If you feel the need to justify dietary decisions, something needs to change
Treating food as something you earn, and exercise as punishment for your dietary “sins” is unproductive. This view of food and exercise most often leads to burnout, frustration, and a lack of progress.
You always can destroy a pint of Ben & Jerry’s if you want to. It’s always your choice. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking doing so won’t affect your progress.
I know I sound like that one substitute teacher you had:
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
“I dunno, caaaaaaaaaan you?!”
“May I? Grumblegrumblegrumble...”
However, this seemingly pedantic distinction is actually quite important here, because otherwise your words aren’t taking ownership of your decisions.
Taking complete ownership of your actions often separates those who lose weight and those who don’t.
You don’t need permission to eat something. Oddly enough, when my clients give themselves permission to eat indulgent foods, they eat less of them.
Food isn’t something you earn by working out. Food is just food. It gives your body nourishment and it can taste good.
You either choose to eat something, or choose not too. It’s always in your power.
Can you eat something extra indulgent every once in a while and still lose weight. Absolutely.
But if you end up constantly making decisions you feel like you have to justify, you’re sabotaging your progress.
Look at your fat loss objectively.
Ultimately we’re dealing with science and the natural world, which doesn’t care about our views.
It doesn’t care about who we are as people or our struggles. It just does its thing. Nature is indiscriminate and unbiased.
To be successful, you need to detach your emotions from food, health, and exercise (yes, I’m aware this is easier said than done).
This means looking at data (scale weight, pant size, dietary decisions, etc.) without any predisposition or judgement. This means looking at data to obtain information to help you know if what you’re doing is working, not to find affirmation.
When you’re driving, you don’t take it personally when the map says you need to turn left, or make a U-turn. The same ought to be true with any journey.
This means not judging yourself for dietary slip-ups, skipping workouts, or what have you. It's all just data informing you of the right path to your destination.
When I’m working with clients online who want to lose weight, the scale is a tool, not a value of self worth. If a client can’t use the scale without being emotionally invested in the outcome, I always recommend they hold off using the scale until they can.
Because, at this point, the number on the scale won’t change our course of action -- to build healthy long term nutritional habits that promote weight loss, and eventually weight maintenance.
Plus, you can tell if someone’s on the right track without a scale. Just look at their actions. Is their nutrition a little better than it was last week?
Being objective means viewing decisions as either productive or unproductive -- as aligning with the goal or not aligning with the goal.
Some foods cause weight loss when eaten the majority of the time. Some foods cause weight gain when eaten the majority of the time. Some foods are somewhere in between.
An objective view of fitness brings us back to the main takeaway from this post:
Nutrition is where you need to focus your attention if fat loss is your goal. Not exercise.
Don’t get me wrong, exercise can be life changing -- especially strength training, in my humble bias. But not because of any calories it burns. It’s because you get tons of health and quality of life benefits from just a few hours a week of effort.
- Daily life is easier when you’re strong
- Increased bone density
- Less susceptible to injury
- Maintain strength and mobility as you age
I could go on.
If you want muscle tone, strength training will help you build and maintain muscle as you lose weight. That way, as you lose weight, you reveal your defined muscles.
But to lose weight, it’s all about nutrition.
It might not be what you want to hear, but that’s the reality of the thing. Accepting this, and prioritizing nutritional improvement, causes dramatic results.
I know it’s not fun. It’s not sexy. But unfortunately that’s how the math and science works out.
Definitely get your workouts in because they’re important. But nutrition is number 1 when it comes to weight loss goals.
Making this switch in perspective and priorities will fundamentally change your progress. You’ll stop spinning your wheels, working super hard with seemingly nothing to show for it.
It’s a simple switch to make, but not an easy one.
Nutrition is more daunting, but it will actually move you towards your goals. You can’t really muscle through it like you can a workout.
You just have to be patient and persistent. Make small reasonable changes and focus on getting just a little better each day.
That said, if you’re willing to embrace this, you’ll be rewarded with your weight dropping quicker than it ever did during the days of trying to burn off calories on the treadmill and justifying decisions based on how hard you worked out.
Ok, you’re convinced. Sweet. Now what?
You probably hear so many different things about nutrition. How do you know who to listen to?
Most diets work if you stick to them. It’s the “if you stick to them” part that gets most people.
Every diet causes weight loss through a caloric deficit. The trick is achieving that caloric deficit for the long term.
Keep it simple, and adjust things according to circumstances.
Here are the basic guidelines, that help my online clients lose weight. Once they’ve mastered a few of these skills they’ve usually started to lose weight.
Note these aren’t rules or a diet or anything like that. Just simple behaviors that, when made habitual and done most of the time, will promote weight loss in a sustainable manner i.e., you won’t gain the weight back.
Ok enough talk. Here you go:
- Eat to about 80% fullness i.e., satisfied but not physically uncomfortable.
- Eat when you’re hungry, not because you're bored or stressed.
- Eat veggies and protein at every meal. When in doubt, add more protein.
- Eat foods you like.
- When you indulge, don’t half-ass it. Choose your favorite indulgence, and really savor it, and move on.
- 3 meals and 1 snack a day seems to work well for lots of people.
- If your meal takes less than 15 minutes, slow down.
- Get 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
These are all really just skills that take practice to hone. It takes time to learn a new skill. So be patient and put in the work every day to get a little better, and you’ll reach your goals sooner than you think.
Additional relevant posts to help you along the way:
- How to Make Salads Not Suck and Leave Lunch Not Hungry
- How to Meal Prep for the First Time
- How to Make Any Recipe Healthy in a Few Steps
- All You Need to Know About Proteins, Carbs and Fats in 699 Words
- Absolutely Everything You Need to Know to Start Lifting