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 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!

What’s Your Why?

What's Your Why?

Photo courtesy of: Castillo Dominici and FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The New Year is rapidly approaching. Reflections on the year passed, looking forward to new beginnings and a big shiny ball falling from the sky. While discussions about New Years’ Resolutions are overplayed, the underlying drive that creates them, year after year, remains of great interest to me. Everyone knows that a resolution made on New Years’ technically has no greater chance of sticking than one made on May 27th, but for some reason our minds like neat definitions when starting change – 1st of the year, beginning of the month, on Monday.

I dare say starting major habit changes on these “convenient days” lower your chances of sticking with them. If you attempt to make positive changes at the same times over-and-over, without success, your mind could subconsciously be pre-disposed to the routine of: set intention to change on Monday, progress a month or two, fail. Set intention for the following Monday, progress a month or two, fail. Your brain gets good at executing routines…including bad ones.

Even more insidious in this routine is the lost reason of WHY you’re making the change to begin with. Why do you want to lose weight, get more toned, healthier or stronger? Why are you trying to eat better or be more active? Is it because the calendar says Monday, or January 1st? That doesn’t seem like a very compelling reason to maintain your habits beyond Monday, or January 1st!

Why Change?

I devote an entire chapter in Death of the Diet (get the first two chapters free here) to answering this question. Distilled from that chapter and other areas of the book, I pose to you the following three questions and activity to reflect upon and answer this holiday season. If these questions lead you to start making changes, do me one favor. Start them the day you feel ready to change, regardless of the day of the week or the date on the calendar.

Question 1: Are you satisfied with your current health, fitness or weight?

If yes, then keep doing what you’re doing and no need to continue reading. If no, answer question #2.

Question 2: Why Change?

Your current results (health, fitness, weight, etc.) are the result of your current habits. To change your results, you need to change your habits. However, habits are there for a reason – they are the path of least resistance based on the circumstances in your life right now. You may have had other priorities in the past, but right now this is what you’re starting with. Use the activity below to determine why you would be willing to put in the effort to change those habits:

Close your eyes and imagine yourself in six to twelve months. On a piece of paper write down one to three weight, fitness or health results that you want to accomplish based on making positive changes to your eating and/or physical activity habits. Some common results include losing weight, being more toned or having more energy – but of course, what matters here is what’s important to you. Then, rank how motivating each of them is to you on a scale of zero (no motivation to change) to ten (the largest motivating factor in my life, above all other commitments).

Now look at each result again and ask yourself: “Why do I want to achieve these changes? How will achieving this allow me to live a better life or do things I’m currently not able to do?” Dig deep…usually your initial desires have deeper reasons. Weight loss, strength, energy, toning are means to an end – what’s your end? What are you going to use this new-found slimmer weight, stronger body, greater energy for? That’s your Why.

Physical health is only one aspect of wellness. Consider how making improvements can improve other aspects of your life and wellness (based on Anspaugh’s Seven Dimensions of Wellness): social (relationships), emotional (feeling about self/others), occupational (work/career), intellectual (improving knowledge/skills), spiritual (morals/values) and environmental (sustainability/impact on nature).

If you find a deeper Why than the result you initially listed, draw an arrow at the end of the original reason and write down the new one. Rate the motivation gained from this new reason. It will likely be higher than the original reason. Repeat this process for all of your desired health, fitness or weight results so each one has tangible life improvements associated with it. These are your true Whys. You can use the space provided below or if you used a piece of paper, write them next to the original Whys.

If I initially decided I wanted to lose 30 pounds, here are two examples of potential deeper Whys:

  • I want to lose 30 pounds (Motivation: 4) –> I no longer want to get winded doing everyday activities like going up stairs and walking a few blocks. (Motivation: 7)
  • I want to lose 30 pounds (Motivation: 4) –> I want to look great in all of my old clothes that no longer fit (a particular dress or pants size?) (Motivation: 6) –> I want to feel confident in myself and my body. (Motivation: 8)

Write down your Whys on a few index cards and put them in places where you can see them often (at work, in your wallet/purse, at home, etc.).

Question #3: What is one action I can take today or this week to get me one step closer to my Whys?

Once you know where you want to go and why, the next step is determining how you’re going to get there. There are many paths to living healthier, much like there are many ways to get from New York to San Francisco (different roads, airplane, train, etc.). The key is determining which path works best for your needs, preferences, priorities and schedule and then taking consistent action to travel along that path.

Changing your habits can be generalized into three main “buckets”:

Physical Activity: Working out, playing sports, taking the stairs more often, gardening, going for more walks, dancing, hiking, etc.

Eating Habits: Eating more fruits and veggies, drinking more water, eating smaller portions, less alcohol, etc.

Lifestyle Habits: Getting more sleep, reducing stress levels, quit smoking, making more time for physical activity and eating habits (your schedule), get regular medical/dental checkups, etc.

The key to making successful, lasting change is choosing new actions that are as easy as possible for you to do on a regular basis and work on just that action for a few weeks until it kicks out the old habit. Research shows it usually takes at least three weeks of consistent action to form a new habit.

Getting from where you are to where you want to be is rarely a straight shot to the top; it’s more like two steps forward and one step back. Which is still one step forward. There will be mistakes made, lessons learned, obstacles, frustrations and most of all, progress. Give yourself credit for your successes while taking responsibilities for the mishaps. Which can be summarized by a quote I strive to live my life by: There’s no such thing as failure, only feedback™.

TELL US: What’s your Why?  and get support from 75+ daily readers at Death of the Diet!

‘Tis the Season: 3 Tips to Prevent Holiday Weight Gain

Holiday Calories

Photo Courtesy of WishUponACupcake

A big worry on peoples’ minds during the holiday season is about whether they will gain weight. Unfortunately, most people do…about one pound. While one pound does not sound like much, most people also keep that pound until the following holiday season…when they add another pound. So pound after pound, year after year…those pounds can add up fast. Here are three great ways to keep your cool and avoid being part of the “one pound majority” during this holiday season.

Eat Small, Frequent Meals…Even on Holidays!

While there is debate about whether small, frequent meals increase your metabolism, one thing is for certain: If you are eating healthy food every 3 hours or so, you won’t have the time or hunger to want to eat junk food! We tend to “cave” when we go long periods of time without eating (i.e. 8 AM to 1 PM to 7 PM…sound like a typical day?), and then we are confronted with tasty, free holiday treats when we are most vulnerable (mid-morning, mid-to-late afternoon and late night).

The key to eating small frequent meals is having planned “snacks” between meals during the day. Think of them as mini-meals, like fruit and a piece of string cheese, veggies and hummus/peanut butter, half a sandwich or a yogurt with high fiber cereal.

Focus on “How Much”: Consider Portions

A little bit of pumpkin pie or candied yams is not the end of the world. Making them most your plate is another story…especially if you have a big plate! Often we get huge plates to serve ourselves on for holiday meals…so we feel the need to fill it up because it’s a special occasion. And then we feel guilty leaving over our family’s food, so we eat all of it…even if we don’t want to.

Instead, ask for a smaller plate and focus on filling half (or more) of your plate with healthier options. Then make the rest of the plate up with the things you “can’t live without”. Studies show that people tend to eat less if they use smaller dishes and utensils. If you finish the smaller plate and you are still hungry, drink a glass of water and wait 15-20 minutes. This will give your body enough time to get the signal as to whether you are full or not (usually takes 15-20 minutes). If you are still hungry, then go up for seconds and follow the same process as before.

Stay Active

A 30 minute jog can burn about 300 calories. Doing 30 minutes of interval training can burn a ton more. While many consider nutrition to be about 60 to 70% of the equation when it comes to weight loss (or weight gain prevention), the 30 to 40% contributed by physical activity is not to be disregarded!

If you are currently active, stay that way! We are often knocked out of our routines during the holidays due to travel, additional evening commitments and the shorter days of winter (at least for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere). Take a look at what your current physical activity level is (number of days per week, how long, how intense), write it down, review it daily and commit to continuing that level of activity through the rest of the year. Or kick it up a notch if you feel confident that you could be doing more; it does not have to be a lot, just an additional ten minutes added on to your usual workouts. Consider it a pre-New Year’s Resolution.

TELL ME: Do you change any habits in particular to prevent gaining weight during the holiday season?  Or how do you safeguard yourself against the temptations that don’t usually occur the other months of the year?

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