Humans: The Only Dieting Species On Earth
The word diet has become synonymous with suffering. The more restrictive a diet is, the more hardcore the dieter feels. Even to the point of bragging about it like you deserve some sort of medal for putting yourself such a dubious challenge. This is no way to go through life. And it’s sure as hell no way to make sustainable habitual health changes to your lifestyle. Macros aren’t everything.
The term diet is literally defined as, “the sum of the food consumed by a person/organism” – that is it. When watching a documentary about grizzly bears, the narrator might discuss the diet of the bear. This is referring to what the bear eats normally to survive, and is not referring to the bear as trying to keep his meats lean, watch his macros so he can shed a few pounds, or go full keto, bro.
Yet humans are the only species on earth that relate diet with emotion, belief systems and other highly arbitrary irrational decision making not associated with survival. When someone is discussing their diet, their thoughts almost always automatically gravitate to what the can’t eat, when they can’t eat, how miserable and restrictive their diet is, or how many grams of this or that they are “allowed” to eat on a daily basis as a form of mental imprisonment.
From an evolutionary survival perspective, this type of habitual eating behavior is not normal, and it begs the question – why has the word diet become a word that evokes negative emotion, and have some of us gotten to the point of OVER obsession with the diet? To the point of missing out on life? Missing out on happiness? All at the cost of what?
Is Your “Diet” Taking More Than It’s Giving?
When we get too wrapped up in obsessing over our diet, or tracking food to the nearest tenth of a gram that we begin to limit our social and cultural experiences our idea of health actually begins to lean closer and closer to an eating disorder type mentality.
The impending doom of dieting has been occurring since the dawn of time. When we over restrict to the point of craving what we cannot have, it becomes highly likely that a breakdown of willpower and a successive binge shall follow. Go back to one of the earliest texts of modern time – the Bible. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were told NOT to eat the forbidden fruit as their macro coach had them utilizing fats as fuel and didn’t want to exit that fat-burning keto furnace. We all know what happened there…
As soon as we are placed, or place ourselves, on a program or plan that is so physically uncomfortable or restrictive, it becomes a cat and mouse game of what will win out. Our 24 hour willpower clock versus that food that we swore we’d never eat again.
The major problems with most diets that people jump onto are:
- Drastically reducing calories from what we are currently eating.
- Significant decreases in our quality of life to the point of anti-social behaviors.
- Attempt at multiple changes in a short period of time to a lifestyle that we have been living for years.
- Lack of fundamental nutrition education, and how to apply resources on an individual basis.
These four commonalities are what often lead to quick burnouts, reversion into old habits, and loss of any short term results that were made.
Think of yourself, or people you know who have been on a restrictive diet. How many times did you or they pass on a fun opportunity because it would have broken them off of their plan? Eventually, these moments of missing out either consume you so much that you find yourself just living day to day ultra focused on your diet, with no true enjoyment in life, or an eventual “fuck it” moment where you throw in the towel and go all in on every food in front of you.
But interestingly enough, people placing themselves into this type of mental and physical diet purgatory aren’t actually receiving any additional benefits from those who have sound and sustainable nutritional practices that also allow a higher quality of life. And many times, the mental anguish associated with such restriction trumps the physical benefits from a systemic health and wellness standpoint.
So You’ve Been Told Macros Are All That Matter?
Another highly common annoyance with dubious diets, especially in the fitness realm, is tracking macros.
Tracking macros has become talked about like it is a diet in itself. Many popular dietary approaches have their foundations rooted in macro counting – IIFYM and Flexible Dieting being the most popular. While these approaches claim to eliminate the power of good vs. bad foods and take away that forbidden fruit mentality, they also present a new problem – having to weigh out, measure, and track every damn bite/sip of food and drink that enters your mouth.
Tracking macros can be a great tool. It is one of many tools that can help to fix a broken relationship with food, and to improve ones health. But like any other tool, you shouldn’t have to keep using it for a lifetime.
Initially, tracking food intake either with a basic food journal or macros tracking can be used to determine an objective and reliable starting point. It is a great way to learn about what food contribute to carbs, proteins and fats. Macro tracking is also a great way to see how quickly calorie dense options can add up, or how a few little bites here and there throughout the day can add up to be more calories than a meal.
Over the course of tracking macros, one must learn and soak up this information, with the eventual intent on building off of it and creating a plan that is truly sustainable for a lifetime, without having to rely on your food scale and an app on your phone to log every single thing. This is why macro tracking is not a “diet” but rather a form of lifestyle education.
Once you finish using your screw driver to repair a broken drawer on your desk, do you keep holding on to that screw driver for life? Or do you put it back in the toolbox until you need it again? I think we know the answer.
Are You Actually Eating What You Think You’re Eating?
Another large issue with the obsession of tracking macros is figuring out what is in the food we eat. It can be fairly easy if you live within a happy little bubble of minimal ingredients. For dinner, you can measure a plain chicken breast, a portion of rice, and a portion of vegetables with 10 grams of butter on top. What happens when you have a meal like shrimp fried rice, mom’s famous lasagna, or a gourmet meal at an amazing 5 star restaurant?
These situations send the most hardcore macro trackers into a cold sweat panic. Which at this point, many will simply avoid these situations because they would rather miss out on a social and sensory stimulating experience than try and figure out just how many grams of ground beef is in the lasagna, what percent leanness it is, and if the pasta sauce has 10 grams of added sugar. While these overly proud macro counting zealots may claim on their social media that they can eat anything guilt and burden free, the truth is that they can’t.
Unfortunately even the most devout macro tracking sleuths are bound for some disappointment when they learn that the FDA allows 20% variance in the actual calorie level and the amount listed on a nutrition label or in a food database. So even if you are tracking everything to the microgram, you could be off by a 40% swing in calories and macros when all is said and done. That statistic still blows me away.
Does this sound like a truly sustainable, and free approach to a relationship with food? Hardly. Going through life while avoiding holiday feasts, sitting on your phone trying to track macros at your kids birthday party, or skipping social nights out with friends is not freedom – it’s diet purgatory, and most times, impending doom is on the horizon.
When it comes to creating a truly sustainable, habitual life long approach to your diet, there are 3 pillars that should be taken into account.
- Overall health
- Specific and personal health goals
- Quality of life
Anything that takes away from one of these three things substantially cannot be considered a truly healthy lifestyle approach to your relationship with food and diet.
For example, if you are maximizing your diet to support your fat loss efforts, but it is at the cost of your overall health and quality of life, this approach should be deemed unhealthy and likely unsustainable. On the flip side, if you are maximizing your mental quality of life by living life to fullest by eating anything and everything you find pleasurable on a daily basis to the point of sacrificing your overall health, this can also not be considered a sustainable or even remotely healthy approach to eating.
How to do we meet all three criteria, maintaining our health, our specific goals, and arguably most importantly, our mental and emotional well being? The following three pillars should be able to break it down.
Nutritional Practices Focused On Overall Health
Most people know what to eat for overall health, and what to eat less of. We cannot live in a world of denial that eating pop tarts and slamming beers every weekend will lead to an optimized life, body, and feeling of health and vitality.
While body acceptance and loving yourself are both crucial, it is simply ignorant and dangerous to overlook the profound data that shows just how unhealthy being overweight and obese can be over the long term. Wanting to optimize your overall health IS also a form of loving yourself, not only for you, but for your family and other loved ones who care about you and want to see you around and vigorous for a long time.
Minimizing processed junk foods, and maximizing whole, natural foods as much as possible is a no brainer here. Eat your veggies, fruits, lean proteins, higher fiber carbs, and heart healthy fats. This ensures that your are not only getting optimal macronutrition, but also optimal micronutrition. Everything else can have it’s place at the right time.
Another huge caveat to eating for overall health is your personal response to specific foods and food groups. Believe it or not, actually listening to your body is pretty important. So many people accept bloating, gas and discomfort after eating certain foods as normal, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
If you constantly feel like shit, or literally end up shitting yourself after eating a certain food, it’s probably a good idea to cut that food out of your life – you don’t need a macro tracker to tell you that.
Does eating cake, cookies and pie everyday sound fun. You bet. Does it sounds like a good way to maximize your overall health? Hardly. However, eating a piece of cake on your birthday, a slice of pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving or a Donut on National Donut day will not kill you, and will likely have no negative effect on your overall health if these occurrences are truly in moderation and for important special occasions.
Specific and Personal Health Goals
Maybe you want to lose a bit of belly fat for summer, or pack on some slabs of muscle for your next shirtless beach vacation. These tasks require a few fundamental principles to be put into place, manipulation of your overall caloric intake being the biggest factor. To lose body mass, one must be in a deficit, and vice versa to increase mass.
From here we could dive into the specifics of optimal protein intake, and everything else, but there are other articles which address that information that can be found right here on DrJohnRusin.com.
Where this pillar becomes a problem is when individuals obsess over this pillar so much that it causes one or both of the other pillars to crumble. Getting someone to just simply lose weight is not actually that hard if we ignore overall physical and mental well being – this was proven by the Minnesota Starvation study. Same goes with packing on maximal muscle – it can be done fairly simply with the right training program and eating enough food, especially if we don’t care about fat gain occurring as well a la the “dirty bulk”.
Just because someone looks super shredded and lean, does not mean that they are truly healthy, and often times far from it. From their hormones tanking, sexual function decreasing or the anti-social behaviors that many shredded men and women possess, it doesn’t take much to realize that looking a certain way is only one side of the coin.
Can fat loss happen without sacrificing your internal health, or without giving up hanging out in social settings? Of course it can. This is where a habit based approach comes in, and working towards a more intuitive eating style becomes the ultimate goal.
As stated earlier, we know what we should be eating most of the time, and what foods and drinks we should minimize. To take it one step further, we can re-learn how to intuitively eat, and listen to our bodies to maximize our results without over obsessing over tracking or depriving ourselves of some pleasurable foods.
As babies, we all intuitively ate. We cried when hungry, and stopped feeding when we were satisfied – sometimes burping up a little bit when we got into excess. As soon as emotional triggers, time scheduled feedings, and the ability to seek out and buy whatever food we wanted were introduced into our lives, we began to get further and further away from truly intuitive eating.
Want to lose a little weight intuitively without tracking macros? Eat only when you are physically hungry, and stop before you are uncomfortably stuffed. Going to bed a little hungry is okay as well. This is how bodybuilders did it before there was food labels and macro trackers, and so can you.
The more processed and calorically dense foods you eat, the harder this approach can be, because these foods are often low in volume yet high in calories, so it takes our bodies longer to register fullness, often times before we have gone to far and are stuffed. This is why minimizing these foods is crucial to not only overall health, but also weight management.
The more routine and habitual you can be, the easier this becomes. Does this mean you have to eat the same exact thing every single day? Hardly. But creating repeatable, common meals with micro variances is a great way to do this without things getting stale.
Say you have a 2 egg + 1 cup of egg white scramble, 1 cup of oats and a piece of tennis ball sized fruit for breakfast. These foods contribute to most of the macronutrients at this meal. From this, you could change up the veggies in the scramble, the type of fruit, or the low or no cal flavors you put in your oats. By changing these things, you end up keeping the calories and macros roughly the same, but changing the entire taste profile of the meal.
Quality of Life
Can you optimize your physical health, and your personal health goals while sacrificing your quality of mental and social health. Sure you can – but this is likely a short term fix, or a one way ticket to developing a dysfunctional relationship with food’s affects on family, friends and you’re overall lifestyle.
Macro tracking zealots claim that tracking macros takes away the emotional stress of eating because as long as we fit our macros, we can eat what we please to varying levels depending on which camp they fall in to. However, they often add the stress of getting out their phone all the time, logging food 24/7, and even avoiding social situations because not being able to get their macro counts right scares the hell out of them. Doesn’t sound very stress free, does it?
Again, this is not an attack on macro tracking, nor saying that it is bad, but rather it is a tool that can help for short term education while learning along the way how to create sustainable habits around nutrition that one day will allow you to keep the phone in you purse and actually enjoy the company you are with at your favorite restaurant.
When it comes to special occasions or holiday get-togethers, extreme dieters often freak out. The main issues that arise with holiday feasts is not the holiday itself, rather it is when the one day becomes one week of over indulgence and gluttony, which becomes one month, and eventually “I’ll start again January 1st” mode.
Avoidance of your favorite holiday foods because your diet doesn’t allow them or they don’t fit your macros is not a healthy way of living. Food has been used for celebrations for thousands of years, at weddings, birthdays, or after claiming victory over an enemy army in battle. It is not only healthy to enjoy our favorite foods on these special occasions; it should be encouraged. Enjoy the feast on the day of celebration, and get back to normal habits and routines the very next day – and all will be fine.
Just as eating one salad doesn’t make you healthy, eating one piece of birthday cake will not make you unhealthy. It is what we do over the course of weeks, months and years that molds us into our current state of health, and it can take weeks, months and years of positive, habitual changes to work our way out of poor habits as well. Build your habits, and let them work for you for a lifetime. It’s as simple as that.
About The Author
Mike Gorski is a Registered Dietitian and personal trainer located just outside of Madison, Wisconsin. Mike works with clients on a wide variety of goals including sports performance, post-rehab training, weight loss, and overall healthy behavior change. His ideas and methods have been featured on some of the top publications in the fitness industry including the Personal Trainer Development Center. Mike’s mission is to create positive behavior change with all his clients that will not only get them to their personal goal, but last them a lifetime.