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.

This started out as a post about the evils of meal-skipping, but I found myself writing about how we fool ourselves into less-than-ideal choices when in a food-deprived state. So I’ll use skipping meals as a vehicle for exploring a couple of these concepts.

Take this scenario: You have no time for breakfast and rush in to work with a cup of coffee. Around 11am you poke your nose into the conference room and see the leftover Krispy Kreme doughnuts from someone’s morning meeting. You snag a couple, noting that you didn’t have breakfast and won’t have time for lunch.

Work is stressful. Answering phone calls, replying to emails, writing reports. Barely time to go to the bathroom. You work late, alternating between coffee and soft drinks to keep you going. By 8pm  you’re starving, irritable and ready to bite someone’s head off. The last thing you can imagine — or have patience for — is cooking.

Instead of heading home, you swing by Outback Steakhouse, drawn in by the thought of a juicy burger. You order their bacon cheeseburger, but because you want to be “good”, you get the house salad with oil & vinegar as a side, instead of succumbing to the temptation of their Aussie fries. Top that off with a drink.

Here’s the ugly part: In two sittings, you’ve already consumed over 2000 calories just like that (surprise, the house salad does you no favors). It may seem unfair but the food industry works hard to make eating easy.

Two of the things that are influencing your actions:

1) Justification. You justify your food choices by figuring that because you’ve had fewer meals, you’ve “saved up” calories that can now be spent on crappy food. It doesn’t work that way. The food that you’re most likely to reach for when you’re starved has been engineered to be easily consumable for the sake of convenience, because we’re so bloody impatient. That means you’ll have eaten a lot more of it before your stomach signals to your brain that it’s full. Never a good thing.

Note: If you feel the need to use phrases like “I know this isn’t the healthiest, but…” and “I’m being bad, but…” then you are desperately searching for a justification for your choices. You know what you’re doing is unhealthy, but you’re doing it anyway. Do that enough, and you’ll be waking up wondering where those extra 40 pounds came from.

2) Perception. Maybe you think that the only things you ate all day were two doughnuts, a cheeseburger and a salad. Sounds rather innocuous when you put it that way. Also sounds like you’d come up calorie-deficient. The problem is that people are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to recalling how much they’ve eaten. Reality bites: those doughnuts range between 200-400 calories each and the burger and salad amount to just under an insane 1500 cals — “No rules, just wrong”! That doesn’t include the caloric cost of any drinks consumed along the way. And you refused the bread basket, right?

Note: Many people don’t really know what a healthy meal looks like. Meat & potatoes? A salad with light dressing? Our beliefs regarding proper food choices are based on many things, but least frequently science. Quite confusing and frustrating for someone who thinks they’re doing the right thing (skipping meals, perhaps) because it seems so logical, but ends up counterproductive.

The take-home message here is that when you stress your body by not feeding it regularly, you leave yourself vulnerable to slip-ups that may seem justified and innocent but do a disservice to you and your goals. The trick is to plan for times when you can’t stop for a full meal by making sure you have something available to pop in your mouth. Otherwise you’ll be at the mercy of your irrational appetite as your goals fade to a faint speck on the horizon.

Since I’m rushing about trying to clean our condo in anticipation of visitors, I have only a minute to jump in here and leave a few words of wisdom. As I survey my workload, I’m reminded of a nice analogy for weight maintenance:

Maintaining your weight (or working towards a fitness goal) is a daily process. You can’t put it on the back burner for a week/month/year and expect to see consistent progress. It’s not unlike, say, keeping a clean house (gee, see how nicely this ties in?). If you tidy everything up one day but then go several weeks without sorting through papers, doing laundry or scrubbing food off the kitchen stove, and actually add to the problem by letting things lie where they drop, you’re going to build up quite a mess. You may get so accustomed to seeing the disarray that you’ll be able to ignore it until you’re told someone’s visiting in two days. That’s when you realize that the place is a complete pigsty, and as you panic and try to accomplish in two days what should have been done regularly over a few weeks, you cry out, “How did this happen???”

Ah, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that uttered by a hapless soul who woke up one morning 40 pounds heavier than they were months ago. And yet, I find myself in a similar situation…(okay, in all honesty, my place isn’t THAT bad. Please tell my mom if she asks).

The bottom line is: when it’s time to take care of business, just shut up and take care of business. When you’re at that ‘decision point’ where you choose between vacuuming or reading a magazine (no, really, it’s a scientific JOURNAL),  or between exercising or watching TV…the decision you make can have significant repercussions. Yes, it does matter if you skip today, because tomorrow’s excuse may seem even more valid. If you don’t work towards your goals on a daily basis, weeks from now you may find yourself staring at a big, fat mess.

How would you live differently if you found that you had only a year to live? When asked that question, most people say they’d do all the things that they were afraid to do before, they’d try to live out their dreams, no holds barred.

Well, why is it that when our days are not numbered, when we actually have time to plan and achieve great things, we don’t? Commit to doing something extraordinary because you have a long life ahead of you to enjoy it, not because you’ll be gone soon.

Seriously. It’s pointless. This year, start training.

It may seem like I’m just arguing semantics, but how we phrase things affects how we view them. A workout is a finite activity, connected to nothing; it also doesn’t sound particularly appealing (“work”). When you train, you train for a purpose. In essence, training requires you to set a goal for yourself, and by now you’ve probably heard that goals are critical to achievement. If you don’t know where you’re going, if you haven’t defined your destination, you won’t know when you’ve reached it. If your goal is vague — say, “I want to lose weight” or “I want to get fit” — then you’re going to have a hard time staying motivated. Define what these things mean to you, write them out and hang your notes where you can review them on a daily basis, because your daily efforts will determine your long-term success.

And there’s another benefit to training. It puts your efforts into perspective. If you’re “working out” three days a week, and that means going for a walk, fine. You may be content that you’re exercising, but you get discouraged because you’re not seeing results.  Now, try calling your walk “training”. That begs the question, what are you training for? To be a better walker? To get more adept at putting one foot in front of the other without falling over? Suddenly, you realize that maybe you’re not getting anywhere because your training isn’t designed to get you anywhere. Time to rethink your strategy.

You’re putting in effort. Make it mean something.