I have loved cardio, sports, and training from a young age. I have carried this passion into my early 20s, but at the same time I had also put on some pesky extra kgs. Because of this, I decided to do an Ironman several years ago. The appeal was the obvious challenge (and boy was it..), but alongside this, I THOUGHT the crazy training might help me lose a few pounds. Interestingly, I did NOT shift any weight (and no, it wasn’t muscle either)!
Despite doing 100s of miles swimming, running and cycling every week for 6 months, I could not shift the 6-8kg that I’d put on in my 20s.
And here lies my personal insight into my nutrition mistakes that led me to gaining and holding those extra kilos for several years.
Nutrition mistake 1: Not understanding portion control
I thought that because I was doing more exercise than usual that I could eat as much as I wanted. In essence, I was trying to ‘outtrain my diet.’ And if anything, this was not fueling me properly. I felt heavy and uncomfortable throughout my training journey. My nutrition was FLAWED and it was only through more education in this ‘in my field’ as well as putting this into practice did I see where I was going wrong! This leads me nicely into my next point.
**When you want to train like an athlete, you have to eat like one!**
There have been times in the past where I have dabbled in tracking my food…and it’s worked, and then I get cocky and think I can go forever without my tracking tools. For those of you that can eat intuitively and maintain the health you want, I salute you. I struggle, I forget/kid myself when it comes to portions. I cannot differentiate between the 15g/tablespoon serving of peanut butter and MY ‘tablespoon’ serving of peanut butter, which is about 5 times that, and about 500-600 calories on top of my normal food plan. Similarly, I eat cooked oats most days and I still cannot eyeball a 50g raw serving of oats.
Apparently I am not the only one! People are notoriously bad at keeping track of how much they eat. One famous study found that people trying to lose weight only thought they were eating about half as much as they actually were. So for this reason, there are two tools that I like to use:
-Digital scales to weigh my foods
–MyFitnessPal which helps me gauge how far away I am from my nutrition target
*One thing I need to say is… Tracking is not life forever! But for me, portions would inevitably get larger and larger over time if left to my own devices for too long. For some people that’s okay to do, but for me, I would gain weight and that is not in line with my goals. So every now and then I need to ‘check in with myself’ to just regauge what the appropriate serving is for me.
Nutrition mistake 2: Not knowing what a macronutrient was.
You may have heard it mentioned in terms of calculating or tracking macros, but what actually are macronutrients?
Your body needs macronutrients in larger amounts in order to function properly, this is where the name comes from! Macro means large. In addition, all of these nutrients provide your body with energy measured in the form of calories or kcals. There are three types of macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
- Fats contain 9 kcal per gram (this is roughly double the amount found in the other two macros)
- Proteins contain 4 kcal per gram
- Carbohydrates contain 4 kcal per gram
In simple terms, this means that a food which contains 10 grams of fat, 30 grams of protein and 40 grams of carbs will have 390 kcals, as worked out like so:
10×9= 90 kcal.
Along with energy, all of these macronutrients have specific roles in your body that allow you to function properly. However, the ins and outs of carbohydrates, proteins and fats are beyond the scope of this blog post for now.
I found that using a tracking app helped me understand these complexities better. One of the main things that I discovered in doing so was that although I ate healthy food…vegetables, nuts, avocados, fruits, meat, the lot… I was probably still eating a lot more calories than I should have been. And for me, by tracking my food, it helped me to realise that my calorie surplus was largely coming from fats. Fats are great, fats are healthy, fats are critical for hormone production, cell membranes, skin moisture and for fighting free radicals. But as shown above fats are calorie dense. And as I was roughly 10kgs overweight, this was where I needed to pay more attention. By tweaking the grams of fats that I was having each day.
3: Not understanding how to use MyFitnessPal.
But what if you don’t know how to use MyFitnessPal (technophobe?!) or don’t know how to input the correct food?
First of all, MyFitnessPal is great as you can scan your foods. If there is a barcode on whatever you bought, scan it and the calories and macronutrients will pop up. You can then adjust your serving size. These are accurate most of the time!
What if you are buying things that don’t have a barcode or MFP doesn’t recognise the barcode….When it comes to tracking, the single most important thing is to do is to do it CONSISTENTLY.
For example, in the past I did not understand the difference in macros and calories between different cuts of steak (sirloin vs ribeye vs rump etc). So if one night I had ribeye and another night, rump, little did I know that the ribeye had considerably more calories, largely from fat than the rump did.
But this means that it shouldn’t matter which entry in MyFitnessPal you use for your steak, as long as you use the same one every single time you have that SAME steak. This is so that if plateaus occur you can tweak the nutrition accordingly.
How can you ensure accuracy with your food?
My best tip if you are trying to track your food is to always use food weight (digital scales) over volume. Volume measures are okay for liquids, but given that most food is a solid, you’re going to be better off with weight. The bottom line is that weight doesn’t lie. You don’t have to guess what something looks like. You just weigh what it actually is.
4: Not understanding hormones that affect appetite.
With regard to ‘eating intuitively.’ In theory, this is the dream and it sounds like such an easy alternative… But in my opinion, this concept is still quite unhelpful for a lot of people struggling with their nutrition, including myself! This is due to two hormones that regulate our appetite, these are Leptin and Ghrelin. Below I will give a bit of insight into these two:
Leptin is a hormone produced by fat cells that signals satiety (that feeling of being full). So you guessed it, the more body fat we have the higher our leptin levels and greater our feelings of satiety/fullness. The lower our body fat stores, so too are our leptin levels, so we tend to be hungrier.
But you might ask why do some underweight people not feel hunger? Some people might not have reliable hunger or fullness signals and therefore, cannot rely on intuitive eating. Research shows that leptin levels in anorexic women are significantly higher than women who had low weights for other reasons. They have a blunted leptin response which explains why people with eating disorders can continue to go without food for long periods of time, as their body does not give them the hunger pang that happens in others. They are hungry, yes, but not as hungry as they should be. (Frederich et al., 2002). Key takeaway: Your body needs energy and nourishment, whether or not you can sense it.
On the other end, you might question WHY if leptin is secreted by fat cells, and helps satiety…why do overweight people still struggle with feelings of hunger!?
Two words…leptin resistance.
Most people have heard of insulin resistance (common in type 2 Diabetics). Using that same logic, leptin resistance is a similar concept. Too much of a good thing can make us DESENSITISED. High levels of leptin (caused by high fat levels) can blunt the cell receptors and signals to the brain. So, although high levels of leptin are present, the brain can’t sense this. In fact, the opposite message is getting through, the brain senses a lower leptin level than is actually present and interprets this as fat stores running low, stimulating appetite… queue… more food….
This is the second hormone that might also impair eating intuitively. Ghrelin is the hormone that triggers hunger, and it can be secreted depending on the types of foods that people eat. Foods that contain high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) include sugary, processed foods such as sodas, sweets, certain yoghurts, fruit juices, the list goes on. These are more likely to affect appetite control and increase ghrelin levels. They will also decrease the activation of brain satiety centers. In Layman’s terms, processed foods cause us to desire EVEN MORE processed foods when we do not need them.
Interestingly, the food and beverage industry knows this and uses it against us, and towards their advantage. In the 1960s and 1970s, HFCS was introduced to improve the stability and functionality of various foods and beverages. It was also relatively inexpensive to produce which has made it possible for it to become a viable alternative to sucrose and other natural sugars in a very short time.
Because of these pesky hormones, this is exactly why tracking your food consumption can be a good starting point. It might help you understand nutrition on a more top level, and how calorie awareness can get you to your goals . The next step after comprehending calorie consumption, would be understanding the type and quality of your foods. More specifically, what macronutrients make up the food that you eat, think proteins, carbohydrates and fats.
5. My BIGGEST nutrition mistake YET.
Fortunately, I’ve not really been a serial yo-yo dieter but it is still one of the most common things that I see in the health and fitness industry as a coach. More worryingly, is the after effect of it, largely amongst women. Clients will often train and ‘diet’ for a specific date (birthday, wedding, whatever it might be!) and they often starve themselves to dizzying heights to get to these goals.
There is growing evidence that repeated weight loss and then weight regain (weight cycling or yo-yo dieting) is detrimental to future fat loss. A study from Korea has shown that people who have frequently dieted lose less fat, and more muscle, when dieting again compared with non yo-yo dieters.
And this is where 90% of the fitness and dieting industry is failing you. There is not enough consideration for after the goal is met. You probably don’t know this but your average personal trainer is better trained at exercise execution than the mindset behind a long lasting lifestyle change.
And this is the BIG ONE…
**I have been guilty of training clients to SOLELY meet their end goal**
As a new personal trainer working in the transformation biz, I thought I was helping people reach their goals. But then, inevitably, people come to the end of their training package and think the knowledge for sustainable fat loss and maintenance has been acquired. When it has not. More importantly, I had not realised the importance of Phase 2, AKA the ‘maintenance phase.’ Without this, the client inevitably, regains their weight. It is only after learning from this experience and doing more nutrition and mindset training courses that I have realised that there is a difference between what people WANT and what people NEED.
So the take home point is that your next ‘fat loss’ purchase should not be another ‘quick fix.’ I recommend asking yourself if it is something that you can sustain and commit to. That is exactly what phase 2 should be about.
Do you want more fat loss tips? Check out “5 reasons why you are not losing fat“.
Kay Parker, et al. (2010). High fructose corn syrup: Production, uses and public health concerns. Biotechnology and Molecular Biology Review Vol. 5(5) 71–78.
Katrien Lowette, et al. (2015). Effects of High-Fructose Diets on Central Appetite Signaling and Cognitive Function. Front Nutr. 2(5)