Of Routines, Ruts, and Habitual Eating

In case you missed it, TTP reader Mike asked the following in response to my “Quick and Dirty on Calorie Intake” post:

…My problem is I think I hit bottom on the lean out and was wondering if calorie restriction is in order?

I was curious about your comment “to eat more in order to go down in weight.” Sorry to bore you but I would like to lean out more but what in your opinion would I be giving up to get it, strength, stamina etc., on the calorie restricted approach? Unfortunately I can’t swing a long trip abroad to lean out.

I’m pretty pleased with where I am and don’t want to get greedy on leaning out but I liked your take on the calorie restriction issue so I thought I would ask for your opinion. Thanks for your thoughts.

This is the blah blah blah part . . .
I have been unweighed unmeasured gluten-free paleo, low carb (sub 50 per day), 1oz nuts a day, no dairy (except heavy cream in decaf coffee) keeping a food journal for 6 months. My cheats are protein style double doubles (1 x per week), chicken nachos (1x every 2 weeks). (I’m trying to be honest with what goes in my mouth per Skyler’s related blog post).

I have dropped about 40 pounds in the past six months on the strict paleo, did the water tank body fat measurement and came out at 16% in April. The BF % scale at home would seem to indicate this is going down still and my weight is staying the same at around 220 for the past month, which is good (muscle?). Activity level is strength biased xfit 3 times a week, longer outdoor activities (biking stairs etc) at least once per week, sleep good but could be better…

And what follows is my rather abbreviated answer:

Here’s the thing with calorie restriction, Mike: your metabolism will slow (thereby reducing the effectiveness of said cal. restriction), and your workouts will begin to suck. Not right off, of course, but pretty damn quick thereafter. Short bursts of slight — and in some cases large — over-eating interspersed with a few days of under-eating & IF seem to help most people punch beyond sticking points. I do this quite naturally, and in a random manner — I very rarely think “gee, I haven’t hit an IF in a while”, rather, it just comes about organically. Same with the “eat like a starved hyena” days. Until you really learn to listen to your body, though, a 5-day restricted/2-day re-fuel might be appropriate. Personally, though, I’m not good with schedules like that, preferring the more organic, fractal method.

Now, I’m still good with what I’d originally put out to Mike, however, there are a couple of things that I’d like to add to that.  First off, a 40-lb fat depletion in a 6-month span is rockin’ (though not at all unexpected), and it sounds as if Mike hasn’t actually stalled in his fat loss, but simply slowed a bit.  I don’t know exactly where Mike is on the ol’ look, feel and perform scale (maybe he can elaborate), but if “feel” and “perform” are spot-on, and what we’re wanting to come around is the “look” aspect, it may just be what we need is a tad bit more patience.  I’m not sure what another 6-ish percent bodyfat equates to (weight-wise) in Mike’s case, but it might be helpful to relate that amount of fat to where he was 6 months ago.  A little perspective sometimes works wonders.

And now for a bit of psychology…

I’ve always maintained that training, diet – well, all of Physical Culture, in fact – is largely mental in nature.  The best trainers, the best S&C coaches, and the most successful practitioners are not only technically proficient, but masterful motivators and – to but it bluntly – skilled shrinks…artful manipulators of the human psyche!  Wild animals left to their own devices exhibit perfect phenotypical expressions representative of their particular species.  They eat when hungry and of what is correct for their nature, move when necessary, and otherwise mindlessly attend to their survival.  Not so we humans, who are encumbered by ego, self-reflection and that ever-present self-chatter.  Our mind is constantly wanting, grasping, and left unbridled, this gets us in a world of self-made trouble.  One tiny aspect of this, as it relates to Mike’s case, may be the ol’ bug-a-boo of habitual eating.

In a way, food journals can be your best friend; or, too, they can be your worst enemy.  On the positive side, a journal allows for the exposure of what one actually consumes in a day, and in what ratios and, in some cases, this can be enlightening (i.e., the “damn!  I had no idea I ate that much [fill in the blank]! scenario).  In some cases, though, I have seen keeping a journal completely backfire.  The outward manifestations might have varied, but the causation usually boiled-down to one thing: compulsion.

Take for instance Mike’s “1oz of nuts per day”.  Now, 1oz of nuts is not going to make or break anyone’s fat loss attempts, however, it may be indicative of the larger issue of habitual eating.  That particular calorie intake may simply be a feel-good psychological crutch – something akin to, say, those who only smoke when they drink.  Situational is the key word here.  This is why I am so big on people learning to really listen to their bodies — an entity, by the way, that is in continual flux.   The body doesn’t ever “always” need 3 eggs and 2 strips of bacon for breakfast – some mornings it may want/need/require half a fatted hog, and other mornings (or days, even), it may not need anything at all.  This folds directly into the downside of routine, the downside of schedule.  Much better, I think, to learn to listen past the mind’s dictates, and for the body’s actual requests.  Where does the mind come in handy?  In the deciphering addiction as opposed to need.  The topic of another subject entirely, and beyond today’s scope.

Skyler Tanner discusses, in this recent post, the suppressive action of unusual foods upon the overall appetite, and this is certainly true.  The other aspect of this, though, is the fact that one is forced out of a set routine – a perfect, dietary, one-two punch, if you will.  In this circumstance, one may not be at the point of being able to fully listen to the body, but at least that ability to “mentally dictate” has been somewhat blunted by the unusual circumstance.  This, in fact, is the “magic” behind bootcamp-like transformations, and is a big reason behind why sporting teams hold training camps away from home base.  The real trick, then, is to learn the art of non-routine even as you navigate the work-a-day (and highly scheduled, routine oriented) world that we all must live in.

Much more on this at another time.  Now on to the physical side of things…

Friday night’s gym session –

This explosive-movement-heavy session followed a good bit of fixie riding, so my legs were good and warm (if not a wee bit zorched) by the time I hit the gym.  As it was, I dove right into this explosive superset:

kneeling DB jumps: 20lbs x 5, 25lbs x 5 sets of 3

straight bar muscle-ups: bw x 2, each round

Following that I rolled right into this superset:

military front press: 95 x 10; 135 x 6; 150 x 6, 6

snatch grip high-pull: 95 x 10; 135 x 6; 150 x 6, 6

Here’s a Joe DeFranco clip of a barbell kneeling jump demonstration.

I prefer to use DBs for this exercise, but it really doesn’t make much difference.  The key is to really engage the hips in the movement.  If you’ve got sleepy hips in the Oly movements, this exercise will help fix that.  Also, if you use DBs for this movement, be sure to explosively shrug the weight up (as you would in a normal Oly/Oly derivative lift), as opposed to “arcing” the DBs outward and forward so as to provide upward momentum.

5 responses to “Of Routines, Ruts, and Habitual Eating

  1. Two thoughts from the perspective of a personal trainer:

    #1 – The profession (at least its positive application) absolutely requires masterful motivation. There is no getting around it. The best technicians will get their clients nowhere without a dose of it.

    #2 – I like the benefits of a food diary’s early application. I’ll push someone to use it for a few weeks, simply as a tool to reach a basic level of education. Once educated on calories/% breakdowns/food quality, IMHO the person is better positioned to ‘listen’ to the body.

    We’ve been inundated with far too many media campaigns and conflicting messages…the education cuts through that crap. Without it a person’s ‘listening’ could end up very misguided.

  2. Thanks a ton for the advice. Good stuff. You know I think you nailed it with the perspective issue. 2 big things I needed perspective on, where I am and where I came from.

    The where I am is ready to stop the journaling which I think will add to more of a consistent continuation of this as a lifestyle based on feel, which will reduce my own internal pressure re “back slide” or undermining performance/weight. I know enough now about how to eat that I should rely on myself and get rid of the food journal. The nuts example really says it all about the habitual nature of it . . . habit is good and bad as you point out, it gives us discipline but at the same time restricts our development by keeping us in our comfort zone.

    The where I was . . . father of 2 little kids, happily married approaching 40 but not too happy with my fitness. My fitness would be to pick a half marathon or century ride and train for it, do it and then training would drop down until I picked the next focus. The organic nature of the interplay between paleo and xfit has been the kick in the pants I really needed and the 40 pounds is the proof in the pudding. I look better, feel better, performance is improving.

    The next 6% BF would be about 13 pounds of fat with no muscle loss. I think you are trying to tell me to be patient to get to this level, the low hanging fruit is gone, and the work shall begin . . .

    I guess I really needed to bounce this off someone and I am grateful for your take on it. It will help me “stay on target” which is to continue to make gains in life but not be too constrained in my routine to enjoy where I am right now. Many thanks and I am going to rock some IF and starved hyena days soon.

    Many thanks . . .

    • “…The next 6% BF would be about 13 pounds of fat with no muscle loss. I think you are trying to tell me to be patient to get to this level, the low hanging fruit is gone, and the work shall begin . . .”

      Truth. Keep in mind though that this is a journey, not a destination. Learn to enjoy the ride. You’ll never wake up one day and say “That’s it! I’m here!” Rather, you’ll reach a point where you’ll like where you’re at, but (and in a very enjoyable, non-stressed way) you’ll endeavor to improve even upon that. I don’t know that I’ve bagged a net “improvement” in the last 5 years or so, but I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun “maintaining”.

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