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Coaching Nutrition

England’s National Food Strategy… Really?

I have been following today’s news agenda around obesity and food with some interest… but also with my head in my hands in mild despair. Whilst I appreciate the intentions are well meaning, yet again the Government and it’s trusty advisors are missing the point and going about this in a hopelessly ineffective way. Castigating certain types of food, considering a punitive tax regime and creating a “culture” based on restriction which is doomed to fail at every level. But there is a clear need to facilitate obese people losing weight. And it is also apparent that the approach taken by the current “health & fitness” sector is failing miserably and has been for, probably, decades. So what’s to be done?

Perhaps this is about the facilitation of a process leading to sustainable behavioural change. This is absolutely NOT about any form of restrictive “diet”. Also there must be far more recognition that the only person that will make the change is the obese person themselves. Everyone else can support, facilitate and assist. But not TELL, CASTIGATE or try to ENFORCE. Contrary to “Personal Trainer” thinking, the only person an Obese person is accountable to is themselves… not a slim 20 something PT (grrrrr!). There has to be a better way. Here are three simple steps that seem to be missing from the current misguided ramblings:

1) Stop using toxic phrases like “healthy”. It is not helpful and it is not even that accurate when describing food (fuel). Sugar (the villain of the peace today and the next taxation cash cow) is not inherently bad for you, which is the implication of it being labeled as “unhealthy”. It becomes a problem when it is consumed to excess. Which of course is true of absolutely anything. Using better vocabulary is so important if we are to influence the behaviour of people. Certainly using phraseology that alienates someone and is meaningless to them (as well as being a message they have heard and discounted 1000 times)  is highly unlikely to build rapport and encourage a change in habits. “Healthy” resonates with the slim person that exercises regularly and has built an active lifestyle that they enjoy. I may have missed the point, but I am pretty sure that these are not the people that are being targeted. Step one, really simple, sort out the vocabulary we use when discussing food. 

2) Stop positioning any fuel (food) as a “treat” and CERTAINLY move away from even hinting that some foods should be prescribed by Doctors!! The former is a long standing failure of the health and fitness industry, where as the latter is a whole new failure (should it be adopted). Think about the stupidity of this; A treat is often a reward and emotionally something we “strive” for  and is associated with a feelings of happiness. In a world where these “treats” are readily available it is not rocket science to realise that people will start to use “treats” as a way to lift their mood and feel happy. Worse, some people set food up as a reward. I run. It drives me crazy every time I finish a run with people and we go for a coffee and they proclaim that they will “have a cake as they EARNED it”… You ABSOLUTELY did not EARN it!! By all means if you want a cake eat one – but PLEASE don’t start to equate any type of food as a reward. More important, please don’t feel that you need to feel guilty about eating and then using “legitimising” words like I earned it.

How often do you look forward to that yummy, lip smacking tasty medicine that the Doctor prescribes for you? WHAT? Not even once??? Me neither… So the idea of categorising food groups that we would like people to consume more of as “prescription medicine” is the most ludicrous idea I have heard in a while. 

Step two requires a smidgen of thought (but not much), think a little about the psychological contracts that you set up when you talk about “treats”, “rewards”, “earning” and “prescription”. If you mastered step one you will be in a great position to tackle step two.

3) Start facilitating through appropriate, useable, information. OK, so in steps one and two I urged you to STOP doing things, if you managed that then you are probably now not seen as the enemy of the obese and MAY be in a position to offer simple information that facilitates change. IF ASKED. My experience is that quite often people either have no idea or the wrong idea when it comes to diet. Even that one word “diet” is understood to mean a restrictive eating regime, when actually it just means the food you eat (even SUGAR). A great starting point for many people is to understand what they are eating. Dump references to a “little” of this or a “small” amount of that. Understand that any food can be weighed and will have a specific calorific value for a given quantiy. It will also have a nutritional make up. So what we *actually* need to know is how many calories and what was the nutritional composition. What the actual food was is less interesting and some anecdotal reference to a meaningless portion size is completely irrelevant. This all sounds harder than it really is. In practice this level of understanding can be quite easily facilitated. 

Remember the “runners” that were busy “rewarding” themselves with CAKE? What are they doing (other than lying to themselves, trying to deal with self imposed guilt and winding up obese people)? They are possibly eating something sugary because their bodies are craving it in order to start to replace the glycogen they have just depleted from their muscles. No issue with that at all. So long as they actually DID deplete their muscle glycogen, or in other words exercised quite hard. How do you measure hard? Well for a cardiovascular exercise an estimate of calories expended will do. Now here is the AMAZING thing (brace yourself) if you are a new / novice runner (or indeed new to exercise) you will not be burning anything like the calories you might think you are. Worse, that piece of cake has MANY, MANY, times more calories than you think. Net result is you have (probably again) just consumed more calories than you have expended… And that way my friends, lies obesity and further weight gain.

So step three is super simple, help by empowering through knowledge. You are not EVER going to cause someone to lose weight, the only person that will do that is themselves. What you can do is facilitate the process by providing actionable information. But they need to choose to action it. 

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Ed Stivala

Coach & Founder

Founder BitFitter, an innovative easy to use Training App. 
L3 Personal Trainer, British Cycling Coach, England Athletic Run Coach & Swim England L2 Instructor
When not Coaching, he competes in Duathlon and plays golf very badly!

Can you see my issue with the current round of misguided “food health” advice? Why taxing sugar is only helpful to the treasury? And why we are (once again) starting in COMPLETELY the wrong place let alone answering the right question.