If you’re anything like the rest of us the New Year brought with it a sense of refresh, renew and an opportunity to start things off right. The most common resolution? To get in better shape and health, primarily through diet and fitness. We go into it as a collective, an entire society ready to turn over a new leaf and be better for ourselves, our loved ones, our communities. The first few days are filled with power, release and a willingness to let go. For some of us this hope and commitment lasts for months, but for most of us by the middle of January we are back to square one, if not a few steps behind. Why does this happen when we go into our renewal with such assurance that this year is to be ‘the year’ and what can we do to change that?
A few things have struck me over the years about how I work with these types of physical goals as an individual, and with the opportunity to work with people on their own wellness goals it seems like there are commonalties in all of all of our efforts and hence, our failings. It has become clear that as a species, when it comes to our physical bodies we gravitate towards resistance. Quite honestly, how else do you become the top of the food chain on a planet so diverse with such little physically dominant traits without something special in your thought patterns, your instincts, your community structure or your defiance? The first way we survived as a species? We adapt to our environment, usually by changing it – not ourselves. But what works for us can also work against us in the subtlest of ways.
The human body is designed to survive by staying as close to our original selves as possible while the world around us changes. Our brain’s structure hasn’t changed much since we were foraging for food and fighting for survival. Food was not always readily available, and we learned to gorge when we needed to, eating as often as possible storing reserves of fat to live off when food became scarce again. We had to do this before the advent of fire which allowed us to change our environment and have more choices and resources for food.
This instinct to eat to excess when scarcity is imminent is hard wired into our brains. When we get into a state of deprivation (which is the basis for most diets undertaken not only in the New Year but in all months before and after) our brain begins to obsess about food. If you are on a calorie restrictive based diet your body is hungry because it’s getting less calories than it did before. As your body fat goes down your hunger responses increase to resist the change. Here to save the day (and the species from extinction) is our instinct and primal response which says ‘There’s a problem. You are in danger of extinction. Eat and eat as much as you can of high calorie foods.’ And there you have it. You have entered the cycle of trying to work against what your brain is telling you to do by trying to use willpower, control, shame, guilt instead and your brain will use every trick in the book to make sure you survive. This is the restrictive diet trap.
In addition to having your brain encourage you to eat when you reduce your calories, there are also certain nutrients the body needs to survive. If you aren’t getting them in your diet your brain will continue to tell you to be hungry until you get them. The simply calorie restrictive diet sets up a horrible and emotionally overwhelming cycle of guilt, control shame of failure and all it really is, is your amazing body trying to get what it needs to be functioning at its best. Eating half a cupcake instead of whole one will leave your body starving for nutrients and starving for nutrients will always make your brain tell you to eat.
Another way we survived? The incredible human body learned how to do the most amount of work for the least amount of effort, so we could do morewith less energy. Every machine that’s been created on the planet was created to reduce your work and get you more efficiency from it. Our body is no different, it is a machine, one you live in where your soul, personality, energy or whatever you want to call it can get work done. Once the body has figured out a movement, a routine or a weight load it looks for ways to make it easier. This is why we plateau in our fitness. The human body masters a physical task and makes it easier. What burns 150 calories in 30 minutes in week one will likely burn less by week four unless you are learning how to challenge your body in new ways.
Couple these two basic human body facts together and you get a body that thinks it’s at the brink of starvation working with a brain that says, ‘hey I’m starving I have to learn how to burn LESS calories in this movement’ and there is very little hope for you as an individual to overrule hundreds of thousands of years of design.
How then do we make a commitment to excess weight loss or getting physically stronger if theses hard wired human responses are coded into our DNA? You change what you are putting into your body instead of restricting what you eat, and you constantly change your movement patterns to ensure you never get very efficient at anything. This way your body doesn’t think it’s starving and your body never masters a movement. This will allow your brain to relax as you dive into a new way of eating. Replace instead of restrict. Move differently instead of more of the same thing.
Here are a few examples of how this can work:
If you are used to eating sugar or drinking alcohol (and who isn’t over the Christmas holidays) replace the poor quality, zero nutritional value processed sugar with fruits, particularly fruits like apples or citruses which also come with a huge array of vitamins or fibers which your body needs. I am one hundred per cent against the idea that you should cut out fruit in any diet. Fruit is literally the easiest food for the human body and in a large part it’s how we survived over the years. Fruit fell off the trees, so it was easy to find since we are quite small compared to other species, it suits the human palette and it is the most accessible for us to eat without any tools since we can use our hands or teeth to get to the most nutritional part. And no heat is required to make it edible making this one of the first foods the human body got sustenance from.
When I hear of a diet that excludes fruit I run the other way. I don’t believe there is any way that consuming more animal products in place of fruits is a wise wellness choice for the balance of the population. If you are competing in a fitness contest or looking for the ultimate and extreme low body fat physique, then I understand why you would eliminate fruit, but I don’t recommend it and I would never remove fruit from my own diet. Fruit will fill you up, add fibre to your body and your hunger response won’t kick in as quickly. It will provide nutrients you need so you won’t get the lack of nutrition cue from your body that you would get from low quality, zero nutritional value processed sugar plus you’ll avoid the insulin surge that sends most of us into a binge, which is an entire subject on its own. Replacing sugar with natural high-quality natural sugar instead of reducing the amount low quality sugar in a calorie reduction diet will help you stick to your goals by avoiding having your brain telling you to eat more as it sends you into a tailspin in search of nutrients.
Another example of how to replace instead of restrict in a diet is to replace highly processed foods (yes that includes a lot of protein bars and powders) with whole foods. Eat more vegetables instead of less of the boxed pasta. Look for foods that are as close to their natural state as possible and consume those in higher quantities. Eating more vegetables, clean diary, nuts, legumes and lean meats (although I’m a vegetarian and have been for years) is a much better option than selecting a lower calorie version of a poor choice like the lower calorie meals that you can get in the frozen section. Avoid that aisle and shop in the fresh section instead.
One more note on diet. Counting calories can be a very dangerous game. If you’re anything like I am there is an all or nothing mentality that I live with and I need to learn to use that to my advantage, not my disadvantage. If I focus on counting calories I will never be happy. There is always a lower number, there is always something I forgot, and this is a sure-fire way to become obsessive about what you eat which is sure to set you up for much bigger problems with disordered eating than any minor weight gain could ever give you.
Of course you need to have a good idea of how many calories you need a day and understand where the bulk of the calories are coming from to ensure that you balance things out to meet your goals and stay healthy in general but once you understand that nuts or grains and certain fruits like avocados are high calorie foods you will know that you can’t eat them at every meal or as every snack and you can balance them with lower calorie nutritional whole food snacks and bases for your meals. If you don’t know how many calories you need see a nutritionist or do some research on this and listen to your body. If you are hungry all of the time maybe you actually need more, if you are doing a lot of activity you definitely need more. Yes, it is true that in order to lose fat you need to stay in a certain calorie range but where the calories come from is critical and high nutrition choices will provide you with what you need to be at your best health and help avoid the restrictive diet trap.
When it comes to movement ensure that you find ways to challenge your body safely or create a new type of routine. You can do Yoga every day for the mental or spiritual benefits you get but without something else to challenge your body in a new way you will not get physically stronger. You may in fact run the risk of getting injured as the body learns to adapt and goes to the larger or more used muscle groups for movements that once used entire muscle chains. Remember your body adapts fast to routine and it needs to be confused about how to do a movement for it to continue to progress. And this doesn’t just apply to the Yogi or the Pilates buff you cannot weight train over and over with the same moves or resistance and expect the body to continue to be challenged in new ways either. You need to find different way to challenge the body by adding in varied kinds of dynamic bodyweight-based routines or more cardio always ensuring you are switching up movements and progressing with higher reps or higher weight when you do weight train.
Movement and fitness also need to be mentally stimulating or you will get bored and stop. It must provide some kind of positive benefit to you past the physical and everyone is different. If you are going to a class that gets you results, but you dread getting there or you’re bored as you do it you won’t stick to it. The key is to find movement that is more than just a workout, it’s a work in to our mental and emotional capacity as well. And while I say that I realize that a Yogi might dread the idea of a conditioning class but perhaps there’s another benefit like the strength derived from the conditioning that will lead to a mental gain and that’s important to recognize. A fun, motivating trainer will help you realize those benefits and ensure that you are able to understand how this works for every part of your life. If you’re working out alone music can help keep you motivated and reduce the boredom.
If you are able to make these shifts in your diet and fitness regimes you may find that this year, by March you are still be eating and moving in this new way and reaching your goals. This way of working with the entire human body including the brain and instincts is one the ways I’ve met the wellness goals I’ve set. While there is no perfect fix to maintaining a personal goal, and we all have other complex factors that create success or failure, this is a way to use what the human brain and body are designed to do to. Working with thousands of years of hard wired instincts can support your commitment to greater wellness and physical strength and avoid the painful war between your willpower and your human body. I promise that your body will win every time, it’s just too smart and well designed and willpower alone is usually not as developed as your anatomy. Use what you’ve got – a brain that wants to be nourished and doesn’t want to be hungry and a body that craves different movement, new challenges and greater strength and let us know where you are at Easter.