Start Where You Are: Choosing Strategies Wisely
Intermittent fasting is a topic that comes up frequently in my online groups, as it’s a topic that makes “health news” and seems like an appealing alternative to traditional dieting. I often find myself fielding questions about it, and sometimes people are surprised that – as much as I oppose fad diets and discourage clients from getting blown around by trends – I do endorse the use of intermittent fasting for some of my (qualified) clients.
In fact, a conversation about intermittent fasting recently came up circuitously through a discussion about breakfast in my closed Facebook group, Habits First (which you can join for free!). One of my members, who runs a diabetes program for a community health agency, made an important point about the risks of fad diets like intermittent fasting. “Only 11.6% of pre-diabetics know they have it,” she commented, “so I’m concerned that people with undiagnosed pre-diabetes might try this kind of program with detrimental results.”
But, honestly, you could take out the phrase “intermittent fasting” and fill in the blank with any kind of counter-cultural diet that carries health risks for specific populations. What about people with high cholesterol trying the ketogenic diet, for example?
As I commented before, I don’t endorse these kinds of diets for all of my clients. So who should try more advanced strategies?
As a former New Jersey Transit commuter who rode the train into the city, this conversation brought to mind the idea of “stops.” I rode Jersey Coastline train all the way from Bay Head to NY Penn Station when I first moved to New Jersey, and it was agonizingly long commute at 2+ hours one way. I work from home now (hallelujah), but I still remember the call of “Next stop!” that came every 10 minutes or so. We crawled from Bay Head to Point Pleasant Beach to Manasquan and onward, and I couldn’t teleport myself further down the line no matter how much I wanted to.
I had to take the whole trip.
When you are considering which strategies you want to use to improve your health or accomplish your fitness/physique goals, it is essential to start where you are.
When I was at the Bay Head stop, I was in Bay Head, no matter how much I wished I were in Long Branch or Red Bank. My starting point was my starting point. Obviously, if I had started in Red Bank instead of Bay Head, my commute to the city would have been cut in half, but I couldn’t control that.
If you are inactive/sedentary, you cannot wish yourself into being a marathon runner. If you lace up your sneakers and try a 5-mile run on Day 1, your body will not let you forget about it for awhile, because your “first stop” is probably walking or an easy run-walk-run program. Similarly, when it comes to dieting or improving eating habits, the first stop is probably cooking healthy recipes and learning to food journal, not jumping into intermittent fasting strategies.
Which strategies you use depend largely upon where you are starting, and your prior experience (and level of skill) with managing your food and exercise habits.
For convenience, I’ve created this rubric to help you decide what strategies would be best for you to pursue. While obviously there could be unevenness in your self-assessment (i.e. your exercise habits may be more on point than your food habits), this should help you decide which “stop” you’re heading toward.
I would consider you a “beginner” if you were:
- Sedentary or very inconsistent/infrequent with exercise (i.e. you don’t exercise at all, or once a week or less)
- Not planning food (i.e. you eat whatever is around and don’t take a proactive role in grocery shopping or weekly menu design)
- Not food journaling or otherwise keeping track of your intake
Even though the basics can seem like a lot of work (more on this later), it is incredibly beneficial for beginners to focus mostly on:
- Cooking more at home and packing more snacks and lunches from home
- Planning food intake, even if not tracked
- Eating more fruits and veggies and fiber
- Developing regular active hobbies like walking or biking or tennis
- Exercising portion control skills and strategies, like splitting meals and using measuring cups
- Grazing less
Much like the concept of the “stops” on the train, once you reach these first few stops, you don’t need to go any further. It’s perfectly okay for your destination to only be a few stop away, instead of fifteen. These are the foundational habits of a healthy lifestyle, and can be maintained indefinitely with wonderful results.
I would consider you “intermediate” if you are:
- Regularly somewhat active, but not consistent
- Cooking frequently but not keeping track of anything
- Demonstrating good “food competency skills” like eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and fiber
- Feeling good about most of your food choices
- Wanting to take your fitness or physique to the next level
Many of my clients come to me at this stage. Because you’ve already mastered the basics, it’s easy for you to dial in a few more advanced strategies, especially if you have some help and accountability. If you want more exceptional results, maybe it’s time to take a look at the next few stops:
- Implementing strategies to reduce “junk” and sugar even more
- Food journaling to calculate calories and macros for goals
- Meal timing to enhance food satisfaction and athletic recovery
- More focused strength training in addition to active hobbies
- Dabbling in select advanced strategies, like intermittent fasting, macro manipulation, and higher-intensity workouts
Again, for many clients, this is where the train naturally stops, because it’s easy to maintain these “extra” habits on top of the basics, especially if the more advanced strategies are used selectively. For most people who have non-fitness-related jobs, relationships, and families, these strategies occupy plenty of bandwidth and it would be challenging to add more focus.
I would consider you “advanced” if a huge part of your lifestyle, even temporarily, is able to be structured around your health and fitness, and you are:
- Consistently exercising (i.e. progressing in your sport in a focused way) at a high level of intensity and performance
- Already using strategies like food journaling, calorie counting, and macro tracking
- Medically healthy
- Eating well and feeling good about your food decisions
Maybe you’re a personal trainer or a model who needs to maintain a certain physique appearance, an athlete who needs to maintain a specific weight or level performance for events, or perhaps you’re getting married or otherwise getting ready for a photoshoot where you want to go from lean to leaner.
I have a handful of clients who fit this category every once in awhile, and they’re often bridal clients, or – in all honesty – young, single people who may be busy with work but are otherwise at loose ends in the evenings. It takes a significant amount of energy investment to be this committed to your fitness and physique, and it’s not for everyone. I don’t even fit in this category most of the time. These are the last stops on the train, and they’re not for beginners, or even for people whose energy is already diffused by life’s obligations.
But if you are at these final stops and want to get fitter/leaner/faster than you already are and have the bandwidth to do so, it’s an option to dial in the strategies that could push you into new territory:
- Carefully planned high-intensity workouts to mix up your routine
- Advanced nutritional strategies like carb/water manipulation, re-feeding, and/or fasting
- Advanced supplementation
What Strategies Are Right for You?
There are four important questions to ask yourself, when deciding which strategies are right for you:
Am I medically healthy?
This is an important question that is often overlooked. Regardless of your weight, are your triglycerides, blood sugars, and blood pressure in the healthy range? Have you had a check-up lately? Do you have any alarming symptoms like faintness, shortness of breath, or chest pain? These are all red flags that you should be under the care of a medical professional.
What am I already doing really, really well?
This is a key question to help you decipher your starting point. Are you already cooking at home? Food journaling? Eating paleo? Skipping sugar? Eating regular meals? Packing lunch? Are you good at maintaining the things you already do, or are you inconsistent? This will help you figure out whether a more advanced strategy is right for you.
What is my goal?
Often, fad diets are presented as a cure-all for anything that ails you. “Want to stabilize your blood sugar? Try intermittent fasting! Want to lose weight? Try intermittent fasting! Want to get shredded? Try intermittent fasting! Want to curb your sugar cravings? Try intermittent fasting!”
The reality is that losing the first 50 pounds is a different goal than losing the “last five pounds.” Some strategies will be more important than others.
Realistically, what portion of my time and energy can I dedicate to this?
Many people are skipping to these end-game strategies like intermittent fasting in hopes that it will be save time, assuming that it is easier to simply skip meals than it would be to learn to keep a food journal or cook at home or eat intuitively. While these “easier” strategies take more up-front work to master (because, yes, it is easier to skip breakfast or avoid carbs than it is to log your food or pack lunch), the payoff of learning these strategies is that they become easier to maintain over time, and are more flexible for holidays, travel, and special events.
Remember, in the long run, it’s more likely that basic habits will take up less bandwidth than advanced strategies. They’re worth it.
Want to talk about what you’re working on? Join my closed Facebook group, Habits First!