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Your Thanksgiving Fitness Survival Guide (10 Tips)

 

This will brief; it’s Thanksgiving; you shouldn’t be spending your whole day reading fitness blogs!

A client and I were talking about how to walk the fine line of enjoying the Holiday without ruining one’s diet in a day, so I thought of some of my favorite bits of fitness advice that would do the following:

  1. Help keep total Calorie consumption down.
  2. Improve – or at least not damper – one’s enjoyment of the Holiday.

Here’s what I came up with.  After sharing with him, I felt it would make a nice, quick post here and maybe help some of my anonymous internet friends.  If any of these do indeed help you, or if you have any additional tips that meet the two requirements above, let me know in the comments!

1) Enjoy yourself! Don’t let fitness ruin Thanksgiving for you. It’s one day, and one day will never make or break a diet.
2) Eat slowly. It helps – it really does. Have conversation with those gathered around the table. Make that conversation a priority while also only eating when your attention is on the food you’re about to eat. This will slow you down considerably and also make the meal more enjoyable, both for you and those around you.
3) Start building your plate with veggies, and let them take up a lot of space. Cover half your plate with them. This will leave less space with everything else. It’s Thanksgiving, so most veggies will be cheesy, fatty monstrosities; that’s OK! If it’s green and a vegetable, it’s probably one of the smarter options of the day.
4) Go nuts for turkey! After veggies, turkey is your bff (if the veggies are indeed cheesy, fatty monstrosities, turkey is even better by comparison). Cover at least a quarter of your plate with turkey.
5) Limit variety. Pick the one or two non-turkey-and-vegetables things you’d like to try and give them a taste! Enjoy your favorites, but don’t feel like you need to taste every single thing available to you.
6) Fast up to the meal. Don’t eat before the big feast. If you do eat before the big feast, limit it to lean protein and veggies and maybe a piece of fruit. You do NOT need extra fat leading up to the meal; you’ll have plenty of fats available to you at your feast. Try to keep the Calories outside your big meal under 500.
7) Don’t count your Calories on Thanksgiving. It’s an exercise in futility and it feels sad. Don’t do it unless you’re on some sort of physique deadline (upcoming physique competition, photo shoot, etc.).
8) Consider a cup of coffee or – if you hate yourself – green tea before the feast. Caffeine is an appetite suppressant, and you might find you’re ravenous in anticipation of your Thanksgiving feast. A cup of coffee can help you come to the meal with a fighting chance for slowing down and not stuffing yourself.
9) Once you’ve (over)eaten, stop. If you stuff yourself at the meal, there’s a good chance you won’t be hungry later that day. It’s OK to stop eating and enjoy the other part of the Holiday (football, going to the movies, conversation with friends/family, board games, or whatever traditions you hold sacred). It’s not all about food.  This does not mean that you should shame yourself or practice compensatory behavior; it just means that you’ll probably not be hungry after your big meal, and you should pay attention to those hunger and satiety cues.
10) Feel free to forget all of this (except #1). It’s a Holiday, and it’s 100% OK to take the day off from worrying about food. I know some (myself included) like to have a feeling of control, and these things can help greatly with that feeling, but please know that it’s OK to just relax and to eat and drink a bit too much on this day.

 

Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Daniel

In Defense of Counting Calories

I’d like to mention right at the start of this that I am an unabashed fan of Precision Nutrition and their work; I use the Procoach curriculum with several clients, I think John Berardi is a positive force in the training industry, and I think that their teachings on change psychology are fantastic.  I frequently reference their textbook, and I am a better coach for having studied their materials.  I also think that the infographic and video I reference in this article are EXCELLENT advertising for their product (coaching).  While I disagree with their seemingly “anti-counting” stance, and I think their writing on this subject misses the forest for the trees, I don’t want anyone reading to think that I’m trying to “take down” Precision Nutrition (or any other crap like that).  So . . . onto the hatchet job (jokes, people).

In Defense of Calorie Counting

I was recently tagged on Instagram (follow @thesquattingtenor if you’d like to follow my very lively – 0 posts and counting as of writing this – account) by a friend who had seen a video by Precision Nutrition describing the inaccuracies of nutrition labels on foods (these labels can be up to 20% off in either direction).  The content of the video was not news to me; not only is it pretty common knowledge in the fitness community that food labels aren’t exact, but Precision Nutrition has written before about this phenomenon.

This begs the question: if nutrition labels are allowed to be inaccurate, why even count at all?  As I was preparing to write a much more technical piece on this subject, my friend (and one of the authors of the highly-recommended MASS) Greg Nuckols reached out to me with a piece he’d already prepared outlining flawed mathematical thinking in dismissing nutritional labels so quickly.  If you want to see more of that, go read Greg’s piece.

If you can’t stand technical writing, here’s the a brief explanation of why the variance in nutritional labeling isn’t that big of a deal: assuming you’re eating the same things repeatedly (as most people do), you will at least be getting a somewhat consistent calorie intake from week to week, leading to precision of your counting (picture B in the the figure below).  If you track your progress (and you should), you can then adjust your calorie target based on that progress.  Even if the number of calories you’re consuming isn’t actually the number you think it is (low accuracy), your consistency (or precision), coupled with the adjustments you make, will be enough to help you reach your goals.

 

Accuracy_and_precision_example.jpg

A: Accurate and Precise; B: Precise but not accurate; C: (reasonably) accurate, but imprecise; D: Neither accurate nor precise

 

If you eat a varied diet, on the other hand, we can assume the labeling/digestive differences of foods to cancel each other out over time (the bulk of the math in Greg’s article is designed to demonstrate this point).

So, that’s not such a big issue, and it’s certainly not worth throwing the calorie-counting baby out with the nutritional labeling bath water.  But what about other calorie counting criticisms?  Calorie counting has been criticized (justifiably) as unnecessary, difficult, tedious, unsustainable, and possibly leading to an unhealthy relationship with food/antisocial behavior.

That sounds pretty shitty, and yet I often recommend people count their calories and macronutrients.  Why would I do such a thing?  Well, before I specifically address the criticisms of calorie counting, let me just mention some of the overall reasons to count calories:

  • Calories are the only – seriously, the ONLY – determinant of long-term weight gain or loss (I can say this until I turn blue in the face, and I can link research until my fingers bleed, and yet somehow this truth still fails to sink in with people), and the act of counting calories can help to reinforce that understanding among those hoping to lose weight (if you’d like a great, easy-to-understand write-up on how the calories in/out model works, Greg wrote an excellent set of pieces for the aforementioned MASS breaking that down – subscribe and check those out!)
  • Assuming consistency (which is the number one driver of success with any dieting strategy) of counting and proper assessment of progress, counting calories gives objective data with which to manipulate a diet plan to ensure success over time
  • Even if one cannot count religiously forever, the act of having precisely monitored calorie intake for even a short duration of time can help health-conscious individuals make smart choices in the future; the often shocking revelations (“a literal POUND of chicken breast contains fewer calories than a large cookie!?!?” or “ALMOND BUTTER HAS HOW MANY CALORIES!?!?”) tend to stick with us and inform our decisions going forward; this is particularly true if the dieting individual is coached to be observant of the portion sizes and meal frequencies that help them reach their calorie goals on a consistent basis
  • Counting calories can, in some cases, help individuals who suffer from unhealthy food beliefs (an irrational fear of pasta, for example) to recognize that, even though food quality is important, there is no one food that will halt weight loss or cause weight gain in the context of proper energy (calorie) balance

Given these pros, you can see how some people might be in favor of counting calories.  Are there other ways to lose weight?  Totally!  Could counting calories be the best approach for you?  Absolutely!  Could you even combine more than one approach to weight loss, allowing for greater flexibility and better long-term results (get ready to have your mind blown)? YES!

Mind Blown Billy Nye

Mind: Blown

Counting Calories: How to Do It

So, you want to lose weight, and you’re thinking about counting calories.  You want to do it right – good for you!

Step 1: Realize that your diet is not forever.

Weight loss and weight maintenance are not the same thing.  You will almost certainly experience discomfort – both physically and emotionally – when losing weight.  You want to minimize this discomfort, of course, but knowing that it will be there and that it’s not permanent makes a big difference in the process.

Step 2: Download the My Fitness Pal app onto your smartphone.

There are a whole bunch of tracking apps, but MFP is free, has a huge database, and it incredibly easy to use.  I have no financial affiliation with the app; it’s just excellent.  Every single thing (seriously, even that one M&M that hardly matters, especially since you walked a lot today) that goes into your mouth goes into the app.  Do not cheat yourself by half-assing this process; if you’re going to count calories, do it right and get the job done.

Step 3: Get a food scale and weigh everything (seriously, everything) you put into your mouth for at least a week.

Well, everything that isn’t an entire, pre-weighed and properly labeled container (e.g. if you eat an entire pint of Halo Top ice cream, or 1 lb of 96% lean ground beef, you can just enter that into your food journal).

Why weigh everything? Because, like they mention in the PN article (in a nicer way than this), you suck at estimating your portion sizes.  At least, you suck at it if you haven’t weighed your food for an extended period.  Picture a pound of chicken breast.  Can you do that?  If you haven’t weighed chicken and observed that different quantities look like, you really don’t know how much you’re eating.  This gets worse with more calorie dense foods; if you eat 12oz chicken breast instead of 14oz, that’s no big deal; if you consistently eat an extra ounce of nut butter, you could be sabotaging your diet.

This weighing thing can be tedious, but it’s not forever (though you’d be wise to check in with a scale from time to time going forward).  When you weigh foods, try to get a feel for what proper quantities look like.  Make a (not very fun) game of it; see if you can put 8oz of lean meat on your plate and then check to see if you were accurate.  Then, observe what that meat looks like when cooked; this will help you when you’re barbecuing with friends (or eating at a restaurant, or eating at a friend’s place, or any number of other social activities that you’ll want to attend without your service animal food scale) without screwing up your diet (or worse: screwing up your life worrying about your diet).

Step 4: Consistently Weigh Yourself

How consistently?  Every morning, or at least close (you don’t need to pack your scale if you’re going away for the weekend).  Do it after you use the bathroom, and before you’ve had anything to eat or drink.  Why do this?  You do this because one day’s weight means almost nothing; trends in weight, however, matter a lot.  By taking your weight at the same time every day, you can see trends (compare weekly averages, or even two-week averages to cut down on the weight fluctuation noise.  If you’re a woman, keep in mind that your weight will fluctuate with your menstrual cycle, so you’ll want to take this into account when tracking progress.

Do not become emotionally attached to the number on the scale.  Do you want it to trend down?  Absolutely!  If it goes up one day, though, that means nothing (this is why you weigh yourself every day, as opposed to once a week).  Also, if it’s not trending down, use that data to . . .

Step 5: Make Adjustments

If your weight isn’t trending down, don’t get upset; use that data to figure out what needs adjusted.  Have you been weighing everything?  Have you been honest with your tracking?  Have you given your diet enough time to see if it’s working (wait at least a couple of weeks before making any adjustments)?  If so, maybe it’s time to drop your calories a little bit.  Try dropping by 200 a day and see if that does the trick.

A Few Extra Bits on Implementation:

That covers the basics, but I’d like to go into some more specific strategies you can use to get the most out of counting calories.  Most of the criticisms of calorie counting (to refresh: unnecessary, difficult, tedious, unsustainable, and possibly leading to an unhealthy relationship with food/antisocial behavior) have been addressed in the 5 steps above, or will be addressed in these extra bits.  My readers are generally pretty smart, so I’m not drawing arrows or circling things in red, but if you are still left concerned about any of those criticisms, feel free to leave a comment below!

  • Eat slowly, and don’t eat if you’re not hungry – I know this sounds so simple, but you might be shocked by how hard not eating when you’re not hungry can be. We so often eat out of habit, or because we’re bored, or because we’re sad, or because of a million reasons other than that we’re hungry.  I encourage all my clients to stop eating when they’re not hungry.  If you’re counting calories and you have “calories left” at the end of the day, don’t just eat some random thing to hit your target; enjoy the expedited weight loss!
  • Value your weekly caloric intake over your daily intake – You’re playing the long game. Say you’re in less diet-friendly situations certain days (Saturday), and that leads to you going over your calorie target that day.  This is not the end of the world!  In fact, if you’ve been practicing not eating when you’re not hungry and stayed a couple hundred calories under your target throughout the week, you might even still be under your weekly goal – way to go, stud!
  • Control what you can, and don’t sweat the rest – This is true of all things in life, but the most valid criticism of calorie counting in my mind has to do with its users’ unfortunate tendencies towards all-or-nothing thinking. Here’s what that might look like: “I’m away for the weekend, and I’m not taking my food scale, and so I can’t accurately count my calories; I guess I just have to drink excessively and eat crap the whole time.  Maybe it will ‘refeed’ my body and I’ll diet more effectively when I get back home!” . . . NO!    Bad.  Don’t do this.  Are you in an environment where you’re not able to count your calories?  Cool.  Just because they’re not going into your app doesn’t mean that they’re not going into your body.  Do your best to not turn that weekend into a full-on binge; eat slowly; chew your food; stop when you’re not hungry; don’t start eating if you’re not hungry; enjoy a drink (or even a few, if it’s that kind of weekend), but don’t drink to the point that you make poor food choices and feel terrible the next day.  Some people might find that logging guesstimates into a tracking tool like MFP helps them stay honest with themselves.  Others (myself included) prefer to keep a little notepad of the things they eat when they’re in a precarious food environment, as this provides some accountability (it feels funny to write 3 sourdough nibblers and 2 slices of turkey in your notepad) without adding extra number-related stress.  Some people prefer to eat mostly “clean” foods while they’re away.  Whatever you do, don’t use “I can’t count perfectly” as an excuse to wreck your diet.
  • If you do fuck up, just get back into your groove –Why do we fall, sir? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” If Batman can make mistakes, so can you!  Let’s say you drank too much over the weekend and then crushed some Papa John’s pizza (we’ve all been there).  Was that a great thing to do?  Probably not.  Is it the end of the world (or your diet)?  No!  Just go back to what you were doing, recognize that the weight spike you have the next day is the result of some extra sodium and carbohydrate intake (here’s a great breakdown of what happens to the body after a day of overeating) and get back to what you were doing.  One day is no big deal.  Don’t give up, and don’t compensate by starving yourself, either; just do what you were doing before.  If you find that after your day (or days) of overeating you’re not hungry (this is likely), you can take advantage of that lack of hunger and have a few lighter days of eating.  Just don’t go nuts and starve yourself as punishment.
  • Eat like a grownup – I know that IIFYM (if it fits your macros) advocates will tell you that you can eat a diet of Poptarts and protein powder and still get totally shredded (and they’re not wrong), but that might not be the best thing for your long-term health, and it will almost certainly be more difficult than eating whole foods (want to eat more vegetables? Check out this article!).
  • Set yourself up for success – If you get hungry in the evenings, then save most of your calories for the evening. The same strategy works if you like social dinners that are harder to track: eat a breakfast and lunch that is mostly lean protein and veggies so you have some extra calories available and you’re not starving come dinner time.  Don’t get caught up in nutrient timing; given that weekly calories matter more than daily calories, you can rest assured that nutrient timing on an hourly basis is a small and largely irrelevant detail to all but the most extreme dieters.

One Issue I’d like to address directly: Can calorie counting lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and/or antisocial behavior?

This is a subject I hold near and dear to my heart, and that I felt deserved being directly addressed.  When trying to get into shape, there will invariably be a change in the way you interact with friends and family.  I mean to write about this much more at length in the future, as I believe it’s the #1 reason diets fail.

Here’s my take: calorie counting puts cold, hard evidence in your face about your eating habits.  If you’re supposed to eat 2,700 calories in a day, and you’ve already eaten those calories, logging your food forces you to make a conscious choice when someone offers you a drink (or some ice cream, or a slice of pie, or even a “healthy” treat) as you watch Netflix that evening: do you go over your calorie allotment for the day, or do you stick to your diet?  The same choice has to be made if a friend wants to grab drinks that evening, and you know that the 3 beers your friend will want to have with you will be very difficult to fit into your calorie allotment.

There is no magic answer to this dilemma.  We rarely get something for nothing in life; there’s almost always a trade-off.  Do you want to lose weight?  You’ll have to change your habits.  Calorie counting works in part because it forces you to be objective about your choices.

That said, there is a way to navigate this situation with some gracetalk to those close to you!  Tell them your goals.  Tell them you value them and need their support.  Tell them that the change you’re making for yourself isn’t an indictment of the activities they enjoy with you, but rather something you need to do for whatever reason you need to do it (pro tip: figure out why you’re doing what you doing for better odds of reaching your goals).

Now that your loved ones know where you’re coming from, find ways you can enjoy quality time with them that don’t wreck your diet: if you KNOW your girlfriend likes having sweet snack with you in the evening, find a healthier alternative (Halo Top ice cream is an easy one, or you can cook some apples and serve them over Greek yogurt, or any number of things – get creative) and save some calories for that occasion; your beer-drinking buddy (probably) values your company more than the beer, so maybe go for dinner at a steakhouse (to get an 8oz sirloin with broccoli and a baked potato) instead of drinks.  And everyone once in a while, make room in your diet (and your life) to do those things you once enjoy with your friends; just be aware of the trade-off you’re making and own your decision.  Also, remember: your diet is not forever!  It’s much easier to sneak some “naughty” activities into a eucaloric (neither surplus or deficit) diet than into a calorie deficit (what you need to lose weight).

I could go on, but that topic really does deserve its own article.  I’ll get to it.  For now, that’ll have to do.

In Conclusion

Calorie counting works.  Is it for everyone?  No, but what is, really?  A good coach works with the client in front of them (yes, that pronoun selection is a conscious choice), and while some might be better off with other strategies (some I find to be quite effective: reducing alcohol consumption, increasing vegetable consumption, increasing lean protein consumption, eating slowly, reducing calorie-laden liquid intake), many will benefit greatly from calorie counting.

Also, this isn’t a binary decision; many of my calorie-counting clients work their way through a habit-based curriculum to make healthier eating choices long-term.  It is no coincidence that these clients get some remarkable results.

And one last thing . . . I write these articles because I believe the best way to attract new clients is to help people with my knowledge and expertise.  The only way I can do that is if people see and read my articles.  If this article helped you, or you know someone who might benefit from reading it, please consider sharing it on Facebook.  Thank you!

If you’d like some help figuring out the best course of action for your diet and exercise plan, consider applying to train with me.

If you’d like to hear about new articles as they come out, “like” Daniel Lopez Training on Facebook!

Vegetables: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Broccoli

Dr. Strangelove Basic Image

If you don’t recognize this image, or the reference in the title of this article, get thee to a streaming service and watch Dr. Strangelove.

*Necessary Disclaimer: I am not a Registered Dietitian, and I am not a doctor. I’m not even that big, bro. Please, do not misinterpret anything on this site as medical advice. It’s not. Always consult a doctor before doing anything that might negatively impact your health, and always use caution when listening to an opera singing personal trainer.

*Unnecessary Disclaimer: Sometimes, I use profanity. I have people edit my work, but then I go back and change more things. If some profanity sneaks its way into here, I’m not sorry; you’ve been warned.

*Unnecessary Second Disclaimer: I am 45 year-old dad in the body of a 28 year old performer.  I make bad jokes.  I’m not as sorry as I should be.

*One last one: there aren’t any affiliate links in this article; I’m recommending things simply because I like them and believe that you will, too.  If I do end up as an affiliate with anything linked here, I’ll update my information to make clear where those affiliations are.

Enjoy!

. . .

It was always a bit embarrassing for me earlier in life, not liking vegetables.  I wished I did, and I’d force a couple down when I really had to, but generally, I just didn’t enjoy eating them.  This was a bummer, as it not only made me feel like a picky child; it also made reaching or maintaining a healthy weight a major challenge.

Now, I eat vegetables.  Lots of them.  I eat more and more as time goes by, and I truly enjoy them.  That last bit is new; I started eating veggies regularly a few years ago, but I didn’t get to a place where I could enjoy a steamed bag of broccoli with salt and pepper until recently.

How’d I go from no veggies to craving Brussels sprouts?  Slowly.  The way I started loving veggies reminds me of how I started loving black coffee: I started with coffee-free drinks that were basically milkshakes and slowly inched my way to the black gold that now tickles my taste buds every morning.

Frescante Pic

It all started with this heavenly beverage.  If you’re ever in Athens, OH, you’d be a fool not to visit The Donkey.

Here’s that story: the summer after my freshman year of high school, I took a chemistry course at Ohio University, where my dad works (I was/still am a nerd).  After class, I would study and play chess with my friend at The Donkey.  While there, I would get this delightful beverage called a Frescante (it’s like a Frappuccino, but tastier), only I’d ask for it without espresso; I didn’t like the flavor of the espresso.  Then, a cute girl started to work at the Donkey during the hours I’d be enjoying my Frescantes and chess, and I wanted to be cool (because cool guys order sweet, frozen coffee for their post-chem chess games), so I started asking for my Frescantes the normal way: with coffee.  Eventually, my taste buds adapted, and I enjoyed my sugary drink with a hint of coffee.

Nerdy Chess Guy

An artist’s rendering of me at The Donkey with Chris Jo (or, rather, a random photo I found on Google).

Fast-forwarding to my junior year, I was always tired because high school starts at some miserably early hour (around the same time most of my clients go to the gym, strangely enough).  One morning, my dad stopped for gas on the way to school, and I smelled and saw this delicious-looking drink: it was a mocha cappuccino.  I tried one, and I was hooked.  Now, this drink was basically candy, but it was a step closer to black coffee from my Frescantes.

Fast-forwarding again, I was in Guatemala visiting my family.  While there, I went to a café that was supposed to have nice coffee.  I still didn’t really like coffee, so I ordered a cappuccino and added some sugar to it, and that was decent enough.  Then, however, my older brother (who was and is much cooler than me), and my cousin (also cooler) started talking about how a real coffee drinker knows that putting anything in his coffee simply ruins it, and that good coffee was meant to be enjoyed black.  With great shame, I stowed away my sugary cappuccino and ordered a black coffee in its stead.  I didn’t love it, but I could stomach it, and it made me feel like a real connoisseur, and like someone my brother and my cousin would like.  Eventually, after drinking black coffee with some regularly, I learned not only to tolerate it, but to crave its taste to the point that I don’t stop at my morning coffee; I also drink decaf coffee in the evenings.

Coffee Beans Heart

My feelings about coffee

And now: vegetables.  Vanity and shame is what inspired me to learn to love coffee, but there are many, better reasons to learn to love veggies.  Here are a few:

  • Vegetables are very low in calories, which can help you to lose weight.
  • Vegetables are full of fiber, which helps fill you up and keeps you full, helping you create a calorie deficit and lose weight (same article, because you really should read it).
  • Vegetables contain things called phytochemicals, which can help improve health and overall well-being
  • Vegetables, once you get used to eating them, can be quite delicious, and open you up to many new culinary experiences
  • Eating vegetables makes you feel like an adult with an adult palate, and you don’t have to feel embarrassed at restaurants when everyone’s given a salad and you gag down two leaves of lettuce before pushing your plate away in shame
Daniel Craig 007

James Bond’s secret to healthy skin and sexy abzzz, even with all the martinis?  Broccoli: roasted; not steamed. #dadjokes

But how can you love these hideous health monsters?  How can you go from chicken-fingers-only all the way to bags of kale (please, don’t ever eat bags of kale; I love veggies, but kale is fucking gross).  As I do with most things, I recommend starting with something easy, and then gradually making your way towards your goal.  Let’s approach some “low-hanging fruit” veggie strategies, and then go on to some intermediate steps before finally seeing if you’re reading to make the plunge to lightly dressed cabbage and bean sprouts (my weird, new fetish).

Level 1 Veggie Eating: The Frescante  (For those who really, really hate vegetables):

Vegetables

If you feel queasy just looking at this picture, you’re in the right place.  Read on!

 

You know you should eat vegetables, but the thought of broccoli touching your lips makes you gag.  Is this you?  Well, you’re in the right place.  The following are a few easy ways to get past your first “I hate vegetables” hurdle:

  • Add frozen spinach to a smoothie – Why it works: frozen spinach has a very mild taste, and if you put it into a reasonably tasty smoothie, you’ll hardly notice it. If you want a smoothie that tastes pretty much like candy, try this recipe: a serving of frozen spinach, 100g frozen bananas, 70g frozen berries, 1.5 cups unsweetened, vanilla almond milk, 1 Tbsp peanut butter, 1 scoop of Quest Peanut Butter Protein Powder, half a serving of walnuts, and a dash of salt.  This smoothie is not super low in calories (it comes out to around 500 kcals), so eat it as a meal-replacement (I say eat because it will come out thick, which you want, and you should eat it with a spoon).  Your smoothie will be green, which will make you feel like an obnoxious healthy person, but it will taste like a delicious, indulgent, “I’ve been a bad boy” type of treat.  Here’s a low-calorie alternative (~160 kcals and ~25g protein): put 1 serving of frozen spinach, 2 packets of Splenda, a squirt of stevia, 1 cup of unsweetened almond milk, 1 cup of coffee (regular or decaf), sea salt (start with just a little bit, then  add more and re-blend if things don’t blend properly), 1 scoop of Quest Chocolate Milkshake protein powder, and enough ice that the ice is tops out just under the same level as the liquids.  Optional (but recommended) spices: vanilla extract, cinnamon, and nutmeg.

 

Smoothie Unblended Pic

The former smoothie recipe, pre-blending. #moodlighting #windowfilter

  • Finely chop an onion to start a stir fry – This one is also easy: heat some oil in a pan (virgin coconut oil is particularly tasty in this context). Add some onion to that oil, and let it soften.  Then, add some chicken (or another protein source) and cook it.  Season it with salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, cumin, or whatever other seasonings you like.  Also, consider throwing a few splashes of soy sauce (or tamari, if you like the finer things in life) in there.  Serve it over a bit of rice, and you’ll be eating and enjoying veggies.  Added bonus: onion cooking in coconut oil smells incredible!

 

  • Slip some spinach into your sandwich – Another spinach one, but just because it’s so gosh-darn easy to sneak into things. Say you were going to make a turkey and cheese sandwich.  Put a few leaves on spinach between the turkey and the non-cheesy side of the sandwich.  Why that side?  Because you’ll be able to put the cheese side down and enjoy that cheesy flavor (#sneakyspinach).  If you heat the sandwich (#grilledcheese), the spinach will cook down a bit and be even less noticeable.  Once you’re feeling brave, you can slip more and more spinach into your sandwich, and you won’t even feel like gagging!

 

Spinach.jpg

I typed “sneaky spinach” into Google and found there’s actually a children’s book of that very name, but alas, I couldn’t find a pic labeled for reuse, so you’re stuck looking at these boring leaves.  If you’re curious, here’s the book: https://www.nekterjuicebar.com/products/sneaky-spinach-childrens-book

  • Mash some carrots into your mashed potatoes – Hang on! Take it easy!  I, too, love mashed potatoes, and I wouldn’t fuck around with this beloved comfort food if it weren’t totally safe.  All you do is this: when you boil the potatoes to mash, also boil some carrots.  Make them small so they cook and mix well into your mashed potato mixture.  You’ll do everything the same way you normally would for mashed potatoes, and they’ll be absolutely delicious (plus, they’ll have fun little orange spots in them, which makes your potatoes look exotic!).  Start with just a few carrots until you trust that they aren’t messing up your potatoes, but after a few tries, you may end up using a ratio of 1:2 carrot:potato.  I made these recently for a Christmas Eve dinner, but sadly, I didn’t have the foresight to take a picture.  Perhaps I’ll add one later.

 

  • Make a spinach, turkey, and goat cheese scramble – This was another starter veggie dish for me. Here’s what you’ll do: rip some deli meat turkey (you could use ham or roast beef if you want – ham is particularly tasty – but I like turkey) into small pieces and give it some color on a non-stick pan.  Add goat cheese and spinach for about 10-15 seconds, then add your eggs and stir until cooked (you can have your eggs pre-beaten and to the side, but if you’re lazy like me, you can just crack them over the other ingredients and mix it all up in the pan).  Add salt and pepper to taste (or other spices, if you’re feeling exotic), and enjoy.  The spinach cooks down into practically nothing, and you can hardly taste its mild flavor over the stronger goat cheese and deli meat deliciousness.  You can cook this recipe in butter if you’d like, but you probably don’t need any fat to keep things from sticking if you’ve got a good pan.  Why a scramble instead of an omelet?  Two reasons: 1) they’re faster and easier, and 2) you get more consistent egg:everything else ratio (some parts of omelets are heavenly, but the corners are just eggs – scramble > omelet).

Level 2 Veggie Eating: The Frescante With a Shot of Espresso (For those who realize that, in theory, veggies might be ok, but who want to work on looking them in the eye when eating them)

Start of Wall-E Eyes Image

Bold movie statement: Wall-E is the best animated film of all time.

Maybe you already sneak in veggies every here and there; maybe you read this article and successfully incorporated a few level one strategies into your diet (if you did this, please shoot me a message on my Facebook page!  I’d love to know I helped you down a couple leafy greens you might not otherwise have consumed!); maybe you’re just looking for a bit more of a challenge than what I outlined above.  If this is you, try some of these ideas for consuming easily-recognizable-yet-still-highly-palatable veggies:

  • Order fajitas – Peppers are freaking delicious. So are onions (see above).  When well-seasoned and browned in oil, they’re downright amazing.  If you go to a good Mexican restaurant and order fajitas, you should be given a sizzling (literally) plate loaded with those two easy-to-love veggies along with a protein of your choice.  On the side, you’ll probably get some lettuce and some tomatoes (these can be your “extra credit” challenge, and are made palatable by the sour cream and/or guacamole that comes along with it.  If you’re looking for the easiest point-of-entry for these vegetables, I recommend putting some lettuce, tomatoes, onions, peppers, protein, guac, and sour cream onto one of your tortillas and making a mini-burrito.  Not only will you be downing pure joy with every bite; you’ll also be consuming four veggies (and some lean protein!) that you might not otherwise have enjoyed. #winwin #purejoy #bestlife #vivaMexico #hashtag

 

Better Fajitas Pic

Pro tip: make Mexican friends and enjoy tasty food for the rest of your life.

  • Start a soup with a mirepoix – A mirepoix is a perfect and way to begin any soup, and by the time you eat those veggies – especially if you chop them into small pieces – they’ll be so soft that you hardly notice they’re there! Here’s a recommendation for a very simple soup: soften your mirepoix (extra credit/tastiness if you also put some garlic in there) in some olive oil.  Separately, boil some potatoes in chicken broth.  Add the mirepoix to the broth and allow it to keep boiling.  Brown some chicken thighs, chopped into small chunks, in your mirepoix pan (so you don’t have to dirty an extra pan), and then add that to the soup.  Recommended seasonings – basil, red pepper (if you like some kick), black pepper, and ginger in the pot; season mirepoix/chicken with salt, pepper, red pepper (again: optional), cumin (my secret ingredient – sssshhhh), and/or a bit of chili powder/paprika.  Eat, and enjoy your happy life (this recipe is extremely comforting if you’ve got a cold!).
Mirepoix

Whether you’re cooking a fine French consomme or trying to recreate your Grandma’s magical chicken noodle soup, these three, flavorful veggies are sure to get you where you want to go.

  • Make a tasty casserole – here’s one of my favorite healthy casserole recipes: cook rice in chicken broth. Separately, soften an onion, and garlic in oil.  Add chicken and slightly undercook it, along with some broccoli.  In a baking dish, mix the cooked/partially cooked ingredients with some Greek yogurt, egg, bread crumbs, and cheese (you can play around with cheeses, but I’m partial to sharp cheddar).  Extra credit if you add spinach (in case you couldn’t tell, I’m an advocate for adding spinach to pretty much everything, ESPECIALLY if you’re struggling to get veggies into your diet).  Once everything is mixed, spread your mixture until it evenly covers the baking dish.  Sprinkle some extra bread crumbs and cheese on top and bake it for around 25-30 minutes (cooking time can very greatly depending on how big a casserole you’re making).  At the end, try broiling it for a few minutes to get a beautifully crispy top to your casserole.  Let it sit for a few minutes (smarter cooks than myself swear this matters, but I mostly do it to torture myself), and then chow down!  Be sure to season your ingredients throughout this process with at least salt and pepper.  Other fun things to add during the process: lemon, basil, oregano, red pepper, onion powder, and whatever other spices you like.
Casserole.jpg

Cook this right, and you can pile literal pounds of vegetables into this casserole without batting an eye.

  • Order pho, God’s gift to man – If you’ve never had pho before, stop reading, Google where you can find it near you, go get it, and then thank me later.  Pho is my favorite food, and it’s also a great way to eat some veggies you aren’t getting from the earlier ideas in this list: bean sprouts!  Bean sprouts are magical and delicious, but they can look a little spooky (a weird, long, thin, clear, foreign entity that’s usually served raw), but don’t be spooked!  Your bean sprouts will be served on a plate (usually next to some basil, lime, and – if you’re lucky – jalapeños) alongside a big, steaming, beautiful bowl of broth, meat, and noodles.  Put them into your soup, and they’ll cook instantly, adding a delicate and magical “crunch” to your Vietnamese noodle soup.
Pho.jpg

If you’re ever in NYC, go to Saigon Shack on Macdougal Street.  Better yet: find me, and I’ll go there with you.  This is my favorite restaurant for my favorite food.  I love this place so passionately (and visit so frequently) that, despite being packed with customers all day,  they know my name and my order.

  • Make chili – Chili is delicious and nutritious, and it’s packed with easy-to-handle veggies. Here’s a (secret) recipe (don’t tell anyone) that will get you lots of veggies with very little veggie growing pains: start by cooking some bacon.  Once that’s done, remove the strips and set them aside.  In the bacon grease, cook an onion, some bell peppers, and some spicier peppers (jalapeños if you want moderate spice, habaneros if you like it HOT, or leave them out if you don’t like too much kick), garlic (there are those who would say to leave this out, but I love me some garlic), and some diced tomatoes (or grape/cherry tomatoes, halved), and – if you’re feeling crazy – some VERY finely chopped carrots (do not give people chili with huge chunks of carrots).  Season with chili powder, salt pepper, and whatever other spices you hold near and dear to your heart.  Set this aside in a strainer to get rid of excess grease.  Now, cook some lean ground beef; if you get 96% lean beef, you won’t have to deal with the residual fit and you can cook it right in the pot.  Season that with the same seasonings as the veggies.  Add in your veggies, along with a couple cans of beans (kidney beans and black beans are both great for chili), some tomato sauce (plain – not the seasoned stuff for pasta) and some tomato paste, and a jar of your favorite salsa (preferably one that features similar ingredients to the rest your chili – you’re mostly doing this to get a big of extra volume so your chili doesn’t feel like a dense pile of meat and beans).  Mix this all up, and then add your final ingredient: beer.  I recommend a light beer when you’re just starting out (a wheat ale is a great choice!), but as you get more adventurous, you might try making an earthier, heartier chili using something like a porter.  Let the chili come to a simmer, taste it for flavor, and adjust seasoning as needed (pro tip: you probably need more salt).  Enjoy your onions, pepper, tomatoes, and (maybe) carrots in a way that tastes like a treat, as opposed to a chore.
Chili.jpg

If I’m attending a superbowl party – or pretty much any social gathering – you can be sure this tasty dish will be my plus-one.  Pro tip: serve this over a bit of spinach and rice for extra tastiness and extra veggies.  The spinach will wilt into practically nothing.

  • Make my favorite kind of pizza – This pizza is a staple in my apartment in Brooklyn.  I use Trader Joe’s ciabatta flatbread, so if you don’t have a Trader Joe’s near where you live (and, for whatever reason, you’re not wiling to move to be near the world’s greatest grocery store), you may need to adjust cooking times.  Here’s what you do: preheat your oven to ~425 degrees (I set mine at 400, but mine tends to run hot, so I estimate it’s around 425).  On a large cutting board (or any flat thing, really), rub a light layer of olive oil on your premade crust.  Spread a thing layer of pesto sauce on top (thing because pesto sauce has around 1 million calories per serving).  On top of that, put a fuckton (+/- half a fuckton) of spinach (really load it up – it’ll cook down in the oven).  On top of this, put some lean meat (Deli meat turkey works well, as does pre-cooked grilled chicken and pre-cooked roast turkey.  Other meats are fine, but these are my personal favorites), and then add some low fat mozzarella (because it tastes almost identical, and you don’t want to get diabetes in your quest to eat a few extra veggies) on top.  Now, things get super fun: put globs of full-fat ricotta cheese (because low-fat ricotta does NOT taste almost identical) all over, then sprinkle with tomatoes (halved cherry/grape/heirloom tomatoes work great, as do sliced/diced larger ones) and thinly-sliced garlic.  Top with salt, pepper, red pepper, basil, and oregano for some Italian magic.  Put it directly on your oven rack for ~10 minutes (don’t put it on a baking sheet, as it won’t get properly crispy).  So you don’t have to clean your oven later, put something on the rack below to catch any melted cheese that falls off.
Delicious Pesto Pizza

I’m bad at Instagram (check out @thesquattingtenor for literally 0 uploaded pics as of 1/5/2018) and food porn, but trust you me: this thing is beautiful, both inside and out.

Level 3 Veggie Eating: The Iced Coffee With Milk (For when you want to enjoy your veggies instead of hiding them)

Popeye Japanazis.jpg

A diet rich in spinach helped Popeye to develop some sick biceps AND blast ’em Japanazis; what could you achieve if you added some extra veggies to your diet?

  • Make chicken fried rice – This is the grown-up version of the onions in your stir fry from “level one.” Soften an onion, some shredded carrots, celery, and peppers in oil (once again, virgin coconut oil is my preferred oil for this).  Add some garlic in at the end if you – like me – like garlic in everything (my youngest brother would tell you not to do this, and he’s a better cook than I am, but it’s my blog and I’ll garlic where I see fit).  Season these things with salt and pepper, along with your choice of cumin, turmeric, ginger, cayenne pepper, chili pepper, paprika, cinnamon, and coriander (mix and match as you see fit – get creative, but if you’re trying a new spice, start with less and use more once you know you like it).  Add in some chicken breast, chopped finely (because finely-chopped chicken cooks faster) and add more seasoning if needed (it may be seasoned by association with the veggies).  Once the chicken is close to done, add in some finely-chopped broccoli (you’ll get the timing down for when to add chicken to the initial veggies, and when to add the broccoli, as you get more repetitions under your belt).  Add a healthy few splashes of tamari to this combination, and if you’re feeling extra fancy, clear some space to cook up an egg (you can do this separately, or you can just make some space in your pan so you have less clean-up later).  Add already-cooked rice to this (I cook brown rice at the beginning of the week because it keeps better than brown rice, and I have it on hand for things like this recipe), mix everything together, see how things taste and adjust seasoning accordingly (another pro tip: you’re probably going to want to add more tamari).  Extra credit veggies: once things are almost entirely done, throw in some spinach and/or bean sprouts.  Spinach will be mild and you’ll hardly notice it, whereas the bean sprouts will give a fun crunch and cool, nutty flavor to your fried rice!
Stir Fry.jpg

This + rice = chicken fried rice.

  • Roast those bad boys – Once you’ve been sneaking veggies into your dishes for a while, you may find that roasting them seems less scary. My two favorite veggies to roast: Brussels sprouts and broccoli.  For great Brussels sprouts, preheat your oven to 425 degrees.  Chop you Brussels sprouts in half and toss them in a bowl with some oil (either canola or olive oil will be just fine), salt, pepper, fresh thyme, and (optional, but highly recommended) finely-chopped bacon (once again, you can thank me later).  Spread the sprouts out on a pan so they get some nice, dry heat (don’t have them piled on top of one another) for about 20 minutes, turn them around, and then roast another 20 minutes.  Check for done-ness by popping one in your mouth.  When in doubt, cook them more (slightly-overdone Brussels sprouts are much better than sad, undercooked ones).  To roast broccoli, try this: preheat oven to ~400 degrees.  Toss broccoli, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, other seasonings you like, and olive oil in a bowl until well-mixed.  Roast for around 20 minutes (again, use your nose/taste buds to adjust cooking time) and enjoy.  Either of these veggies are perfect compliments to a delicious protein and starch (#nompotatoes #freethepotato).
Bacon Brussels Sprouts and Steak.jpg

Brussels and some beefmeats, courtesy of the internet.

  • Grill those mother fuckers! – Sorry, I get excited about grilled vegetables. Add some char to your veggies and serve them with some protein and a starch (e.g. grilled chicken thighs and grilled potatoes, sliced thinly).  Great grilling veggies: peppers, onions, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, and tomatoes.  Here’s a super easy way to do this: cover half of the bottom layer of your grill with seasoned chicken breasts; put seasoned potatoes, thinly-sliced, on the other half of the lower part of your grill (put foil under these to keep them from falling in, and to make your life easier overall).  On the top rack (the one that’s not directly on the heat), put some asparagus, covered in olive oil, salt, pepper, and whatever else you like.  Close the grill, let cook for a bit; open the grill, flip the thighs, flip the potatoes, and jostle the asparagus around so you look like you’re working really hard at the grill (people will be #mirin’).  Close the grill again.  Check your meat with a thermometer (above 165 degrees is safe, but I find chicken thighs taste better at 175), eat a potato to make sure it’s not under-done (do NOT undercook potatoes; they’re a delicious food and deserve to be treated well), and your asparagus is almost certainly done (it’s probably been done for a while, depending on how you like your asparagus – if you get them where you like them earlier in the process, just put them on a plate and start nibbling).  Enjoy!
Tasty stuff on the grill.jpg

I could probably have seasoned these potatoes a bit more.

  • Make the kind of salad people who love themselves make – No sadly-dressed kale for you!  Try this: in a bowl, mix ¾-1 cup of Newman’s Own Sesame Ginger Dressing  (depending on your preferences), 1 cup of full-fat, plain Greek yogurt (Fage, because you deserve the finest), the juice of 1 small lemon, a bit of salt, and a bit of sweetener (I use a squirt of stevia, but Splenda, sugar, honey, or any other sweetener you like would probably be fine) to taste.  Pour that over a BIG bowl (you’ve just made a lot of dressing) full of any combination of: shredded cabbage, shredded carrots, shredded chicken, shredded deli meats (for those of you who are lazy like me), lightly-cooked bean sprouts (to get the right amount of crunch on your bean sprouts, put them in already-boiling, well-salted water for about 30 seconds, and then cool them ASAP by either submerging them in salt water or running them under cold water), black beans, lentils, rice, potatoes, bacon (always recommended), finely-chopped apples (honeycrisp, because you’re worth it), mushrooms, pecans, walnuts, other nuts you like, or whatever other wild idea you have.  This dressing makes the salad creamy and tangy and sweet and delicious, and I actually find myself craving it from time-to-time, which is a very new thing.  Give it a go, and let me know how you like it (as well as what modifications you tried, and how those worked for you)!

Level 4: Black Coffee (For those who have reached true veggie enlightenment)

Vegetables

Has this picture gone from appalling to delightful?  Good: you’re ready for level 4.

  • If you’re chowing down on all the previously described recipes, you’re probably ready to try good, old-fashioned, boring, steamed veggies. Being able to enjoy these is a huge advantage if you like to look, feel, and perform your best.  And no, it’s not because steamed veggies hold some magic power that other veggies don’t; it’s because steamed veggies are super easy to prepare (you can literally put a bag in the microwave for 3 minutes and have a finished product), and are often readily available at restaurants.  If you haven’t had steamed veggies in a while, try ordering a side of steamed broccoli at a restaurant.  If you find it’s a bit much to handle on its own, pair each bite of your vegetable with another side (baked potatoes for those who love themselves), or with your protein (because you are smart and you eat protein with each meal).  Also, salt your veggies; it makes all the difference.

Level 5: Bulletproof Coffee (For those who want to feel superior to everyone else and/or make money off others’ ignorance)

Kale Detox Smoothie

The more unpleasant your smoothie, the more toxins it scares out of your body.

  • Kale – put it in a bowl, take a picture of it, post it to Instagram, pretend you like it, and tell everyone else that their taste buds have been ruined by years of processed foods and that you can cleanse them with your kale shakes. Added bonus if you somehow mention quinoa.  Double added bonus if you share your affiliate links to cleanses and/or detoxes. *Kale is actually great when well-prepared, and this point is entirely a joke.  If you love kale, please kale away.  If you don’t, feel free to sneak some spinach into your smoothie.*
  • Be a raw vegan – Veganism isn’t restrictive enough, and if you really think about it, cooking vegetables is cruel to the plant. Sure, being a raw vegan is unnecessary, difficult, and almost certainly not the best choice for your health, but how cool is it to see anyone else eat anything and immediately feel morally superior to them?

*Let me walk you off the rage-commenting ledge really quickly: I don’t endorse a vegan diet because it is an inherently nutritionally deficient diet.  That said, I understand the many complex and well-though-out moral arguments in favor of veganism, and I support my vegan friends in finding a lifestyle that makes them feel at peace with their decisions as they pertain to food.  Raw veganism, however, is unnecessarily pretentious, and I’ve yet to see a single good reason someone should follow that diet.  And yes, I have seen Forks Over Knives.*

 

OK!  This has gone on far too long.  Vegetables are good things to eat.  Don’t believe me?  Yell at me in the comments (extra credit if you cite another blog), and I’ll be sure to get a good laugh.

Got easy-to-love vegetable recipes you enjoy?  Share them on the comments, or let me know on Facebook.

Interested in other ways to look and feel better?  Check out some of my articles linked throughout this piece.  Here they are again, for your convenience:

How to Diet for You and Your Lifestyle: a guide to the basics behind weight loss, as well as some strategies on how achieve weight loss for yourself.

Eating For Your Goals Part 2 – A Primer on Macronutrients– for the more committed dieter who’s focused on losing fat while maintaining/gaining muscle.

So, You Want To Get “Toned” – if it is your goal to get toned, you’re almost certainly going about it wrong; check out this article to get things moving in the right direction!

Not sure where to start, or just think you might benefit from having someone to help you along your journey to your happiest, healthiest, most jacked-est self?  Consider training with me.

And one last thing . . . I write these articles because I believe the best way to attract new clients is to demonstrate the value of my knowledge and expertise.  The only way I can do that is if people see and read my articles.  If this article helped you, or you know someone who might benefit from reading it, please consider sharing it on Facebook.  Thank you!

What I Do / How An Online Coach Can Help You

I just answered this question several times as people inquired about my services, so I thought I’d make it an article to which I can direct curious potential trainees.  If you read this and have more questions, or you’re interested in training, feel free to contact me!

“So, do you just, like, write a program for people?”

This is the number one question I tell people I train people online (number two: “what . . . do you do?”).  The short answer is, “no.”  I do understand the question, though; online training is a new idea, and it makes sense that someone might be confused as to how it works.  So, here are some services I provide as an online trainer that might make your life easier.  If you think this is something that might benefit you (even I, a mythical “fit pro” hire someone to train me because I think everyone can benefit from an objective support for their training), read on.  If you already know it’s for you, feel free to go ahead and apply for training.

 

  • Safe, effective programming – there is something to the I “write a program” idea, but that’s not the end of it. I write a program for you.  Just started working out, and you’re super busy?    Let’s keep things simple to start: I’ll schedule three, 30-40 minute workouts that will not only burn calories, but (more importantly) prepare you for harder, even more taxing workouts later down the road.  I’ll meet you where you are, and I’ll help you plot a course for where you want to go.

 

  • Specificity to your life – you’ve been working out for a while, but you always get sidetracked by some business meeting that has you away for a week.  How can we make your fitness routine work within this context?  There are a lot of ways!  One of my favorites (this works best for my more experienced lifters):  I’ll program in such a way that you are functionally overreaching (intentionally doing more than your body can recover from) the week before you leave so that you can do little-to-no exercise the following week, and still improve your overall fitness via a mechanism called supercompensation.  This is a strategy I use with many of my clients, as they usually have busy work lives that lead to weeks where they can’t exercise.  Other methods we might use: autoregulation (giving you the ability to control how hard you go in the gym based on how fresh and recovered you are), undulating intensity (different intensities for different days, implemented in a way that fits your life), adding a hotel workout based on the equipment available in your hotel gym (I have done this for about 50% of my clients), and many others.  There is no “one size fits all;” I’m here to help you figure out what works best for you and your life.

 

  • Specific dietary coaching – for most people, developing the body you want is going to come down to your diet.  Getting “toned” = having muscle and having little enough fat to see that muscle (check out my guide on how to get toned!).  How do I help people lose fat?  That also largely depends.  If you’re willing and able, counting calories (and macronutrients, particularly protein) is the quickest, most effective way to get the job done.  If, however, you’re not quite ready to commit to something like calorie counting (counting calories can be a huge bummer, and I don’t recommend ANYONE do it forever), I like to coach clients via a habit-based curriculum I use, powered by the world-renowned innovators at Precision Nutrition.  This is a set curriculum, but its goal is to find ways for you to improve upon your habits based on your lifestyle and goals.  The curriculum helps to open up a dialogue between client and coach (you and me, in this case) so I can dig a bit deeper and find any limiting factors.  With this information, you and I can formulate a strategy that fits your lifestyle, as well as your readiness, willingness, and ability to change.  The basics of losing fat (eat fewer calories and work out reasonably well) are so incredibly simple; the execution, however, is much more complicated.

 

  • Someone to revent you from majoring in the minors – you’re thinking of “going keto,” or you’ve heard that there’s a magic, golden macronutrient ratio that will burn fat and build muscle regardless of calories (there’s not). I’ll help you focus on what YOU need to focus on.  What you need will depend on where you are in your fitness endeavors, as well as how far you’re looking to go.  There’s no “one-size-fits-all” plan that works for everyone, but if you’re looking to lose weight and have no idea how many calories you’re consuming or how to tell if you’re hungry or not, and yet you know which supplement stack gives you the sweetest buzz before your workout, you should probably redirect your focus.

 

  • Someone for fact checking – Maybe you saw “What The Health,” and have decided you’re worried that chicken breast is going to give you diabetes (it won’t). Or maybe you heard that there are certain “unclean” foods that will halt fat loss (here’s a comprehensive list of unclean foods: unwashed produce, foods from the dumpster, and food your little sister ate before your family said grace.  These foods probably won’t halt fat loss, but they could lead to illness and/or eternal damnation).

 

And now she's forever damned.

Grace just couldn’t wait until after grace to eat her noodles.  Lord have mercy on her soul.

  • Someone to make you do stuff you don’t like in the gym – I like deadlifting. I like squatting.  I like doing flat bench.  I like 3-8 reps of things.  My coach (yes, I have a coach, and my coach also has a coach; we can all benefit from an objective point of view – see the next bullet for more info on this) has me constantly working with different angles, doing supersets and high rep sets to failure.  It sucks, but it’s effective because I hadn’t been doing it up until now.  He still has me squat and deadlift and do press variations because those are staples of any good program, but he makes me work outside my comfort zone, and I’m grateful for that.

 

  • Objectivity – this is, for me, the greatest benefit of having a coach. I know what to do; I help clients do the right things all the time.  It’s easier, though, to preach patience and suggest taking the long view when it’s not your own body; having someone to remind me of things I already know has proved invaluable.  A common confession I hear from new clients is that they’re embarrassed to be seeking help because they already know about fitness and nutrition.  I believe that they do know those things, and I also believe they are wise to seek help; knowing what to do in theory is very different than applying that theory to your own life.  It’s made harder by emotions (body issues, peer pressure, paralysis by analysis, and – worst of all – BOREDOM).  Hiring a coach gives you someone objective who can say, “this is working, and that clearly isn’t.  What else can we try?”

 

  • Accountability – everyone talks about “accountability” when having a coach, and I think they’re talking about someone who will reprimand you for doing something “wrong.”  That’s not, in my opinion, what a good coach does; it’s certainly not what I do.  To me, accountability is helping you be accountable to yourself.  How is that done?  Well, we establish what you want, and we figure out behaviors that will lead you toward that goal.  We figure out what you can and can’t do, and we figure out what you are willing to trade in order to reach your goals (you never get something for nothing; you’ll have to give a little to get a little).  Once you know what you want, why you want it, and what you’re willing to sacrifice to get there, accountability becomes its own, self-sustaining thing; no one needs to play “drill sergeant” for you to do what you need to do.

 

  • Help developing an exit strategy – what happens once you’ve lost the fat? What happens if you gained tons of sweet, sweet gainz, but you also put on a bit more fat than you’re comfortable with? What comes next?  Mike Israetel of Renaissance Periodization recently reminded me of the fact that “within three years of finishing a diet, 95 percent of people regain all or more of the weight they’ve lost.”   I believe a large part of that is mindlessly following an overly-restrictive diet plan, as opposed to one that teaches people the fundamentals of healthy living (energy balance; mostly whole foods; the 80/20, 85/15, or 90/10 rule, depending on personality type; how to adjust when you’re traveling; how to progress workouts; managing stress; valuing sleep quantity AND quality; etc.)

 

  • Inspiration to go further – sometimes, we want to reach an extreme goal, but then we decide we’re happy short of that goal. For example, I wanted to get exceptionally lean, but then I was happy enough when I had a mediocre set of abs, and went back to maintenance.  Since hiring a coach, I’ve felt inspired to take advantage of the opportunity to shoot for new levels of leanness, and I’m more grateful to have done that than I’d thought I would be.  I was content, but I wasn’t satisfied; having someone else ask me what I wanted and if I wanted to get there helped me realize that.  Having someone to inspire me to go all the way helps me at times when I’m feeling less than motivated.

 

DSC07642

My coach, Bryan Krahn, inspired me to keep going, helping me to get pretty darn close to as lean as I’ve been.  All I needed was the encouragement to keep going.

  • Someone on your team – weight loss is hard. Muscle gain is harder.  Friends and family can try to be supportive, but are often your worst enemies in these endeavors (e.g. “Come on, just one cookie won’t ruin your diet!” “You’re too skinny!” “Don’t get too bulky” “It’s important to have balance – why not come out for a few drinks tonight?” “Would you please just forget about your diet for one night?” “I’m tired – I don’t want to go to the gym.  Can we go tomorrow instead?” etc.).  You hire a coach to help you reach your goal.  Ideally, your coach also recognizes that you have a life, and will take into account your values and limiting factors when strategizing with you on how to get to your goal.  Once a strategy has been made, your coach’s job is to help you stick to it and/or tweak as necessary.  Your coach won’t sabotage your progress with toxic behavior, and sometimes, he/she might feel like the only person who also values your goal.  I wish this weren’t the case, but it often is.

 

This list is far from comprehensive.  I’m very proud of the relationships I’ve built with my long-term clients, and I’m equally proud of the knowledge and tools I’ve given former clients to continue chasing their goals (or to chase newer, bolder goals) after their work with me has concluded.

If you’d like to work with a coach, I hope you’ll consider applying to train with me .  If you want to see what people have to say about me, you can check out my testimonials page (at the time of my publishing this article, my testimonials are due for ~5 new picture uploads, but you’ll get the idea from what’s already there).

If you’re thinking, “a coach sounds great, but Daniel just doesn’t seem like the guy for me,” that also OK!!  Message me on my Facebook page and tell me a bit more about yourself and your goals, and I’ll see if I can find a good fit for you.  It really doesn’t hurt my feelings if I’m not a good fit for someone; I’d rather work with people whom I can help, and I’d rather someone I can’t find someone who speaks their language.

So, You Want To Get “Toned”

*Necessary Disclaimer: I am not a Registered Dietician, and I am not a doctor. I’m not even that big, bro. Please, do not misinterpret anything on this site as medical advice. It’s not. Always consult a doctor before doing anything that might negatively impact your health, and always use caution when listening to an opera singing personal trainer.

My First Question to Clients: “What is your number one fitness goal?”

Most Common Answer A: “I don’t really want to get any more muscular; I just want to get toned.”

Most Common Answer B: “I don’t really want to lose weight, I just kind of want to tone up.”

I receive questions almost daily from people looking to “tone up.”  They ask how to do it, and I give a simple answer: get your diet in check, and lift heavy weights.

If their response is “but, I don’t want to get bulky,” I explain what I’m about to explain in this article.  This usually alleviates their concerns, and makes their training (either under my guidance, or on their own) much more productive.  If you’d like to reach your goal of “toning up,” read on.

Muscle Tone:

  1. The internal state of muscle-fiber tension within individual muscles and muscle groups.
  2. Degree of muscle tension or resistance during rest or in response to stretching.

 

I’m guessing this isn’t what you want when you want a “toned” look.

 

What you want is this:

 

 

Or, if you’re a lady, perhaps you’d like to look like Daisy Ridley (Rey from Star Wars):

 

 

Brad Pitt’s workout routine is a bit hard to pin down (though I’ve seen estimates of his bench press being in the upper 200s), but Daisy Ridley made a stir on the internets when she posted a video of herself deadlifting 80 KG a little while after “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was released.

Neither of these actors are considered “bulky,” and I’d posit most of us would be happy to have the same muscle definition as either one of them!  How do we non-famous people get that look?  Well, first we’ll have to accept a few truths:

  • Calories are the only determining factor when it comes to long-term, meaningful weight gain or loss
  • There are only two major factors we can control long-term when it comes to body composition: how much muscle we have on our bodies, and how much fat we have.
  • If we gain muscle without gaining weight (and we won’t gain weight without eating more, as we accepted in truth #1), we must have also lost fat.
  • Muscle is denser than fat (muscle density is 1.06 g/ml and fat density is (about) 0.9 g/ml).  If we’ve gained muscle and lost fat while maintaining our weight, we will actually be smaller than we used to be.
  • Muscles are shaped and ripply, having something called “striations.” If we have more muscle and less fat, we will be better able to see the natural shapes of our muscles.  This is what most of us want when we say we want to “tone.”
  • While we can control which muscles we grow, we cannot spot lose fat. I’m going to say this one more time as it’s crucial to our understanding of proper exercise: we CANNOT choose which fat gets burned first.  This is an important point, and it will inform our exercise selection.

Credit: myfitnesspro.co.uk

Aha!  So, we do want more muscle, and we do want less fat!  That’s good, because those are two variables over which we have some control.  When we want to “tone,” we need to ask ourselves why we aren’t already toned: do we have too much fat, not enough muscle, or a combination of both?

You’ll see a lot of, “should I bulk or cut” articles on the internet, and I don’t feel like adding another one, so I’ll keep it simple: if you’ve never engaged in a regular, competent resistance training program, the answer is most likely “both.”

 

How do you get both?  Start picking up heavy stuff!

Toning my buns.

As you start picking up heavy stuff, especially if you’re new to resistance training, you’ll invariably get a little bit more muscular (this is assuming your training is at least reasonably competent); so long as you don’t start eating a ton of extra food, you’ll lose fat as you put on muscle (remember: you can’t gain weight without excess energy, and if you gain muscle mass, you’ll have to lose mass from the only other place you can: fat).

Now that we’ve accepted some basic physiological truths, let’s look closer at some specifics regarding what to do and what not to do when trying to achieve that lean, “toned” look . . .

Do: Focus on heavy, compound movements.  Squats, deadlifts, upper body pushing motions (think: bench, overhead press, etc.), and upper body pulling motions (rows, chin ups, lat pull-downs, etc.) should make up the majority of your programming.  Why?  A few reasons:

  • They burn a ton of calories, which will help you to lose fat.
  • They work lots of muscles, allowing you to maximize muscle growth (which we’ve already established you want). They’ll also work all your muscles, as opposed to just a couple, helping you to grow proportionally (a lot of what people don’t like when they see someone who is “too muscular” is someone who is actually just weird looking because he works nothing but chest and arms).
  • They help you feel better. If you squat through a full range of motion regularly, you’ll increase your hip mobility, ankle mobility, and core stability.  Overhead pressing works your Rectus Abdominis (6 pack muscle).  Deadlifts (in addition to just being awesome) are a functional movement in the non-meaningless sense (the word “functional” gets thrown around a bit too much for my liking); you pick stuff up in life, and a deadlift teaches you how to do that really well, without hurting your back.
  • They are the most surefire way to build muscle, especially when you’re just starting out.

Don’t:  Just pound your chest, arms, and abs.  Not only will you burn very few calories, but you’ll miss out on all the benefits listed above regarding compound movements.  Also, because we can’t choose where fat is lost, we’re best off losing as much fat as possible and hoping that we eventually get to the fat we most detest (usually, this is why people do a million crunches and tricep push-downs) , as opposed to wishing we could achieve a physical impossibility.

Do: Eat lots of protein!  Around 1g protein/lb bodyweight/day is a commonly accepted value, and it’s probably a good starting place for you.  Added bonus: protein (particularly from solid, chewable sources) is very filling per calorie.  This might help you create a calorie deficit.  Furthermore, muscles (and most of your body) are made out of proteins.  Adequate protein intake helps you to build more muscles; if you’re gaining muscle while you lose weight, you’ll be losing fat very quickly.  This is the fastest way to achieve that toned look you want!

Don’t: Drink a million protein shakes.  Liquid calories aren’t very filling.  Lots of people think that protein “makes you bulky,” and I believe this fallacy is partly due to them seeing friends start going to the gym, downing protein shakes, getting fat, and mistaking correlation for causation.

Do: Start light, and focus on adding weight to the bar (or weight stack, or whatever form of resistance you are using).  Adding weight over time is the easiest way to create something called “progressive overload.”  Progressive overload is a top priority for proper training.

Don’t: Add weight faster than your body can adapt to.  Slow, safe, and sustainable progress is better than fast progress that gets you injured.  If you find that adding weight makes it impossible to use good form, don’t add that weight.  Also, if you add weight, but lower your range of motion (how far you move during the exercise), you’re not really presenting an overload to the muscle; you’re simply making one variable more challenging while making another easier.

Do: Exercise consistently, with similar movements.  Regular practice is the only way you’ll grow competent enough with a movement to make major changes in your body.  As you begin lifting, your initial progress will be largely neurological.  Keep going until your coordination is good enough to challenge your muscles.

Don’t: Start doing a bunch of random stuff, seeking out soreness and pump.  If you grow your squat from the bar to 275 lbs for reps while maintaining your body weight, you will almost inevitably look better for it.  If you beat yourself into the ground with circuits and workouts of the month, you might feel like you’re doing more, but you’ll probably see less progress towards that lean, toned body you want.

Do: Do some cardio from time to time.  20-40 minutes of cardio a couple of times a week can help you get stronger, faster.  A couple of days of cardio (preferably on days you aren’t lifting) can also help reduce stress and improve your mood, which can have a positive effect on your recovery.  This will help you to train harder, build more muscle, and burn more fat.

Don’t: Beat yourself into the ground with your cardio.  I like to tell clients, “you should feel better after you finish your cardio than you did when you started.”  If you’re an elite level athlete, super intense cardio might be necessary, but generally, I like cardio to be at a point where I could respond to someone speaking to me without gasping for air mid-word.

Do: Recover well.  Most people need 7-9 hours of sleep per night to function their best (I’m more of an 8-hour-or-more man myself).  Sleeping more will make you look, feel, and perform better.  Also, keeping your stress levels low will help you to gain more muscle and burn more fat.

Don’t: Say, “but I did this one arms program and I was SO toned, but then I stopped, and now my arms are jiggly again” as a means of proving that “toning” works.  What you experienced was a pump.  Pumps are awesome, as they make your muscles look bigger.  If this has happened to you before, it means that you’d like bigger arm muscles.  Begin a reasonable resistance training program, include some direct arm work, and let the myth that is “toning” be put to rest.

 

Once we accept that there are fewer variables (how much muscle, and how much fat) that we can control, it allows us to better focus our efforts and get that “toned” body that’s eluded us so long.  Go, get strong (not “bulky”)!  Pick up heavy stuff, eat your protein, keep your calories in check, and get the body you’ve always wanted.

If this article helped you, or you know someone who might benefit from reading it, share this article on Facebook.

If you’d like some help achieving that look you’re craving, consider applying for training!

How to Diet for You and Your Lifestyle

*Necessary Disclaimer: I am not a Registered Dietician, and I am not a doctor. I’m not even that big, bro. Please, do not misinterpret anything on this site as medical advice. It’s not. Always consult a doctor before doing anything that might negatively impact your health, and always use caution when listening to an opera singing personal trainer.

*Unnecessary Disclaimer: Sometimes, I use profanity. I have people edit my work, but then I go back and change more things. If some profanity sneaks its way into here, I’m not sorry; you’ve been warned.

“Just eat healthy.”

What does that mean? I know what foods I consider to be healthy, but I don’t know what foods whoever is saying “just eat healthy” considers to be healthy. If someone gave you this advice – and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that someone has – you probably wouldn’t know, either. I don’t think it’s all that unreasonable that we’d wonder what this person’s idea of “healthy” is; given all the conflicting (and often bad) information in the health industry, how could we?

If this person were an avid follower of the “paleo diet,” he (in my mind, this is a man, because men are more likely to give useless advice than women are) might mean that we should cut grains and dairy from our diets, and that we should eat lots of meat and veggies. Bacon is THE healthiest thing we could eat!

If he were a vegan, however, he’d tell us that animal products are terrible for us, and that we don’t need as much protein as idiots who write articles on their fitness websites say we do; we can – and should – get all the protein we need from vegetables and legumes!

If this person were “gluten free,” he might cite the book “Wheat Belly” and tell us that the terribly evolved version of wheat that we as a society consume is clogging our intestinal tracts and leaving us terribly inflamed. He’d probably tell us how much better he feels now that he doesn’t eat gluten (except sometimes he does, but only if it looks really tasty, or if he’s drunk). I’m not sure if he would hate grains in general, or just the gluten in them – he also might not be sure – but I’d assume he means we should not eat wheat.

If he were my absolute favorite kind of health guru, he might tell us that processed foods – particularly processed carbs – are the devil. White bread turns to sugar, and sugar is just as addictive as crack, as evidenced by all the formerly healthy, successful people who turned to white bread and lost everything. Bagels are the gateway drug that leads to Oreos, and I’ll be damned if we haven’t all seen at least a dozen people turning tricks so they can get their next Oreo fix!

Ok, that’s enough making fun of Jeff (he seemed like a Jeff to me). Many people who follow these diets – different though they may be – end up losing weight! If they work, why am I making fun of poor Jeff for trying to help us out?
That’s the (very lengthy) point of this article: Jeff has no idea WHY whatever diet he’s touting worked for him, and why it very well may not work for you. Furthermore, while it may have worked for Jeff for a time, there’s a good chance that because he doesn’t understand the aforementioned “why,” it’s only a matter of time before he gets tired of arbitrarily avoiding entire food groups, and when he decides he wants to eat bagels, meat, or whatever it is he was avoiding, he won’t know how to do so in the context of a varied, nutritious diet. Because of that lack of understanding, Jeff will gain weight again, which will further reinforce his mildly orthorexic notion that whatever food he has been avoiding inevitably leads to weight gain.

I’d like to propose an alternative route to “just eating healthy:” just eating for your goals. How do we do that? Well, first, we’ll have to accept one very serious truth: calories count. You don’t have to count them, but they matter. Calorie balance has been shown, time and again, to be the ONLY (read: literally, the only one) determining factor of your long term bodyweight (sources: scientific consensus, “Understanding Healthy Eating” by Renaissance Periodization, and guys like this).

Once we recognize that calories are our priority, we have a more objective tool for measuring whether a food is conducive to reaching our goals. At its simplest, “healthy eating” looks something like this:

Considering most people reading this article (and most people who are following a diet in general) are probably in the “lose fat” camp, let’s address how different popular diets might lead some people to lose weight, and how we can take those lessons and create a plan that works for us.

Paleo:

The paleo diet has various interpretations, but it generally includes vegetables, whole fruits (not juiced), nuts, roots, and meat, while excluding dairy, grains, legumes, processed oils, salt, alcohol, and coffee (I know lots of paleo dieters are also into Bulletproof coffee – a ridiculous thing in its own right – but as I understand it, paleo in its most commonly accepted form does not allow for coffee consumption.

While it’s silly to assume that everyone who lived in the Paleolithic era ate the same way, regardless of their geographic location, many people find that the paleo diet helps them to lose weight. Why is that? Well, we know that meaningful weight loss (more on the “meaningful” later on) comes from a caloric deficit (eating fewer calories than needed by the body to maintain its current weight). So, the paleo diet must create a caloric deficit! Let’s look at each element of it and see how it does that.

1) Elimination of alcohol – Alcohol reduction is an easy way to cut calories. How many of us have had one drink, which led to three, which led to an entire bottle of Jack and an evening of poor food choices? If I were a betting man, I’d wager a hefty sum that you’ve been either there, or a neighboring county. By eliminating alcohol, not only are we cutting the non-filling (and mostly worthless, from a physiological perspective) calories of the alcohol itself; we are also removing a behavioral trigger for poor food choices.

2) Elimination of liquid calories in general – Popular though juices and smoothies are, liquid calories tend to fill us less than solid foods. Why? Well, chewing food helps us recognize that we’re eating, and makes us feel full faster. Because we don’t chew liquids, we don’t get that very strong satiety cue. Also, eating slowly helps us to recognize we’re full, and it’s very easy to down a glass of juice in a matter of seconds.

3) Focus on whole foods – This, in my opinion, is the best thing about the paleo diet. Do I think that there’s something evil and sinister about black beans (or legumes in general) that makes people fat? Of course, not! But, with the elimination of grains and processed oils, it takes super tasty, calorie dense foods off the menu. The focus on meat and vegetables helps a lot of people to lose weight.

4) Elimination of major food groups – There’s something to be said for a restrictive diet simply making it hard to find something to eat! If you’ve ever eliminated a major food group from your diet, you know how hard it can be to find meals that meet your needs. By simply making it hard to find something to eat, there’s a good chance you’ll eat less often, which could help create a calorie deficit.

5) Extra, non-relevant weight loss – Remember how I mentioned “meaningful” weight loss? I have clients track progress by weighing themselves daily at the same time and taking a weekly average. I do this because our weights can fluctuate as much as 10 lbs throughout the day. Are we really getting meaningfully bigger or smaller day to day? Absolutely not! So, what is this extra weight? Water. 1g of carbohydrates brings about 3-4g water with it. Also, salt causes an increase in water retention, which can result in weight fluctuations. By following a low carb diet (the paleo diet is low carb), and coupling it with low sodium intake, people often lose tremendous amounts of weight absurdly quickly. Unfortunately, as soon as these people eat some carbs, their weight goes back up. Not knowing what’s wrong, their belief that potatoes are the devil’s food and that paleo is the only way to be is validated. You, however, are smarter than this, and you recognize that meaningful weight loss – particularly fat loss – is what you want. You don’t fear potatoes.

Vegan

A vegan diet consists of anything that didn’t come from an animal. Things that are prohibited are meat, dairy, eggs, and honey (although some vegans are cool with honey, strict vegans are not). While many vegans struggle with their weights in the same way that carnivores do, many people swear that a vegan diet helped them to shed some pounds. How might this have happened?

1) Elimination of major food groups – See above, under “paleo”

2) Focus on vegetables – Veggies are both filling and low calorie, which helps people to feel fuller while losing weight.

3) Elimination of certain meat and dairy products can help with weight loss – If you aren’t already aware, you’ll probably learn that I’m more than a little pro-meat. It tastes awesome, and in general, it’s good for you (and your sick gainz). Chicken and bacon, however, aren’t the same thing nutritionally. The same is true of low fat greek yogurt and brie: they aren’t the same. By eliminating all meats, vegans may be throwing the baby out with the bath water (for health purposes – ethics are a whole different story), but that doesn’t change the fact that they are removing several foods from their diets that might not be conducive to weight loss.

4) Personality type – There’s a difference between “causation” and “correlation.” Many people who follow a vegan diet are very health-conscious. For that reason, they might make more of an effort to avoid calorie dense foods than the rest of society. Is that the result of their veganism? No, but I think it’s largely why so many of us associate veganism with good health, even though it’s technically a nutrient-deficient diet, and even though vegan cookies are not necessarily better for you than non-vegan cookies.

Gluten Free

The gluten free diet is a bit of a fad. There is a lot of pseudoscience around it, and an ever-increasing number of people are labeling themselves as “gluten intolerant.” Not only is this annoying to anyone in the restaurant industry; it’s also a bit insulting to those who suffer from Celiac disease, and who genuinely can’t consume gluten without experiencing severe symptoms. If there’s nothing wrong with gluten, though, why do those who drop gluten also (sometimes) drop weight?

1) Elimination of major food groups – See above.

2) Extra, non-meaningful weight loss – Gluten free diets usually involve a reduction in carbohydrate intake, leading to less water weight and a sudden drop in scale weight. This weight loss is just as meaningless as the initial drop in water weight when following the paleo diet (see above).

3) No beer – See “elimination of alcohol” in the paleo section. Beer has gluten!

4) Reduction of convenient junk food – You may have also heard this sort of anecdotal, “gluten is the devil” story from a friend: “I was gluten free for 2 months, and I lost weight and felt AMAZING! Then, one day, I was in a rush, so I grabbed a Dunkin’ Donuts [insert terribly unhealthy and generally awesome/disgusting sounding item], and I felt terrible the rest of the day. It’s that gluten, man – it’s poison!” Was it the gluten, though? I suspect not. I don’t doubt that our rebounding dieter felt awful after eating whatever it was he/she ate, but blaming gluten is a bit of a stretch. By removing gluten from our diets, we eliminate a lot of the crap that we normally eat when we’re in a pinch. This might help people feel better, which makes them believe that gluten has been causing their gastrointestinal distress all these years, as opposed to the fact that their diet was just bad, which leads us to our last diet to discuss . . .

Elimination of Processed Foods

The definition of processed foods can vary widely, but “processed” isn’t quite as black and white as most make it out to be. Some people might consider foods that have been genetically modified to be “processed,” even though there is no evidence that GMOs have any effect on our health. Generally, people who recommend removing “processed foods” will encourage you to eat “real foods,” which makes sense as it leaves their mouths and enters your ears, but might leave you scratching your head as you walk around the grocery store and wonder what is or isn’t “real” (walking the cereal section of your local Kroger is the closest you’ll ever be to Keanu Reaves in The Matrix). Because of the wide variability of what’s considered OK and not-OK by those who say “processed foods are bad,” it’s hard to pin down what exactly this diet is. For that reason, we’ll deviate from our “reasons this might work” structure and instead go over a few possible elements of this form of eating and how they may or may not help you to lose weight.

1) Focus on whole foods – If you’re looking to remove processed foods from your diet, the easiest way to do it is to look for things in the supermarket that have one ingredient. If you look at broccoli, and it says “broccoli,” you’re on the right track (it’s even OK if it says “broccoli florets”). If, however, you look at an ingredient list and if has twenty words you don’t recognize, that food falls under the “processed foods” umbrella. We’ve talked at length about how awesome whole foods are, as they’re very filling per-calorie and are usually nutrient-dense. We’ll talk about this more later, too! For now, just know that this is at the heart of what Jeff meant when he told you not to eat processed foods, and while he was pretty annoying when he told you what you should and shouldn’t eat, he did have a point (although he also spouted a bunch of pseudoscience, and he probably didn’t know why, and he hasn’t had a girlfriend in like 7 years, and seriously, if he quotes Borat one more time – fucking Jeff!).

2) Don’t eat “low fat” variations of foods – How does this look in practice? If you were at the store, you might go for whole milk, as opposed to skim or 2%. The same would be true of other dairy products: butter and cheese would be considered nutritionally superior to low fat Greek yogurt and low fat cottage cheese. The reasoning behind this is that full fat foods will keep you fuller, longer, and prevent snacking later in the day. While I like that this teaches people not to fear dietary fat, I’m not quite on board with the idea that full fat is always better; as with most things in fitness (and in life), it depends on the context.

3) Avoid vegetable oils – Canola, cottonseed, corn, and other commons oils are “no no’s” in the minds of those who eliminate processed foods. Olive oil, virgin coconut oil, and nuts oils are OK. Given two people who have a similar BMI and body composition, this difference might matter (healthy fats in olive oil are good for your heart), but I think any fat loss that stems from this rule is purely behavioral. Vegetable oils are easy to cook with, particularly when it comes to baked goods. By eliminating the consumption of vegetable oils, you’re also keeping someone away from most cookies, muffins, cakes, and other tasty, unhealthy treats. Is olive oil a better choice for your health than cottonseed oil? Probably. Will an over-consumption of fats, be it from olive oil, avocados, or pure lard (which is also OK by the no-refined-foods crowd) affect your body composition almost exactly the same way other vegetable oils would? Absolutely.

4) Avoid refined sugars and artificial sweeteners – I’m confident I’ll get a lot of kickback on this, but it needs to be said: aspartame is fine, and diet coke doesn’t make you fat or give you cancer. As for refined sugars, we might be onto something: while I’m not on board with the idea that sugar is as addictive as crack (I have never actually heard of someone whoring himself out for an Oreo), sugar is very tasty, and it does make it easier to consume a lot of calories (when stuff tastes really good, we eat more of it). I take pause with the idea that honey or maple syrup are any better than refined sugar, but I think from a behavioral standpoint, eliminating refined sugar helps people to lose weight because it eliminates some of the previously mentioned tasty calorie bombs from the menu (are you noticing a pattern here?).

5) No grains – Because grains can’t be consumed as they are harvested (there’s no bread tree, or even a whole-wheat bread tree), they’re a “no-no” when you’re avoiding processed foods. Why might this cause you to lose weight? See the sections above on “removal of major food groups,” and “extra, non-meaningful weight loss”. Bread is less filling per-calorie than some other foods, but grains consumed in moderation are generally considered to be good for your health.

6) No Alcohol – Because there is no actual whiskey river, and grapes don’t just naturally become wine, alcohol is a refined food. See above (paleo section) for the inconvenient truth about why avoiding alcohol might help you to lose weight.

What Do We Make of All This?

You may have noticed that these four seemingly very different diets have one thing in common: they eliminate major food groups from your menu. This is both why these diets work, and why they often fail. How many times has someone told you, “I lost so much weight when I was paleo; it’s a really awesome diet,” only to leave you wondering (but probably not saying), “then, why aren’t you in good shape right now?”

It may seem like I’m making fun of people who follow these diets, but that’s not my intention; I’m pointing out that, though effective for a short period of time, these diets are more restrictive than they need to be. For that reason, they are often short-lived (of these four diets, I’d say vegans have the most success being consistent, but I think this is a result of the ethical implications of being a vegan, and has less to do with the diet’s nutritional merit).

Because of the short-term effects (non-meaningful weight loss) of their diet, and the ensuing weight gain when it ends, dieters are left believing that they have found the “right” way to eat, but that they simply can’t adhere to it because they lack willpower/aren’t dedicated enough/have the wrong social circle/are too busy/whatever self-blaming thing they can think of. I disagree.

Now, most people will at this point say, “yeah, you’re right! It’s not their fault; diets just don’t work!” I won’t agree with those people, either. Diets do work, but they need to be grounded in reality (both reality as a whole, as well as an individual’s circumstances). How do we do that? Well, let’s learn from the diets we looked at from above. What worked, and why did it work? How can we take what worked, but leave behind the more restrictive elements of the diet? Remember, if a diet resulted in meaningful weight loss, it did so ONLY because it helped someone to create a calorie deficit. Let’s brainstorm on what we’ve learned:

1) Whole foods are great – Most of the diets have a focus on whole foods. All of the diets we mentioned encourage the consumption of meats and vegetables, except for the vegan diet, which does at least usually include a lot of vegetables. Meat and veggies are a powerful combination for weight loss, as they’re both very filling per calorie (particularly leaner varieties of meat, such as poultry, lean beef, fish, and leaner cuts of pork). The combination of protein in meat and fiber in vegetables helps you to stay fuller, longer, decreasing your chances of raiding the fridge an hour after your meal. How might you go about getting more meats or vegetables into your diet? Make your hands into fists and look at them: each one of those is a serving of vegetables. Try to increase your veggie intake to 6 of those per day (you can work your way up slowly; 2 is better than 0), and you’ll find that you feel fuller, faster. You’ll also probably consume fewer calories, resulting in weight loss! You can play this same game with lean protein: look at your palm (just your palm, not your fingers or your wrists) and recognize that it’s about the size of one serving of lean protein. Try to have 3-5 of these per day. Neither of these strategies directly reduces calorie consumption (eating more of something actually means more calories), but finding a reliable way to make sure you’re eating more protein and vegetables will probably help you to consume fewer calories throughout the day.

2) Seriously, more whole foods – We’ll deviate from the paleo diet for a second and look at a major part of the vegan diet: fruit! Fruits gets demonized by a lot of carbophobes, but eating WHOLE (not juiced) fruit is a great way to cut down on calorie consumption. Apples, oranges, berries, bananas, and pretty much any other whole fruit you can think of is very filling per calorie, and also packed with vitamins and nutrients that might help you feel better, resulting in improved performance at the gym (and more calories burned). Other whole foods that are good for you: potatoes, lentils, rice, beans (legumes in general, actually – sorry cavemen!), and nuts (though don’t go nuts with nuts and nut butters, as they’re pretty calorie dense, so you may want to avoid them on a fat loss diet). This is not an all-inclusive list. If there’s a food you’ve been told not to eat, and yet it’s picked from the ground or cut from an animal looking about the same as it does when you find it, be skeptical of the source that told you it was bad.

This may sound like “avoid processed foods,” and it is similar. How can you focus on whole foods without fearing pizza and bagels like they’re Satan’s playthings? I like the 80/20 rule. Try to eat whole foods about 80% of the time, and let 20% of your intake be something else. That should be enough adherence to see a difference in your weight, but give you enough wiggle room that you can have a slice or two of pizza with your friends every once in a while. Another good method is to eat mostly foods that you cook and take from home (giving you control over your diet), and to eat out only once or twice a week. During those times out, don’t go nuts (you should still order protein and vegetables), but also don’t stress out if you are served things that aren’t perfectly in line with the way you’re eating; you shouldn’t be in this situation often enough that it makes a huge difference to your health.

3) Reduce sugar intake – OK, I’ll bite on the sugar thing. Is sugar evil? No, it’s not. Should you probably be consuming less of it than you are? Yeah. Not only is chronically high sugar intake bad for your insulin sensitivity (#diabetes), sugar is really damn tasty, and it doesn’t fill you up at all. If you’re trying to find a way to reduce your sugar intake, but you don’t want to count how much sugar you’re consuming, here’s an easy way: take note of the sweet things (juice, ice cream, baked goods, sugary cereals, candy bars, etc.) you consume throughout the week. If you notice there’s one of these things that keeps popping up throughout the week, try tracking how many of that thing you consume in a week. For example, if you notice you’re drinking a lot of juice, make a note on your phone’s notepad (or whatever it’s called on your phone) that says “juice” at the top. Every time you have a juice, put a little mark on that tab (for example: +). Don’t judge whatever number of marks you get, but use it as a baseline to change your diet. For instance, if you’re consuming 10 juices per week, see if you can drop that down to 7. Keep a notepad going for every week, and allow yourself 7 marks for the week. Once you’ve reached 7, that’s your limit for the week. Most people find that simply being conscious of their consumption of foods or drinks that aren’t helping them makes it easy to change course, and that they rarely exceed the number they’ve allotted themselves. Giving yourself a small reduction as a goal, however, helps you to actually reach that goal, giving you not only a sense of accomplishment and some momentum towards a healthier life, but also some wiggle room for those days that you really want the thing you’ve been consuming (after all, if you drink a lot of juice, you probably do so because you like juice). Another method for reducing your quantity for the week might be portion control; if you have a big glass of juice with breakfast every morning, try using a smaller glass, and still only having one.

4) Reduce alcohol consumption – Beer has gluten, and most alcohol comes from grains, so 3 of the 4 diets we discussed keep people away from alcohol. We chatted at length above (see the paleo section) about alcohol’s negative impact on your health and weight loss goals, but we never talked about a way to balance those goals with your life. If you and your friends like getting together and drinking beer, that’s great! It’s not the healthiest thing you can do for your body, but it’s a part of your life that you enjoy. I personally like scotch, bourbon, and interesting beers, but I don’t drink as often as most people I know because, to me, they’re not worth the negative health consequences.

How can you find a balance? Check the strategy above regarding juice (under “reduce sugar intake); this has been one of my best strategies with helping people reach their goals while still enjoying their social lives. Maybe you’re drinking 10 drinks per week. Do all 10 of those drinks bring you happiness? Probably not. Shoot for 7, and strategize. If you mostly drink socially on the weekends, but you have a couple beers randomly throughout the week, maybe skip out on the weekday beers and save all 7 for the weekend. Or, maybe you love coming home and having a couple of drinks with your significant other in the evenings! Ask for his/her support, and split two beers instead of having 2 each (so you can try two different kinds). Or, just down it to 1. If you find yourself drinking alone at night, think, “is this making me happier, or is it just a habit?” If it’s something that really makes you happy, enjoy your drink that way, but see if you can have a little less; this is usually the easiest alcohol intake to reduce.

5) Count your calories – I feel like this has been the elephant in the article this whole time. I can hear all the objections right now: it’s not sustainable, it’s not natural, it’s hard, it’s unrealistic, etc. I get it. Counting calories isn’t fun. But, you know what? It really works. Why does it work? Well, have you noticed how we’ve been finding ways to quantify things (X fists of veggies, Y number of drinks, etc.)? Counting calories is the ultimate way of doing that! If you want shockingly reliable results, eat mostly at home, and weigh your foods with a food scale when you start counting calories. Soon, you’ll be able to eyeball portion sizes (I can spot 8oz chicken breast a mile away!), and you can guesstimate portions. Also, unlike the popular diets listed above, calorie counting really can teach you what healthy, sustainable eating looks like. If I’m dieting to be obnoxiously lean (I am right now so I can get pics of myself looking sexy as advertisement for this site), I’ll count calories so I can reliably lose weight. When I first lost weight, I also counted calories! Most of the time, though, I know what is going to help me feel full within my caloric allotment without counting. How? I spent enough time with My Fitness Pal (an awesome calorie counting app) that I’m keenly aware of what is and isn’t going to help me reach my goals (if I’m gaining weight on purpose, as I was in the winter, I look for easy-to-consume calories, and if I’m maintaining, I focus on numbers 1-4 listed above). Not all my clients count calories, but the ones who do (they also count macronutrients) get reliably good results; if things aren’t going well, I can see why, and I can make a quantifiable change to get them on the right track.

With these tools, pretty much anyone looking to lose weight can get a start on the process. Want to start small? Good move! Try eating more protein and vegetables. Or, maybe you want to focus on whole foods in general. Great! Get good at cooking, and eat most of your meals at home.

In my experience, alcohol is your easiest place to start. If you like drinking, don’t eliminate alcohol from your life; just find out how much you’re drinking now, and see if you can reduce that amount without putting a huge damper on your social life.

The most important thing you can take away from this article, though, is that when it comes to your health and fitness, there’s one thing that matters more than all: calories. You can try a million different ways to avoid this truth, but in the end, accepting it is your best way to reach your goals in the most efficient, least restrictive way possible.

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