Does your diet give you complete control over your nutrition and food choices? Does it put you in the driver seat, able to make changes, decisions and alterations when necessary? If the answer is no, then your current diet may very well be disempowering you and putting you at a disadvantage.
A “Disempowered” Diet is one that takes a lot of the decision-making control away from you. It might be a diet that says that you can eat as much as you want of a certain group or groups of foods, for example meats, cheeses, oils and green leafy vegetables, while completely eliminating other groups such as grains, fruits, starchy vegetables etc. The decision making has been taken out of the process. You’re told what you can and can’t eat, you don’t need to think anymore and for some people this works just fine. Yes, diets like this can genuinely work.
However, you don’t really learn anything. You might have a very general idea of why you can eat certain foods and why you can’t eat others but your knowledge of nutrition probably ends there. “A” is good and “B” is bad. End of story. Unfortunately, that means you’re not really in control of your own diet and it could even end up harming your health or at least your physique goals.
I got the idea to write this article from a video made by Martin MacDonald, a clinical performance nutritionist who I hold in very high esteem. His video was a bit of an impromptu rant about a very well known British “fitness and nutrition” personality who will remain unnamed. This personality is famous for giving very broad-sweeping recommendations about nutrition and exercise that Martin himself described as disempowering.
To give you an example; this particular guy is known to extol the virtues of coconut oil saying how it’s a “healthy” fat and how it can help you get leaner. Now, I’m a fan of coconut oil as a “replacement” for commercial vegetable oils when frying food because it is more stable at high temperatures. However, if you're trying to lose weight, adding extra fat to your diet is by no means going to get you leaner. Cutting total calories (or burning more with exercise) is the only way to do that. Recommending unlimited use of a high calorie fat-source is probably not going to help anyone lose weight.
Another good example might be diets that encourage, for example, foods such as avocados. Now, I love avocados (I believe guacamole is evidence that God wants everyone to be happy, even vegans) but encouraging someone who is trying to lose weight to eat a lot of avocados is counter productive. Avocados pack a caloric punch and if you eat too many you could easily end up gaining weight.
Context is Essential
I don’t give clients a list of “bad foods” or foods that they should eliminate. I want my clients to enjoy foods they enjoy within moderation because that helps them stick to their diet. Based on a clients individual circumstances (their calorie/macronutrient allowances/goals/food preferences/exercise levels etc.) they make up their own individual diet how they want it. Of course, I have them focus on mostly wholefood sources and make sure they are getting sufficient protein, fiber vitamins, minerals etc. and once those essentials are taken care of, they can enjoy other foods like ice-cream, pizza, biscuits or whatever they like... as long as they eat in a way that helps them achieve their goals.
On top of that I don’t tell my clients to eat “all the whole oats/quinoa/chicken breast that you want”. That could also lead to overeating, so that needs to be moderated too. It all depends on the context of a diet as a whole, no foods are unlimited*, but no foods are eliminated either.
*When working with clients who are just looking to lose weight and become healthier I do allow unlimited non-starchy vegetables because:
- They’re exceptionally low in calories
- They’re volume to calorie ratio (caloric density) is very low meaning over-consuming calories from them is not easy
The same can’t be said for calorically dense foods like coconut oil or quinoa
Knowledge is Power
I was very clear when I started out with nutritional coaching (and I still am) that one of my main goals when working with a client is to educate them about nutrition, so that when they finish with me, they would know enough to make their own decisions about their nutrition and food choices.
When you know how, nutrition/calories/macronutrients etc. work, you don’t need to rely on anyone else.
Knowing about nutrition empowers you to make your own decisions instead of following some cookie-cutter recommendations that may not be that appropriate for you.
When you are empowered by your diet:
- You can decide to replace a portion of brown rice with a similar portion of potatoes
- You can use smaller slices of bread and have a larger serving of guacamole instead
- You can replace a serving of sausages for a serving of chicken and maybe have a larger dessert
- You can increase or decrease your total calories as you monitor your progress, based on your goals
- You can enjoy some of your favorite chocolate when you know you can fit it into your daily calorie needs
- You can know that eating something that contains gluten isn't going going to sabotage your diet
None of these might be a possible if you follow a strict/restrictive plan that limits your knowledge of nutrition to lists of “Eat” and “Don’t Eat” foods.
Paleo, Keto, Glycemic Index and various other diets all help you lose weight by eliminating entire groups of calorie dense foods. They also limit your decision making power. You could still lose that weight without eliminating many of your favorite foods… it would just require a little more knowledge on your part.
Not Everyone wants an Empowered Diet
At the end of the day, some people genuinely just want to be told what to eat and that’s fine… if it’s good enough for them. I personally, don't want to work with people like that because I know that as soon as my time with them is done, they’ll probably fall back into their old habits.
Instead I want to work with people who want to learn (5 years as a high-school teacher has left it’s mark on me). Nothing gives me more joy than to see my clients thriving months and years after they finish their time with me, all because they can make their own decisions and take control of their diet and exercise. It's not quick and easy, it takes time and effort, but it's time very well spent. Read, study, learn from whatever sources you can get you hands on, take an evidence based course or hire a knowledgable coach who uses evidence-based approaches. Just do whatever you can to expand your own nutritional knowledge.
Both ways of dieting can work but only one really puts you in charge of your diet. Whichever one you choose is completely up to you but at the end of the day, remember... Knowledge is Power.
Eat well folks.
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