I don’t always agree with what journalist Gary Taubes (author, Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat) writes, but he hits the nail on the head in the following NYT opinion piece, in which he maintains that, in spite of hundreds of thousands of research studies, we really don’t know all that much about nutrition.

“Why Nutrition Is So Confusing”

I concur.

Some people struggle with an issue, work to overcome it, and in the process decide to explore its origins. It’s not unusual to hear of someone citing a personal event that inspired them to choose a particular profession. We all know people like that.

I’m not one of them. As a matter of fact, maybe I’m a touch oblivious at times, but it wasn’t until I became an adult that it hit me that most of the people with whom I came in contact did not think the same way I did.

What am I talking about?

At the risk of dating myself, I remember watching an episode of Happy Days (remember that show?) in which Joanie (the teenage daughter in the series’ central family) was dumped by her boyfriend, or dumped him, or some teen-angst-ridden combination of the two. At the end of the episode, her mother brought her a jar of crunchy peanut butter and a spoon, and Joanie proceeded to consume the entire thing. Or at least we assumed that she ate all of it, as foreshadowed by an earlier comment by her mom that she herself had eaten a jar of PB after a similar breakup of hers when she was the same age.

I will never forget that episode, mainly because the notion of eating during a time of sadness or high stress (or excitement, for that matter) was completely foreign to me. Why would someone address their emotional pain with food?

Another incident, also in my teens, totally bowled me over. I remember being at high school, in a roomful of girls. I don’t know how the topic turned to food, but one girl mentioned how she would have loved to have Cheryl Tiegs’ body (supermodel from the ’80s) just so that she could ruin it by eating. Another wistfully admitted that it was a fantasy of hers to be able to just eat and eat and eat.

I so did not get it. While I’d gone through my own weight-related ups and downs as a teen, I never thought of food as anything other than fuel. Some foods I liked, others I didn’t. But when I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t hungry. When I was, I ate.

There is a saying, “If hunger isn’t the problem, food isn’t the solution.” It makes perfect sense to me. What I discovered, however, was that so many people I knew where using food to try to solve problems that had nothing to do with hunger. That method inevitably backfires. When I realized that, within a circle of friends and acquaintances, I was the exception and not the norm, I began asking why.

That’s when I realized that there weren’t many others interested in the same question. As a stay-at-home-mom, I used some of my “free” (ha!) time to become certified as a personal trainer through the American College of Sports Medicine. While it was never my intention to work exclusively in that capacity, I did consider it as a possibility. After all, wasn’t I the perfect candidate? My weight wasn’t an issue; I enjoyed exercising and eating a healthy, whole foods diet; I’d sailed through two pregnancies with a textbook-perfect weight gain that was lost smoothly; and I wanted to spread the word that all you needed to do to get the body of your dreams was (1) eat less, and (2) move more.

IfYouDon'tSucceedTryTrainer

Well, maaaaaybe…or maybe not…

Well, no. I wasn’t the perfect trainer. As a matter of fact, I was probably the worst candidate imaginable.

It became obvious to me rather quickly that l had no idea what it was like to deal with a chronic overweight condition. I didn’t know what cravings were. I didn’t understand how difficult it could be for someone to resist certain foods, or how they might feel ‘hunger’ when their bodies weren’t lacking calories. I couldn’t appreciate why starting and sticking to an exercise regimen could be so tough. And I didn’t get what a powerful effect societal bias could exert against overweight individuals.

What’s more, I wasn’t the only personal trainer who could be so clueless. After sitting in on numerous online and in-person conversations, it dawned on me that those people most drawn to this relatively-young profession — youthful, unattached, athletic, healthy, etc. — were those least likely to be able to relate to their clients.

Educated as a psychologist, I expected that there was more going on behind the scenes than simply recalcitrant clients refusing to follow their trainers’ directions. This set me on the path to explore the “other” components that contributed to weight gain and avoidance of exercise.

And that’s what this blog is all about. 🙂

I’ve taken time off this blog to consider whether what I preach still aligns with the current findings supported by the latest studies. And increasingly, I’ve found that there’s a dearth of research focused on the matters that concern me most. While research must necessarily explore nutrition and exercise science, I feel that the “best” (if such a thing exists) program will be useless unless the individual attempting to implement it is prepared to accept it.

What I’ve read continues to affirm my belief that successfully reducing high levels of overweight in this country will come not from pushing dietary restrictions and creating exercise programs, such as have lead to a billion-dollar fitness and weight loss industry. It will come from developing a greater understanding of what the forces acting on modern-day humans are that make them hold on to the behaviors that contribute to the gain and maintenance of excess body fat.

And that’s not something you can market via late-night infomercials.

Do you really know what you want? Do you know what steps you need to take to get it? If not, you’re going to be at greater risk of being swayed from your goals. What happens at the point when we’re faced with a decision whether or not to engage in a behavior that may or may not be detrimental to our goals? Our actions will depend in large part on how meaningful our goals are and how attractive the other option is. In a way, it’s a balance of those two factors. Knowing exactly what you want will help sway things in your favor and keep you moving towards where you want to be.

If most people have an opportunity to (1) eat a doughnut or (2) abstain in favor of their fitness goals, which one will win out?

Eat like Homer, look like Homer. (www.sfgate.com)

My money’s on the doughnut, and here’s why: most people don’t have a truly clear idea of what they want as far as fat loss goes. They want to lose pounds or “get into shape”. Some just want to “look good”. What do all of those mean? They’re very fuzzy goals, and as a result, achieving them will be difficult. How will you know you’ve reached the point where you’re “in shape”? What if you think you “look good” but then pass a mirror or see yourself in a photo and realize that you don’t look as good as the person next to you? What if you still “feel fat”? All these things make it hard to claim success…

And that’s why the doughnut is such a formidable opponent. In contrast to the uncertainties of fat loss, you know what you’ll get with the doughnut. The melt-in-your-mouth sweetness, the sugar rush…the desire for more. Those pounds you want to lose are so far away. The doughnut is here and immediate. It’s tangible. You can practically taste it.

Add to that, it’s easy to justify eating the doughnut, right? How much of a difference will one doughnut really make?

All of this is why it’s important to not only have clearly defined goals for fat loss, but also an understanding of the day-to-day steps you need to take to get there. Success is determined by your daily efforts. Your daily efforts are determined by your long-range goals.

When you know specifically where you want to go, and are aware of what you need to do every day, resisting temptation becomes easier. When the sun sets every evening, you can claim victory for another day, and the resulting changes to your body become your reward.

Many people seem to be confused by the interplay of nutrition and exercise in the context of weight maintenance and fat loss. It’s really not that complicated, although it’s critical that you understand how one will affect the other…and how they do that is not unlike, say, driving a car with a manual transmission.

This analogy will be more effective if you already know how to drive a stick-shift, but even if you don’t, bear with me. Imagine you’re in the car: if you hold down the clutch pedal, even if you floor the gas, you’re not going to go anywhere. In essence, the clutch mediates the effect of the gas. Until you begin releasing the clutch, the gears won’t catch and the wheels won’t turn. Now, think of exercise output as being the gas pedal and nutritional intake as the clutch. You can train your butt off, but if you don’t watch your diet, you won’t make progress. That’s not to say that your exercise efforts will be for naught, but if your goal is to shed fat, it ain’t gonna happen. Your food intake will, in effect, mediate the fat-loss effects of your workout.

That’s why it’s commonly said that you can’t out-exercise a poor diet. And that’s why it’s also true that you should never fool yourself into thinking you can eat anything and everything you want just because you workout out on a given day. You can consume far more calories in a sitting than you can easily burn off during a training session, and as a result you’ll end up, pardon the pun, spinning your wheels.

So when someone tells me that they’re working out hard but it’s not making a difference in their fat stores, one of the first things I do is ask then to show me their food log. Don’t have a food log? Well, that’s the place to start. Because unless you’re paying attention to both the intake and output sides of the equation — manipulating both pedals to drive — you’re probably not going to get very far.