Welcome to part 3 of the continuing series "One Thing," in which I do my best to process the Niagara Falls-like amount of information I took in at the Strength Matters Summit I recently attended in San Diego. We got to sit in on about 30 hours of lectures over three days, delivered by some of the most notable individuals in the health and fitness industry - in order to keep us focused and not-overwhelmed (hah!) our hosts suggested that after each presentation we go back to our notes and circle One Thing that stood out or particularly resonated with us.
One of the reasons I was most excited to attend the summit was to hear Josh Hillis and Georgie Fear speak about habit coaching. I've been following them both for awhile now (they're both masters of using the psychology of behavior to help people dial in their nutrition) and anyone who has worked with me in the past year or so knows that habit-based nutritional practices have pretty much become my M.O. for helping clients develop plans to achieve their health/body composition goals in a way that's sane and sustainable.
As a group, we worked through a sample Nutrition Assessment form (a basic intake form that's a way to assess the quality of your current diet. Caveat - there's really no way that's perfect, but a questionnaire that asks about general food frequency combined with a dietary record paints a pretty good picture of where someone might be struggling/lacking and where they're already successful. The first set of questions were pretty generic:
"How frequently do you eat orange veggies/pasta/chicken/eggs/bread/cheese/etc?" (Options for answering ranged from "Never/less than once per week" to "more than once per day."
Easy stuff, especially if you're like me and are pretty in tune with thinking about what you're eating (for better or worse).
So what resonated particularly?
Assessing BEHAVIORS. And one in particular...
Quick side note. Behavior change, I think, is one of the key aspects that's missing from the education of most coaches, nutrition or fitness or otherwise. It's one of the things that originally drew me to certify through Precision Nutrition - half of my Level 1 course addressed science and physiology but the entirety of the second half discussed the psychology of coaching and behavior change. (My NSCA book spent a whopping half chapter on it.) God knows there are plenty of terrible coaches out there who assume that a lack of results can be attributed to laziness or a refusal to just eat the right things (Disclosure: I totally used to be this way too.)
Recognizing the need for behavioral overhaul has been a game changer for my coaching business, and for my own nutritional practices as well. Because in the end, it's really not about simply providing my people with the perfect list of "good/clean food" and "bad/dirty food," and, in all actuality, continuing to chase this perfect list usually means people end up on a rollercoaster of poor adherence and therefore, bad results. After all, it's pretty easy to Paleofy cake and ice cream these days. And even if you have a medical reason to be avoiding certain foods (gluten, for example), you cannot eat an entire gluten free pizza or a pan of paleo brownies in one sitting on a regular basis and expect to feel, look, and perform your best.
I think we're all in agreement here, right? Right.
So, what was the #OneThing that resonated with this portion of Josh and Georgie's respective talks? It was actually kind of obscure. One little question on one little page of that sample Nutrition Assessment:
For some reason, this question stuck out to me. I was intrigued. So, for the last few weeks, I decided to start paying attention and note a few reactions that popped into my head. Here are a few that I jotted down.
- -------------- (This means, I didn't have a reaction because I wasn't paying attention. Probably because I was hoovering my lunch between clients, while answering emails and checking Facebook. Or eating hummus while watching a movie. Ahem).
- "I'm still hungry...." but only because I rushed through my meal and didn't give my brain time to catch up to my stomach.
- "I'm still hungry..." because I was actually still hungry, maybe because I'd under-eaten in some form or another earlier (note: this usually happens when I don't have my act together in the AM and train fasted, or come in low on protein. Not the case for everyone, but it's something I know about me).
- "This is too good, I don't want to stop eating it."
- "But this is the last time I'll get to eat (special dish) at (special restaurant) in (special city I'm never coming back to)!"
- "I need to eat all of this so it doesn't go to waste."
- "Seriously, it's just one bite, how could it possibly matter?"
- "But I need these carbs/fat/protein, I'm supposed to eat x number of grams, today was a training day."
Clearly, there's a lot to unpack here (and I'm the professional!) So, why can something as simple and seemingly inane as simply leaving a bite or two behind at each meal help you lose fat/weight, maintain your current weight, or simply develop a healthier relationship with food?
- It helps create a caloric deficit. The mack daddy of fat loss, is, of course, burning more calories than you take in. The trouble with planning to restrict calories is that it usually doesn't work, or it works and then stops working. Most of us usually attempt too big a deficit, which can lead to reactionary binging (sound familiar, hello weekend warriors!) OR, react to the mere suggestion that something is limited by promptly craving it more. It seems so small, but if your weight and/or body composition has remained stable for more than a few weeks, you're eating at caloric maintenance. Simply shaving a few bites off of each meal (stuff adds up!) can tip you into enough of a caloric deficit to start seeing changes again. And you can do it while still eating foods you enjoy.*** Hey, the Okinawans have been using this practice (hari hachi bu - eating til 80% full) for centuries, and it seems to be working pretty well for them.
- It helps you fight the lure of the Scarcity Mentality. The Scarcity Mentality is your brain, still stuck in the caveman days, convinced that food is scarce and when you find it, you better eat it all to stock up for the inevitable coming famine. The trouble is, these days, there isn't any coming famine, and the calorically dense "treats" have become commonplace, whether you live in a great food/beer city like Seattle, or work in an office that celebrates birthdays seemingly weekly. It's true that, in some cases, we might be better off abstaining from certain foods entirely, but I think a much more reasonable approach is to learn that the food is just food. It can be enjoyed, without having emotional power over us. And the practice of leaving one bite behind is a really good place to start.
- It's applicable under any circumstances, anywhere, no matter what you're eating/drinking. You can leave a few bites on the plate whether you're at home or at a restaurant. You can leave bites of chicken and broccoli, McDonald's french fries, movie popcorn, pizza, nut butter, or hummus and, unless you're really vocal about it, no one will even notice that you're doing it. Which means you don't have to feel alienated at the table. You don't have to turn down dinner with friends or social events. You don't have to turn down Grandma's pumpkin pie or the Christmas cookies you get once a year. You just have to eat with intention.
- It forces you to think beyond "perfection" and, in turn, helps to break the cycle of "on the wagon, off the wagon" dieting. You're not failing, because no matter how far from your plan you deviate, you're still coming right back to the practice of leaving something behind. If you've struggled with going "off plan" from a highly restrictive diet in the past and had that moment where you've said "fuck it, I may as well polish off the pizza/cookies/nut butter/chips and restart on Monday"? This stops the cycle in its tracks.
- You can keep scaling it at your own pace until you find the "sweet spot." Consistently leaving one bite at each meal and still not seeing progress? Cool. Can you leave two bites? How about three? Which brings me to my next point....
- ***It forces you to slow down and pay attention, both in the moment and during the rest of the day. Yep, you don't have to restrict the types of foods/food groups you eat HOWEVER, what you'll probably notice as you start noticing this is that it becomes harder or easier depending on how your meals are constructed. If you're eating nothing but a bagel for a snack, leaving a bite behind will probably leave you a bit...unsatisfied (if not immediately, definitely a few hours later). If you eat a breakfast that combines a good source of dense protein, healthy carbs, and greens or fruit for volume, you may notice that your hunger between meals becomes much less of an emergency and much more manageable. If you find that you're starving within an hour after walking away from the table, you might need to up your protein or fat by just a little bit. You might notice that a morning workout means it's a lot harder to walk away from your lunch without gobbling up every bite. You might notice that certain foods are a LOT harder to walk away from than others (hint: they're probably manufactured like that on purpose). While you're feeling this out, a food journal can be helpful in connecting input to output, but as you become more attuned to your hunger signals from day to day, there's no need to keep meticulous track unless you feel like you've plateaued.
CHALLENGE: Over the next couple of days, explore this for yourself. Don't even worry so much about actually leaving the bite behind, just pay attention/jot down how you feel about it. Does it make you feel stressed? Defensive? Do you roll your eyes because it feels stupid and pointless? Cool. Because I felt all of those feelings, too. Or maybe you've done this your whole life and it comes naturally to you. That's cool too! If you try it for yourself, what do you notice about the results? I'd love to hear your insights. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below with what you learned.