By Michael Krueger
Exercise is easy compared to maintaining a healthy diet, particularly if you are trying to drop some weight as well. Television ads for every weight loss program imaginable are touted by paid celebrities on every network at all hours. Funny thing though, it always seems that a few months later these same celebrities are fodder for tabloids showing how fat they have gotten.
Extreme diets tend to exclude one food group while promoting overeating another. Programs that supply you with meals often don’t provide enough education to allow you to “go it alone” once the meals (or you money) run out. This shows that to be successful long term, you need to take control of your own diet. Anyone who trains needs to eat all kinds of foods, even fats. A healthy balanced diet along with aerobic and weight training is still the only path to a healthy and fit life.
So, let’s look at some other issues that come up while trying to lose weight.
Diet and Training Truth and Mythology
Gimmicky “Lose 5 pounds your first week” promotions can be so tempting when you desperately want to see the number on your scale go down. Add to the pitch the idea that you can eat whatever you want, and the allure is just too strong for many. Unfortunately, these “diet plans” have a failure rate as high as 97% and when you fail on this “easy, simple” plan, you just feel worse than you did before you started. To make matters worse, in the end you will more than likely gain a couple extra pounds from emotional eating.
Extremely low calorie diets are not the pathway to weight loss. Your body can only go so long on 1,000 calories per day before it screams for food. Interestingly, if you can do it for 10 to 14 days, a strange thing happens: You’re no longer hungry. That’s because your body has accepted the fact that it’s starving so why complain about it, and it stops sending hunger signals to your brain. Now, in panic mode, you are cannibalizing your muscles to keep your bodily functions going. Your muscles are metabolically active, so besides providing needed calories, their destruction slows down your metabolic rate so you use fewer and fewer calories while slowly starving to death.
Any long-term success will come only after you’ve learned to manage your food consumption. By preparing you own foods, you will learn which foods make you feel well and which foods drag you down. You learn about the energy contained in food and, most importantly, food will no longer be the enemy. By accepting responsibility for what you eat, you will have no one but yourself to credit for your success.
Another thing that is so very popular right now is the idea that there is some odd fruit, herb, spice, or whatever being discovered in the Amazon jungle and if you consume it, it will make you slim overnight. The claim is that these “super foods” will do everything that a healthy diet and an exercise program will do for you and all you have to do is eat them. This is so outrageous that it doesn’t even merit any more discussion.
It can be difficult to admit that the cause of your extra weight is because you eat too much and make poor choices. Lunches with co-workers, drinks after work, and weekend bingeing will sink any diet. Just stopping for that liquid candy bar of a coffee drink in the morning can be enough to cause a pound per month weight gain. Healthy snacks like dried fruit and nuts cross the line when they are consumed in excessive quantities. Tailgate parties where alcohol blunts good intentions will derail your diet. Now that the holidays are quickly coming upon us, remember that friends aren’t friends when they don’t respect your wishes and give you grief about not partaking in all the high-calorie, low-nutrition options at bars, restaurants, and home parties.
Even when you try to make good choices, you can be derailed by the diet industry. You decide to eat more fiber and protein but rather than eat lean meats and vegetables, you head off to the health food store and stock up on bars and powders guaranteed to make miracles happen. Far too often, the protein contained in these bars is substandard made palatable by gobs of added sugar. Some of the imports of dubious lineage even contain controlled substances that can be extremely harmful. I never recommend the use of supplements of any kind, but if you chose to use them, make sure what you are getting is what is advertised. The sad part of that is that I have no idea how to do that since the supplement industry is completely unregulated. Buyer beware, and understand that your supplement might just kill you.
Sugar is also hidden in many foods that pretend to be healthy. You need to understand that sugar goes by many names, including some that sound exotic and healthy.
Then there’s the tactic of defining a serving size. If you read the label, you’ll learn that some protein bars contain two servings. Seriously, who cuts a candy bar in half and shares or saves the rest for another time?
Breakfast cereals are another place for hidden sugars. Let’s face it, a bowl of cereal that is truly healthy wouldn’t be particular enticing. Dump some “nut clusters” (whatever that is) into it and it gets better. How about some agave syrup or raw sugar (that must be better than regular sugar, right?) to round out the bowl of grains. We are programed and conditioned to want sugar, so to sell a product, sugar is what they give us, no matter the name or form. The really sad part of this deception is that so few people realize that the reason they aren’t losing weight or getting any healthier, for that matter, is because they are still eating garbage masquerading as food. The only cure for this is education.
Real food doesn’t come from a factory, a box, or a vacuum-packed bag. Real food ingredients don’t read like a chemistry experiment. Meat, dairy, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains in their natural state are food. Now the hardest part to understand (particular for women) is that dieting to lose weight does not work long term. If you have a substantial amount of weight to lose, then moderate calorie restriction along with major dietary discipline makes sense. But, simply getting physically smaller through weight loss works against your long-term goal. Adding metabolically active muscle is the route to long-term and sustainable leanness.
When you just lose weight, particularly if you lose muscle, your caloric needs go down. So you have to continually eat less to even maintain your weight. If instead you eliminate the crap from your diet (even if you replace many of those calories with good food) and add in high-quality, smart weight training, you will get leaner. For a while (perhaps a couple of years), you will lose fat while adding muscle. Better yet, as you add muscle, you need more calories just to maintain it. There is disagreement as to how many calories per day a pound of muscle uses over what a pound of fat needs to exist, but even if it is just 10 calories, that adds up over time. Add ten pounds of muscle, and that’s an additional 3,500 per month. That’s a pound of food or fat used up each month just to maintain the additional muscle.
Plateaus while dieting, muscle loss, lowered energy, feelings of deprivation, and extreme calorie restriction all lead people to think that diets don’t work. In some ways they are right, too, if you think that your diet is only to lose weight rather than to fuel your body. By focusing on muscle gain rather than pounds lost, you will continually stoke your metabolic furnace, thereby using more calories just to live.
I once had a 26-year-old female client who wanted to lose 15 pounds. She didn’t really need to lose weight, although she was a bit soft and squishy; her diet was OK, but since she was “dieting to lose weight,” she wasn’t eating enough during the week and she was bingeing on the weekends. She felt that she was overweight when comparing herself to others without understanding the bigger picture of fat weight vs. lean weight. I told her I would work with her if she never, under any circumstance, weighed herself during the time we worked together. She couldn’t understand how this would work. I advised her to let the fit of her clothing rather than worrying about the scale be her guide.
Over the course of the next 24 weeks of training and dietary education and eating a clean, higher-protein, higher-calorie diet, her jeans got looser around the waist, but her shirts got tighter. She looked better, had more energy, and felt stronger. Soon she was getting compliments from her friends about how good she looked and about all the weight she had lost; she was a very happy client.
She abided by our agreement and never weighed herself during the entire training period. On that final fateful day, I asked her what she expected to see on the scale. She said she thought she had lost about eight pounds. When she stepped on the scale, she was shocked that she had GAINED 11 pounds; but her body fat had fallen 10 percent. She had lost 11 pounds of fat and gained 22 pounds of muscle; she finally understood all I had been preaching about eating and training and she was thrilled. In the ensuing years, she has been eating good food and progressively working her strength training program, and she has had no issues staying lean and strong.
This column has grown bigger than I had expected. So, think about what I’ve written above, act on it, and see what happens …and stay tuned for Part 2 next time.
More to Come…
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.