When your eating plan stops working
When your eating plan stops working, it’s normal to just feel… stuck. But you can fix almost any diet problem with these 3 steps. (The first one might really surprise you).
I’ve been working in the fitness and nutrition field for 5 years so I can say with certainty that every eating plan breaks down eventually. Kids come along, jobs get busy, family members get sick… LIFE happens.
It’s easy — too easy — to get lost.
But the exact nature of these nutrition breakdowns can vary. So, over the past few years, I’ve worked hard to come up with a formula that’ll fix almost any diet problem.
See, the nutrition “advice” you usually hear in the media and at the gym is often boiled down to buzzwords and slogans. You know the ones:
- “Just eat whole foods.”
- “Only eat food that your grandmother would recognize.”
- “Eat more fat and fewer carbs.”
- “If it doesn’t run, fly or swim – or it isn’t a green vegetable – don’t eat it.”
But when you’re a real human in the real world — or a fitness professional helping one — slogans don’t get the job done.
Slogans lead to nutritional wheel spinning, frustration, and fat-loss plateaus — or even unwanted weight gain. They lead to:
Should I just quit already?
Why do I suck at this?
Will nutrition always come with frustration and failure?
It’s time to go beyond the clichés and discuss how to really help clients fix a broken diet and start eating better.
To share how we troubleshoot eating plans when they’ve “just stopped working” and you don’t know what else to try.
And, finally, to show you how to use these powerful and purposeful strategies to improve your own eating.
Remove nutritional deficiencies
When diets stop working, most people assume they need a complete overhaul right away.
I have to cut out sugar… and dairy… and carbs… and saturated fat.
Plus I have to eat more protein… more healthy fats… and more vegetables.
I have to start drinking lots of water too.
And exercise… maybe a 6 am boot camp… yeah.
Let’s call it the Mission Impossibleapproach.
Through lots of frustration and failure in my early career, I realized that the Mission Impossible approach isn’t just difficult; it’s misguided.
Because a complete overhaul rarely addresses what’s keeping most people from eating well in the first place.
The problem is: People feel bad. And it’s really hard to find the effort that’s required for a healthy diet when you feel bad most of the time.
Now, I call the root sources of feeling bad “limiting factors”. Limiting factors are the things that stand in the way of progress. They could be physical, mental, emotional.
Let’s focus on the physical first.
Physical limiting factors could be hormonal imbalances or sleep deprivation or too much lifestyle stress. However, a very common — and very commonly overlooked — limiting factor is actuallydietary deficiency: not getting the right nutrients, in the right amounts, to look and feel your best.
Shocking percentages of the U.S. population are deficient in major nutrients.
When it comes to deficiencies, a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutritionbacks this up: It’s really hard to get all the essential vitamins and minerals from food alone.
This study analyzed 70 athlete diets.Every single diet was deficient in at least three nutrients. And some diets were missing up to 15 nutrients! The most common deficiencies?
- vitamin D
- vitamin E
Another study, also published in theJournal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, showed that people following one of four popular diet plans (including Atkins, South Beach, and the DASH diet) were also very likely to be micronutrient deficient, particularly in six key micronutrients:
- vitamin B7
- vitamin D
- vitamin E
In situations where populations are fed institutionally (i.e. prison inmates and school children) things can be even worse. But there’s hope.
Research in the British Journal of Psychiatry shows that providing fish oil and a multivitamin to prison inmates reduces aggressive and violent behavior by 35 percent and decreases antisocial behavior by 26 percent.
And a paper published in Nutrition Reviews shows that giving children fish oil and a multivitamin improves both their behavior and intelligence scores.
Bottom line: Dietary deficiencies are very common. Chances are, you’ve got one, no matter how good you think your diet is. At the same time, they’re not that hard to fix.
When you’re deficient in key nutrients, you feel bad.
As discussed above, optimized energy levels, appetite, strength, endurance, and mood all rely on getting enough essential nutrients.
That’s why you can eat “clean”, go Paleo, avoid meat, lower your carbs, or count calories – you can do “everything right” nutritionally – and still feel awful.
The most common deficiencies we see with new Precision Nutrition clients are:
- water (low-level dehydration)
- vitamins and minerals
- protein (particularly in women and in men with low appetites)
- essential fatty acids (95 percent of the population is deficient here)
The thing is, in the modern world, fixing a deficiency is pretty easy.
To find out if you (or your clients) are deficient in any area, there are a few options:
- Have a dietitian do a diet analysis.
- Record what you’re eating and enter it into an online nutritional calculator.
As soon as clients begin with us, we do a quick survey of what they’re eating. Six questions tell us most of what we need to know. From there, we help them:
- eat more of the protein-rich foods they prefer;
- drink more hydrating fluids;
- supplement with essential fats (fish or algae oil); and/or
- eat more foods rich in the vitamins and minerals they need most.
As soon as they get these nutrients, they start getting results.
Our clients quickly start feeling better:
- Immediately energy levels go up.
- They feel more motivated.
- They lose fat and gain lean muscle.
- Their workouts become easier and better.
They start seeing the results that stopped when their diets “broke”.
In the end, the first step to fixing dietary problems is to identify and remove nutritional deficiencies.
Adjust food amount and food type
Once we’re getting all the raw materials necessary for proper functioning (i.e. essential nutrients) we can move on to bigger issues:
- food amount (what some call calorie intake); and
- food composition (which includes macronutrient breakdown).
In my coaching programs I help clients get away from using handbooks, websites, databases, spreadsheets, and math when planning meals.
You see, while I know that total food (calorie) intake matters, I'm not really a fan of counting calories (for most people, most of the time).
To begin with, calorie counting does nothing to help us tune into our own powerful hunger and appetite cues. By learning how to listen to our own bodies, we have better long-term success in healthy eating.
(Of course, not everyone knows how to do this from the start. It takes a little coaching and some practice.)
Nor does calorie counting help us balance our health goals with our natural human enjoyment of food. In the short term, anyone can turn eating into a numerical and robotic exercise. But, in the long run, this strategy falls apart.
(Just ask anyone who “used to” count calories. You shouldn’t have a hard time finding them.)
There’s another problem with calorie counting: It’s just not all that accurate.
Because of imprecise labeling, lab errors, and differences in food quality and preparation, calorie counts recorded on food labels and websites – even those within the USDA’s nutrient databases – can be off by as much as 25 percent.
Then there’s the fact that human absorption is so wildly variable based on food preparation methods, and even the bacteria living inside your gut.
Of course, just like any other form of nutrition planning – including detailed calorie counting – this is just a starting point.
You can’t know exactly how your body will respond in advance. So stay flexible and “steer dynamically”. Adjust your portions based on your hunger, fullness, overall activity level, and progress towards your goals.
Start with the basic template and then adjust your portions at any time using outcome-based decision-making, aka:“How’s that working for you?”
For 9 in 10 people, eliminating nutrient deficiencies and getting food portions right will make a huge difference in how they look and feel.
However, for those who want to go further – because they have more advanced goals or because they’re already doing the first two and still struggling – let’s talk about food composition.
At Precision Nutrition, we have a really simple shortcut for helping people “eat right for their body type”.
We begin by classifying clients into one of three general categories (or somatotypes):
- I types (ectomorphs),
- V types (mesomorphs), and
- O types (endomorphs).