This article originally appeared on JillFit, a health and fitness blog by Jillian Coleman. Coleman was a co-founder of Metabolic Effect, Inc. and has over 15 years of experience in the fitness industry.
You’ve heard me villainize Tupperware a thousand times.
But really it’s not Tupperware, or even food prep itself that I have a problem with – it’s nutritional crutches. I group these things into a group of actions and mental constructs, along with meal plans, calorie counts, macro counts, eating according to a clock, declining social events constantly, and any other thing that perpetuates a controlling attitude around food.
Crutches keep us struggling because they’re required, or else we don’t know what to do.
I’ll never forget one of my previous competition clients calling me from the grocery store the Monday after her competition and asking what to buy. And the thing was – I didn’t blame her. I remember feeling the exact same way. It was as if I forgot that I’d been food shopping for myself for years before I ever stepped on stage. What happened? Looking back, it’s simple: being on strict meal plans and competition plans (much like we used to dole out at JillFit years ago) turns us into mental robots—dependent, unable to make decisions without an organized plan and basically mentally lazy.
Think about it. The times you were probably struggled the most also ended up being the times you grew the most. Why? Because you had to navigate the discomfort. You had to THINK independently and strategically. And the best part? You survived!
There is service in the struggle.
The fastest way to figure something out and get better is to have the experience. Jump in and figure it out. Do your best. Learn. And then have the next experience, and do the same thing, improving with each trial and tribulation.
This is the difference between control and trust.
Nutritional crutches give us a false sense of control. If we just have all our ducks in a row, then we cant possibly get into trouble, right? It feels organized. Think about how excited you are before you start a new diet. That Sunday before your Monday start date, you hit the grocery store with your food list; it’s awesome! It feels like a new beginning. It feels … in control.
But what ends up happening?
Inevitably, there are times when we just can’t be in control. We can turn down as many parties and invites to happy hour that we want, but eventually, won’t there be a family vacation or an event we simply cannot get out of? Some moment in time when you will to forced to wing it? What then? Will we be so dependent and not-practiced in being around tempting foods that we cant handle it? That we have to EAT IT ALL UNTIL IT’S GONE. That’s certainly how I acted for years—I had two speeds: off or 100 MPH—I interacted with food on a completely black-or-white basis. There was no nuance, no moderation, no gray.
That’s where nutritional strategy comes in.
Strategies are not certain foods and meal plans and calorie counts and specific “to-do’s.” They are whole mindset shifts—different, practiced ways of interacting with and around food.
Strategies are things like being practiced at mindfulness. They are learning to maintain an abundance mindset and not feeling FOMO about food. They are self-compassion, deciding to skip the guilt and to move on faster after slipups. They are learning our body’s cues, like level of hunger, degree of cravings, fullness, etc.—being tapped into those physical sensations, which we rarely get practice at because we’re normally head-down, eating every 3 hours with zero consideration of biofeedback.
Nutritional strategies help us maintain a flexible mindset when our environment is not “ideal” or we get caught without “our food.” They help us choose moderately, and not let perfect be the enemy of good. Employing nutritional strategy is doing your best to hit your Daily Nutritional Commitments (DNCs) and letting that be good enough.
And remember, DNCs are different than strict meal plans. DNCs are things like “eat protein at each meal.” Contrast that with, “Eat 6 oz. of grilled chicken at 3pm.” DNCs are things like, “Have a protein bar handy in case you need it for cravings/hunger to take the edge off,” while meal plans have you bringing “3 Tupperwares to work – each filled with 6 oz protein, 10 asparagus spears and 4 oz sweet potato, to be eaten at 10am, 1pm and 4pm.”
Which ones take less time? Which ones require less mental stress?
Strategies are guiding principles that allow for flexibility.
They take you into account. And they require you learn. Strategies encourage self-trust because they require mental work. But once mastered, it’s an operating system that never quits.
Crutches require black-and-white compliance.
They’re rigid and perpetuate an all-or-nothing way of doing things. They’re created with little thought to the individual. They just ask the question, “What’s the ideal way to eat?” instead of “What strategy will help this specific person be able to be actually do this sustainably?” Crutches don’t ask us to do the long-term mental work. They ask us to drain willpower as fast as possible, and then could you just hang on just a little longer? … Until inevitably we boomerang back to overindulging and needing another “fresh start.”
Nutritional crutches require you call your coach to ask what you can buy at the grocery store.
And we don’t want to do that anymore. We don’t want to feel that imprisoned and reliant on our food. We don’t want to think about everything that hard anymore. Because the amount of mental effort we expend on food doesn’t necessarily translate better results. In fact, I’d argue that the more automated we get our eating process (through practicing nutritional strategies), the more consistent we’ll be. And we know that consistency trumps perfection every single time.
The differences between nutritional crutches and nutritional strategy are two things:
- Degree of self-trust (and by extension self-reliance)
- The amount of time and effort spent practicing
We already talked about self-trust. The way to boost it is to struggle (yes, you read that right!). Take more action, get out of your nutritional comfort zone more, force yourself to figure out those scary moments, survive those times when there’s no one to tell you what to eat! Stay a leeeeetle bit mindful and do your best, knowing that you don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to get it right, you’re allowed to mess-up, and one single slip-up doesn’t mean all is lost.
Those mental practices force you to learn to rely on you. And over time, the realization that it really is all on you feels more liberating than scary. You realize there’s never going to be a diet plan “out there” for you. The only one that will work for you is the one you’ve created through time and attention to YOU.
As for time and effort spent in the trenches … I often see people who are really good at something, and envy them. I think, man, it would be nice to have that level of mastery! But then I realize that truly, the only difference between where they are and where I’m at is minutes, days, years put into practicing that thing. I, of course, have spent that time practicing other things, like writing blogs or doing endless stepmill workouts, ha! The biggest factor that separates those who are still flirting with something and those who have it mastered is time.
So what that should tell us is that wasting more time on nutritional crutches, thinking that somehow the answer is just out there somewhere and WE JUST NEED MORE WILLPOWER TO FOLLOW THIS FREAKING MEAL PLAN is shortsighted. These things keep us struggling. They are shortcuts that end up being long cuts (thank you, Tolkien!).
Nutrition is never going to be completely controllable. It’s the Wild Wild West out there, and we don’t “do a 30-day plan,” we eat forever. And luckily, nutritional strategies are practices that serve us forever. They might take longer to get good at, and they might seem scarier to trust at first. But over time, we see that our mastery of them can never be taken away or broken.
Employing and then practicing strategies is the ultimate anti-fragile approach.