Controversial (and cheap) ways to stickWe spend an awful lot of time thinking about food.

I mean, a lot. And by a lot, I mean: A LOT.

Mention anything having to do with recipes or “clean eating” or diets in the women’s locker room and all conversation stops, because everyone wants to hear what’s being said.

We think and worry about food and diets so much that we get confused. Or we create a lot of conflict/drama surrounding food because we feel overwhelmed.

We forget what we already know and start to second-guess ourselves: What should I eat? When should I eat it? And how much should I eat? We worry about the minutiae – are carrots okay? Should I be eating fruit at night? – instead of the bigger picture.

Maybe it’s the fact that it is spring and we’re focused on getting ready for swimsuit season, but lately I’m getting a lot of questions via email, social media, text, in person and more. The bottom line is: HELP!

“Perfect” doesn’t exist

It is the rare client who doesn’t make a confession to me:

  • “My number one problem is my diet.”
  • “I eat too much.”
  • “I was so bad this past weekend.”
  • “I’m good all day but then at night, watch out!”
  • “I do great for a couple days and then it falls apart.”
  • “Sometimes when no one is looking I’ll sneak some candy at work.”
  • “I gotta get control of this thing.”
  • “I am so confused. I can’t get the hang of it.”
  • “Wine.” (Yes, generally these are one-word confessions). “Beer.” “Cookies.” “Ice cream.” “Chips.” “Pizza.” Or sometimes it’s just: “Carbs.”

Coaching clients about their diets is the single most confounding aspect of my gig as a personal trainer – and it’s also the single most important aspect of body transformation and overall wellness.

No one eats “perfectly” all the time. What does that even mean? Sometimes I feel guilty when I tell clients about my own occasional dietary “treats,” when I eat something like pizza or donuts. It’s as if I’m telling them the truth about the Easter Bunny – I’m letting them down and/or bursting their bubbles.

But for real: perfect does not exist. In fact, being “perfect” is an eating disorder and it’s called orthorexia.

Don’t eat this

Why do we get so confused? Because everyone has an opinion about what “works.” About what’s “right.” And they seem so adamant about those opinions.

I can pretty much guarantee you that no matter what you eat on any given day, there is someone out there who would find fault with it.

Our food beliefs can come from our family, religion and our culture. Many of us have control issues dating back to childhood (oh the stories my brother and I could share about dinnertime rules at our house!). Some of us are picky eaters, and others are used to the souped-up flavors found in restaurant food and also in fast food/takeout, and the very thought of eating fresh/whole foods/vegetables makes them gag.

And then you get the gurus who tell you to cut out all sugar, or animal products, or gluten, or fruit, or they say that you have to go low-carb, or that you need to eat for your blood type, or maybe you have food sensitivities, or you should eat 6 times a day, or they say that intermittent fasting is the way to go, and suddenly you don’t dare to eat anything.

Or maybe you decide to eat everything. Who could blame you?

(Seriously, I get at least 10 emails a day from various gurus telling me what/how/when to eat – or not eat. I don’t know why I don’t unsubscribe from their lists, but the truth is I kinda like knowing all the stuff that’s being shoveled online.)

Chew on this

What if instead of focusing on losing weight (or fat) you started thinking about something more positive – eating to improve how you feel? How is that for a controversial plan?

It’s a heck of a lot more motivating than grabbing your muffin top (if you have one) with disdain and viewing diet as a punitive method of correcting something you don’t love about yourself.

Beyond any fat-loss/muscle-gaining goals you might have, your nutritional intake has a major impact on your mood, energy, pain levels, your hunger and more.

We tend to have a major disconnect about what happens after we put food into our mouths. It’s like we expect a salad or sandwich to fuel us the same way an Oreo Blizzard or a meat/potatoes/veggie square-meal would.

Take a sec and think about you feel after eating each one of those things. I know I feel a heck of a lot better an hour after eating a salad than I do eating a Blizzard. And a square meal – protein, starch and veggie? That really makes me happy. (For more on this, check out this article.)

If you eat like sh*t you feel like sh*t

I know that to be a fact because I’ve experimented on myself numerous times. I’ve goofed up an otherwise energetic day by eating a big slice of frosting-slathered cake – it made me feel sluggish and bloated, and I needed a nap an hour later, and then I woke up feeling like I had been hit by a truck. Or how about eating too much while on vacation and needing almost a week back home before feeling strong and energetic again? Ugh.

I’ve also woken up feeling like I had a hangover because of eating too much before going to bed the night before. Blah.

And I’ve also had periods when I felt amazing, when I could jump high and run, felt positive about life, and had a ton of energy — and those times correlate with when I’m fueling my body with stuff it loves.

I know I’m not alone.

The magic formula

There is, in fact, a one-size-fits-all formula for weight loss. It’s really simple. If you create a calorie deficit – if you burn more calories than you take in – you will lose weight. Even if you eat crappy foods.

That’s how Weight Watchers and other calorie restriction programs work. They don’t restrict WHAT you eat, necessarily, and they do encourage healthy eating, but mostly they control your overall fuel (calorie) intake.

And that works for weight loss, pretty much every time.

I know a lot of people tell you that all calories are not created equal. And they are correct. But still, you will lose weight if you eat crappy foods as long as the overall intake is less fuel than you burn.

Maybe it’s not politically correct to write this, but think about the terrible ordeals suffered by people held in prison camps. They are stressed and starved – they clearly do not eat a vegan/paleo/pegan/40-30-30/macro/whatever buzzword you want diet. And they definitely lose weight.

But yes, they feel terrible and their weight loss isn’t the kind you would wish on anyone.

So what do you eat to lose fat healthfully? What diet will make you feel – and look – great?

This is where it gets kinda tricky and confusing. There is good (and evolving) science surrounding optimal diets, and we are learning new things all the time. Every time something new is uncovered, people start espousing why it’s so awesome, even as other people (coughTheGovernmentcough) push diets based on old science and beliefs.

That’s why it’s so confusing.

For instance, they used to say that to optimize your metabolism you should eat 5 to 6 times a day. Now, they are saying that might not be the case and for some of us, eating once a day is, in fact, enough.

But there are some basic truths about a healthy diet, and I am guessing if we sat down to talk about this you would outline for me the following as key points. And maybe you’d add a few other nuggets, too.

  • Eat less sugar.
  • Stay away from processed foods.
  • Eat protein at every meal.
  • Eat vegetables.
  • Get enough fiber.
  • Drink 8-10 glasses of water a day.
  • Take a good quality multivitamin to fill in any nutrition gaps.

And then if you wanted to lose weight, you would figure out how much you’re currently eating every day (keeping a food journal) and then calculating how many calories you need, and then eat slightly less – say 500 to 750 calories a day – than you burn.

That’s really not so tricky, is it? And you pretty much already knew all that, right? Imagine taking back the power over your diet! Actually listening to your own body and finding out what works best for YOU.

I’m working on a few projects right now to help people stick with their plans, which I know can be tough until you find the groove that works for you (and that, for some of us, is a moving target). But it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m really excited about helping people make that connection!

What’s your take on “diets”? Does it all confuse you, or have you found a plan that works for you? Let me know! I want to hear your thoughts.