Willpower is a finite resource

I don’t know about you, but I find that I have the hardest time sticking to my diet plans at the end of a long week, or at the end of particularly stressful days.

And research1 suggests that there is actually a reason for this, and it essentially boils down to each person having a finite amount of ability to make difficult choices on any given day. It also might have something to do with blood sugar levels, which means it is harder to make difficult decisions when you are dieting2. So if you spend the whole day choosing to not tell your coworkers that they don’t have enough brain cells to operate a toaster, choosing to not strangle your children for whatever it is they are doing at that exact moment, and deciding to not hunt down all those little bastards on Xbox Live and have sex with THEIR mothers, by the time dinner rolls around and you have to decide to spend an hour making a healthy meal that lets you hit your calorie and macro target for the day, you are going to just order a pizza instead. Probably from a place that will also deliver you a bottle of vodka with it. And going to the gym? Yeah, that’s not happening.

So what I have chosen to do in my life, and might help you out, is I have completely removed myself from the decision process when it comes to my diet and training. Of course, I am currently single and don’t have any kids (that I know about), so my plan will probably look a lot different from yours will if you have those extra complications. But the premise is the same, and from what I understand from others who have people who love them and little hellspawn, it is still possible, but just requires a little more planning.

As has been mentioned previously, I’m a bit of a data geek. So I have a spreadsheet with all of my nutritional targets on it, and a list of about 30-50 of the most common foods or ingredients I cook with or eat on a regular basis (I built this up over time, not all in one go – don’t freak out). In the spreadsheet, I have each food and the protein, carb, fibre, fat, and calorie counts listed along with a serving size. This makes it really quick and easy to plan out meals and get my nutrition right. This means I weigh out all of my meals for monday to saturday. You don’t have to do this all the time, but I actually enjoy it. Yeah, I’m weird. Moving on.

What I do is on saturday, I sit down and plan out my meals for the week. I generally eat the same thing monday-saturday, just because that’s easiest. And I am nothing if not lazy.

I have a protein shake for breakfast, and a cup of coffee. I would much prefer to have a real whole food meal, but my alarm already goes off before 5:30AM and I am just not going to get up even one minute earlier. On saturday and sunday I will generally do something with real foods instead.

I plan out a lunch and a dinner meal, and factor in a protein bar for a post-work/pre-gym snack. For both of my real meals, I plan a protein, starch, and at least one vegetable. The day usually looks something like this:

Breakfast: fruit (usually blueberries), vanilla, skim milk, whey protein, creatine, fibre supplement.

Lunch: oven roasted mini potatoes or rice, pulled sundried tomato or roasted red pepper chicken breast, balsamic vinegar roasted artichokes, green beans (from frozen).

Dinner: rice (I prefer brown but it doesn’t really matter what type), chicken breast, broccoli. I toss this all in a bowl with some broth and have it as soup. It is filling and quick and easy.

So on sunday, I prep enough food for lunches and dinners for the week, portion it all out into tupperware, and toss it in the fridge. This takes me about an hour or so of actual prep time, maybe less. A fair bit of waiting while things are in the oven, but that doesn’t count. I’ll post recipes for all of these things I listed, as they are all really simple and quick.

This means that on an average weekday I spend about 4 minutes on food, and that is entirely in the making of my morning shake and coffee. For lunch I simply grab a container out of the fridge, toss it into my work bag, and head out the door. For dinner one goes in the microwave, then gets added to some boiling water from the kettle and a stock cube.

I have completely removed any choice from my day to day with regards to food. It means that I don’t even have the temptation to eat a bunch of garbage instead, as it is literally easier for me to eat the healthy (and delicious) pre-made meal I have waiting for me.

On Sundays, I eat basically whatever I want, so long as I hit my calorie and protein requirements for the day, I don’t worry about anything else. Some people can do this, some can’t. You might need to plan out sundays so you don’t eat 10,000 calories and destroy all of your progress for the week.

I also don’t have a choice in not going to the gym, though that is because of my work situation. My company busses me to and from work every day, and when I leave for the day, I just hop on the bus that takes me directly to the gym. If I am feeling really sick or something I can take a different bus home, but I almost never do. If I am not really feeling it, I still go in, and let myself just pedal away on the bike for a few minutes. I find that usually gets me in gym mode and I can just go. But if I’m feeling terrible, I will just pack up and leave.

I know that I am a lazy asshole. And given the choice, I will make pretty much the worst possible decision I can make from a progress standpoint. It’s that whole poor impulse control thing cropping up again. So I figured out a way to get out of my way and built a system around making it easy to do the right thing.

So I can spend all of my daily willpower on not telling people they are being dumb, when they are in fact being dumb. Because that takes up more than I have on most days.


Footnotes:
  1. Baumeister, et al. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252–1265.
  2. Gailliot, M., et al. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(2), 325–336

Quit tomorrow

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a fairly impulsive person, and it has not always served me well. [I used to joke that I need to get “Poor Impulse Control” tattooed on my forehead as a warning to others.]

When I got home after quitting my first job, my step-dad looked at me and asked, “Who pissed you off?” And while at the time I puffed up and justified it by saying that I had already given my notice as I had another job lined up and they wanted me to start as soon as possible, which was true… he was right. I don’t remember what it was that set me off, but someone gave me an excuse and I took it, and never looked back.

Over the years, I have learned to never make any irrevocable decisions while tired, hungry, or otherwise not in a solid state of mind. I also decided that I would never quit a job again until I had at least slept on it. If I woke up in the morning and still wanted to quit, I could. But I would never quit anything on the spot without mulling it over.

This has served me fairly well in some respects. It allowed me to stick it out at a job that I absolutely hated, but paid fairly well and at the time was good for my resume. At the end of every shift I wanted to quit. But I kept waking up in the morning and going back in. I lasted more than two years, and when I finally got a significantly better job offer, I finally quit.

I do the same thing with my fitness goals, though I never really realized it until I was reading Dan John’s book Never Let Go and he talked about the same thing. He was trying to lose some weight, and it was becoming a grind. He would always just tell himself that he would quit tomorrow. And then wake up in the morning, have his protein shake, and keep going.

It turns out that there is actually research1 supporting this – that having the option to quit can actually make people work harder. They basically found that providing people an option to quit at any time got them to be more persistent in the work and complete more of the tasks which were set for them (solving puzzles in this case).

Whenever I feel like quitting, it is usually at the end of the day, at the end of a long week. This is probably because I have used up as much willpower as I can possibly can during the day by deciding to not slap stupid people – willpower is basically a finite resource, which we will cover tomorrow. I always tell myself that I can wake up in the morning and make myself a giant plate of pancakes with nutella and bacon and ice cream. But that tonight I will eat the meal I’ve got waiting for me in the fridge. Maybe with a single small piece of chocolate or a cookie after dinner if it’s been a really rough one. But usually I just tell myself I’ll have it for breakfast in the morning.

And in the morning I make a protein shake and start the day.

Sometimes I get into the gym and even my warm up reps feel heavy. Here is where one has to be careful. Sometimes it is just me being a bit of a wimp. Sometimes it is fatigue, stress or lack of recovery, or something else. Either way, I do my warmup and tell myself I only have to do one rep at whatever weight is on the plan for the day. Then when I finish that, I do just one more. Until I’m done. I only do one at a time, and I always tell myself I can quit after the next one. I usually don’t stop until the set is done. And if I do, I don’t beat myself up about it as it is always better to cut down the volume rather than push through to injury. Sometimes you need to listen to your body.

Sometimes I sit on the bike and within 5 minutes I want to quit. I always tell myself that I can pack it in at the next 5 minute mark. Then at the 5 minute mark I do just 5 minutes more. I tell myself that I can even just spin along lightly, listen to tunes, and read my book. I usually don’t. I usually make it through whatever I’ve got scheduled for that day.

Sometimes you need to just pack it in before you burn yourself out or cause yourself an injury that could take weeks or months or years to heal properly. But sometimes you need to do just one more.

So don’t quit now. Quit tomorrow.


Footnotes:
  1. Schrift, Rom Y., and Jeffrey R. Parker. 2014. “Staying the Course The Option of Doing Nothing and Its Impact on Postchoice Persistence.” Psychological Science 25 (3): 772–80. doi:10.1177/0956797613516801.

Where to start with fitness when you are feeling overwhelmed

You have decided that you are not happy with the status quo, and you’re not going to quit until you are in a place that you can be proud of. You know that it’s not going to be easy, but it doesn’t need to be that hard. But where do you start? You probably don’t want to jump head first into chicken and broccoli three times per day, because that’s pretty boring and probably doesn’t look anything like what you are used to doing – which means you would be setting yourself up to fail.

If you have already read our Nutritional Priorities post, you have a pretty good handle on what you need to focus on. So building on that, here are some first simple steps that you can take on your road to awesome.

First, stop drinking calories. This is a huge one for a lot of people. If you consume a single extra can of coke or other soda per day, that’s an extra 160 calories daily. Which equates to about an extra ⅓ of a lb of fat gain per week if you aren’t burning them off. Or, an extra 15-30 minutes on the treadmill or exercise bike, every single day. Milk is a great source of healthy protein and fats and is definitely not something you need to try to avoid, but is also a whole bunch of extra calories that you may not need to consume. A gallon of milk is about an extra 2000 calories, depending on the fat content. That’s about a full day’s worth of calories for most people.

Cream and sugar in your coffee or tea is also just empty calories, and don’t even get me started on those gigantic 500+ calorie frappawhateverthefuck things they cover in whipped cream at Starbucks. That’s not coffee, it’s more of a dessert than a slice of bloody cheesecake.

If you like drinking sweet things (and hell, who doesn’t), switch out your full-strength sodas for diet. The artificial sweeteners will NOT kill you, or do you any harm at all, especially when you consider that they are replacing refined sugar intake. This is a topic for a separate day, but suffice it to say that SO MUCH research has proven them safe. And before some smart-ass trots out the whole “but artificial sweeteners have been correlated with obesity” shtick, let me remind you about stats 101, and, feel free to say it with me folks, “correlation does not imply causation!”

If you like your morning coffee black as night and sweet as sin, as I do, I suggest switching to liquid sucralose drops. You can get them online, and I personally find that they taste just like sugar. Some people don’t like the taste or find it has an odd aftertaste, but I don’t. Your mileage may vary, pick one you can live with. A side note: the “low calorie” sweeteners you buy in the colored packets? Usually the main ingredient in those is dextrose, AKA sugar. This is because the artificial sweeteners are usually so much stronger than regular sugar that if they didn’t have a filler in the packet, there would only be two or three tiny grains of sweetener in there. So be aware that there may still be a number of calories hiding in there, and possibly not that many less than just straight sugar.

If you absolutely can’t stand your coffee without some sort of dairy in it, start lowering the fat content of what you are putting in. Slowly switch from cream to half & half, then homogenized milk, then 2%, then skim or fat-free. Going from whole cream to skim will cut the added calories by about 90%. And that adds up in a hurry if you are drinking lots of coffee.

For those of you who get really bored with plain water, I personally love those no-calorie liquid water flavour drop things. I’m a huge fan of berry, peach, or mango flavours, and these have been a big factor in my being able to increase my water intake to about 3-6L per day. Yes, they are artificially sweetened and coloured, but just because something is not “natural” doesn’t mean it is bad for you. Cyanide is natural, as is carbon monoxide. Moving on.

Now that I’ve beaten the “don’t drink calories” thing into the ground, lets cover a few other easy things you can start with to get yourself moving on your journey to awesome.

Try adding some protein in at every meal, preferably a lean whole-food source. Unfortunately, adding bacon to every meal, while delicious, will most likely not help you get less fat. However, starting with some chicken, steak, legumes or beans, will help fill you up faster, and also boost your protein intake, which as we have discussed previously, is Really Good.

If you struggle with portion control, try eating a salad before main meals, or start by finishing your vegetables first. This fills you up faster than going straight for the high-calorie foods, and may just help you slow down when eating.

Some people might see a benefit from limiting their between-meal snacking as much as possible. If this is something that you know derails you, get in the habit of keeping a food journal of some kind, even if it is just using your phone to take a picture of everything that goes into your mouth that isn’t water. I find that having to write down “½ lb of peanut M&M’s” makes me less likely to stuff the entire bag in my face. Sometimes.

There are lots of things that you can do, but these are a few simple things you can start with to get the ball rolling. Most people will begin to see a downward trend in their weight simply by tracking their daily scale weight and calorie intake, because it makes them more mindful of the things they are putting into their face. And every little bit helps.

So start today – go forth and be awesome. Or at least more awesome than you were yesterday.

Nutritional Priorities – what’s important, what’s not

You’ve decided that defattening yourself is a good idea. You feel that it’s worth the effort, and that you will persevere through the times when you slip up.

Now where to start? The standard advice is always: eat less, move more. And it’s fairly accurate if less than extremely helpful advice.

There’s an old saying in the fitness realm that has many forms, but the basic message is that what you put in your mouth is the biggest determiner of your success or failure in your body composition goals. If you’re fat, you need to eat less than you burn overall. If you are skinny and want to gain muscle, the opposite is true.

You’ve probably heard that “a calorie is not a calorie” or that there are “good calories, [and] bad calories.” While there is some merit to these arguments, they are really all about splitting hairs and not something that pretty much anyone in the general public needs to worry about. As far as 99% of the population is concerned, a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. If you stuff less of them in your face and keep everything else the same, you will lose weight. A good rule of thumb is that if someone tells you calories don’t matter, they are trying to sell you something. Either a diet (often low-carb) or a religion (usually veganism or paleo).

Note that this does not mean that 100 calories from table sugar is exactly the same as 100 calories from vegetables or meat. Please do try to not be any more obtuse than you absolutely have to be.

So, calories are the absolute number one most important thing to get right. Not exercise, not anything else. Get your calories right and you are going to be well on the way towards your goals. Conversely, get everything ELSE right, and screw up your calorie intake, and you will make minimal progress at best, or go in the absolute wrong direction at worst. There is no point of worrying about the difference between saturated and polyunsaturated fats as they pertain to your diet if you are a 150lb person eating 5000 calories per day and trying to lose weight.

Some people would argue that carbs are the next most important thing, but that is only really arguable for athletic populations. And if you are trying to lose fat mass you probably aren’t a competitive athlete and looking to this blog for advice.

So the second most important factor for nutrition for the general public is protein. Realistically, most people in the general population probably don’t get enough. If you are looking to lose fat mass with a minimum of muscle loss, you should be getting about 1g/lb of lean body mass. So if you are 300lb and 40% body fat like House, you should be getting about 180g/day of protein. As you get leaner, you can switch to using total body mass for the purposes of this calculation, as the difference between the two is minimal. As a general rule, whole food sources tend to be best for satiety reasons, but there is no rule saying that whey protein shakes are verboten when on a fat loss diet if that is what works for you.

Next up is carbohydrates. Carb levels should be set based around your activity levels, specifically how much training you do. If you sit at a desk all day and the most strenuous thing you do is go back and forth to the water cooler, you can eat no carbs at all and be just fine. If you are training with any serious intensity level, you should probably keep carbs at the 1g/lb of lbm level daily, and higher on training days. There is a lot of variance in this one depending on the person, so the nuts and bolts of setting carbohydrate levels will be covered another time. Basically, more if you are training more, less if not.

Next up is fats, which basically get set as whatever the rest of your daily calorie intake is. You should get a minimum of SOME daily fats, as they can be important for hormone regulation and all sorts of other fun stuff, but beyond what you are probably going to get anyways if you are eating primarily whole foods, there probably isn’t a whole lot of value to getting really crazy about this until you get down to pretty low leanness levels.

Some will tell you that nutrient timing doesn’t matter in the slightest. I suggest those people eat one meal per week and tell me how well that works out for them. For everyone else, eating a reasonable number of meals per day, somewhere between 2 and 6 is probably ideal depending on how many calories you are consuming in a day, what your schedule is like, and all that jazz. Try to eat protein at every meal. Other than that the details are pretty meaningless for most folks. IF works for some people but is beyond the scope of this post.

At this point you have probably covered 90-95% of the results you can get with your nutritional plan. Everything else is just really really minor details, especially for the general population.

Food quality is up next. You CAN get thinner just by eating a whole bunch of twinkies, so long as you are keeping your calorie intake lower than your expenditure. This guy proved it. BUT, I bet he was really hungry all the time. A twinkie is never going to be as satiating as a piece of fish, some vegetables, and a potato. If you eat primarily whole foods, you’ve got this one covered. There are some details regarding protein quality, the vitamin content of various vegetables, and that kind of thing, but realistically they aren’t that important for the vast majority of people who aren’t deficient in anything.

Finally we have supplementation. The guys over at Examine.com can tell you anything you could ever want to know about most supplements. From a nutritional standpoint, it probably isn’t a bad idea to take omega-3’s if you don’t eat a fair amount of fish, and a decent multivitamin will most likely be more than adequate to cover you for any minor gaps in the nutrient profiles of the foods you eat.

That’s a brief overview of the nutritional priorities you should worry about. We will cover most if not all of them in future posts.

Gluten Free/Sugar Free Protein Peanut Butter Cookies

Yield: Approximately 2 dozen (depends on your sizes)

I make these regularly at home for myself and my other half.  She loves them, and they are good for fitting into your diet.  You can sub a lactose free milk to make it dairy free.  As well, instead of making cookies, these can also be made into bars.

Note:  I originally used Cloud 9 Bakery Gluten Free Flour the first time I made this recipe.  After I ran out, I used the Robin Hood Nutri Blend Gluten Free Flour.  The flour brand can change the product result slightly, and you may end up having to add another 1/4 – 1/2 Cup of Milk to thin out the dough.  It will vary, so play around with it.  The product will seem slightly “dry” when it is baked, and it won’t rise like a traditional cookie.  But it will be moist and fully cooked.  Also note, that if you make bars instead of rounds, the nutritional value will vary.  Figure one bar as 1.5 of a cookie.  It is also based on a 24 cookie yield.

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Total time:  Approximately 25 minutes

  • 2 cups peanut butter
  • 1 ¾ cups gluten free flour
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ¼ cup splenda
  • 3 scoops vanilla protein powder (any flavor will do)
  •  ½ cup milk (sub chocolate almond milk for more flavor)
  • *You can add 2 cups of dark chocolate chips for an added bonus.  Recipe does not include the chips in nutritional value*

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Mix peanut butter, honey, eggs, and vanilla in a bowl until creamed together.
  3. Add protein and mix. Mixture will clump together into a firm dough.  Add milk and mix. Dough will soften and look like the creamed mixture.
  4. Add flour and mix.  This is easiest done by hand.  Dough will feel slightly “greasy”.  This is due to the oil from the peanut butter, and is normal.
  5. *Optional* Add ½ cup of pure dark chocolate chips by hand.
  6. Form into small balls and press flat on a baking sheet.  Bake at 350F for 8-10 minutes and allow to cool on a wire rack.

Per cookie:

  • Total Calories: 126
  • Total fat: 4.8 g
  • Total Carbs: 16.1 g
  • Dietary Fiber: 1.5 g
  • Protein: 6.4 g

I only listed the major relevant info for the each cookie.  If you would like to know the more detailed break down, message me and I can get that to you.  These also freeze well, if you want to make several batches at once.