In the Mind of a Nutritionist

Mmm, water.

Mmm, water.  At Basic, in Jersey City.

I originally wrote this post for the Hospital for Special Surgery blog, which you can find here.  The HSS On the Move blog has a great series of rehab, fitness and nutrition blog posts, please do check it out!

From the HSS On the Move Blog, “In the Mind of a Nutritionist” (me!) –

“I eat chocolate. And I eat salads. I don’t count calories, but I pay attention to my portions (i.e. I know when I’ve eaten too much). I try to eat slower, a constant battle considering my genetics. I drink diet soda a couple times a week, but I drink a lot of water every day. I drink a glass of wine or beer on occasion. I drink a green smoothie most mornings (thanks to meeting my wife). I exercise a fair number of days per week, but I’d always like to do more. And I’ve maintained my 30+ pound weight loss for the past eight years – which got me into this whole fitness and nutrition field to begin with (I used to be an engineer). These are my habits, and they allow me to achieve what I want in my life.

Will things change in the future?  Sure they can. And then I’ll tackle those goals when they come. If I wanted to train for a marathon, I’d have to change some habits. If I wanted six pack abs, I’d have to restrict a lot more. In fact, I went for them back when I was losing my weight in 2005 and when I got to single digit body fat percentage and a good outline of 4-pack abs, I felt like food was becoming my enemy – not a good feeling. I guess that’s why most bodybuilders are miserable right before competition.  So I’m ok not being ripped.  I can still deadlift 300 pounds. And I can run. And I can spend time with my family. And most importantly, I’m happy with all of those results because no one is the judge but me.

This is why the glut of fad diets and misrepresented nutrition research infuriates me. People stop listening to the most important part of the healthy eating and living equation – themselves. Yes, I have the background in nutrition and exercise science that can help someone run faster, jump higher, drop inches or recover from training better. But in the end it’s not about me. It’s about you. I can’t force someone to be motivated and accountable (a.k.a. the dream client, or a fair number of athletes). I can merely explore the hopes and dreams a person has and figure out how eating and exercise can best complement them in that pursuit.

When I meet with clients, I always remember there are two experts in the room: I may be an “expert” in nutrition and exercise. But my client is the expert in their own life, preferences, routine and habits. And to get long-lasting change, we need a partnership. I promote people, not plans.”

TELL ME: What’s your dream?

The Seven Questions: A Journey to Sustainable Fitness, Part 3

Action Accomplished

Habit Accomplished?
Image: Microsoft

This is the third and final part of the Seven Questions series designed to help you chart a course to your own path to sustainable fitness.  There’s 10,000 ways to lose weight and get fit, but only one matters: the one that works for you.

In Part 1, you determined why you want to improve your health or fitness.

In Part 2, you determined which habit(s) to change as a step in the right direction.  You’ve even detailed the steps needed to take action on changing your habit.

The only thing left to do is…take action! As you get started, though, it’s important to know whether your good intentions are translating into actual results – increased movement or healthier eating.  And that’s the purpose of these final two questions.

Question #6: How will you track that you’re sticking with it?

World-renowned business and finance theorist Peter Drucker once said, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”  So to make your plan measurable and see if it’s working, you need a baseline (what you’re currently doing) and a way to consistently determine whether your efforts are bearing fruit (hahaha, fruit…dietitian humor).

If you have a consistent habit now, then you already know your baseline.  For example, you may already know you work out or go running about twice per week.  For other habits, you may know you need to improve, but you don’t really know where you’re starting.  That’s where a brief assessment period can be useful.  Track the habit you intend to change at least three days (include at least one weekend day) – ideally seven days.  Write down, either on paper or on your phone or computer, how often you perform your target habit each day.  Include as much detail as possible.  Death of the Diet has assessment templates for the eight most common healthy habit changes, including:

For water intake: Where did you drink it?  When did you drink it? Was it prepared with anything, like ice or lemon?  How much did you have – how big was the glass, or if the bottle has a label, how many ounces?  Btw, “one more glass per day” usually means 8 more ounces of water.

For vegetable intake: What meal?  What veggie? How much did you have?  Were there any toppings or dressings on it? Where did you have it?  Did you like it?

For daily step count: Use a pedometer, unless you really like counting.

Total up your times performing the action, then divide that by the number of days you tracked – that is, take an average.  That’s your baseline.  For water, a rule of thumb is to aim for half your body weight in ounces of fluid every day – so if you’re 200 pounds, go for 100 ounces of fluid.  For steps, 10,000 per day, or 5 miles, is the recommended total.  But remember, no need to get there overnight – try increasing by one glass of water or 1,000 steps at a time.

Now that you know where you’re starting, you can determine where you’re going with your intended habit change.  Just like with your baseline assessment, start tracking your progress on taking action.  You can create a checklist for going to the gym or having servings of veggies.  Or you can keep a running tally of your water intake or daily step count.  The best tracking method is whichever one you can keep doing consistently.  Death of the Diet walks you through crafting your own daily evaluation template, which you can fill out within a couple minutes each day. Regular evaluations like this provide valuable insight into what aspects of your habit changes are working, and where you may be able to improve.

Question #7: Who can you go to for support if you have challenges?

You’ve made it, woo hoo!   With a plan in place and a way to track progress, there’s one more important piece of the puzzle to make taking action and getting results as easy and successful as possible.  Time to get a little help from your friends:

Who can you vent to if you’ve had a long day, ask to be a workout buddy or talk to for helpful feedback about your health and fitness goals?  Not only is social support one of the most useful ways to make sure you stick to your new healthy habits, being surrounded by caring friends and family can even help you live longer, according to happiness researchers (yes, people who research happiness).

You don’t have to limit this list to just one person.  Write down all the people who can help you, how they can help and how you can reach them. A huge chunk of a chapter is devoted to this subject in Death of the Diet, not only describing how you can work with others for support, but also how you can develop your own “inner coach” to guide you along the way.

Wrapping It Up: Moving Forward After the Seven Questions

This may be the end of the Seven Questions series, but this is only the beginning for you.  Now you need to take action every day, until those new actions become habits.  And from habits come results.  While you certainly don’t need the book to succeed, Death of the Diet can be a useful resource for delving deeper into answering these seven questions.  That’s because these questions are central to how and why the book was created.  And of course, there are lots of extra tips, insights and templates to make the process as simple and manageable as possible.

If you want to delve into these questions further and create a personalized action plan, feel free to contact me at jason@deathofthediet.com to determine if nutrition or fitness coaching is right for you.

In Health,
Jason

The Seven Questions: A Journey to Sustainable Fitness, Part 2

Taking Action - Fast or Slow

Taking Action – When the Rubber Hits the Road
Image: Microsoft Images

The first two questions, which can be found in Part 1, focused on the “why” – whether you’re ready to change your habits, and if so, what your motivations for change are.  There’s a saying: With a strong enough “why,” the “what” and “how” make themselves clear.  These next three questions will focus on exactly that: the what and how to achieve sustainable fitness.

Questions 3 & 4: The Past Leaves Clues

Question #3: Which of your habits do you think have contributed to your current condition?

Review where you’ve been to look for ways to improve going forward.  Think about a time in your life when you were in better physical condition or health, even if it was a few decades ago.  What were your habits then?  Did you eat better?  Were you more active?  Did you sit less?

I’m not implying that you need to become the person you were many years ago.  But tracking your life from that point will reveal the progression of habit changes that led you to your current circumstances.

Of the less-than-ideal habits that have become your routine over the years, which are modifiable? For example, you can always eat more fruits and veggies again, but if you have osteoarthritis, certain physical activities may be off the table (but not all of them!).  To figure out the causes of habit changes, you can draw a timeline of your health or weight and make inflection points where your body changed significantly – was it when you started a new job?  Graduated from college?  Got into a new relationship?  Then think about how your habits changed as a result of that inflection point.  Write down all of the factors you can think of. The more ideas you have, the more opportunities you have to make improvements…and get results.  Questions #4 and #5 will build off this list.

Question #4: Have you successfully changed your non-ideal habits in the past? If so, how? 

The list you created from Question #3 is full of insights into the challenges you’re facing when trying to make positive changes to your eating or physical activity habits.  Now, how can you best tackle those challenges?

Previous successes are a great place to look for ways to improve your current situation. If you’ve been successful with working through challenges in the past, walk yourself through how you did it – even if those challenges weren’t related to nutrition or exercise.  Are you a planner? Do you make it a point to avoid temptations?  Do you take it one small step at a time? Do you reach out to experts for guidance?

If you’ve been successful with a diet or fitness plan before, think about what aspects of the plan were not only successful, but also felt sustainable.  What strategies did you create to stick to the plan, even if only for a few weeks or months?  Which of those ideas and techniques can you use this time around?

Remember also which aspects of previous plans were not sustainable. Those are strategies you may want to avoid in the future. Are there any extremes you now know to avoid, or any “happy mediums” that you can pull from your experiences?  For example, did a previous diet require eating no grains, ever?  So you went from eating four servings of grain a day to eating zero…and then eventually realized that maybe you’d like to eat a piece of bread or pasta again at some point in your life? A happy medium could be two servings per day – not none at all, but not too much.  That’s an improvement on your current habit, but it’s more sustainable than your previous attempts. List any and all ideas that come to mind.  We’ll sort out the ideas with Question #5.

 Question 5: Putting It All Together

With the previous two questions, you’ve assessed what factors brought you to your current health or fitness situation, as well as what personal strengths and previous experiences you can use to overcome them.  Now it’s time to take your potential solutions and hold them up against your current comfort zone. This is where the tires hit the pavement and progress begins.

Question #5: Considering your current circumstances, what is one action you can take to get closer to your goal? What steps will you take to make that action possible?

Human behavior research shows that we’re really only good at changing one major habit at a time.  Maybe two if you have a lot of time, motivation and accountability.  But as you increase the number of changes you make, the odds of any of them sticking shrink very close to zero.  And that’s why lots of the good ideas you had during previous diets or fitness plans didn’t stay around…they were probably linked with a lot of other extreme or restrictive requirements.  So rather than ditching just the unrealistic stuff, you may have ditched all of it.  The baby and the bath water.

So instead of throwing a bunch of stuff against a wall and seeing what sticks, take a look at your current habits, preferences and lifestyle to figure out what is most likely to stick –  and go for one educated throw at a time.  Each throw represents a particular action that’s an improvement in your eating or physical activity habits, such as exercising one more day per week, eating four more servings of veggies per week, drinking one more glass of water every day, walking an extra 1,000 steps per day, etc.  If it works, great!  If not, then you have lots of other ideas to try from all of your brainstorming these past few days…try one or two at a time until you find the ones that work for you.

For more ideas on getting started, check out the Resources page or pick up a copy of Death of the Diet. It focuses on the eight most common habit changes that have been shown to get results and provides pages of tips for taking action on each one.

If you’re ever not sure about whether a particular habit change will work for you, imagine yourself performing it – actually picture it in your mind.  Then ask yourself: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how sustainable does this change feel to me; how likely is it that I can make that part of my regular routine?”  If it’s not a 9 or 10, what would have to happen for you to get closer to a 9 or 10?  If you can’t raise that feeling up to at least a 7, then consider a different action.

Once you’ve chosen a habit to change, write down all of the practical steps you’ll have to take to support the change.  For example, if you’re going to go running one more day per week, how will you make sure that happens?  What day will it be?  When will it be, morning before work or evening?  Will you have to go to bed earlier the night before so you feel rested?  Will you have to move the alarm away from your bed to make sure you get up?  Will you go to bed wearing your running clothes so all you have to do is wake up and put on your sneakers?  Do you need to leave work earlier – and will that mean getting certain tasks done earlier in the workday?  Do you need to bring your sneakers and running clothes with you to work?   The more you plan ahead and write down the exact details of what you’ll do to make your new action possible, the easier and more likely it’ll be that action will happen. Death of the Diet also has a hefty section on creating effective plans to take consistent action.

So after brainstorming on today’s questions, you’ll have a particular habit you’re going to change to get you closer to your goals, and a set of steps to describe how you’ll take action on a regular basis.  Part 3 will explore ways you can make sustainable fitness changes even easier…and what to do if you run into bumps along the way.

The Olympic Pursuit of Health and Fitness

Olympics and Health

Image courtesy of: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

As I watched some of the world’s best athletes compete last month, I started thinking about all of the time, energy and resolve they devoted over the past four years to earn a brief, but well-deserved moment in the spotlight. Spotlights that may last as little as a few minutes (think skiing, ice skating, or snowboarding). And from there, only three of the top eight or ten competitors from across the world actually win a medal. Considering odds like that, I am amazed that anyone would want to devote that much time for a payoff that seems so distant. But thousands of athletes do. Every four years. And here’s what we can learn from their efforts:

The Power of a Motivation and a Belief

While only one person can win the gold medal every four years for an event, there are hundreds, if not thousands of Olympic hopefuls imagining, and believing, that they have what it takes to be the one to win it. And with the strength of their convictions, they train for years to have the opportunity to bring the dream to fruition.

Similarly, you must ask yourself what motivations you have driving you to improve your physical activity or eating habits. It could be running a 5K, feeling better about yourself, setting a good example for your children or wanting to make sure you’re able to enjoy your golden years just as much as (if not more than) your younger ones. When you find the right motivation for yourself, you will sense that something inside you has changed; an internal switch has been turned on that makes living more healthfully an easier decision. I call this moment “Flipping the switch.” Everyone’s switch is different and it may change over time. The key is to explore in this moment, what is so important to you, that it’s worth living healthier for. Then go get it!

Focus on Your Strengths

(This example is slightly outdated, but works well.) Being six feet, four inches tall with a long torso, a huge wingspan and hypermobile joints, Michael Phelps was designed to have the potential to be a great swimmer, not necessarily a great gymnast or Olympic weightlifter. And so he trained to become arguably the best Olympic swimmer the world has ever known. If he trained every day of his life, could he have become a good gymnast or weightlifter? Probably. But the best ever? Probably not.

So when you’re choosing what changes to make to improve your eating or physical activity habits, consider your strengths:

  • – Do you like to cook? Try preparing a few big-batch, healthy meals to eat throughout the week. Or try looking up and cooking some new, healthy recipes that look tasty. Or make it a point to try cooking with a new fruit or vegetable every week.
  • – Always on the run but don’t mind eating your fruits and veggies? Make it a point to pack or pick-up some healthy snacks to have with you every day that have a fruit or vegetable in them. Or review the menus of restaurants you frequently go to and determine the healthiest options available that you may enjoy eating.
  • – Prefer to focus more on physical activity? Review your weekly habits for opportunities to sit less, walk more, or get one extra workout in. The best changes to make are the ones that are easiest for you to do.

Results Come From Preparation and Practice

Olympians spend the majority of their lives preparing and practicing for the Games. They create training plans. They spend hours practicing daily. Many even meditate and imagine themselves successfully performing in the Olympics (visualization has been shown to have very positive results in high-stress situations such as in competitions, when speaking in public or when dealing with a food craving or temptation). But remember, even the best swimmers, skiers and hockey and basketball players did not know how to swim, ski, skate or shoot a basketball at some point in their life. They had to learn it. And then practice to get good at it.

Eating better or becoming more physically active usually requires learning new skills or improving upon some of current ones (i.e. your strengths). Learning to cook a new vegetable, tracking your energy to determine when you’re tired and can be most benefited by a healthy snack, learning how to perform a few new exercises or assessing your daily routine to find ways to walk more. All of these changes are probably not a part of your current daily routine, therefore it will take time and effort to integrate them (but do choose the easiest one for you).

The first step is creating a simple, but detailed plan on how you’re going to make the change. If you’re going to workout one more day per week, what day will it be? When will you do it? For how long? What exercises will you do? Will you go with a workout buddy? The more details you can determine ahead of time, the more likely you are to actually do it.

Then go for it…and be willing to make mistakes. Even LeBron James misses a shot every now and then. The key is accepting our mistakes, learning from them and always aiming to improve. If you remember one thing, remember this: “There is no such thing as failure, only feedback.” The more you practice, the easier the change will become, until it becomes a new, permanent habit. And the results will follow.

No Olympian is an Island

Most, if not all, Olympians had help getting to where they are today. In fact, I’m willing to bet that some of the greatest athletes have some of the best support systems around them. Athletes have some combination of coaches, doctors, dietitians, physical therapists, friends and family guiding and supporting them. Having a support system provides a source of positive motivation and accountability for when times are good and when times are tough.

Your pursuits for living healthier should not be taken any less seriously than an athlete training for the Olympics. Both of you are pursuing meaningful, personal achievements (what flipped the switch for you?), so both of you should be provided with the greatest opportunity to succeed. And that means creating a support system for yourself in addition to all of the tips listed previously.

Create a list titled “My Support Team” with three columns: Name / Contact Info / Support Role. Make a list of at least three people that can support you in your pursuit of eating better and moving more. Ask a friend to be a workout buddy. Ask a relative or close friend to be someone you can call to vent to when you’re having a stressful day and you feel tempted to make poor eating decisions. Ask a colleague who may be very fit or a great cook to give you a few pointers. Hire a great nutrition or fitness coach to motivate and guide you. Create a team that maximizes your chance for success.

The 2016 Summer Olympics are two years away and will be held in Rio de Janeiro. Where will you be in 2016? How will you feel? How will you look? Who will be around you? How will you be eating? How active will you be? What will your life look like? Now go get it!

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