It is new years eve or something like that and everyone is again thinking of really losing weight this year. Or really gaining muscle. And just as it happens, I procrastinated long enough on this post to post it on this fateful date, lol.
In this post I do not really want to delve into the nutritional mechanics of dieting, as on one hand, it depends on what a certain diet is supposed to accomplish (fat loss, weight gain, managing gas, spiritual goals, there is an infinite number of reasons why people embark on a specific diet), and on the other hand, usually the application side of things is mechanical and well understood.
I am mainly looking at things from the perspective of fat loss, as it is one of the more frequent and important issues people struggle with, and I can draw from first hand experience. It does however generalize fairly well to all other sorts of diets, such as very skinny persons that are in dire need of muscle gain, as both those who are too skinny and those who are too fat people emerge from and end up in similar social structures.
Getting the mechanics out of the way
Losing fat is simple, but apparently not easy.
Depending on your ability to operationalize things, the whole dieting concept fits on a post-it note, but if you want a bit more insights, get Lyle Mc Donalds Book "Flexible Dieting" and just read it. I am not making money of it, it's just a somewhat unexciting problem and has been for all practical purposes solved with that book.
Managing the logistics of a successful diet might be a different problem, as obtaining quality food usually means you have to cook yourself and pack lunch, because cafeterias and restaurants suck, unless specifically targeted at bodybuilders and strength athletes. 1 While this might involve a little bit of planning, it is still very mechanical and a problem which a competent coach or housekeeper can solve quickly.
Now, to find out where people struggle, it is easiest to see what is exploited the most to sell shit like dieting programs, apps and gadgets:
- motivational alpha drivel
- insecurities about weight loss and your own bodyweight
- quick fixes, this one weird trick and hacks
- giving up and staying fat
- pure ignorance about the mechanics
- the opposite of the above and the complete reduction to the mechanics
- inability to operationalize a diet and go from "I need to eat less and I should eat these things" to having food on the table
The last point is where any halfway decent coach can help you, or some dieting app, or some dieting app subscription of some halfway decent provider. It's annoying and easily outsourcable.
The third to last point is pretty much solved by "just read Lyle's book".
The remaining points are where the real struggle lies and is usually never addressed in an adequate way. In some sense this is not much more interesting than the mechanical part of dieting, as it all boils down to "be more detached, keep your ego in check and increase your emotional awareness", but this seems to be a discussion completely lost on the fitness culture.
Most of the approaches can be found on a spectrum which spans on one end the very aggressive grind hustle "suck it up it is your own fault that you are fat" kind of motivational stuff - sometimes nicely dressed in more athletic terms, as fat does not lift weight. On the other end of the spectrum we find the fat acceptance movement, where we even find denial of health impacts of being overly fat and everyone who says so is fatphobic subhuman trash.
Unsurprisingly, both extremes are completely wrong but contain nuggets of truth and actually are helpful to some people, but in general harmful, especially when people slide into echo chambers pertaining to one of the extremes.
So if you find yourself amongst those people for whom this is helpful, congratulations. Maybe this post will then lead you to a clearer understanding what is the thing about your approach that works and help you refine your approach.
Fat acceptance, guilt and shame
Guilt and shame are really good at making you feel better about yourself, when you can sent someone else down the guilt trip. But feeling guilty and shameful do not really help you accomplish anything, especially they do not help in ceasing with behaviours or establishing better, productive behaviours. This is wonder- and woefully demonstrated by millions of smokers, alcoholics, addicts, micromanagers and, of course, fat people.
It is almost a tragic trope, but something probably everyone who is "more than a little bit pudgy" is familiar with: Feel guilty and ashamed because you are fat? No problem, just eat a chocolate bar and you feel better. It works every time. Sad thing is, only for a very short time and it makes the problem worse. Also people make fun of you, and you maybe even make fun of you yourself, or at least you feel very ashamed and guilty, because if you read it out loud it sounds so fucking stupid.
It's a vicious cycle and very hard to escape.
But you can escape.
Part of the escape plan is acceptance and in this sense fat acceptance is a movement which does helpful things for a number of people.
Accept that you are fat.
And probably it is not even your fault. Well, it is usually not "muh genetics", but ostensibly you have not been provided with the tools necessary to deal with life in a healthy way, lest you would not have ended up in this situation.
There is a multitude of reasons why you could end up in such a situation, e.g.:
- you likely never learned formally what good food is and what is bad food
- you grew up in a socially unhealthy family and eating was your emotional coping mechanism
- it only happened that due to life and work stress you suddenly found yourself not moving around a lot and also stress eating sometimes and drinking a lot
- your parents grew up in poverty and now think of plenty food as something very holy and there is always too much food for everyone
- how the fuck should 18 yo you have known that something that tastes so good can not be good for you in the long run
And of course, even assuming you did try to get out of the situation, it took a while until you found reliable information (as laid out in Lyle's book), if any, because most of the shit you find are fad diets or people shilling their programs.
Even medical professionals are usually pretty uneducated about proper nutrition, as "nutrition for healthy people" is traditionally not what you learn about in medical school, where you usually learn to treat sick people. There, nutrition is usually an afterthought, as for most of the time you only needed them to survive for a while until they got better. People eating too much of the wrong stuff is still a young pathology.
Are you the person stuffing the food in your face? Definitely. But you really do not deserve all the blame for this, as you have the odds stacked against you learning and ingraining appropriate eating behaviours from day one.
Actually, sometimes I wonder why so few people are not fat, but turns out, most (i.e. more than 50% of) people simply turn fat over time at different rates. It's not your metabolism that slows down at thirty, it's just that it took ten years to accumulate enough fat for you to notice.
And this might be a good reason to see at the other side of the spectrum.
Motivational alpha grind hustle drivel
This is basically the antithesis to the fat acceptance movement and guilt shaming you into fat loss. Usually also trying to sell you coaching, dieting plans or even fat burners (those are still a thing), because, unsurprisingly, you are not shredded after six weeks of following a diet, BUT IT IS YOUR FAULT. But do not worry, we got you covered with our new trademarked AI assisted dieting plan.
Again, as much as there is wrong with it, there exists a kernel of truth. As noted, most people accumulate enough fat to notice at some point, but, well, you have to notice that you are fat. And this is becoming increasingly harder, as the majority 2 of people is fat, so very likely you do not look so different from your peers.
Here is a simple trick to find out if you're not fat: Is your sixpack still showing? If so, you are probably not fat. 3 But what if you're just not sixpack lean? Well, harder to tell. But in the world of hardcore trainers, this is much simpler and the question whether or not you are fat reduces to the existence of a visible sixpack. To get lean of course, you also need all the other goodies, such as veins on your lower abs and striations somewhere, but I digress.
And sometimes this is really helpful. Noticing the problem is the first step to solve it, as nobody accidentally goes from fat to lean, and it is even less likely that somebody just builds muscle accidentally in the process. Disgust can be a good motivator, and for some people shame avoidance is a, if not the, major driver of their actions. Leveraging this does get the job done for some people.
But. But as noted before, shame is a tricky thing and definitely not an approach you can use on all people, as it will cripple some, and well, this then leads to the other side of the spectrum, the fat acceptance movement.
Also probably it is not a healthy way to deal with things anyway?
The "evidence based" approach
A third big group kinda missing the point is the evidence based crowd. Not only is their paper exegesis usually without any substantial understanding of neither the underlying mechanics nor the way statistics work, but their training programs and diet plans end up being average incarnate.
Which is a good starting point, but as noticed, not really the problem fat people struggle with.
The approaches are usually4 not as insane as those of the hardcore crowd, but still oblivious of the reality most people live in.
The skinny side redux
Skinny people have roughly the same issues, but well, they are just on the other side of the inequality.
Again they usually do not know how to eat properly, but instead of eating far too much, they eat to little. How could they have known, when they grew up in a household where a piece of bread counts as a meal, or you eat one plate of pasta and call it a day.
As nobody is muscular, they have no idea how much muscle actual healthy people carry, and the perception of being fine is often confirmed by the visibility of some muscles, as there is no fat which could hide them.
I suspect the grind hustle bubble is pretty much the same; especially as making someone gain muscle who does not need to avoid fat gain is technically much easier than making someone lose fat; GOMAD is not just a meme, but actually works, and is at least physiologically sensible. But maybe not psychologically, which truthfully took me a while to realize.
As the saying goes, you can't argue with results and thus sensible ways are dismissed, even when a more moderate approach would lead to better adherence and ultimately to better results down the road.
On the acceptance side, this then becomes the "reject natural" bubble, in which people just assume anyone with a modicum of muscle is on gear, making the natty or not question a favorite topic, and if the bubble is male, the incel sphere is very close.
Advertising and more general society
As if everything wasn't already hard enough, if you are eating more mindfully, you very likely have to put up with more shit in your social circle. Especially if your goal is to lose fat and maybe even gain some muscle.
There is a trillion dollar industry pushing cheap, fattening foods into every corner of the world, and targeting mostly children and poor people with their advertising for decades. This lead to a grassroots acceptance and normalization of such foods, and it has become a stereotype to be made fun of when ordering a diet soda at a restaurant. Or to not go out to a restaurant every month or get takeout on a regular basis.
Cooking has been degraded from a everyday activity to a special occasion. And with special occasions you also get special issues.
On the other end of the media extremes, you see an overemphasis on expensive organic local health foods, shaming you for using produce from the supermarket and advocating a lifestyle which can only be sustained by the rich.
In fitness circles, the end of year festivities like Christmas (and thanksgiving in the US) are kind of a meme, but, looking at the whole year of nutrition, those few days should not matter much. Even if you were to put on a pound every season, and be in homeostasis the rest of the year, over 60 years this would only mean 30kg weight gain. Which is not necessarily nice, but also not problematic. The weight gain rates we usually are struggling with are much more dramatic.
Embracing positivity I guess
So, I think obviously we can not get away with the health at every size stuff. Our bodies need muscle, and they likely need more muscle than you think they need. And we should not be too fat, and have some strength training and some endurance training on a regular basis.
The road to a healthy lifestyle is a long one and you definitely do not need to find the optimum quickly. Depending on what is at stake, the approaches need to differ, which usually translates to "the fatter you are, the more drastic interventions are necessary".
But it is really hard to make progress if
- you are in denial about your situation, or
- you are deeply ashamed about your situation.
Which is kind of a truism for every situation, not only weight loss, but with weight loss we face extremely warped values in society and are being sent mixed signals by almost everyone.
Trying to satisfy the need for some practicality, I think we end up with three categories of interventions:
- if you are massively overweight, you have to treat it as if you were sick; your medical professionals will probably agree and support you in this endeavor. You are probably severely limited in the exercises you can do, and overexertion can be truly risky. Acknowledge that you not only have to heal the physical damage, but also deal with the emotional trauma that got you into this situation and the trauma that this situation brought to you.
- if you are only slightly overweight or just a bit unhappy with your body, getting into some exercise routine will be much more important and helpful than doing the dieting stuff; it can be a nice journey and you have time and can experience many improvements. Strength training would be favorable over endurance training, but you can can afford the luxury of trying out things and do what is fun. The exercise itself will probably not bring you fat loss, but be more effective in impact of quality of life and health outcomes, and maybe help with motivation for more goal oriented eating.
- if you are moderately overweight, you should make an effort both on the dieting and the exercise front; exercise will have the bigger impact on your health, but to move the needle you need to diet.
I suspect you can use the "pathological/moderate/nice-to-have" categories also for non-fatloss goals and then examine in which you truly belong and hopefully find a more suitable approach, which allows you to successfully continue on the journey, instead of making you feel like a disappointment by failing unrealistic standards.
Even at olympic training centers (targeted at all sports and "sports" present in the olympics, not only weightlifting) the food is pretty much your standard cafetaria food with a bit more salads and vegetables. Turns out when you are gifted, you have more leeway than us mere mortals. ↩
In Germany, according to the RKI, 67% of male (assigned at birth) population and 53% of female population are overweight by BMI. A staggering 23% and 24% respectively are adipose. Yes, BMI does not work well when you have muscle, but even at gyms muscular people remain a rarity. ↩
Having a sixpack is not as reliably as one could hope to be; more feminine people can often reveal a sixpack while still carrying a good amount of fat around their hips and legs, but maybe it is just that: A good amount of fat. In males a worse condition seems to sometimes occur, where the visceral fat is still there and you have a bulging belly, but the subcutaneous fat is gone, so this bulge shows a sixpack. That might be a bit more worrysome. ↩
Well, usually. Sometimes it is also just the alpha egghead stuff wrapped in the package of a skinny dude with glasses, with insane energy deficits and diets requiring impossible amounts of precision to make weight for completely irrelevant competitions. Usually accompanied by the same lackluster collection of variations of the main lifts targeting all possible positions, so you can roll out the same cookie cutter template to all of your athletes for only 200 bucks a month. But well, this possibly warrants another post. ↩