Category Archives: Skills

Healthy Eating Is About “How Much”

Alex Viada Diet Tip

Dieting tip: Peanut butter and similar foods are very calorie dense. Use a teaspoon rather than a tablespoon to help control portions.

Every day we see claims for super foods and “healthy options,” but foods that are healthful can still be eaten in excess. As a practical matter, that is more difficult with lean protein and fiber-rich foods, because they tend to leave you feeling satisfied and full with fewer calories. (That’s why people say “I cut out sugar and didn’t even have to count calories.”) But even the most “virtuous” foods can be prepared with enough fats, in particular, to make the calorie count skyrocket.

When dishing out nut butters, the serving size may say “tablespoons,” but tableware is rarely exactly the same size as measuring spoons, and you can easily stack a tablespoon (or much more!) of peanut butter on a teaspoon. Doubling your serving of broccoli won’t make much difference; doubling your serving of nuts or nut butters (which looks small to start with) adds hundreds of calories. It’s also a big help to use a scale to measure calorie-dense foods, instead of just spoons and cups. Be careful out there!

Image: Photo by Alex Viada of Complete Human Performance.

Walk Right for Your Blood Type

Walk right for your blood type

One of the odder diet claims out there is that there is an optimal way to eat depending on blood type. It makes no scientific sense, and there is no evidence to support it. It was bundled up with some claims about exercise, also with no support. There are a few ways to walk right, though. (No blood-type testing required!)

Wear comfortable shoes for walking. You may need more cushioning in the sole, or find a slightly raised heel (as in a traditional running shoe or hiking boot) more comfortable. Don’t overthink this, but pay attention to how your feet and lower legs feel — you may want to try something different when it’s time to replace your shoes.

Make sure you have plenty of room for your toes. Feet expand during the course of the day, especially if you’re putting miles on them. Cramped toes can hurt and even bruise under the toenail.

Be aware of your surroundings. Music or an audiobook make great company on a walk, but don’t let them distract you too much.

Keep some kind of track of your distance or time (or both). It’s fun to see progress, and nice to get a sense of how close you are (or how far over!) the recommendations for physical activity.

There’s no strict rule for what speed you walk, but you’ll generally get more health benefit at speeds over about 3 miles per hour. If that’s too fast, don’t worry. You will still benefit — and get better — with practice. The CDC suggests your usual exercise intensity be about “a 5 or 6 on a scale of 0 to 10.”

Look both ways before you cross a street! (Even on a one-way street — a car going in the wrong direction might present extra danger.)

Make it social! A great way to stay more active is make it part of socializing — explore a park with a friend, or have a walk after you meet for that coffee.

Here in the Northern hemisphere, spring has sprung. Get out there and have a nice walk or three!

Wait, What About the Belly Fat?

Walking can definitely help as part of a program to lose weight, but no exercise regimen can spot reduce fat or cause you to lose fat all by itself. For fat loss, be sure that you are eating a nutritious diet that gives you fewer calories than you burn during the day. Here are some suggestions for curbing overeating: “Just Eat Less” and “Are You Enjoying It?

Image: the cover of a magazine whose identity is being withheld to protect the misguided.

Is Breakfast the Most Important Meal of the Day?

Googly-eyed breakfast by Angie Naron

Over the last few decades, claims have grown up around breakfast — notably that people who eat “a good breakfast” have all kinds of good outcomes, like easier weight control and better metabolic function. There isn’t a lot of great science on this, because studies are notoriously bad at food tracking, but there’s also no great evidence that breakfast has magical qualities by itself. Large observational studies have shown a benefit when breakfast was a regular feature of a person’s day, but people who are careful to have “a good breakfast” may do a lot of other things that keep them in good health, too. Short-term studies have not shown smoking-gun issues from skipping it.

Eating breakfast can make good choices easier for some people, though.

Breakfast Can Help You Make Good Nutrition Choices If…

— You just like having a meal in the morning, large or small — especially if missing it on hectic days leaves you feeling bad or frustrated. Finding a way to protect that meal can make the rest of your day go better.

— You exercise in the morning. Whether you eat before or after, or have a small snack before and more food after (the timing is personal), moving more means eating more, and people often feel more comfortable when they eat at a time close to their workout.

— You work in an environment with a lot of empty-calorie options hanging around, whether it’s nearby coffee shops or donuts or vending machines in the break room. We often eat simply because food is present. Already having some food in you (especially satiating, filling protein and fiber) or packing a nutritious snack can help you resist “because it’s there” eating.

— You try to skip breakfast to “save calories” but end up feel deprived and hungry. If skipping breakfast leaves you grazing all morning, you might feel more alert and happier with a nutritious snack first thing.

– You have medical issues. If you have diabetes, of course, a dietitian can help you choose foods and meal times as part of your treatment. Other medical conditions can also have food and timing implications — work with your healthcare team if you’re under regular care.

The Traditional Morning Breakfast Doesn’t Matter If…

— You feel fine and ready to get going on your day once you roll out of bed.

— You’ve comfortably adopted a “feeding window” approach to eating that has you “break your fast” at a different time of day. (People may lecture you about this. Tell them, “I do have breakfast — just later.”)

— You may actually feel worse when you eat right after waking. You may be fine with “nontraditional” breakfast foods, starting with a very small snack, or just eating after you’ve gotten a start on the day. It’s worth keeping an eye out for health or stress issues that may be involved, but if that coast is clear, it’s down to what works for you.

— You think breakfast means only cereal, pancakes, eggs, bacon, and pastries. There’s no reason to limit those foods to a specific time of day, if you like them, nor any reason to privilege them as first foods of the day. A turkey sandwich is also a good breakfast, and diners serve “breakfast all day” for a (delicious) reason!

It’s Your Overall Pattern That Matters Most

The breakfast issue is similar to the claim that “small meals boost the metabolism.” Some people feel better with lots of small meals — or when they eat breakfast. Some people do fine — good energy level, able to do the activities they care about, able to stick with a nutritious eating pattern — with one or a few big meals, with or without breakfast. (Oh, and if you study someone making an abrupt change in pattern, they may get outsize results.) Humans are highly adaptable, and the major factors driving weight are simply how much you eat and move. So keep an eye out for the ways that make it easiest for you to make the choices you want to make.

Image: Angie Naron created this wonderful breakfast as part of a challenge issued by Amy Sedaris. You can see other entries at the Flickr group.

“I’ll start, just not right now.”

Do what you said

It’s easy to get overwhelmed or tired or frustrated, to wonder if you’re doing the right thing, and wait until you have the perfect plan and plenty of time to focus on it.

Don’t. Do something small. Once a week, if that’s all you can manage for now. A glass of water when you were reaching for a snack. One jumping jack — just one — when you get out of bed. One less can of soda, or one less beer.

Begin it.

“What was I waiting for?”

Getting to yes

It’s easy to see problems with a new plan, particularly when you have no experience to draw on. And it’s valuable to consider the potential problems. The old saying “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” describes a pretty good way of doing the pre-problem-solving that will keep you on track even if events don’t unfold the way you most hoped they would.

The trick is to face the possibility of problems … as a way to plan to solve them. Identify genuine issues that you can resolve, and shake off the worries that are just holding you back. Grant Snider’s beautiful illustration — excerpted above — goes through a mix of real concerns and the kinds of worries of which regrets are made. It’s called “Making the Leap” — visit his site to see the (happy) ending.

Rude Treadmills

Rude

Dr Lahiri of The Mindy Project is offended when the treadmill asks her how much she weighs, but it thinks it has a good reason. It’s planning to use that information to estimate calories burned during the session. Unfortunately, calorie burn varies so much from person to person that the simple physics-based calculations gym machines do are not that accurate — and that’s just if the machine is well maintained.

One of the problems with gym-machine calorie estimates is that specific numbers like “287” or “719” look so real — it’s an example of something appealing to us because it is precise (a distinct number, particularly when it’s a small unit like calories) even when it is not accurate (actually giving you useful information). So feel free to reject the machine’s question about your weight.

Then What Should I Keep Track of?

You should definitely keep some kind of record of your exercise — even a simple record can help keep you in the habit, like a check mark on the calendar for each day you reach a minimum level of exercise.

When tracking exercise itself, try to stick with information you can truly measure:
— Time spent
— Distance covered
— Heart rate (if you want to wear a chest strap; other methods are not quite reliable enough yet, except for spot checks, usually without moving)

US guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, plus two strength sessions. CDC offers information about how to tell what’s moderate, too.

The Habit Loop and the Golden Rule

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks extensively about the “habit loop” and the “golden rule” of habit change: a habit has a trigger, a routine (the habit itself), and a reward. The trigger is sometimes referred to as an anchor (as in, “when I wake up, I always…”), and the reward may be, for example, a feeling of relaxation or another positive emotional state. This is a model for understanding why people can “replace” harmful habits, like smoking, with other activities, like chewing gum: they can use the same trigger, and as long as they can find a replacement routine that gives them a similar reward, they’re golden.

Anchoring and reward help establish brand-new habits, too. In BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits program, for example, the very first step to establishing the new habit is to find a good anchor: something you reliably do at the same time of day and with the same frequency as the new habit you want to develop. He also builds in a reward concept, saying he likes to inject some happiness into completing the action by saying “Victory!” afterward. Other examples could be the pleasure of earning a check mark on a calendar, or social support from recording a workout on a social fitness site.

Understanding these patterns can help us find solutions when we bump up against obstacles in doing the things we wish we were doing — and helps to explain why people have so little success when they try to lose weight by eating food or doing workouts they hate. We may need some willpower — and some problem-solving — to get started with a better behavior, but with some persistence, we’ll be able to repeat it consistently enough to make a new habit.

Image: Detail from a flowchart in Duhigg’s book. He discusses it in a blog entry, “Infographics! (Or, a flowchart for changing a habit).”

Life Hacks and To-Do Lists

Friction

“Life hacks” entered the language around a decade ago when Danny O’Brien talked about them in the context of programming. In programming a hack is “a way of cutting through an apparently complex system with a really simple, nonobvious fix.” This idea has exploded in popularity and has inspired contrarians, who deride life hacking as part of a shortcut culture that can’t seem to buckle down and do real work.

To-do lists are a classic productivity tool that have inspired thousands of technological solutions, incorporating nested lists, calendar features, and the ability to add images. The iOS App Store alone has dozens — maybe hundreds (or more) — of apps for to-do lists or task management, some with enough organizing features to make to-do list management your full-time job. And yet productivity experts may recommend, as a first step, throwing away the to-do list.

Life hacks and to-do lists do help many people to be more efficient and productive, but they share a problem with such perennial publishing favorites as lists of 10,000 tips for weight loss. There are thousands, probably millions of useful ways to do almost anything a little better, but only a handful of them may apply to you, personally. Big lists have to be approached as opportunities to skim for the items that jump out at you, and not as … to-do lists, which stun us with the paradox of choice and then risk undermining us with decision fatigue.

How to Make Hacks and Lists Work for You

The key to efficiency — getting more results out of less effort — is reducing the friction of unnecessary effort, so you can save your energy for more meaningful work. Reducing the friction for good actions means making them easier to do — and making as many good behaviors (like eating nutritious food or exercising more) not only easier but routine, habitual. (You can also increase friction for actions you want to do less — the classic example is not keeping junk food in the house; another is to make treats harder to reach.)

So whenever you see a new life hack, or as you think about how you plan your day with lists, ask yourself: does this solve a problem I genuinely have? Does this make it easier for me to do something I would otherwise put off (or forget)? Does this replace a time sink with a decision that’s already been made? Scott Young offers some steps for thinking through these kinds of questions. You may not want to go the full Steve Jobs route of never wearing anything but a turtleneck and jeans, but a life with less friction will be — by definition — smoother.

Image: I took this photo at a gym that has an excellent selection of specialized equipment for strongman training. People sometimes get ridiculed for driving to the gym — or taking the escalator when they get there — and then getting on the exercise machines, but most gym workouts have a little more variety and control than walking or biking to the gym, and that short escalator ride is helping you get in the door, which can be the toughest part of a workout. Cars and escalators reduce the friction of getting in to do that variety of work, where you then “add friction” in specific ways to get a good workout.