‘Fit’ people often see an overweight individual and make classic assumptions. This person must be weak, uncommitted, and clearly does not care about her health. This is an uneducated judgement. A judgement that can only be made by a person who does not understand even himself. Sick people want to be healthy. Poor people want financial stability. Drug addicts want to be clean. When the acute inner pain a person is facing is more powerful than the long-term dream of change it is almost impossible to make right decisions. If this was not the case the world would be full of fit, successful, well adjusted individuals. Stress, trauma, and emotional burden pushes individuals to self-medicate with food, alcohol, drugs, laziness, and technological distraction. Everyone has his or her pain, and everyone has his or her medicine. When you have to wear the effects of your self-medication, you are the first to be judged.
Since the world began to change a few months ago, the average person has found it increasingly difficult to stay healthy. You start going to bed a bit later, drinking a little earlier, and grazing on whatever you can get your hands on all day long. Combine those issues with a fleeting motivation for exercise, and the future of your waistline does not look so good.
During times like these, we dwell on our current lack of motivation. Home-based exercise has always been a challenge for most people. Similar to the common issues found in working from home, when you are in a familiar, comfortable, unstructured environment, things just don’t get done. You don’t have anyone to hold you accountable, and you are missing the critical transition that moves you from one frame of mind to another. For example: when you leave your house, arrive at the gym, put on your fancy gym clothes and meet your coach, you prime yourself for exercise. When you’re at home, there are many competing primers to sit, eat, watch T.V., or do some busywork.
The keyword here is ‘primed.’ People believe that motivation is a trait. Some people are motivated, some people are not. We view a lack of motivation as a character flaw. The truth is that (much like willpower) motivation is an unreliable source of productivity. It is weak, sparse, and finite by nature. Especially when it comes to routine acts that can be monotonous at the moment and have a long lag between action and outcome (like flossing your teeth), motivation is not the correct fuel source. What you need is discipline, and this is where ‘primers’ come in.
People also wrongly believe that discipline is a character trait. You are disciplined, or you aren’t. That belief is incorrect. Discipline is simply a combination of knowing yourself and organizing your life in a way that decreases your chances of messing things up. For instance, it may be your intention to wake up at 6 AM each morning and exercise before the kids wake up. That’s a nice thought, but what usually happens at 6 AM? You wake up, you look at the clock, you think of the ten reasons why staying in bed is better than exercise, and you go back to sleep. Or perhaps you wake up and tell yourself that you’ll just work out after lunch (which you never follow through with). Or maybe you get out of bed and meander around the house for 45 minutes, drinking coffee and staring at your smartphone. Then when the kids get up, it’s too late to exercise. These examples are not issues of motivation. These are issues of a lack of calling yourself out and being prepared.
If I want to work out during a time when I historically find endless excuses not to, my goal is to make those excuses nearly impossible to access. If I were to set the alarm on my phone, I wouldn’t just ‘set the alarm’. I’d add a note to it (a feature available on any smartphone) that said something like ‘hey, don’t even think about going back to sleep. It’s now or never’. I’d put my workout clothes on the floor, likely beside my bathroom door so I’d have to step over them in the morning, literally. Then I would make sure to prepare my water, music, and everything else I needed. That way, I can just go downstairs and get to work. That is all discipline is composed of. Know yourself, anticipate the future, and set primers to keep you from being yourself.
If you drink too early in the day, set a strict limit on your start time and even put a note on the wine fridge if necessary. If you snack on chips and crackers excessively into the evening, get that shit out of your house- or at the very least- appoint a snack bowl of a specific size that you mentally commit to as your single evening serving. If you spend too much time on your smartphone, download an app that gives you a single session or total daily reminders when you’ve hit your screen limit. These interventions sound silly to people, but they work.
Being a disciplined individual is not a complicated process requiring David Goggins or Jocko Willink on your speed dial. Discipline is knowing yourself + implementing silly primers that keep you from being who you usually are when you fail. Think about where you fall short and get creative with your commitments. Implement strategies that will hold you to the promises you make for yourself and see just how ‘motivated’ you can become.
Since putting my books out at a super-low price this week, people who are reading Heavy Brain and the Fat Loss Guide have also been asking if I have more diet book recommendations. The answer is ‘yes and no’. I certainly have suggestions for books that are in a related field, but few (if any) that are actual diet books (i.e., ‘eat these foods’). The reason for this is because diet books suck—all of them. I have read at least twenty, and I am yet to find one that isn’t the same old recycled, dogmatic garbage that has been in print since the 1970s.
These days I find the most valuable books in the world of nutrition are philosophical in nature and take the reader beyond surface-level food considerations. And to be honest, you probably don’t need to be told what to eat anymore. Knowing what healthy vs. unhealthy foods look like is probably a skill you already possess. You want further food advice to be the answer, so you don’t have to address the complex behavioral problems that stand between you and success.
What most people need is books that can change your mind. It would be best if you had exposure to philosophies that are going to unravel a new way of thinking that changes your relationship with food. These are five books that I believe can do that for you.
The story of the human body is the first book I read that forced me to see behavioral eating issues in a different light. It changed my perspective from ‘a person is unsuccessful because s/he is lazy and uncommitted’ to ‘a person is unsuccessful because s/he is a human being.’ I would never have written Heavy Brain if I did not first read this book in 2013 while in New York City. I first learned the concept that human beings struggle in their diet because we evolved in times of scarcity and now live in a world of food abundance while reading this book. It changed everything for me and sent me on an unforeseen journey to the bottom of the obesity epidemic. Everyone should read this book. For fitness professionals, it is a must-read.
I don’t have a research background, and chances are, neither do you. But with all of the battles fought in the nutrition science world, it seems like you need to have one to make sense of all the health and disease claims. For someone interested in reading beyond the headlines and understanding what a study actually can and cannot tell you about food and your health, this book is a great start. After reading this book, you’ll know how to respond the next time you read a headline, and it says ‘red meat increases your chances of heart disease by 36%’.
I assume that most of the poor reviews this book has received come from offended readers who did not like the suggestion that their diet is silly—an act which proves the point that Matt Fitzgerald was aiming to make in his book. Diet Cults points out the issue with ever-growing diet tribes, which people will defend even in the face of the most solid contradictory science. If you are slightly annoyed by pseudo-religious groups like Keto, Paleo, and Carnivore crowds, check this book out.
This was one of the first meaningful books I had ever read regarding food, and it came at the perfect time. When you are newer to fitness, taking courses, and immersing yourself in all things nutrition, you tend to overcomplicate the process. Food becomes broken down into micronutrients, ratios, and other often meaningless specifics. Food gets turned into a reductionistic science experiment rather than stuff that grows out of the ground. This book did a great job of reeling me back into what matters in our diets. Whole foods that are consciously prepared and mindfully enjoyed.
My last pick is the only book that you could categorize as a diet book, although it is more of a research novel than anything else. I read this book right when it came out (2011), and it began to change my mind regarding carbohydrate intake. I don’t think everyone needs to follow a low-carb diet. I also believe that carbohydrates are thoughtlessly thrown into one category (i.e., table sugar, broccoli, and blueberries are equally problematic). The low-carb crowd has left much to be desired. In fact, there are many things that Phinney and Volek believe today that I would heavily push back on. On the other hand, many North Americans are addicted to starch and sugar, and any person who struggles with obesity, type 2 diabetes, or insulin resistance should likely be following a low carb approach. If you are interested in the non-diet book version of this way of eating, this is the book I would suggest.
There you have it. I have many other book suggestions that led me to where I am today in my thoughts on nutrition, but these five recommendations are easy reads and deliver a clear, helpful message to the bookworm. I hope they serve you well.
I came across this tweet today.
The elderly, those with a metabolic disorder, and a few other small demographics, are the most vulnerable to poor COVID outcomes. That is clear. That is not to say that younger, healthier people can’t also be affected by the disease, but those cases appear to be the exception thus far.
I have seen many tweets like this in the past month or so. Standard replies to the question of ‘why not diet advice’ are as follows:
Because ‘big food’ runs the government
Because there’s no money in keeping people healthy
Because physicians are in the back pocket of pharmaceutical companies
Before I get into my take on this question, I want to give responses like these their due.
Food companies no doubt influence government food policy. Everything from dairy to corn, to fruit loops, has a hand in the nutritional pot. Pharma companies are scrambling to turn this pandemic into dollars. I am not arguing against that reality. I intend to point out that these are not the main reasons we don’t hear more about lifestyle-driven virus prevention.
The Elephant in the Room
What people are not talking about is the fact that Americans have not been historically receptive to diet and exercise advice. One hundred million Americans are spending twenty-billion dollars every year inside the weight loss industry. We can argue the intent of the weight loss market and the effectiveness of what it delivers, but we can’t argue with the fact that the obesity rate in the US is at almost 50% of all adults. The obesity rate has grown by around 25% in the last 15 years.
The obesity epidemic has been steadily rising during a time of unprecedented access to diet and exercise information. Five million diet books get sold each year. There are more gyms and gym memberships than ever before. Yet, as a nation and continent, we are all heavier and sicker than we’ve ever been.
Before the dogmatists start talking about how ‘if everyone followed their diet, they wouldn’t be overweight,’ let me clarify a few things. I don’t care if you follow a Vegan Diet, Paleo Diet, Keto Diet, Carnivore Diet, or the MetFlex-Rx Diet. If you are eating whole foods, avoiding processed foods, and being frequently active, your health will dramatically improve. There are many success stories attached to these various ways of eating, but we must realize that while transformation is undoubtedly possible, these cases are the exception. The vast majority of people who try to change what they eat or how much they exercise cannot keep it up.
You may think that with this current climate and fear of disease contraction, it’s an excellent opportunity to motivate the average person to improve his or her lifestyle. But cancer, heart disease, diabetes, neurodegenerative disease, and all other big disease killers have already been shown to be at least partially influenced by diet and state of health. If those aren’t already motivating the average person to clean up his or her diet, what makes you think COVID will?
If you are in medicine or in government, you must consider issues of expedience and compliance. Lifestyle changes are highly involved and challenging to apply. Those who manage to turn their health around are rare breeds. But everyone is capable of taking a medication or vaccine. This is unfortunate, but it is the current reality. Imagine if you took one million Americans and gave them these options. You can:
A- take this pill
B- you can start exercising every day, quit drinking, quit eating junk food, and abandon all of the other habits you’ve formed over the last 40 years
Which do you estimate will be the more common choice? Which route do you think will have the higher compliance?
I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. The health and fitness industry is the world in which I work. I have hope for all people. I believe all people (given the right circumstance, tools, and timing) can take control of their health. But that is my role and my reality. People in government and those who are responsible for containing the spread of a poorly understood pandemic cannot focus on the advice that is least likely to be followed. As lovely as lifestyle interventions for a pandemic may sound, if we know, statistically, that it has a low likelihood of ‘sticking,’ it is irresponsible to make it the focus of a solution. This is especially true when the goal is still to prevent the spread from overwhelming medical systems.
When the dust settles, and we have greater control and understanding of what happened over the past 6-months, we can start talking about long-term prevention. Even then, only a handful of people (hopefully you) will take that advice seriously for more than a few weeks or months. It’s not that the average person doesn’t want to be healthy. It’s because taking control of your health is far more complicated than being told what to eat and what to avoid.
Taking care of yourself matters, but it has always mattered. In this face of terrible diseases, rising obesity, and a host of other negative consequences, people are not getting fitter. We are getting fatter. I encourage those in the fitness industry to continue doing their part in aiding those who are seeking to change. Still, I would also ask that you attempt to understand why policymakers would be hesitant to put lifestyle interventions ahead of medical interventions. One has a high rate of compliance. The other is quite low. And we all know that compliance is the key to all outcomes.
‘I want to lose 10lbs’. Goal-driven statements like this are prevalent in the fitness industry. The problem is that setting a goal does not address the underlying systemic issues that got you to a place where you needed to ‘lose 10, 20, 30, or 100 lbs’.
Obsessing over goals while failing to address process is why goals are rarely achieved, and even more seldom sustained.
For instance, if you eat out for 21 meals per week, setting a weight loss goal is arbitrary. You should be setting a meal making goal. For example, ‘I am going to make dinner for myself six days per week.’ If you reduce the amount of time spent eating out by 30%, it is going to impact your waistline.
If you don’t currently exercise with any set regularity, why would you set a fat loss goal? You should be setting an exercise frequency goal that you can keep up with consistently. If you can hit your exercise goal, the lagging measure will follow.
Not only is a process approach more effective in a direct sense, but it also leaves less room for silly time-based expectations and feelings of failure. There are fewer variables to leave you feeling deflated. When you focus on the scale, you tether your win/loss ratio to an unstable number. If you determine your win/loss ratio by the consistency of healthy actions you take, it is very straightforward. You leave much less room for negative thoughts and feelings.
If you want to change your body, set action-based goals that are easy to track, which will ultimately lead to the superficial goal that you desire. You will be happier and have a much higher chance of long-term success.