Monday, January 20, 2014

Want to change your ways? Then act like it.

The majority of our clients seek weight loss.  Our health coaching programs begin the same for every client: a very long, comprehensive health history.  The majority of what you read about the science of weight loss revolves around thermodynamics: eat less, exercise more. Yet we know from experience that this advice isn't sufficient.  In fact, if you gave 100 clients a list of basic recommendations, 90 of them would fail to lose weight.  The art of weight loss is less about the specific lifestyle modifications and much more about human behavior than the media and the majority of trainers divulge.  So what do successful dieters have that separates them from the pack?  Successful dieters act like successful dieters.  This is simple advice, but it requires some patience to apply it to your life.  

Don't be mislead; this is not a guide for how to lose weight.  The purpose of this piece is highlight one of the more important components of behavioral change.  It shouldn't be that hard to believe that if you want to lose weight you have to act like a person that has successfully lost weight.  You can apply this logic to any venture.  
  • "I want to be rich.": If you want to make more money, then you have to act like a person who has earned a lot of money.  
  • "I want to be a better hockey goalie.": To improve your competency in net, you need to act like a star goalie. 
  • "I want to win the 2014 Crossfit games.": You want to be the best at working out?  You might want to take some notes from other successful Crossfitters.
  • "I want to be more productive.": The first step is to find out how productive people pack so much into their days without losing their minds.
  • "I want to start my own business.": A good first step in starting a business is to read about the experiences of other successful entrepreneurs in order to learn from their mistakes.
Any new behavior requires practice to make it perfect, and the same goes for healthy lifestyle. If you want to live a healthier life, you need to start acting like a healthy person.

There Are No Secrets to Weight Loss

Wouldn't it be great if your failure to lose weight was due to you simply missing an important memo?  If only you knew the secret to weight loss, you would have achieved your optimal weight long ago.  Right?  

You will never have my shoulders.
Never.  Ha!
The bad news is that there's no secret.  Your genetic blueprint provides a foundation for how your body stores fuel.  Then your mother's lifestyle while you were in her womb laid the groundwork for the metabolic programming that dictated the way that your body has handled carbs vs protein vs fat since then.  Genes load the gun; lifestyle pulls the trigger.  Without lifestyle modification, you'll never achieve optimal, healthy weight loss.  The first, most important step is to start acting like a person that looks and feels the way that you want to look and feel.  

Now now now...before you get your pretzels in a twist, I should emphasize that I'm not refuting the importance of bio-individuality.  You are a unique snowflake in this world, so even your most driven, stubborn efforts will at best give you the optimal results as dictated by your genes.  In other words, spying on Dwight Howard for a year, and modeling your entire day to a T after his isn't going to give you shoulders broader than the Titanic.  Likewise, eating the same diet and adopting the same workout routine as Lindsey Vonn aren't necessarily going to launch your ski career.

If you want to lose weight, then act like it...

It takes a lot of courage to change your ways.  Many chronic dieters were raised in households that indoctrinated poor eating, sleeping, and exercise habits.  Weight loss is even more difficult when you are chronically stressed from work, the loss of a loved one, a difficult living arrangement, or financial ruin.  In our first session with clients, we try to expose some of these stressors so that everything is out on the table.  Adopting lifestyle change is most difficult when stress leads to overeating.  There's often little that we can do to help a client with some of these often tragic events in their past, yet they have approached us because they want help losing weight and improving their mood despite these difficulties.  Once you have decided that you want help with developing healthy habits, then the conversation really gets juicy. 

The conversation around behavioral change often starts with a question to myself or one of our health coaches: How do you stay so thin?  If you follow us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, you might think that we are sustained by copious amounts of kale and sunshine alone.  In reality, we pay little mind to what we put into our mouths. (queue the shock and awe)  Before you call horse shit, read that again.  It's not difficult for me to eat healthy. Sure, I indulge on occasion, but I never have to think too hard about what to order at a restaurant because I know that crappy food is detrimental to my goals whereas the good stuff is beneficial.  Eating healthy is not a task for us; it's a habit.  We don't struggle to make decisions around what to eat because healthy food is what we enjoy.

How to act like a successful dieter

Weight loss isn't supposed to feel like torture, but you're kidding yourself if you are looking for an easy way out.  A game plan for developing healthy habits is an important part of the solution to the Gordian knot that is long-term weight loss.  Re-framing your approach to weight loss should begin by thinking like a person that exhibits effortlessly the behaviors that you know for sure are required for you to stick to your New Year resolution.  Not everybody has accomplished what you hope to accomplish in the same way, but there are certainly similarities shared by successful dieters.  Here are a few examples of what successful dieters do:

Hang out with motivated, healthy people - If you have friends that regularly push desserts and alcohol on you, don't hang out with them.  Find friends and family that are supportive of your goals and who are willing to accommodate your special requests and spend more time with them.

Find a community - Crossfit gyms provide more than a great workout.  They regularly host diet/weight loss challenges, and the community fostered in these facilities enables its members to reach incredible new fitness goals.  You immediately become a member of a team of like-minded individuals when you cancel your L.A. Fitness membership and join a local Crossfit gym.  Likewise, you can find weight loss support groups in your city with a simple Google search.  Lastly, if several of your family members or friends have similar goals, set up weekly meetings to discuss your difficulties.  Don't bring cookies to the meeting. 

Shop on a full stomach - Make sure you aren't starving when you head to the grocery store. Structures in your brain called the amygdalae trigger those impulsive snarf-fests when you see a bowl of candy.  You can override this impulsion with practice, but, even if you have relatively good control under most circumstances, going to the grocery store post-workout or on an otherwise empty stomach will likely result in you buying too many crappy, sugary foods.

Don't keep junk food in the house - If it's there, you're going to eat it.  If it's in your mom's house when you go to visit on occasion, this is called an indulgence.  Occasional indulgence is awesome

Substitute water/tea/decaf coffee in for soda/fruit juice/energy drinks - Minimizing sugar intake is critical for restoring insulin sensitivity and thus reversing the metabolic derangement that resulted in your gaining weight in the first place.  Cut out soda and fruit juice.  Also, give your adrenals a break and kick your caffeine habit.

Stop complaining about your diet - While training in Ironman distance triathlon, I wouldn't burden dinner dates with details of my struggles to decrease my swim stroke rate for the same reason that you shouldn't bore your friends with your weight loss struggles.  Save it for your health coach or supportive community.

Focus on the positives - Losing or maintaining your weight isn't supposed to be a perpetual chore that brings you anxiety.  Many of us have a habit of talking to ourselves in a way that we would never speak to a friend, so why is it ok that we put ourselves down? "You're so stupid!" "I can't do this." And so on.  Quit it.

Sleep - Really.

"Acting the role" can be applied to help you learn a new skill, set a new personal weightlifting record, earn that new promotion at work, become rich, or improve your relationships.  If you are trying to improve yourself in any way - physical, mental, or emotional - ask yourself: "What would a successful bi-linguist/olympic lifter/good parent/recently promoted colleague/person with a lot of friends do?"  This stuff works to change or develop any behavior.  If you can ask and answer this question routinely, you won't need much more to help with losing weight.  

Click here for our list of general dietary guidelines.  Couple those with weightlifting three times per week and starting to act like a person that is determined to achieve their optimal weight.  You're on your way...

Nathan Riley is a 2014 MD candidate at Temple University School of Medicine.  He writes about food, movement, sleep, relationships, and stress in order to bridge the gap between his patients and evolutionary theory and clinical evidence. You call follow him on Twitter @BeyondtheMD.  He can be reached at  You can also connect with him on Google+. 

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