The Plan Won’t Work Unless You Do: A Response to “WHY DIETS FAIL AND “EAT LESS, MOVE MORE” IS BAD ADVICE”

There is an incomprehensible amount being written on the topic of diet, and every writer thinks that their way of doing things will work for everyone. Unfortunately, people are not all the same and there is no one solution that will work for everyone. You have to find one that works for you, and perhaps more importantly, one that you can use. The ultra low carb paleo South Patagonia Dr, Oz diet may absolutely give the best results possible… unless you don’t actually follow it. You need to make the system that you follow convenient enough that you will actually follow it when life gets complicated.

I came across this article, and had a visceral “not only no but **** no” response to some of its points. While there is a lot of good in the article, I thought I would critique a few things.

 

I mainly coach bodybuilders, and bodybuilders are not very well-liked. I understand why: in the media all you see is unnaturally muscular, tanned men and women lined up in what seems to be some sort of muscle worship fetish. Yet in spite of their poor reputation, this stigmatized subculture does know the cure to obesity.

If you look up photos of many bodybuilders in the off season, you will see the very definition of yo-yo dieting.  The bodybuilding subculture also has a reputation for serious health problems caused by the way they push their bodies and for an unusually high occurrence of eating disorders. (You could argue that there are ways to avoid these risks and you would be correct. But the number of bodybuilders dying young would indicate that there are a lot of people not using these safeguards.) There are in fact things to learn from bodybuilding that can help in other endeavors, but there is a serious amount of bad mixed in with the good.

Basically, bodybuilders achieve what everyone on a diet wants: to lose fat, not muscle. That’s why I essentially treat all my clients that want to lose fat like I would treat a bodybuilder. Bodybuilding is just the more successful version of ‘dieting’.

Bodybuilding is a more extreme subset of dieting with specific requirements, goals, and risks, and it is not suitable for all situations. Different diets are suitable to different goals. Someone going into figure competition should be training and eating differently than someone going into an ultramarathon or into Ranger School. Different methods for different goals.

…most diets fail in the evening. After a long, stressful day at work, you come home hungry and your brain is too foggy to think about what to cook. You open your fridge and a pack of ready-to-eat microwave wraps looks you right in the eye. Decision fatigue has set in and you don’t have the cognitive resources anymore to resist your hunger. Therefore, you opt for convenience foods instead of diet foods.

I absolutely agree that this is where most diets fall apart. I did an impromptu poll of my friends on FB of what is the most challenging part of diet, and the most common answer was convenience. When you have no time to cook, when you are at a business meeting and your food choices are limited, “diet” foods won’t survive staying in your lunchbox on a construction site, and on and on. Where I disagree is how to get past this. Most people won’t arrange for food restrictions at every business trip, meal prep for every day without fail, etc. Your diet plan needs to be convenient enough that you will actually use it in the real world.

Common advice is to take the stairs instead of the elevator. Or park your car further away from work or your house so you have to walk a bit. The benefit is self-evident, right? Actually, it’s not, and neither is the cost.

These small benefits do not weigh up against the hidden cost: decision fatigue from fatiguing your brain every time see a staircase or you have to park your car. Constantly thinking about ways to increase your activity level requires effortful self-control. Combine this with a stressful day at work and you’ve got the recipe for a cheat meal. A single cheat meal can undo weeks or even a month of ‘moving more’.

You have totally misunderstood “eat less, move more.” It is short hand for “consume fewer calories and I don’t care what type of exercise you get, but get some exercise.” Small things like taking the stairs are not meant to be the sum and total of your physical activity. You should have a workout plan. Stairs and parking locations are just little extras you can put in if you want, and having 30 flights of stairs as part of your daily routine does help.

Here’s a photo from the Arnold Classic, a major fitness conference. It went viral in fitness circles under headlines as ‘bodybuilders not fit enough to take the stairs’. No, bodybuilders just know that taking those stairs is a needless effort. Conserving mental energy is far more important than expending physical energy. Bodybuilders instead invest their energy in structured exercise.

You can use that reasoning if you like. I have also met more than a few weightlifters who so focus on one aspect of fitness, forsaking all others, that they can’t take the stairs. Unless we find everyone in that picture and ask why they didn’t take the stairs, we will never know what portion of that crowd was waiting for the escalator for which reason. (Or the common reason of “Leg day was yesterday, no I’m not taking the stairs.”)

None of this in any way implies that exercise is bad for you on a diet. But the crucial feature of successful exercise is structure.

Structure is the key to lifestyle change. You need to plan in advance so that you avoid having to make dozens of daily decisions about diet and physical activity. Investing in a structured exercise program frees your mind from decision fatigue. As the saying goes, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

Absolutely agreed. A structured workout plan is what most people are meaning when they say to move more. If you are only moving randomly it is hard to track if it is “more.”

I did no cardio whatsoever – just weight training – to get in condition for the photo shoot below. Almost none of my clients, including competitive physique athletes, do cardio.

We know that most bodybuilders don’t do cardio. That is why it is easy to think that you can’t handle the stairs. Cardio is indeed over-rated. For weight loss. For heart health and for any sport where you need to move for more than 5 minutes at a time, cardio helps a lot. It is also great for people new to working out, as it is easy to figure out and easy to make sure you keep at it. “Okay, start walking and don’t stop for 30 minutes” is a lot easier to keep track of than 5×10 of this, 3×10 of that, 20-2×2 of this list of exercises.

Cardio should not be all of your workout regimen, but it should be in there somewhere.

‘Eating less’ implies sticking to the same food choices but simply eating less of them. This requires constant self-control by constantly eating less than your appetite signals you to. As the diet progresses and you become hungrier, you must eat even less as your metabolism slows down, which is when the struggle becomes exponentially more difficult. It’s no surprise that this is how most diets fail.

The solution? Eat more, not less. In my photo above I was eating close to 9 pounds (~4 kg) of food every day. I just ate low-calorie foods. I mostly ate fruits, vegetables and lean animal protein sources. In fact, it’s rare that I don’t eat at least 4.5 pounds (2 kg) of food in a given day.

First off, eating less just implies taking in fewer calories, it says nothing about food choices.  Second, most of us eat for reasons other than hunger. The package is almost empty, finish it. There are chips and salsa on the table. I always have a soda in the morning, I need the caffeine. Most of us can cut enough calories for slow weight loss (which should be the goal, rapid weight loss is seldom sustainable) without being hungry.

Eating more low-calorie foods is the reason paleo diets are so successful at causing fat loss.

It is also why so many people find them hard to follow. There is a large mass of food that you must constantly keep available and fresh, and it simply takes longer to eat, which is a problem with work, family and workout time demands.

For example, the typical Mediterranean lunch: 2 large slices of whole-wheat bread with cheese, 1 glass of semi-skimmed milk and an apple. Compare that to these 3 huge Sashimi Omelet Wraps. Both meals contain ~620 calories, but I know which I prefer.

I can put together the sandwich in about a minute. What is your prep time on those wraps? See where this could cause someone to just say screw it and order pizza?

In the end, your diet plan has to work for you. If it has perfect macros, but causes you to hate everything you eat or if you don’t follow it because you can’t find the prep time, it is not going to work long-term. It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just has to be workable for you. The reason so many diets fail is that people are pushed into diet plans that are too inconvenient to use in the real world.

I have tried several plans over the years, and thought I should share my history with diet plans and why I left them behind. These are just my results, yours may vary:

Slim-fast plan- It worked for weight maintenance, but didn’t provide the energy needed for my workouts.

Myfitnesspal- While it may have improved over the years since I tried it, I had a great deal of trouble finding foods and exercises in their database, and I thought some of the exercise calorie ratings were wonky.

Whole Life Challenge- This was the worst for me. The food restrictions made getting anything to eat really inconvenient and the point system encouraged binging. You start the day with 5 points and lose one for every serving of forbidden food you have. When you are down to zero points for today, why not hit Dairy Queen?

Maffetone low-carb- I tried this twice, and hated every minute I was on it. It failed to bring any of the health benefits that it promised. I lost a little weight, but the promises of feeling better and having more energy never materialized. This was designed as a test to see how well your body tolerates carbs, and it appears my body handles them just fine.

Current program- I am using a calorie tracking app called Lose It. I have not had trouble finding foods or exercises in it, and being able to scan bar codes and have it look up the foods is nice. I am losing weight slightly faster than I did under low carb, and the system of simply tracking calories lets me eat my favorite foods, usually an annoyance with the above plans. (I did come home one night and figure out that I could have 17 pizza rolls and still be okay. ) It also allows me to track where I am over or under calorie goals for the week, so if I go over one day I can still try to be under for the week.

 

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The Donkey Strength Doctrine: Initial Thoughts and Principles

When I first started training, I remember how hard it was to find training information for events that included both strength and distance running. I pored through all the information I could find (living next door to the library helped) and finally found a way to put them together… right about the time that OCR-specific training books and plans started to come out.

Now, I see that the problem has morphed over the years. There are hundreds of training plans for specific types of athletes, and it gets very difficult for a beginning or non-elite athlete to find what training style works for their goals and their current physical condition. This often leads to doing nothing, paralysis by analysis.

The unlikely catalyst for putting together some thoughts for athletes in this space (the space where I lived for some time) was jokes surrounding an online meme:

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I commented that Donkeystregth sounded like a ruck training program, then realized it was a fitting metaphor for this sort of athlete. Lacking both the speed and endurance of the race horses and the strength and stamina of the work horses, we get through training and events more on sheer stubbornness than anything else. Working toward being able to keep up with both of them (maybe call that state mule strong?), just not quite there yet.

I may write more on this at a later time, but for now, here are the key principles that I have learned so far:

1: Start now.

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Do what you can with what you have now. You can change up how you go about it as you learn more and get stronger (there are things I did five years ago that I would not do now, and there are plans I have waiting for when I am strong enough to keep up with them), but doing nothing isn’t going to get you anywhere.

2: No Yeah Buts.

Hey I should start working out. Yeah, but I’m not sure if this plan is right.

I should eat more vegetables. Yeah, but the fresh is too expensive and the frozen has added sodium.

Doing something is almost always better than doing nothing. Frozen veggies are better for you than McDonald’s. You don’t need to do things perfectly, just do a little better than you are doing right now. Later you can try to do a little better than that.

3: Pick a plan.

I like to pick a training plan lasting from three to fifteen weeks, complete it, then switch it up. This counters the two problems I often find: over-specialization and the shiny object syndrome.

Many goals require a certain amount of specificity in training, and that is all well and good. If you are training for a 100 miler, you need to devote a good deal of your training time to long runs. Just don’t get so focused on only one skill that all of your other abilities decrease. No one wants to be the guy that can run 200 miles but can’t carry his suitcase in from the car, or the guy who can pick up the car but can’t run around the block. Devote the training time to whatever event you have, then change up the next plan you use.

The shiny object syndrome was a problem for me for years. I like this plan, use it for a week. OOOH SHINY! That plan is better, I will switch to that one. OOOH MORE SHINY. Totally changing everything because this one is cooler! Other trainers have described this as chasing many rabbits and catching none. Pick one plan and stick with it for a month or three, then change things out.

4: Fit the plan to your abilities.

We have all tried a plan that looks easy on paper but absolutely flattens you when you go to do it. A lot of plans for events I want to do are written for people considerably fitter than I am. While a little of this is good, too much of it will lead to injury. If you find yourself on a plan that requires way more fitness than you have, you have three options, which fit different types of workouts.

First is to switch to an easier plan.Doing this too often leads to the shiny object syndrome, but doing it when you recognize you are out of your league is okay.

Second option is to break it into pieces. If you are beaten down at the halfway point of your workout, do half in the morning and half at night, or half today and half tomorrow. Next week try to do a little more, and build up to doing it all in one go.

Third, and most common, is to scale the weights, reps and paces. Plan calls for ten pullups and you can only do five? Okay, do five. You can’t keep the 8-minute-per-mile pace called for? Pick a pace that is challenging for you and go with it. Don’t make it easy on yourself, but make it doable.

5: PACE 

We all have things to do other than training, and life can get in the way. Having a PACE plan (Primary, Alternate, Contingency, Emergency) for your workouts can help keep you moving forward on days that would otherwise prevent getting any form of workout in.

Primary is what you originally planned to do.

Alternate is for small bumps in the road that may screw up your workout. If someone is hogging the squat rack, I can switch to a run or some dumbbell work (depending on what I did yesterday, etc.).  The alternate can be for the entire workout, or for a particular exercise that requires particular gear.

Contingency is for when logistics prevent you from getting to the gym or outside or wherever you usually workout. I like workout DVDs for this.

Emergency is when time and logistics have gone to crap and you just want to get something in. I keep a kettlebell behind my desk, will do 5-10 minutes of swings when I can’t get anything else in. Any available exercise can fill the bill. A little bit of something is better than a whole lot of nothing.

6: Don’t overthink diet.

There are eleventy billion diet plans on the market, and every last one of them is convinced that they are the only way to eat properly, and you will likely hate being on at least 80% of them.

Make sure you are getting enough nutrients and are somewhere close to the amount of food that keeps you at the same weight (slow gain or loss depending on your goals). Take care of those two things and you have 80% of it figured out. Don’t look for the perfect diet, just something good enough that you can follow without hating life.

7: Learn proper form, and keep learning.

Learning how to exercise correctly will often mean doing it wrong for awhile until you figure it out, but you should always be trying to get as close to correct as possible. Various trainers will have various little tricks to check if your form is correct. Pick those up where you can and use them. (I tend to use little tricks from Pavel’s books pretty frequently.) While you are working through a plan, see what info you can dig up on what plan you might do next, try to understand the logic behind them and see if it matches your goals.