How Cookies and Vegetables Saved My Life: Finding Balance through Flexible Dieting
From one extreme to the other...
I have had the unique pleasure of being both morbidly obese as well as leaner and more "fit".
While there are a lot of transformations of guys and gals who go from skinny to ripped, or fat to "less-fat", I've been all over the place...
I've been obese, I've been chubby. I've been skinny. I've been "shredded".
(305 lbs on the left photo -- 165 lbs on the right)
Most people looking at my transformation assume that I started at A (obese), worked hard for a few years, and then ended up with Z (a six-pack).
What they don't see are the many struggles, mistakes, broken friendships, food obsessions, depression, chronic fatigue, and health deficiencies that came along with extreme weight loss.
I could spend hours talking about all of the fanatic alterations my mind and body have gone through during my weight loss journey, but I am not in the business of writing 10,000-word articles...
(and I am sure you would appreciate if I didn't do that either!)
Instead, I want to talk about one of the hot topics in the fitness industry and how I went to each extreme before finding a healthy and balanced middle ground.
This topic is nutrition.
Losing 120 Pounds Eating 5 Different Foods
I started losing weight for the same reasons most folks struggling with weight start.
I wanted to look sexy, be more confident, and feel better.
Like most dudes wanting to lean down, I scoured the internet looking for health and fitness advice for "heavy guys."
(That was actually my google search - I typed "How to workout for heavy guys")
Whether by chance or by poor search phrasing, I ended up on several bodybuilding blogs and forums for guys looking to get lean, mean, and stage ready.
One of the first things I noticed was the strict nutritional advice.
After reading around on different sites, I came up with about 4-5 staple foods that bodybuilders were "allowed" to eat.
The list consisted of chicken, sweet potatoes, broccoli, whey protein, and BROWN rice. (None of that WHITE crap... BROWN RICE ONLY)
I took the nutrition and workout advice I found and started implementing it to a T.
6 Tupperware meals of chicken, broccoli, and rice along with 6-7 workout and cardio sessions a week.
I ended up becoming one of those weirdo zealots who gets addicted to the "bodybuilding lifestyle" and kept to my six meals a day schedule for close to a year.
I was 120 pounds lighter and even had some muscle definition for once.
Again, looking at my transformation, you'd assume I was ecstatic with my results and new amazing life right?
While I appeared happier and healthier on the outside, I was mentally and psychologically worse off than ever before.
In order to adhere to my strict schedule of school, workout, eat, sleep, repeat, I ended up losing a lot of the social aspects of my life.
I no longer went out with friends in fear of eating "unhealthy" foods.
When I did go out, I couldn't leave without a duffle bag full of prepped meals, and if there wasn't a place to refrigerator them, forget about me going...
What's worse is that the extreme workout schedule I was following was leaving me with all of the classic symptoms of overtraining including poor sleep, fatigue, and chronic stress.
The combination of strict eating, overtraining, and lack of a social life resulted in one of the worst ruts of my entire life.
I was depressed and alone...but at least I still had chicken (extra points if you got that World of Warcraft reference)
Worse Than Ever Before
I had finally achieved the body I always wanted, but something was missing.
Wasn't I ALSO suppose to feel healthier, more confident, and have a better social life?
Yeah, I had the body I wanted but at the cost of being more depressed and alone that I had ever been in my entire life.
Parts of my health had improved, but strict eating and chronic exercise had left me with a number of vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
These deficiencies eventually led to extremely low testosterone and low thyroid production (aka slooooooow metabolism).
It might have gotten worse too if it weren't for an embarrassing (but totally necessary) evening at Steak n' Shake...
My Steak n' Shake Nightmare Story
I rarely went out with friends and family to restaurants, but considering it was my cousin's birthday, I decided to go.
Although we were celebrating, there was definitely no room in my diet for cake and burgers. Like normal, I carried my lunchbox of precooked meals for the evening festivities.
When my friends and cousin started ordering their meals - I passed.
"Just water for me, please..."
When their food came out, I pulled out my Tupperware plastic container of cold chicken, broccoli, and rice.
This was nothing new to my friends; they were more than accustomed to my strict eating and exercise protocols.
The meal was going fine and dandy until a few cute girls came up to our table.
We were initially having fun exchanges stories and smiles when one of them looked down at my container of slop...
"Is that just cold chicken and broccoli? That is SO DISGUSTING! It smells so bad!" (said it Gretchen Weiners voice)
The girls started laughing as I tried to explain myself, but it was no use.
Even though it was just a small 2-minute exchange, that moment made me realize how extreme I had gotten just to achieve the goal of being lean, healthy, and happy.
The worst part is that I had only achieved one of those three goals in the process.
Finding a More Flexible Approach
I knew that achieving my goals of being lean while also finding balance with my health and social life was going to take some work.
However, I knew one thing - My current approach just wasn't cutting it.
I turned to the interweb in search of a more "flexible" approach to dieting and eventually came across a guy named Layne Norton.
If you don't know who he is, you can read more about him here.
Long story short, he is a nutritional scientist who has made a name for himself in the natural bodybuilding and powerlifting sphere.
Every time I would read his stuff, I kept hearing the terms "Flexible Dieting" and "Macros" getting tossed around.
After some digging, I started to discover more and more about macronutrients and their role in the body.
I quickly began to learn that body composition came down to macronutrients and calories more than anything, what foods those "macros" came from was not as important.
(I had previously known that I needed protein to build muscle, but I had never gone much deeper than that.)
I decided to try this flexible dieting thing out and, surprisingly, found it to be one of the most powerful health benefits of my life!
Flexible dieting helped me to find a balance with my food that allowed for a much healthier and sustainable approach.
In fact, taking this more flexible approach resulted in losing an additional 20 lbs of stubborn fat and got me in the best shape of my life!
Putting my Past Experiences into Action
Since I have had such great success with tracking calories and macros in a flexible way, I always recommend it to my clients and people looking for advice.
Here is the kicker, though...
While having flexibility in your diet is important, some people end up taking the "flexible" part a little too far.
For example, some people take the mantra of "all that matters is calories and macros" and eat whatever they want, whenever they want.
While it's possible to lose weight and get fit eating pop tarts and drinking whey protein (if it fits within your caloric budget), I hesitate to believe that any health professional or person with common sense would agree that it's the best approach for optimal health.
While only eating pop tarts and protein powder can physically get you lean, you'll be doing yourself a huge disservice by neglecting the mental and psychological effects of eating in this way.
You see most folks who've struggled with excessive weight gain and obesity most of their lives have more going on than just eating too many calories.
For people in this situation, I FIRST recommend eliminating as much of the sugary "trigger" foods from their diet as they can.
(I believe this is a crucial first step towards building a stronger mind and strengthening willpower.)
I've also seen dieters take the whole "clean eating" thing to far as well (hint hint... me)
Trying to stick to a clean eating regimen indefinitely will more than likely lead to greater and greater cravings. It may also result in eating disorders like orthorexia (obsession with healthy eating) or binge eating.
Most people, me included, find a healthy balance in using the rule of 80/20.
That is, 80% of your diet comes from healthy whole foods while 20% can come from things like cake, cookies, chocolate, etc.
The Icing on the Cake
I talked a lot about my personal experience with food throughout my diet journey. However, I believe my story can apply to many people's situations.
When someone begins researching weight loss advice, they either find the group of individuals who obsess over clean eating or the group that says calories are all that matter.
In my opinion, neither of these group's approaches are going to be sustainable for long-term weight loss.
Instead, you should find a balance between these two groups that fits your lifestyle.
Personally, I have found that eating more whole foods and focusing less on fitting in cookies and french fries is best for me.
I've also had friends and clients who prefer meticulously tracking their calories and macros so that they can have more treats and indulgences in their diet without gaining excess weight.
Before you decide where you fall, here is my advice:
- Start out by eating mostly, if not exclusively whole foods. A diet comprised of whole foods is going to help you lose weight quickly in the beginning while your willpower reserves are high.
I also recommend you begin tracking your calories and weighing out food to get a better idea of what portion sizes look like. This alongside mindful eating will make sustaining a healthy weight easier.
- After a few weeks, if you feel you are starting to experience stronger and stronger cravings, start implementing small indulgences and treats. (Just be sure to account for them in your daily calorie goals).
The best practice here is to include these treats only as much as necessary to get the desired effects. Don't try and fit multiple pop tarts and bags of cookies into your diet just because you can.
Remember, it's all about balance and personal adherence. Find what works for you and use it.
If you discover that allowing for small indulgences following an 80/20 rule works for you, don't let folks in the "clean eating" camp persuade you otherwise.
On the other hand, if you find that you do best by completely eliminating cravings and tempting foods from your diet, just don't eat them!
Even with this knowledge, deciding what works best for you can be hard. It's because of this that I offer online coaching.
Where most online coaches just focus on giving basic workout and nutrition plans for weight loss, I go a step further.
My goal is to not only help you lose weight in the short-term but also develop skills and tools for building a strong and healthy mind primed for life-long weight loss success.
I use what I've learned about food psychology and emotional eating along my personal experience of losing over 140 pounds to help you get what you've always wanted - a sustainable and enjoyable way to lose weight and maintain a lean, healthy body for life!
Interested in learning more about my coaching? Click Here.