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“If you’re tired of starting over, stop giving up.”

This often-repeated phrase tends to resonate with those of us who have chased after a health and fitness goal, gone through a phase of dedication and action to achieve it, and then found ourselves back to our previous comfortable and familiar habits — and back to square one. With a burst of motivation or a deadline, almost anyone can implement fitness and nutrition recommendations with relative ease — for the short term.

When it comes to getting the best results in a way that’s sustainable and will last, utilizing the skilled guidance and accountability of a coach is, I believe, the best-kept secret to success and to eliminating the need for you to ever have to “start over” again.

The right coach and strategy can take the guesswork out of your plan, realistically adjust approaches to suit your unique schedule and family demands, push you to a sweet spot of change just outside of your comfort zone, and troubleshoot when inevitable hiccups arise.

That being said, there are some well-intentioned, common coaching recommendations that can backfire. Learn why these five approaches — at least how they’re often advised — might not best serve your long-term results.

1. “Follow this recommended meal plan.”

The number one request I get from clients — at least initially — is for a meal plan to follow.

It seems to make sense: A meal plan feels straightforward, precise, and foolproof. However, the best coaches know that in practice, meal plans rarely work for a variety of reasons, including a lack of flexibility, that they span a short duration, they require a rapid implementation of an unrealistic amount of simultaneous change, and, most importantly, they don’t usually solve the root issue of why you’re not currently at your goal.

Meal plans are short-lived, and even if they sound enticing at first, deep down most people know that they’re not going to follow an externally provided meal plan for the rest of their life.

How this recommendation could work:

At Life Time, our programs and coaches might use meal plan options strategically, but it’s never someone’s all-encompassing nutrition approach.

Ironically, the effective use of a set meal plan assumes that it won’t be strictly followed. Instead, a meal plan is intended to be a tool to use as inspiration and a framework example of how a specific eating strategy — such as those used for detoxification (through D.TOX) or digestive support (through GUT.FIX®) — can be implemented.

Included meals and snacks should have the flexibility to be swapped out based on personal needs, preferences, and ingredient availability.

2. “You need to give up (fill in the blank).”

Limiting or avoiding certain foods — whether it be white-colored foods, such as sugar and refined flour; common food sensitivities, such as gluten and dairy; or inflammatory, hyper-processed fast food options — can be an important component of someone’s nutrition approach.

However, leading with what not to do makes sustainability difficult. From a psychological standpoint, we tend to focus on what we feel we “can’t” do, and a deprivation mindset can sit in. The more deprived we feel, the more likely we are to rebound.

How this recommendation could work:

There are two strategies I like to use when I know a client would be better off without a particular food or item in their diet. The first one is to focus on additions to their plan instead of subtractions — and leveraging those additions to covertly edge out the items I know they should be limiting.

Here’s an example: For someone who has an attachment to diet soda, the thought of giving it up often seems intimidating and challenging. If instead we focus on a water goal — with no rule to avoid their beloved diet soda — their soda consumption naturally goes down as they are spending more time and energy focusing on their water intake.

The second strategy is to develop an experimentation mindset. Instead of focusing on the feeling that you’re giving something up, take the stance that you’re gaining the insight and learnings of what you feel like when you’re not consuming it. It takes your mental approach from “I can’t” to “I’m choosing not to in order to learn what works best for me.”

3. “Eat frequent, small meals and snacks throughout the day.”

Eating frequently is an often-repeated recommendation that originated with the misguided idea that eating every two to three hours or so is needed to fuel metabolism. From a physiological standpoint, this is largely untrue.

Not only will a heightened focus on eating this frequently keep your mind on food all day long, but it can also make you feel hungrier since you’re rarely eating a full, appropriately-sized, balanced meal. And for some, it can actually add more stress to the digestive tract since you don’t have a chance to truly rest and digest, such as what happens when people practice the opposite approach of intermittent fasting.

Eating this often is also hard to implement in real life. It’s time-consuming, takes an immense amount of forethought to have prepared snacks and meals on hand, and can be impossible at times to execute. Heating and eating chicken, broccoli, and rice during a board meeting or while running back and forth from kids’ activities is simply unrealistic for most people’s schedules.

How this recommendation could work:

In some cases of adrenal issues or blood-sugar instability, eating more frequently might be necessary until your health is optimized. In those cases, having go-to, easy snacks on hand (such as individually portioned nuts with a small apple or a couple of hard-boiled eggs) might be necessary.

For everyone else, eating regularly might be a more prudent approach than eating frequently. It can be helpful to have a mental game plan of what your staple two to three meals on a given day will be, as well as having a convenient backup plan.

If you find that you’re frequently going longer stretches (think more than five to six hours) without eating during the day, simplify the approach and consider having a couple of scoops of a high-quality meal replacement powder, such as Whey Protein+ All in One Shake mix (or the non-dairy, vegan option, if preferred) ready in a shaker cup. Hit it with some water and shake it up as a convenient and more realistic backup plan.

4. “Drink a lot of water before your meals to manage your appetite.”

For those looking to reduce their caloric intake or lose fat, there’s usually an underlying assumption that frequently feeling hungry is a necessary part of the process. As a result, recommendations to manage hunger might be given, including the suggestion to drink a lot of water to suppress appetite. Luckily, a solid nutrition plan that is full of adequate protein and fiber should leave you satisfied — even in a caloric deficit.

While I always focus on proper hydration with my clients, there is a right and a wrong way to do it. Chronic, low-level dehydration can indeed impact hunger levels, but drinking too much water at mealtime can dilute important digestive enzymes in your gastrointestinal tract that are needed to properly break down food and nutrients.

How this recommendation could work:

Drinking a lot of water is helpful for most —  but it’s best to consume the majority of your intake between, not at, meals. Proper hydration can fuel you with more energy and help boost your workout performance, among many other benefits.

The general recommendation — in the absence of certain medical conditions that warrant a fluid restriction — is to aim for approximately half of your goal body weight (measured in pounds) in ounces of water per day. The easiest way to do this is to start first thing in the morning and set targets to hit by mid-morning and mid-afternoon. By getting the majority of your water during the day, you might also be able to limit getting up at night to go to the bathroom as a bonus.

5. “Consume everything in moderation.”

This coaching concept is likely the most prevalent, repeated, and widespread recommendation when it comes to nutrition. It’s a feel-good, practical-sounding theory, but surprisingly often doesn’t play out well in real life.

Here’s why: A lot of those who are struggling to make changes in nutrition have certain foods that feel near-impossible to moderate. If you’ve ever found yourself at the bottom of a bag of popcorn or ice cream container, at the end of a row of brownies, or on your third basket of chips and salsa at the local Mexican restaurant, you’re not alone.

If you have a track record of consistently overeating a particular food, giving yourself a purposeful break from it for several weeks can actually be liberating and refreshing. It’s not to say you won’t ever eat it again, but if a few bites leads to a predictable spiral, it’s time to rethink the strategy.

How this recommendation could work:

From experience, I’ve found that clients with food triggers are often lacking in something else, such as protein intake, hydration, or fiber. Once these nutrients are consistently repleted, hunger levels normalize and they’re able to add their former food nemesis to their plan in more appropriate ways that allow them to truly savor and appreciate them.

When the issue is more psychological and emotional, it can take a bit more time to address. In these cases, working on stress management techniques and their relationship with food (often with other members of their healthcare team, such as a therapist) can be the game-changing solution to incorporating them in a healthier, more balanced way.

Wrapping Up

When it comes to coaching and supporting long-term success, individualization is key. Each person not only has their own level of readiness to change and trade-offs they are willing  — or not willing — to make, but also has a unique set of needs, circumstances, and desired outcomes.

While the recommendations above can often backfire, remember that there should be nuances in each person’s plan. The most important thing is to find a coach that meets you where you are, listens to your feedback, and partners with you to find a long-term, sustainable approach that you’ll be able to stick with for good. After all, there is no starting over if you never feel like you have to give up on your plan.

Keep the conversation going.

Leave a comment, ask a question, or see what others are talking about in the Life Time Health Facebook group.

Samantha McKinney, RD, CPT

Samantha McKinney has been a dietitian, trainer and coach for over 10 years. At first, her interests and experience were in a highly clinical setting in the medical field, which ended up laying a strong foundation for understanding metabolism as her true passion evolved: wellness and prevention. She hasn’t looked back since and has had the honor of supporting Life Time’s members and nutrition programs in various roles since 2011.

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