Diet vs. Habit Based Nutritional Coaching
Today’s guest post comes courtesy of Missouri based personal trainer, Stevan Freeborn. I don’t provide nearly enough nutritional content on this site, so it’s nice whenever I have the chance to have someone with more experience on topic shed some light.
Restriction, Restriction, Restriction.
That’s the name of the game for most people when it comes to eating healthier.
Just about everyone has had that experience where they have bought the latest trending diet book, threw out everything in their pantry, restocked it with whatever buzzwords the expert author used (organic, gluten free GMO free, zombie proof) or claimed was “clean” or “healthy” and then proceeded to prepare a week’s worth of “healthy” and “clean” meals that will help you lose that excess belly fat you have been carrying around for the last couple years.
Note from TG: on the topic of GMO’s, I really like THIS article via Precision Nutrition.
But what follows this experience is never what we all hope for.
Usually it consists of several days filled with frustration, self deprivation, and envy followed by a quick and swift return to your old diet and grocery store list.
So the questions we need to be asking ourselves is why does this happen?
Why do we start off so motivated and excited to start something new, yet quickly lose our dedication to the cause? Why do we keep repeating this chain of events that always ends in a crash and burn scenario?
I think the answer lies in the approach we are taking in regard to how we are taught and teaching how to make food choices. I think if we can change the way we coach people to change their diet we can dramatically improve the outcomes for those people who want to eat better, fee better, and look better.
In my mind there are two different approaches for nutritional coaching and food choices.
One is habit-based and the other is diet-based. I will spend time later in this post explaining more about each concept, but it is important to remember that both are tools that can be used effectively with or by the right person in the right situation.
SPOILER ALERT: I think you are going to find that I personally have a huge biased towards one approach over the other because of my own personal experience and logical conclusion about its practicality.
Diet-Based Nutritional Coaching
This is the approach everyone has been using for the past 20 years. The experience I initially described to you is a product of this kind of approach.
Someone teaching or practicing a diet-based nutritional approach focuses on the things they can and cannot eat.
They create list of foods that are “good” or “clean” and a list of foods that are “bad” or “dirty” and make all food decisions based on where the foods fall on these master lists.
This approach can be done on a macroscopic scale looking at whole foods or it can be done on a microscopic scale looking at the macronutrients which make up the foods. Depending on which scale or combination of the two the foods that make up the lists can be greatly varied. Good examples of this approach are the popular ancestral diets (Paleo) and the “If It Fits Your Macros” approach.
This type of nutritional approach sets very clear and defined guidelines as to what should be consumed and what shouldn’t be consumed leaving no room for interpretation or time spend worrying over what food to pick.
It allows people to make comprehensive grocery lists and meal plans that gives them peace of mind that they are making healthy choices. It provides people with a system to categorize and label foods which as we all probably know by now is something the human brain loves to do.
On the flip side this approach often creates a restriction mindset (except if you are practicing a macronutrient based version).
It tells people they can’t eat any of their old foods and requests that people change their entire way of eating overnight.
It typically is centered more about what you are not supposed to eat than what you are supposed to eat. It requires incredible levels of organization, dedication, self discipline, and motivation to stick with it long enough to have this way of eating become a way of life. It places labels on foods such as “good” or “bad” and thus creates negative connotations toward foods and subsequently negative emotions when these foods are consumed.
Habit-Based Nutritional Coaching
This is the approach I prefer and have had great success with clients.
In this type of approach we are focusing on what exactly you are eating. We aren’t concerned with the minutia of where it was grown and how it was grown. Habit-based nutrition is about using what we know about human psychology to better leverage our efforts to change.
We focus on creating a singular habit which we perceive as super duper easy to do and than practicing that habit for two weeks becoming the master of whatever this habit makes us do.
Note from TG: I LOVE The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
The habit will be different for each person depending on where they struggle more with their diet and how far off they are from a complete and nutritious diet. Once someone has successfully mastered a habit for two weeks you simply add another habit which again we perceive to be super duper easy. This process continues in piece-wise fashion until we are eating a diet that supports the person’s overall health and specific performance goals.
This approach gives people action.
It focuses on what a person can do to eat better than what they can’t do. It applies the power of less, which means that by focusing on one change instead of several the likelihood of success significantly increases.
It provides direction, but allows the person to take ownership over the specific execution of the habit. It meets the person where they are at currently with their way of eating.
It focuses on creating lasting and sustainable change. It acknowledges the fact that the action of eating is rather complexed and is preceded by a crap ton of other behaviors all of which influence the likelihood of actually eating what you are suppose too.
It acknowledges the scientifically validated concept that self-discipline is a depleting resource and can’t be used endlessly. It is scalable to the person’s level of commitment and motivation meaning the habits can be made incredibly specific or broad with a lot of room for improvisation. Most importantly to me it eliminates the self deprivation attitude towards eating better.
Honestly from a personal and professional standpoint I really see no downsides with this approach other than it won’t sell a lot of books or allow for the development of niche food brands that can profit off of someone’s dietary restrictions.
*Cough, cough, cough* Food Babe.
Like I said I am biased towards one approach over the other I acknowledged that at the beginning of this discussion as well as the fact that both approaches can be used successfully with the right people in the right situation.
We have to see these differing approaches as tools and use them for the correct job. I think we have to stop trying to use one size fits all models for trying to improve our health and rather tailor the approach based on the individuals psychology.
For example, if I had a client who was 40 years old morbidly obese, recently been diagnosed with hypertension, diabetes, and hypercholesterolemia, prescribed several different medications to treat all these health problems, and still had a family to take care of and look after…my approach would be to use a diet based approach.
First this client is probably highly motivated. He knows that if he can lose this weight he will be able to stop taking all these expensive medications he is buying every month and that he will be able to live long enough to take care of his family and see all his children become adults. Second he really doesn’t have the rest of his life to figure all this nutritional stuff out. He needs to lose weight now and the best way to do this is to create an energy deficit which will require coaching him on specifically what foods and how much of these foods he is allowed to consume.
Conversely, if I also had a 25 year old female who was 50 pounds overweight with no medical conditions or injuries and just wants to be able to walk around in a bikini and feel like a rockstar I will more than likely try to start her on a habit based approach.
In this case for two large reasons.
First this lady is young and she needs to develop a relationship with food that will contribute to long lasting and sustainable results both in her overall health, but also in the way her body appears. Second I have found that women practicing diet based approaches often develop some serious dysfunctional eating patterns specifically, being over restrictive on food intake and/or practicing binge-purge cycles.
You see the approach has to fit the clients situation not the other way around.
These are just a couple of examples of how you could decide on which approach is better than the other. You could also look specifically at each persons level of commitment and motivation in order to select an intervention that fits where that person currently stands in both areas. You could also ask the person or yourself how much success in the past have they had with dieting.
I hope this helps you find a way of approaching nutrition that best fits your needs or the needs of your clients and leads to increased success in the long run.
About the Author
Stevan Freeborn B.Sc. ACSM-CPT is a trainer from Joplin, MO. He trains clients both in person and online. When he isn’t, he enjoys picking up heavy things, crushing trail mix, and being a coffee snob. He would love it if you would connect with him on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter and spend a few minutes getting inside his head at Freeborn Training Systems.