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Thought Suppression & Dietary Adherence

Posted by Issac Ishak on


 

Diet adherence is obviously important. If you can’t stick to a diet, you’re not going to be very successful with your goals.

It doesn’t matter if one day scientists discover "The One Diet To End All Diets" if that diet consists of eating kale and bull penises for eternity. ALL diets follow basic nutritional fundamentals and principles. Thankfully, for us (and bulls around the world), we know ALL diets can help you lose fat and build muscle as long as you can stick to it. It's less about what diet you follow and more about how well you can adhere to it.
In a study by Micheal Dansinger et al. researchers investigated how well participants adhered to a diet was strongly associated with weight loss in one of four, popular, yet varying, diets: Atkins, a low-carb high-fat diet, a 'Zone' more balanced diet consisting of 40% of calories from carbs, 30% of calories from protein, and 30% of calories from fat, Ornish, a very low fat (<10% calories from fat), high carb vegetarian diet; and Weight Watchers, which uses a ‘points system’ (1).
Another study by S Alhassan et al. found similar results. Researchers concluded: Regardless of assigned diet groups, 12-month weight change was greatest in the most adherent compared to the least adherent groups (2). These results suggest that strategies to increase adherence may deserve more emphasis than the specific macronutrient composition of the weight loss diet itself in supporting successful weight loss.
Not only is adherence important to how much weight people lose during the dieting period, it’s also a good predictor of how well someone maintains that loss in the long run. In another study by Pedro Corral et al. dietary adherence during the weight loss phase predicted weight maintenance at two years. The high adherers regained only 50% of the weight they lost, while the low adherers regained 99% of the weight they’d lost (3).

And the reality is, as you tend to diet for longer- even though you're adherent, it's going to get hard and you're going to get hungry. 

When your calories get low as you’re dieting down you will get hungry, there’s no avoiding it. You can implement ‘x’ ‘y’ ‘z’ strategy in hopes of better managing it, but at some point you have to accept it. If you’ve ever gone through a dieting phase, you’ll likely be able to pinpoint times where it was rather difficult to avoid specific thoughts about food.

This can be referred to as thought suppression, a process where you purposely avoid certain thoughts. Thought suppression can influence behavior by creating a counter-intentional/rebound effect.
Ex: Someone who relies on thought suppression to remain focused during a fat loss phase ends up reaching a goal, only to gain it all back because the food obsession that was created during the fat loss phase. I know for me, I first hand experienced this after my first contest prep in 2016, in the form of post contest rebound.
In addition to altering the frequency of thoughts, food thought suppression may also influence behavior. For example, when [chocolate cravers] and [non-cravers] attempted to suppress thoughts about chocolate, those who were instructed to use thought suppression worked harder at a computer game to earn chocolates compared to those not instructed to suppress thoughts, regardless of craving status (4).
Erskine & Georgiou also found that individuals high in restraint consumed more chocolate after a suppression period than did control groups (5). Similarly, Pop and colleagues found that food thought suppression increased food-related thoughts and it resulted in increased food intake among overweight and obese persons who reported dieting (6).
In some cases, thought suppression can be associated with inconsistency (yo-yo dieting), food focus, and low to moderate levels of eating disorders.
There are minor benefits when it comes to attentional focus for specific situations— but thought suppression actually triggers a meta-cognitive scanning process where our subconscious mind is alert and is searching for signs of unwanted instruction. So although you’re no longer thinking about specific thought directly, they’re more likely to be brought into awareness, or linger in the back of your head.
Similar to an open window, application, or pop-up, on your computer/phone. Even though you may not be using it, it’ll still be ‘active’… When you’re constantly consumed with not thinking about something, it, unfortunately, increases the frequency/preoccupation with a specific thought. Being conscious, mindful, and more aware could possibly be a better option when it comes to better managing cravings whilst dieting. Part of it is also understanding that it’s NORMAL to experience cravings/hunger. Acknowledge those feelings, embrace them, don’t fight them, it’s not something to be ashamed, or scared of.
Big picture, remember that you’re ultimately in control of your actions. You don’t always have to react to certain thoughts/feelings. It’s okay to be hungry. You have the privilege to diet, improve your health, and body composition. There are people in the world who don’t choose hunger and you can literally see their skeletal structure due to REAL starvation.
Accept the thought and move on.
This realization will ultimately contribute to healthier and sustainable dieting success.

Ok, so diet adherence is important. Cool. But how can you actually improve diet adherence?

Gee, I thought you’d never ask, here are a bunch of suggestions that can help.

1. Enjoyment & Dietary Preferences

As I noted above, all diets–regardless of their macro composition–can induce fat loss (as long as you’re adhering to a calorie deficit). What matters most is how compatible it is with your dietary preferences.

But not only your dietary preferences, but it also shouldn’t stray too far from the type of foods you’re used to, and enjoy, eating.

In a study by Juan Beunza et Al. researchers found that adherence to the Mediterranean diet was highest among those whose standard diet was most similar in composition to the Mediterranean diet (6). Another study by Frank Sacks et al. found adherence to one of four diets was better when the participants were eating a diet that reflected the macro composition of their normal diet (7).

Now, to be clear, if your ‘standard’ diet consists of Pizza for breakfast, Burger King lunch, and Chinese take out for dinner then you probably need to sort that shit out. The point here is: you shouldn’t unnecessarily restrict foods or eat in a way you don’t enjoy. Do you enjoy eating carbs? Then going full-blown keto is probably a bad idea. Do you like the taste of spinach but despise kale? Then eat spinach and rest easy knowing you’ll never have to eat another piece of kale again.

HOORAY. 🥳

Don’t make dieting harder than it needs to be. By eating the foods you enjoy, you’ll find adhering to the diet is easier.

2. Realistic Expectations

Thanks to a lot of the nonsense spouted by the fitness mainstream, people have severely unrealistic expectations of how long it actually takes someone to achieve results. And when there’s a mismatch between your expectations and reality the likelihood of giving up, or yo-yo dieting for eternity is much higher.

Perhaps the biggest reason people fail with their fitness goals is due to what I call an Expectation-Reality Mismatch.

Let’s assume you thought you’d be six-pack lean in 6 weeks. In the early stages, your motivation is high because all you know is in six weeks you’re going to be ripped, but, as you get closer to the six-week mark and your progress, is not where you anticipated it to be – motivation starts to dip.

Eventually, six weeks come and go and you haven’t achieved the six-pack you were convinced you’d have by now, and so, you give up.

This is an Expectation-Reality Mismatch. 

When your expectation of achieving a goal (like, abs in 6 weeks) is mismatched to the reality of achieving that goal (you actually needed 16 weeks) – you become demotivated and give up.

This is why setting realistic expectations from the start is so important. If you know that, based on your starting position, you need 16 weeks to lose fat – and six weeks go by and you’re not there yet, you’re not stressing because you know that you still have another 10 weeks left.

It’s awesome that you “want a six-pack”, or “a bigger ass”, or whatever lofty goal you set out for yourself– but, at the same time, you need to have realistic expectations of how long it will take for you to achieve the goal based on your starting point.

Here are some guidelines:

Fat loss expectations: Set fat loss targets between 0.5 – 1% of your total body weight per week. The benefit of using percentages is the rate of loss automatically scales with your body weight, like so:

 

Muscle gain expectations: There are quite a few muscle growth models out there that provide us with a good guideline. However, the two that I often refer to are the Lyle McDonald Model and the Aragon Model.

The more you weigh the nearer the higher end, and the lighter you weigh the nearer the lower end of each range.

I’ve taken averages of both the McDonald and the Aragon Model and put them into the graph above to make things simple.

Please keep in mind that these are just guidelines and will vary from person to person. You won’t always gain this exact amount of weight per month, just like you won't always be hitting new lows with fat loss, use the numbers as a guide but be more focused on the process

In a study by Riccardo Grave et al. over 50% of participants who had unrealistic expectations of their goals dropped out within a year of starting their diet (8). Yikes.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set lofty goals for what you can achieve. Need to lose 100 lbs? Ok, set that as your big goal, set a short term goal to aim for, and then be realistic with the amount of time you’re going to need to get there. (0.5-1% total body weight loss per week is a moderate rate of loss and a good target to aim for). An ambitious goal with a dose of realism and patience will work in hand in hand to keep you motivated throughout the process.

3. Set up your environment for success

Change your environment and your environment will change you.

People downplay how important one’s environment is to their success or failure. If your house is filled with high calorie, hyper-palatable foods, there’s a very good chance you’re going to eat them even if you have healthier alternatives available. I don't recommend restricting yourself from certain foods either as that can lead to an unhealthy eating relationship with certain foods- everything in moderation and try to make a more 'macro friendly' alternative. That way you're still able to maximize your calorie intake through more wholesome, micronutrient dense, satiating food- ultimately this will allow you to:

1. Obtain a sufficient amount of micronutrients

2. An adequate amount of protein

3. Sufficient calorie intake.

If, for whatever reason, you have to keep certain foods in the house that you can't stop thinking about (didn't we just cover what happens when you suppress certain thoughts of food?), remember that if you eat it, track it, don't act like what you ate didn't have any calories.

Food packaging plays a huge role in food association and driving us to eat. This is why we immediately recognize our favorite foods at the grocery store and why food packaging catches our attention. By removing the trigger foods you also remove the association, and this can help reduce the chances of you eating the food.

Your environment is not limited to food, but it's also the people you surround yourself with, what you watch, what you listen to- all of which fall under things you consume. Your environment will eventually become a direct reflection of your internal environment something that's undervalued and underappreciated when it comes to any body-composition related transformation. 

4. Track your progress 

One of the reasons people give up on their diet (and fitness goals) is because they feel like they’re not making progress and the reason for this is because they have no tangible way of quantifying progress. Having the ability to study data and measure trends will make your fat loss more predictable. You also have to remember not to associate a certain feeling with the number on the scale, it's just a measurement.

What was that Chad? You “feel” like you’ve stopped making progress? Sorry to burst your bubble mate, but feelings aren’t data. Instead:

 

  • Weigh yourself every morning.
  • Take bi-weekly or monthly progress photos
  • Take body measurements
  • Keep a training log so you can see your strength increasing
  • Use a pedometer (like a Fitbit or a simple steps app on your phone) to track your activity.

 

In a study by Yasemin Cayir et al., overweight women who used pedometers lost six times more weight than women who didn’t use pedometers. (This doesn’t mean buying a pedometer will magically make you lose weight. They help because they allow you to measure your current activity levels and then realign or adjust them so they’re more conducive to your end goal) (9). Tracking your steps or increasing your N.E.A.T is one of the easiest ways to increase energy expenditure outside of the traditional cardio machines. 

While a pedometer, is a rough proxy for expenditure it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s still going to be more predictable than performing “x” calories of cardio and having significant variability outside of that based on differences in day to day activities.. and your overall motivation to move. I’m not saying solely tacking steps in the answer for everyone, especially during prep. There is nothing wrong with having estimate calorie targets within sessions (I use this method with my athletes). The point is to have a plan outside of that. If we are going to the effort of being extremely precise and compliant on the intake side of the equation (with the correct application/time/place) why would we not aim to maximize our control on the other side within our practical capabilities?

In the end, it’s really about basic energy balance. Which can be a chess match, especially as adaptive mechanism begin to do their designed jobs. 

Point being: having quantifiable data will give you a better insight into whether you’re making progress or not. 

5. Energy Balance

Every part of our body is constructed from the food we eat. Our skin is made up from things we’ve eaten over the past month. Our bones are made up of things we’ve eaten over the past decade, even our red blood cells are comprised of substances we consumed over the last ~3-months. We are quite literally what we eat. (Well, we’re what we eat, digest, assimilate- and don’t excrete). Any successful nutrition plan always has foundations.

These include:

  1. Controlling energy intake. When we consume less energy (i.e. calories) than we burn, we lose weight (and, ideally, most of that is body fat). Whether you take in less energy by eating frequent small meals or infrequent larger meals is up to you.
  2. Focusing on food quality. Fresh, unprocessed, nutrient-dense food is a must, regardless of which eating style you adopt.
  3. Regular exercise. Exercise is a critical part of the equation.

Once those three have been taken care of, it’s a matter of personal preference and lifestyle considerations.

Tracking calories:⁣ If you went to your pantry and had to put together your food for the day based on (example) 2,000 calories of an isocaloric diet, could you? No? Okay then. Sorry sunshine. If you don’t know what you are eating, how do you know if you are eating in a surplus (more than you need), maintenance (need to maintain), or a deficit (less than you need). Not tracking and trying to make progress toward a body composition related goal would be like playing blackjack blindfolded.⁣⠀

Food selection:⁣ Very important, but still only second to calories. Quality of food is highly important, yes and food plays a much larger role than energy balance- but if you eat the finest organic wild salmon with avocados, and overeat it, sorry to break it to ya, those extra calories will settle somewhere and may start to jiggle over time.⁣⠀

Eating intuitively:⁣ 100% works, but do you even know what it feels like to be hungry or full? Most of us eat according to assigned work breaks or emotionally, or are easily influenced by a walk down the chocolate aisle. I’ve been there. The chocolate aisle... love me some dark chocolate.⁣⠀

So let’s recap, all different approaches work, but there are levels to it. Track consistently and accurately for a couple of years so you understand food selection and the impact it can have on your body.⁣ Progress to basing your eating on choices and consistency.⁣ You can progress to intuitive eating as long as you can listen to your body, understand your biofeedback signals, control your food choices, and understand how different foods impact you.⁣⠀

Everything can work, but it needs to be at your level first. Awareness brings understanding.⁣ Without understanding, your guess is as good as mine.

6. Sleep

A good night’s sleep can make you feel on top of the world, capital A awesome, and like you can stop a speeding bullet with your bare hands. A poor night’s sleep has the exact opposite effect. Not only does it make you feel capital S shitty it also makes self-control harder because it increases hunger and cravings and impairs decision-making.

Meaning: you’re far more likely to say ‘fuck it’ and end up balls deep in the cookie jar. The same cookie jar you shouldn’t have in your house in the first place because I explained what would happen if you did earlier in the article.

Fuck, are you even reading?

So how exactly does a lack of sleep affect hunger? There are two hormones that control appetite: ghrelin and leptin.

When ghrelin levels increase, it triggers a strong sensation of hunger; conversely, when leptin levels increase, it blunts appetite.

In his book, ‘Why We Sleep”, Matthew Walker discusses a number of studies by his colleague Dr. Eve Van Cauter on sleep (or a lack thereof) and appetite regulation.

In one study, Van Cauter recruited a group of young healthy adults that were given eight-and-a-half hours of sleep for five nights. Then, the same group was only allowed four to five hours of sleep for five nights. They were provided with exactly the same type and amount of food and their levels of physical activity were kept constant. Each day the participants’ sense of hunger and food intake were monitored along with their circulating levels of ghrelin and leptin.

Van Cauter discovered that “individuals were far more ravenous when sleeping four to five hours a night. This despite being given the same amount of food and being similarly active, which kept the hunger levels of the same individuals under calm control when they were getting eight or more hours of sleep.” Poor sleep decreased the ‘satiety hormone’ leptin and increased the ‘hunger hormone’ ghrelin. So even though the participants were given adequate amounts of food to stave off hunger, their body continued signaling them to eat because the ‘I’m full’ signal wasn’t working.

As Matthew Walker goes on to say:

"From a metabolic-perspective, the sleep-restricted participants had lost their hunger control. By limiting these individuals to what some in our society would think of as ‘sufficient’ amount of sleep (five hours of sleep a night), Van Cauter had caused a profound imbalance in the scales of hormonal food desire. By muting the chemical message that says ‘stop eating’ (leptin), yet increasing the hormonal voice that shouts ‘please, keep eating’ (ghrelin), your appetite remains unsatisfied when your sleep is anything less than plentiful, even after a kingly meal."

Ok, cool, so a lack of sleep increases hunger but does it actually mean people eat more?

Well, Dr. Van Cauter has a study for that too.

In this study, participants underwent two different conditions:

Four nights of eight and a half hours’ time in bed, and four nights of four and a half hours’ time in bed. In both conditions, participants were limited to the same level of physical activity and given free access to food. When participants were sleeping four hours per night, they consumed 300 calories more each day than when they were getting a full night of sleep.

But hold the fuck up Karen, because this shitstorm ain’t over yet. Not only do sleep-deprived individuals crave more food–the type of food they crave tend to be the high-calorie sort.

As Matthew Walker notes:

“Weight gain caused by short sleep is not just a matter of eating more, but also a change in what you binge eat. Looking across the different studies, Van Cauter noticed that cravings for sweets (e.g., cookies, chocolate, and ice cream), heavy-hitting carbohydrate-rich foods (e.g., bread and pasta), and salty snacks (e.g., potato chips and pretzels) all increased by 30 to 40 percent when sleep was reduced by several hours each night.”

So, poor sleep results in what I call the Circle of Absolute Fuckery.

You don’t sleep properly → hunger levels increase → you crave calorie-dense foods → whoops, your leptin’s all fucked, so now you don’t feel satiated → you eat said calorie-dense foods → UH OH, MOTHERFUCKER, remember leptins screwed so you’re not satiated from eating the calorie-dense foods → CALORIE SURPLUS → NOPE, still hungry → eat more of calorie-dense foods → CALORIE SURPLUS INCREASES → WELP, I’d love to stop eating but my leptin is still screwed → CALORIE SURPLUS INCREASES.

I mean, really, if you’re still not convinced of the importance of sleep after seeing the Circle of Absolute Fuckery, I don’t know what to tell you.

If you are shook, don’t worry because I wrote a pretty comprehensive article on sleep and how you can start improving it.

You’re welcome. Now go get some fucking sleep.

7. Moderate Deficits For Sustainability

Yes, I know, you want to be lean like yesterday. Unfortunately, you can’t force fat loss, and the more aggressive the deficit, the harder it becomes to stick to your diet. Start with a moderate calorie deficit, ~15-20% below maintenance. So, if your maintenance intake is 2500 calories, this would mean a reduction of ~300-500 calories.

This doesn’t mean aggressive dieting doesn’t work. In fact, some studies suggest it can be super effective. The problem is most people don’t know how to implement an aggressive diet properly and without the right support and guidance, they end up backfiring. So stick with a moderate deficit (or, I dunno, hire me to coach you?).

8. Weekly Calorie Intake

Have you ever had one bad day of eating then decided everything is ruined and instead of getting back on track, you keep eating like an asshole until Monday comes around where you start the cycle all over again?

Well, this strategy will help you stop doing that.

Instead of a daily calorie approach–hitting a certain number of calories every day; use a weekly calorie approach–staying within a certain number of calories by the end of the week.

So, if you require 1800 calories per day to lose fat, you’d multiply this by 7 to get your weekly calorie target. (1800 x 7 =12,600 calories).

Focusing on your weekly intake versus daily intake stops the all or nothing mentality to your diet and helps you see the bigger picture. For example: let’s assume you’re dieting on 1800 calories. You have an unexpected work dinner and end up eating 2500 calories. Even though you went over your target calories by ~600, if you get back on track the next day–you’ll still be in a calorie deficit by the end of the week. Or, if you know you’ll be going out on the weekend and it’ll be hard to accurately track your intake–you can adjust your calories leading into the weekend to keep your weekly calorie totals in check.

To conclude...

Dieting and achieving your fat loss related goals doesn't have to be painstakingly difficult, it can be, if you mismanage your variables- but so long as you follow the steps listed above and have short/long term quantifiable goals, and a sustainable game-plan to help you achieve them, then don't stress your pretty little head. Everything is going to be alright. 🙂

 


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