New Year is harvest time for fitness industry scumbags. They want to sell endless quick fixes for everything from stomach fat to getting stage ready as a bodybuilder, while being far more concerned with emptying your wallet into theirs than with you getting the results that you want.
And so to kick things off, I’m looking at diet plans. There will be hundreds or thousands of the damn things floating around at this time of year, featuring everything from sensible healthy eating to the more tightly controlled plans like low / no carb, paleo, intermittent fasting, all that shit. When I say shit, it’s not that the plans themselves won’t work. They will, if followed, because what they all have in common is that they will put you into a calorie deficit, where you burn more than you consume. I’ll talk more about that subject later, but that’s not the point I want to start off by making.
My major problem with them though is not that the meal plans are bad. It’s that they encourage you to ride the wave of New Year’s enthusiasm and do too much, too soon, and marketing it as tough love or motivation. This “bully yourself thin” strategy guilts you into spending the beginning of the year miserable, and leaves way too many people dejected and relapsing right back into old habits.
So, the first piece of advice I’d give is to stop. Particularly if this is your first crack of the whip on getting in shape or whatever, the last thing I think you should do is take a sledge hammer to your current lifestyle and replace it with a comparatively super-restrictive one. In my opinion, the only people who should be making drastic, sudden changes to diet are people who have been told to by a doctor, and they get professional help to do so. I’m basically giving you carte-blanche to chill out and NOT start on a path to health and fitness by punishing yourself. That will work for some people, but not most. What works for everyone is sustainable, habit-forming change – replacing a lifestyle that is harming you with one that is making you better, however you determine what better means for you.
A sudden, major change in diet will often have two major consequences. Your stomach (and possibly 12-24 hours later, your arse) will hate you, and your body will PANIC, as your intake has suddenly been massively reduced. Worst of all, you’re doing this to yourself just after Christmas and New Year – the time of year where we possibly eat and drink more than any other. Your body is clever, but not so clever that it knows why its source of fuel has been slashed. All it knows is that there is less food, and it will act as though you’re in danger, stockpile what it has, and leave you feeling like hell, craving that bad food more than ever. Also, a major change often leads to gastric shenanigans. Add to that your plucky entrance to an exercise class or gym, standing surrounded by people you don’t know, in an unfamiliar environment, wearing clothes you’re not used to, feeling like you’ll fart if you sneeze… Not conducive to success, or a sense of wellbeing.
Instead, start off by taking stock of where you are. What are you eating? How much? When? Have a look at the calorific value on its label, and compare a few. You might be surprised by what you find. You’re not in imminent danger here, so no need to feel you must make the changes right now. Eat more or less as you normally would for a week or so, but record everything. And be honest with yourself – nobody else needs to know, and you sure as hell don’t have to tell me. Start by reducing the obvious sources of calories (sugar in hot drinks, fizzy drinks, biscuits with your mid-afternoon cuppa, the bit of cake you didn’t really want, but it was there…) and try not to replace them with something else. Once you’re good with that, take a bit more. Replace processed foods with healthier ones. Reduce snacks. Drink more water (or weak squash) and less sugary nonsense. I don’t mean to patronise but I think people generally know more or less what is and isn’t healthy, but that’s the smaller problem. Getting there is the hard part. We have a real tendency to try and take a scorched-earth approach to making changes in our lives and while I see the appeal of a grand gesture, drawing a line between the past and the presence, I also see year after year people trying that in January and giving up before March. The people who stick with it are those who keep track, who adjust, and who try to remain as consistent as possible. The sick bastards who enjoy it.
Approaching this in stages that won’t feel so onerous as going from a high fat, high sugar, absolutely fucking delicious diet to eating steamed chicken and lots of greens, will give you a better chance of long term success. Long term is the key thing – even if you DO lose a hell of a lot of weight in six weeks, six months, whatever, to keep it off you’ll have to keep at it in the long term. Is it easier to do that with a lifestyle you’ve built up over time, or with a sudden, drastic change in all the things? If sudden, drastic changes were the simple way to change your life, would we be having this conversation? Six weeks (or whatever arbitrary number they’ve stuck on their plan) is not long enough to fix what you feel is broken, so ignore those wankers. Don’t let them convince you that you’re only a tiny bit of effort and time away from your goals. Don’t let them trick you into thinking that trying their way and failing is because you’re weak.
Make a change, record the results. Make another change, record, rinse and repeat, and check again in a couple of weeks. As the intake of calories comes down, you will start to level out, and eventually start to lose weight. It doesn’t have to be all about weight, though – weight as a number is subjective, ignores build, ignores bone density, all kinds of stuff. Good for marking a trend, crap for telling you very much about yourself in isolation. How you feel, your levels of energy, how happy you are, those are all a lot more important, and together paint a better picture of how you are progressing. Personally I’d rather lose a couple of pounds a fortnight or even a month and feel healthier and happier than drop weight rapidly and feel like hell. That attitude combined with more exercise will work. Not all at once, but inch by inch, and once you have goals and you’re seeing results, making further changes may even become part of the fun. Sick, huh?
This principle is simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Mostly because unhealthy food is lush, and healthy food doesn’t have all that fat, salt, and sugar to compete with it. That’s part of why I see this as an ongoing campaign of small battles, not a quick punch-up around the bins behind Lidl. It’s not a win or lose situation, it’s a strategy where you accept you will win some, lose some, and over time begin to win more than you lose.
To summarise, a bit of a shock to the system can be good for you, but don’t overdo it. This is a long-haul thing that will take time, and you have to live with yourself throughout. It’s not the done thing to tell people that this is both conceptually simple and practically difficult, but it IS the truth. Starting this venture openly and in being honest with yourself is, in my opinion anyway, the best way to succeed. Take notes, monitor progress, and don’t get tempted by one of these bullshit schemes to shed the weight quickly.
And if you feel you need a shock to the system, by all means give it a go. I’m not your mum. All I’ll ask is that if you do and it goes wrong, come back to what I said and not back to square one. We’re all a work in progress. You haven’t failed. You’re just not done yet.