Sticking with a Nutrition Plan: The Unexpected Lessons Learned That Go Beyond Food

March 30, 2018
sticking to a meal plan

It’s mid-afternoon. I’m rummaging around in my bag to locate a tiny tupperware container. It contains my second snack and fourth small meal of the day: chocolate protein powder, mixed with a few ounces of water.

(Which is most decidedly not pictured above.)

It’s a snack I’ve made every day at this time for the last 3 weeks, and the meal after it, dinner later tonight, will be the same as every other dinner I’ve eaten over the same time period.

I’m almost done with a strict nutrition plan that cut carbs and fat but piled on the protein. The food is actually pretty tasty — sweet potato and ground turkey makes up a mid-morning snack; breakfast is oatmeal with almonds and two scrambled eggs, all of which I actually look forward to eating.

The challenge, I was surprised to find, was not in sticking with a nutrition plan. When I started, I figured I’d fall off the wagon within two days. I’ve never stuck with a “diet” in my life, preferring to live as one of those people who inhales everything and then spends half the next day in the gym to “make up for it.”

The challenge was mindfulness. The challenge was dealing with my thoughts when my mind decided it was bored with the same food everyday, or not letting my thoughts determine what my body needed.

That was a huge surprise, but it wasn’t the only one that came out of this experience.

Why I Committed to Sticking to a Nutrition Plan

Before I dive into my surprising findings, it’s worth sharing why I decided to get into this in the first place.

I decided to try a nutrition plan (and a strict one at that) as a hard reset button on my eating habits when I realized a sweet treat was part of my everyday routine, I usually had a snack in hand, and most evenings involved at least a glass of wine (and if we were out for dinner, it meant a cocktail instead).

Clearly, I love good food. I love the experience of going out and hunting down something new to try. I love sipping on an expertly crafted drink and hanging out with folks, enjoying the atmosphere and the scene.

But I said “I realized” up there deliberately, because there no mindfulness with my habits. I ate for entertainment (or out of boredom). There were times when I was 100% eating my feelings.

I ate healthy around all my indulgences, worked out, and overall you could describe me, objectively, as “healthy.” But all the extras were just… well, extra.

So I decided to change it up, committing to 4 weeks of strict, clean eating.

I completely expected to feel constantly hungry for the 4 weeks the nutrition plan was supposed to guide me — but I was surprised to find I rarely felt hungry (all the protein kept me satisfied and the frequent small meals meant I had steady stream of things to munch during the day).

I also expected to have unbearable cravings for sweets and wine, especially since I went from enjoying treats freely to being 100% strict and dedicated to this particular plan. And cravings did come up… but it seemed so simple to just say nope, not in the plan so not eating it.

That was because of the first unexpected lesson learned from sticking to a nutrition plan: willpower is not enough when it comes to habit change.

Unexpected Lesson #1: Decision Fatigue Is Real and Will Derail Progress to Your Goals

With this plan, I had one decision to make: stick to it, or don’t.

Every single meal was laid out for me every single day. There wasn’t even room in the plan itself to decide between one strict option and another. Breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner were the same every day.

Which is terribly boring… but not hard to stick to because you make a single decision: Am I going to eat according to the plan or not?

Before, healthy eating felt hard because even when after committing to a healthy diet, every meal, every pang of hunger, meant I had to make a decision:

Should I scramble an egg with veggies for breakfast, or have oatmeal with a handful of almonds? Is a veggie-packed salad with two hardboiled eggs a good dinner choice today, or would it be better to have some grilled chicken with lots of greens on the side?

Am I reeeeeally hungry and therefore my body needs this protein bar so I don’t crash at the gym today, or is that just a passing craving? Is ‘okay’ to put this extra tablespoon of peanut butter on my toast or is that a little unreasonable since I already had half an avocado and some nuts today?

Yes, in every case whatever I chose would have been fine. I was deciding between Healthy Option A and Healthy Option B — or at least, that’s where I started.

But what would often end up happening is that as the day went on and I made more and more decisions (and keep in mind these decisions are in addition to all the other ones I need to make for work and life on a daily basis), I’d start agonizing over what to do to the point where, as I started into the jar of peanut butter deliberating how much to put on my toast, my thoughts would turn to, “fuck it. I’m just going to eat this peanut butter with a spoon right now.” 

Decision fatigue is a killer and you can’t avoid it… unless you can engineer your environment to reduce the amount of decisions you have to make.

It’s the same reason why if you’re trying to build a workout habit, you should lay out your gym clothes before bed so when you wake up in the morning you just throw them on and get out the door.

It’s no longer a decision; it’s just something you do.

That’s what the nutrition plan did for my eating. I no longer decided, I just did.

I had no idea the impact decision fatigue was making on me, but it was absolutely part of the reason I struggled to eat well and say “no” to treats, indulgences, or bigger portions/unnecessary snacks when I wasn’t hungry.

It wasn’t that I was weak or uncommitted or even that I just loved food too much. The real problem was that I was forcing my mind to make too many decisions in the moment, and as a result my mind gave up and said “just eat whatever and STOP WORRYING.”

Here’s how I’m applying this lesson in my life after sticking to a nutrition plan:

Sunday through Friday, I’m going to stick with a set group of meals. Same breakfasts, lunches, and dinners every day (that I’ll determine each Friday or Saturday, and shop and prep for those specific meals).

I’m also following a few strict rules Sunday through Friday to help avoid more decisions: no alcohol, no dairy, and no sweets or treats.

I’ll change up the week’s menu from week to week to keep and enjoy variety. And I’ll give myself Saturdays to have fun and let loose and do whatever.

I’m also keeping this in mind beyond my diet.

Food is just one thing we have to make decisions on. We make decisions constantly, and I feel like I have the proof I needed to see the real consequence to simply making more than we can really handle.

Wherever I can, I’m looking for opportunities to cut down on the decisions I have to make. Here are some places I’m currently thinking about the decisions I make, and how I can streamline processes or create systems that make it easier for me to simply do without deciding:

  • My workouts: I usually just make something up when I go to the gym, but I’ve been writing down my workouts on Post-Its, putting them in a jar, and then pulling one out at random. I do that workout, no thinking required.
  • My wardrobe: Deciding what to wear everyday is the worst. I’m currently trying to figure out how I can make this easier without going completely minimalist or resorting to a capsule wardrobe… although that may be the ultimate solution!
  • My work days: Clearly, this is where most decisions happen. It’s also an area I feel like will be most challenging to reduce decision-making requirements in. I’m starting by simply trying to be more aware of common decisions I make over and over again, and seeing how I might be able to change something up to eliminate those.

Unexpected Lesson #2: What Works on Paper Might Not Work for You

The meal plan I followed was part of a prep guide for fitness (or bikini) competition competitors. I chose that plan because while I wasn’t about to spray myself orange and strut my stuff across a stage in high heels, those women are freakin’ ripped and have a tiny amount of body fat.

And my goal was to lose fat while building muscle. Seemed like a good fit.

The meal plan was also based on whole, real foods. Other “shred” diets, designed to help you drop pounds but not muscle, contained a whole lot of what I would not normally eat: string cheese, processed crackers, rice cakes.

Nothing wrong with that if you like those foods, but I know I feel my best when what I’m eating is not processed. I thought this meal plan was great because it consisted of:

  • Oatmeal
  • Almonds and peanut butter
  • Bananas
  • Eggs
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Ground turkey
  • Chicken
  • Broccoli, asparagus, and spinach
  • Peppers and tomatoes
  • Corn tortillas (as a taco lover this was always the highlight of my day)
  • Tilapia, cod, or haddock

…and a whole lot of protein powder. These are all tasty, healthy, whole foods and I actually enjoyed eating them. And while the plan did help me create a caloric deficit (which did help me lose some fluff around my hips and tummy), it wasn’t forcing me to starve because it was designed to support an intense workout schedule.

The problem was, this diet combined with my workout routine just wasn’t the right combination of macronutrients that I needed. By the end of week 2, I never felt hungry during the day or between meals… but I did feel slow.

It wasn’t a sluggishness, exactly. But I was always ready to sleep. I was walking slower. Even mentally, where I’m usually pretty wired (and anxious), it was a lot of white noise. Where I’d normally be thinking, I noticed more and more I had zero thoughts running around through my brain.

Normally, when we’re talking mindfulness, that would be a good thing — but the thoughtless state wasn’t due to nonattachment or zen. It was the same sort of blank you get when you’re just zapped and below awareness.

It was just like there was no gas in the tank; the engine was not going to turn over no matter how many times you turned the key and goosed the pedals.

If you looked at the numbers, both in terms of calories and grams of protein, this nutrition plan was not going to leave you starving or in a place where your body couldn’t function. And yet here I was slugging along, starting to struggle through workouts, feeling like I was living in slow-motion.

What worked on paper, what worked according to the numbers and the math and the science, wasn’t working for me.

This is probably the most important lesson I have ever learned and continue to learn: what works for someone else or some other situation could mean jack shit about your own self and life.

While technically I “knew” this, experiencing it like this was a powerful reminder of, “uh, yeah, this is true everywhere.” What works in one case is just that: one case.

It’s great to use someone’s information based on their own experience or knowledge as a case study, or apply some takeaways to your own situation.

But at the end of the day you can’t live your life by a series of prescriptions. You need to bend and flex and do what’s right for you and your journey.

That, of course, means you have to know yourself pretty well. You have to be in tune with who you are (and who you’re not). You have to understand what’s important to you and where you’re trying to go.

Take in advice from other people. Hear and learn from other people’s experiences and lessons learned. But remember what this unexpected lesson taught me: trust yourself. Trust yourself to do right by you.

Unexpected Lesson #3: There’s a Big Connection Between Mindfulness and Maintaining Health Through Food and Fitness

While I knew I needed to do a reset on my eating habits and get back to making healthy choices on a more consistent basis, that’s not what pushed me to act and actually give this meal plan a try.

I had been thinking about it for months. But what finally pushed me to stop thinking and start doing was reading A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle.

Not exactly a nutrition guide, right?

That’s what I thought, until I read this passage:

For many people, their sense of self-worth is intimately bound up with their physical strength, good looks, fitness, and external appearance. Many feel a diminished sense of self-worth because they perceive their body as ugly or imperfect.

I felt tempted to look up from the book when reading this, look around, and go, “who, me? Are you talking to me?”

It got worse as I continued to read:

In some cases, the mental image or concept of “my body” is a complete distortion of reality. A young woman may think of herself as overweight when she is quite thin. All she “sees” is the mental concept of her body, and that mental concept says “I am fat” or “I will become fat.”

At the root of this condition lies identification with the mind.

If the sufferer could look at her body without the interfering judgments of her mind or even recognize those judgments for what they are instead of believing in them — or better still, if she could feel her body from within — this would initiate her healing.

Daaaamn. This was me, 100%. I had already done enough work on mindfulness and awareness to understand that I am the observer of my thoughts. I knew that I was not my thoughts…

Until it came to food and my physical appearance.

I didn’t realize that I was so lost and driven by thoughts and mental concepts of what food was and did and what my body was and looked like, that it was keeping me trapped in this cycle of feeling stressed about food, hating my body, and doing things to perpetuate that cycle (like load up on treats and go back for that second glass of wine).

As Eckhart Tolle might say, I was completely identified with form when it came to food and my appearance.

That got me thinking, but what completed the shift was realizing that in many cases, I ate because my mind was hungry, not because my body needed fuel.

Of course you’re going to eat or drink too much if you’re not actually connected to your body! That was how I was living in this regard: I was completely in my own head, and identifying with what my mind wanted, not what I physically needed to feel good, vibrant, and alive.

What my mind tends to want, when I do not practice mindfulness and awareness and consciousness, is more. There is no enough if I let my mind take the wheel and decide where we’re going.

I was aware of this tendency when it came to money. I know when my mind pipes up on the topic of finances, it’s always some shrill version of “but is that enough?!” I know it, I recognize it, and I can let it go. That thought doesn’t run me.

But when it came to food, “not enough!” was still my mind’s battle cry and I had no idea. So it translated into emotional eating sometimes. Other times it was deciding a meal was complete not when I was full, as Louis CK jokes, but when I had eaten so much I hated myself.

Another passage from A New Earth helped me see this:

In some cases the psychological need for more or the feeling of not enough that is so characteristic of the ego becomes transferred to the physical level… the mind is hungry, not the body. The sufferer could be healed if, instead of being identified with their mind, could get in touch with their body and so feel the true needs of the body rather than the pseudo-needs of the egoic mind.

In hindsight, it seems very clear now: I don’tt identify with the mind when it comes to its shrill chatter about finances, and I don’t identify with it when it comes to exercise or working out.

But food was my blind spot.

Sticking with a nutrition plan helped me stop identifying with my mind (and its associated thoughts) and get more in tune with my body and what that felt like on a physical level, beyond thoughts. It’s brought more awareness to food by showing me how I was not aware before.

The unexpected lesson here was the uncovering of a blind spot, and a reminder to not let hubris lead me to believe I’ve resolved all those blind spots just because I’ve made some progress in other areas.

There will always be things we don’t know, that we don’t know.

You likely have some sort of blind spot, too, where you lack awareness or consciousness — even if you’re mindful and aware in other areas of your life. This experience was a good reminder that mindfulness is a journey and not some place we arrive at or reach.

Like almost anything else worth doing, mindfulness (and your overall health and wellbeing) is a process with no final step. Instead of striving for an ultimate goal, it seems like real happiness and satisfaction come when you devote yourself to the process of progressing and improving.

Here’s how you can stay in the conversation.

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  • Reply Lindsey P. April 3, 2018 at 1:26 am

    Once I’m back from Japan, I could see following a meal plan like this. I’m great about exercising, but I definitely fall down when it comes to my diet.
    And re: the workout wardrobe….I found out what fabrics/cuts work for my workouts and my body (I run hot so I primarily wear cropped leggings, shorts, and sleeveless shirts) and then buy items accordingly. I also tend to stick to the same color palettes so everything in my workout wardrobe matches.
    It’d be easy to bounce into lululemon and drop hundreds of dollars on workout clothes, so I follow these basic rules to thoughtfully purchase high-quality basics I’ll constantly wear. It’s working so far!

    • Reply kaliwp April 3, 2018 at 7:38 am

      I hear you! I’m the same way in terms of great with exercising regularly and committing to a hard workout schedule.. but then I just want to eat all the snacks 😉 I love your tip about workout clothes being in the same color palette so things always match. I tend to stick with black myself. Then no one can even tell I pretty much cycle through the same sets of clothes every week! It’s hard enough to keep up with my regular wardrobe. I definitely just phone it in when it comes to gym clothes.

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