In my experience working with people to improve their nutrition for more than 15 years, I’ve noticed a few patterns. I’ll share an interesting one with you today and hopefully shed some light on why trying to eat right may frustrate you.
Let’s say we have a room of 100 people. Based on my experience, of that 100, about 25 will be well adjusted eaters, who have good portion control and a healthy relationship with food. These people don’t have too much trouble tightening up their diet when they feel they’ve put on some fat, and have quick results when they clean up their meals and exercise.
If this sounds like you, congratulations, you’re an inspiration to the rest of us! You should be thankful for whatever combination of psychology and genetics that has put you in such a healthy place, and make the most of it by training hard and living your best life.
Of the remaining 75 people in the room, a full 60 will be what I think of as “bear” types. This is the kind of person who derives a lot of pleasure from food, loves eating for the sake of eating, and doesn’t want to stop until they feel full. Just as a bear loves honey, berries, or salmon, bear type eaters aren’t too picky and find joy in all kinds of food.
Not surprisingly, bear types tend to add extra body fat easily and are most often looking to lose weight when it comes time to get fit.
This leaves us with the last 15 out of 100. I think of these as the “sparrow” types. These people tend to not have a strong attachment to food as a source of pleasure.
They often describe eating as a chore which they begrudgingly complete when they’d rather be doing something else. Like a sparrow, they eat small portions, often in the form of snack foods over full meals. They rarely eat until the point of feeling stuffed, and can run on an empty stomach longer than most. Sparrows tend to be a bit more picky with their food choices and have a short list of favorite meals which they return to often.
When a sparrow type person is looking to get fit, they’re more interested in gaining strength and tone, and often are actively hoping to put weight on.
The trouble with a lot of nutrition advice is that it tries to make bears eat like sparrows and sparrows eat like bears.
You need to control your portions,
eat smaller meals and have lots of light snacks throughout the day!
You need to knuckle down and eat bigger meals!
Don’t go more than a few hours without eating something!
On paper this advice makes sense. But it makes the same sense that telling someone the best way to lose fat is to run a marathon every morning. The calories in and out might add up, but the advice doesn’t stand up to real world application. Bears have a really hard time eating like sparrows, and sparrows have a really hard time eating like bears.
For a bear or sparrow looking to make general improvements to their nutrition, a smarter move is to not fight their natural inclinations. Let bears be bears and sparrows be sparrows, but make smarter choices throughout the day. This is eating smarter, not harder!
For a bear-type, food is about much more than meeting the caloric needs of the body. It’s about the experience of eating, the flavors, sensations, emotions and memories of the meal in question. When a bear forgoes their usual food for something like a salad, they really feel the pain of that substitution at an emotional level. It hurts.
A bear can hang in for a while, but with each unsatisfying meal willpower is eroded and eventually the dam breaks and poor food choices come flooding back in.
There’s a smarter way to tackle this problem. You do it with volume eating!!
Volume eating means that instead of focusing on smaller portions, you focus on foods which allow you to eat larger portions at the same or less caloric load than your usual food choices. It turns out that a big part of satisfying a bear-type is giving them the ability to bite, chew, swallow and feel the pleasant warmth of a full belly. With volume eating, it’s possible to give that biofeedback without overwhelming the body with excess caloric load.
The magic food here is vegetables.
Vegetables are incredible. They’re always 80-90% water, and what’s left is full of fiber and nutrients. And when prepared correctly, vegetables have enough flavor to pass the sniff test and make a bear happy.
If you’re looking to feel full but not gain fat, then the majority of your plate needs to be vegetables, not just once in a while, but every single meal. This doesn’t mean salad. All vegetables are ok and will get the job done, including carby vegetables like potatoes and yams which get such a bad rap.
In between big vegetable-based meals, if a bear is craving something to chew on, fruit is the best option. Like vegetables, fruit is mostly water and fiber, and has the advantage of not needing to be cooked or prepped to be palatable.
If a bear is creating food volume with fruit and vegetables rather than carbs and protein, they’re on the right track to be happy eating while losing fat.
The sparrow’s main problem is that they don’t eat quite enough each day to make their exercise turn into healthy muscle tissue. Their natural inclination is to eat barely enough to maintain their current mass, and on days when they’re busy or stressed they undershoot this target and end up losing progress. This becomes even more trouble as sparrows age and find that even though they still look slim, each year their body composition has shifted away from muscle and towards fat.
Instead of trying to eat big voluminous meals like a bear, sparrows need to focus on caloric density, packing in as many useful calories into the smaller portions they prefer.
Caloric density is tricky, because modern processed food techniques have made it possible to have incredibly high caloric density that consists mostly of sugar and fat. A 40 gram candy bar, for example, will have 12 grams of sugar and 13 grams of fat, coming out to 200 calories. If a sparrow tries to gain mass with a food like this, it leaves them undernourished and tending towards a skinny-fat body -— weak and easily exhausted.
The sparrow’s challenge is to find clean caloric density that’s not based on concentrated fat and sugar.
Foods that fit this bill include:
- Lean proteins, especially those high in dietary fat like fish and other seafood.
- Nuts and seeds, along with clean nut butters.
- Yogurt and cottage cheese.
- Eggs and egg whites.
Of course, a sparrow also needs carbs, fruit and vegetables in the mix. When possible, they should choose items that have higher density than average. Carbs that have higher than average caloric density include rice, oats, and dense whole grain bread.
Vegetables that work well are sweet potatoes, carrots, and the entire root vegetable family in general. Avocados are also a good source of fat and calories in a dense package. For fruit, bananas, melon, mangos, figs and dates all have good clean caloric density.
If a sparrow-type eater swaps their normal food choices for these types of foods, they’ll find fewer days where they miss their caloric needs
Another way to take this advice is to take the inverse case about what not to do.
Bears, when you want to have a nice big meal, don’t fill it with calorically dense foods, you’ll be on-boarding way more calories than you can possibly exercise off!
Sparrows, when you’re feeling peckish, don’t satiate your appetite on low calorie snacks like vegetables or fresh fruit. Try to get something more substantial in your system to give you more bang for your buck. This is especially important for sparrows to hear because so much diet advice goes against this trend. Most people need to snack on light, watery, high fiber foods. You rare 15% have different needs.
If you’ve struggled with diet advice which doesn’t match your natural eating style, give some of these changes a try. You’ll find good results come when you work with the grain of your body rather than against it!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder