I don’t write a whole bunch about nutrition, mostly because I’m a personal trainer, and as such I’m not qualified to put anyone on any particular diet. I can talk about food in broad terms, but it’s worth properly stating: if your personal trainer does try to put you on a diet, make sure they’re qualified. We know about exercise. And it is our job to teach you about that. But we are famous for working outside of our scope of practice.
Having said that, I am opinionated, and I do like to discuss concepts as much as I enjoy details. So, onward to concepts!
The term “diet” we often take to be restrictive these days, but the word may actually relate more broadly to any eating program for any purpose, it may have phases or periods or a specific desired result or not – and even more broadly it may simply relate to whatever it is you happen to eat. For example, the diet of a chimpanzee includes but is not limited to: fruits, other parts of trees, insects and occasionally, other chimpanzees.
These days as well, we tend to believe a diet by definition is a healthy thing to do, that a weight-loss diet is healthy, and that a “healthy choice” is whatever the low-calorie option might be. That one in particular – I see it all the time. There’s some ad, some caption about making a healthy choice, and it’s about a small portion, or a low-calorie option.
Of course, very often that’s not true. Health is more than size – size of your body, or size of your meal; health is also about nourishment, and “nourishment” is not code for “deprivation”. But we live in a world where we are always told smaller, smaller. It’s easy to be overwhelmed and lose perspective and believe that the littlest, the food that makes the least fuss, that doesn’t start a fight in public or openly question authority, that this is the best food. And any person may have any range of foods they cannot eat for any reason, but the more foods you cannot eat, the more you have to make damn sure that you do get enough of the foods you can eat.
And so, to the philosophical point – there is a difference in health, structure and application, between what may be referred to as a weight-loss diet and a longevity diet.
A good, healthy long term diet – contrived and structured or intuitive or something else entirely – might not make you thin. In fact it probably won’t make you thin, because it won’t be based on the concept of deprivation. Instead, it will be based on the concept of eating foods that are good for you, or something like that, which sounds good to me. It may be based on any number of concepts, because it’ll be about your needs, it won’t be about selling some kind of fear, propaganda, or false promise.
You don’t hear people talk about longevity diets very much. I don’t know if that’s really a term, but it’s certainly one way to think about them. The thing with a typical weight-loss diet is this: when they succeed, they do so precisely because they’re not giving your body all the things that it needs. Most of them are based on nothing more sophisticated than simply restricting calories – the amount of energy you derive from eating food. That’s the whole point – they do not provide you with enough energy, and they force your body to rely on stored fat in order to make up the difference.
And of course, the “rapid” ones rely upon even more deprivation, even more extreme practices.
The more sophisticated diets base their methods on the concept of correcting your body’s own function, so that your body normalises its weight at whatever point it’s supposed to be. It’s a nice theory, still based on a number of assumptions I’m not comfortable making, and an area I know little about, except that the weight your body seems to want to be is often still heavier than an individual actually wants to be. And so we become desperate.
We don’t always express it in these terms, but it should be apparent that something that helps you – or forces you – to lose weight is not a long term viable option. Yet all the time I hear people say – “oh, I started this diet, and it’s given me a proper idea of how much I should be eating” – and I find myself saying “really?”
Because if it’s designed to make you lose weight, by very definition, it’s giving you less than you need. It is specifically creating an energy-debt within your body. This is not something you should be doing for the long term. You don’t want your day-to-day nutrition, your diet, to leave your body depleted, wanting. A good long term nutritional approach won’t be based on the concept of depletion.
So the take home message as it were is this: if you find yourself on some sort of weight-loss based eating program, and you’re tempted to think – “oh, this is how much food I really should be eating” – well, it’s not. The amount of food you are eating is specifically, and by design, inadequate. At first you may feel fine, you may even have more energy – but don’t feel like a failure because your body doesn’t thrive on an inadequate amount of food. You’re not unique, or a failure, instead that’s simply how bodies work. They can endure hardship for short periods of time, but after a while in a depleted state, they struggle to function right. It’s not you, it’s just how we work. If you care about longevity, in the long term – you need to eat enough. People argue over numbers, calories, and specific types of food – we probably will continue to do so forever – but the amount of food you are allowed to eat when on a weight-loss diet is, by very definition, inadequate. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s somehow “the right amount”.
And again for the record: this is a blog about training. More often than not, if you’re exercising – or if you’re starting to exercise after a period of not doing so – or if you’re exercising more than you used to – or if you’ve increased muscle mass or strength – you’re going to need more food, not less. Instead of weight-loss, think “tissue recovery”. Injuries heal slower if you’re not eating enough. Instead of “leaning out”, think “feeding your bones and muscles”. And instead of all that, instead of taking a “fuel” approach to eating – well, food is not fuel. We are not engines. We do not run on petrol. We are complex, complicated human beings, with unique needs, and our tastes reflect this.
In the end, when it comes to food, nobody else can keep you safe. I don’t mean to be alarmist, but we are both blessed and cursed with freedom. Structure and propaganda make us feel safe as much as these structures exploit us. And what is of value? In the end, we must choose what to eat for ourselves. Is it liberating or terrifying? Who’s to know what the best choice is? Why are we afraid of food these days? Not eating will kill you faster than eating does, every time. In a world where educated, qualified people have such bitter arguments about what foods are good or bad, in either absolute or relative terms, and about how to eat, who do you follow? Only yourself, and whoever you choose to trust.
Probably, in the end, you shouldn’t follow me. Or, at a guess, most people who blog about fitness. I haven’t met (many) of you, I can’t tell you to eat gluten or shellfish. Be selective, and trust your own instincts.