by Dani Shugart T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
- The bacteria in your gut makes you crave more of what you already eat. If you want to crave healthier food, eat healthier food.
- Food impacts the reward centers of the brain. Consuming more junk food will make it less rewarding unless you consume even more.
- Some people need more structure than others in order to stay motivated. Figure out if you need a strict plan or tons of leeway.
- Build muscle. Stop looking for a lifting program that won’t add size. Hypertrophy isn’t just for the lean. It can help you get lean.
- Quit making up your own diet strategies without assessing them. Testing new things is fine… unless they’re working against you.
The Less-Obvious Issues
Most people know exactly why they’re carrying around too much fat: they eat garbage and they don’t move much. It’s obvious.
But there are others who do try to train hard and improve their diets, and yet they still struggle. Maybe they lose some fat, but it always seems to boomerang right back.
Sound familiar? Here are 10 less-obvious things that could be the problem.
1. You’re Battling Bad Gut Bacteria
Cravings aren’t “all in your head.” They’re partly caused by what’s going on in your gut. Your diet creates an environment for your bacteria – both good and bad. Researchers call it an ecosystem.
Problem is, when you try to change your diet, your “bad” gut bacteria will demand to be fed, making you experience cravings. It’s a lot like withdrawal symptoms.
Bill Roberts explains:
“Metabolically-unfavorable gut bacteria can cause cravings of the junk foods that best feeds them. They can also cause you to feel dysphoric (bad) feelings when they’re deprived of their favorite foods.
“The good news is, you can break their control fairly quickly by not giving in. When you consistently don’t give in, these bacterial populations reduce, you become metabolically healthier, and you start feeling better than ever.”
Think of it almost like a relationship between parasite and host. To continue thriving, your gut bacteria consumes what you give it, and makes you feel physically deprived when you go without it.
If your gut’s ecosystem makes you crave what you consistently eat, then change your cravings by changing your gut’s ecosystem.
Want to crave healthy foods? Then consistently consume them. Feed the good gut bacteria.
How do you get rid of the bacteria that makes you want more crap food? You starve those little bastards.
Yes, you’ll feel “deprived” at first. Count on it. But you can survive without junk food. The bacteria that feeds off it can’t.
Eventually you won’t feel as compelled to have low-nutrition foods densely packed with calories (i.e. junk food).
2. You’re Battling Your Brain
When it comes to cravings, part of it is in your head.
Researchers say that our desire to eat a balanced diet is reduced when we eat high sugar, high fat foods – obesogenic foods.
This has a massive impact on your brain’s reward centers, driving you to eat more of it and actually decreasing your appetite for nutritious food. Regularly eating crap food will make all other food less appealing. You’ll also be fertilizing the bad gut bacteria discussed above.
The more junk food you eat, the less rewarding it becomes to the area of your brain that measures reward/pleasure. You’ll have to consume more to get the same positive response.
Sure, some people can eat moderate amounts of junk food without repercussion, but many others can’t. For them it often just opens the floodgates instead of satiating the appetite.
Think ahead. If a chip is going to make you want half a bag of chips, then eat an apple or have a protein shake instead. You know which option will satisfy hunger and which one will set you up for rationalizing more.
Junk food is only tempting to two kinds of people: Those who regularly eat it and those who’ve just begun to avoid it.
People who’ve gone without it for a long time usually don’t crave it. It won’t be a temptation once you develop an appetite for higher quality foods.
And once you’re living there, then the rare special occasions when you do splurge won’t even make a dent.
Again, there will be a period of time where you just have to tough it out.
3. You’re Becoming Your Parents
Everyone says they’ll never turn into their parents, yet most do. We either revert back to the habits we grew up with or we spend a lifetime fighting them.
Junk food lovers, overeaters, chronic sitters, drinkers, smokers, hoarders, you name it – if these are your parents, you’re going to need to be even more conscientious about avoiding the same path.
This is how adulthood was modeled for you, but it’s not just about behavior. Our genes are like the “hardware” that’s passed down to us. Epigenetics, meaning above genetics, is like the “software” – changeable.
Geneticists now say that even the choices and life experiences of our parents – their epigenetics – impacts our DNA. So if your mom and dad smoked, drank excessively, ate like crap, and now get around via a motorized chair, then you may have inherited more than height and hair color.
Not only that, studies show that overweight women who give birth to overweight babies are setting them up for a higher body fat and propensity to grow up overweight or obese.
Bottom line: If your mom and dad were out of shape or unhealthy, you’ll have a harder battle ahead than those whose parents weren’t.
Don’t blame your parental unit, but don’t “go with the flow” either. You’ll need to be more intentional than those who grew up under different circumstances.
The way you live determines how your genes manifest. Because of epigenetics you can actually turn on or turn off certain genes through your behaviors.
Nobody has more control over your choices than you. Whether you think you inherited “fat genes” or just developed the same bad habits over time, all the more reason to avoid the shit your overweight relatives have been doing.
First, don’t buy or bring home any of the nostalgic foods/drinks you fell in love with as a kid. Leave them in the past. Your life’s pleasures shouldn’t revolve around things which evidently make you fatter and less happy overall.
Eat like your parents and move like your parents, but only if you want to suffer the same maladies, take the same medications, and get around the same exact way.
Know your vices, know their vices, then do the opposite.
4. You’re Not Increasing Lean Body Mass
Lean body mass is everything on your body that’s not fat. You can raise it by packing on more muscle. But if you’re obsessed with the scale, you won’t want to.
This type of thinking is detrimental and ignorant for someone who’s carrying extra body fat.
But some people (yes, even men) don’t want to gain muscle lifting weights, or they want to find the training program that’s not going to add any size because they think they’re already too big.
Don’t think of muscle as more weight on the scale or more size on your frame. Think of it as metabolically expensive tissue that will help you get leaner and eventually lose a lot of fat.
Muscle mass improves your body composition: the ratio of fat mass to lean mass. It can also help you lower your body fat set point.
The more muscle you have, the more food you can eat without much repercussion. Everyone whose built it already knows this little secret.
Stop trying to avoid hypertrophy. It’s not just for bodybuilders. It’s for everyone who wants a healthier, leaner body.
5. You Lie to Yourself
Some people get serious about changing the way they eat, then as soon as their cart passes the crap food aisle, they grab a couple boxes of cookies or a few boxes of sugary cereal.
Why? Rationalization – the act of making plausible excuses to justify your destructive behaviors.
We’ve all been there; telling ourselves we’re only going to have a small serving a day, or we’re getting it to save until we’ve been “good” enough to deserve a treat.
There are endless rationalizations you could come up with. And when a craving hits, your own mind will betray you by making you believe you can’t be happy or live fully without eating XYZ.
Some people even say they won’t “deprive” themselves by avoiding cookies, ice cream, or cake. But clearly, nobody is deprived without these things.
If you think these foods are what make your life meaningful, then you need to get a life.
Call yourself out. Think back to all the times you rationalized buying crap and then ate more than you intended.
You’re pre-planning failure when you make excuses. The best way to keep yourself from doing it is to remove the opportunity.
Don’t try to avoid food when it’s in your home; avoid it when it’s at the store. Because once you get home you’ll make even more rationalizations about your appetite, or what you deserve, how hard you trained that day, or how avoiding junk food is an eating disorder.
If you have access to all the healthy food and water you need, you’re not deprived, you’re just deceived and dependent on junk. Wake up.
6. You’re Bogged Down With Information
Some people read diet studies, articles, blogs, books, and reviews. Then they talk about doing it, but keep putting it off. Then find “reasons” to never really change anything they’re doing.
They seem to have it all figured out, but it doesn’t really matter because they’re not willing to put that information to the test.
Part of the problem is that, to them, the perfect diet requires a PhD, tons of time in the kitchen, or obsessive logging and measuring of every morsel of food.
Instead of thinking you have to go whole hog on a diet, just think about improving your current one.
What can you do now with the way you’re already eating? What are your current food choices and how can you tweak them?
You don’t have to subscribe to a diet or hire a guru in order to make progress. It’s not the perfect diet for you now if you can’t even do it.
What would be perfect is making simple changes, mastering those, and making more simple changes later.
7. You Think You’re Doing it Right
On the other end of the spectrum are those who are all about application without research. They invent their own diet strategies, ones that seem beneficial, but aren’t.
What kind of diet strategies?
- Smoothies containing multiple pulverized fruits – because fruit is healthy!
- Bagels, toast, and cereal in one meal – because grains have fiber!
- Sandwiches piled two-inches high with Skippy – because peanut butter has protein!
- Beer every night – because beer has nutrients and stuff!
- Eating very little all day then pigging out before bed – because science!
- People who come up with their own strategies often read a headline and don’t have the time or desire to dig any deeper, so they dive right in.
This is actually admirable, and it wouldn’t be a bad thing if they were assessing the results, and adjusting as needed.
There’s some degree of validity in most dietary strategies but adopting them and turning them into daily practices before you know they even work is a recipe for failure.
Always assess. It’s possible that what you’re doing will work, but you’ll never know unless you seriously examine the results, then tweak and improve what you’re doing. Sometimes you may find that it’s a crappy plan and you need to scrap it all together.
Is the way you eat day-in and day-out working for you? If it is, you’ll either be lean or you’ll have made progress since the last time you switched things up.
Jot down everything you eat for two weeks. Then look at it from the eyes of an outsider. Remove your personal biases. Use some common sense.
It’s okay to not have the ultimate eating plan down. What’s not okay is to keep sabotaging yourself.
8. Your TV is Killing Your Diet
Food is pleasurable, TV is really good lately, and this combination is a way to de-stress. I get it and I’m right there with you.
The problem is, sitting in front of the tube means focusing on the plot, characters, or drama… not the amount or quality of what’s going into our mouths.
And the stuff we can pack away during this TV-trance adds up.
Try one or all of these tricks:
- Swap the kind of food you’re eating for something more filling and nutritious.
- Cap your TV time at one or two shows. Then spend spare time going for a walk, getting your workout clothes or meals prepared for the next day, or fooling around with your spouse.
- Measure and prep what you’re going to eat ahead of time. Then savor it and end your eating there.
- DVR your favorite shows and save them for the weekend just to shake up your routine. Then add them back when you can sit and watch without also munching.
- Practice viewing without eating.
9. You Lack Structure or Need More
Some people want a plan to follow at all times. They thrive off of black and white rules that are either quantitative (counting macros, points, or calories) or qualitative (paleo or clean eating).
Many of them like to know well in advance what their breakfast, lunch, and dinner will be every day of the week.
Structure is good. But too much can backfire causing you to either give up, yo-yo diet, or resent healthy eating altogether. You have to figure out how much you need and how much will drive you crazy.
Coach Thibaudeau talked about this in his blog with regards to training motivation. He says you’re either a programmer or a problem solver.
The same can be said for eating: you’re either a planner or problem solver.
If you need to figure out your eating as you go, then adhering to a meal plan or a set of numbers will make you hate your life. If you hate having to figure out what to eat on the fly, then having a plan or set of rules to follow will work great for you.
Know yourself and either create a little more structure or give yourself a little more room for instinct and common sense eating.
Some of us thrive on rules, routines, meticulous food prep, and meal plans while others need more leeway based on their current circumstances, intensity of workouts, and lifestyle.
You’ll be more motivated to eat healthfully if you figure out how much structure you need. And there’s a broad spectrum of how much you can add.
I’m not much of a planner, but I like a little structure and batch-prepping certain foods on Sundays so that they’re readily available.
My workouts affect my appetite all day long, so I never worry about bigger meals or extra starchy carbs. I count nothing, but measure out foods that are much higher in calories, like peanut butter and sour cream.
There’s nothing complicated about the way I eat. Simply avoiding obvious crap makes me more in-tune with my appetite, and leaves more room in the diet for a higher volume of food, so I eat a lot, stay lean, and enjoy the hell out of it
10. You Eat Like Other People
“Mike eats whatever he wants, drinks every night, and stays lean! If he can live like that, so can I!”
Never use other people’s eating habits as an excuse to eat like poop. This is another example of rationalization.
What you don’t see is his body fat set point, how hard he works out, his metabolism, lean body mass, and the time he spends not sitting at a desk or on a couch.
Don’t use other people as dietary role models. Yes, listen to them if they have insight to share, but only apply what’s applicable to you. Filter the information you hear through your own common sense.
Think critically for yourself and take some damn responsibility.
When you improve your diet, don’t see it as restricting yourself from having what everyone else gets to eat. That’s the way children think. Instead, see it as figuring out what your body needs, and learning to love eating that way.
- Preidt, R. (2015, June 9). Like Mother, Like Child: Study Hints at Why Obesity May Run in Families: MedlinePlus. Retrieved July 8, 2015.
- J. R. Gugusheff, Z. Y. Ong, B. S. Muhlhausler. A maternal “junk-food” diet reduces sensitivity to the opioid antagonist naloxone in offspring postweaning. The FASEB Journal, 2012; DOI: 10.1096/fj.12-217653
- Amy C. Reichelt, Margaret J. Morris, R. F. Westbrook. Cafeteria diet impairs expression of sensory-specific satiety and stimulus-outcome learning. Frontiers in Psychology, 2014; 5 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00852