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If you’re in search of a program to feel better, build muscle, and shed excess fat, it can feel overwhelming to know where to start to find one that’s designed to work.

Scrolling social media can keep your head spinning with options (some based on science, some just on opinion) about how to get transformational results. When I tested it, a quick internet search of “body transformation program” took only 0.55 seconds to display 363 million hits. Often, it can even cause a case of paralysis by analysis, leading to someone not taking any action for their health at all.

The most heavily marketed transformation program options available are often based on diet alone.

As a dietitian (with nutrition as an obvious passion point), I don’t disagree that changing what and how you eat is pivotal for success. However, I’ve learned that there’s a serious disconnect between what a lot of nutrition-based programs out there can do for your health compared to what someone participating in those programs hopes for or expects in terms of their body composition.

An effective program must include nutrition change and guidance, yet at the same time, most people are surprised to hear that nutrition-only programs rarely work for the long term. Here’s why.

You risk losing muscle and tone.

It might be shocking to learn that weight loss does not always mean fat loss. In fact, scale weight often is not the best measure of success. If your goal is a toned look, it’s important to build muscle and lose fat. This can seem tricky on the scale because muscle is dense and heavy compared to body fat, which takes up space but is relatively light compared to muscle.

As a result, those truly getting leaner in a healthy way often do not have as much of a change in scale weight as anticipated. Many nutrition-only programs create an aggressive calorie deficit, which consequently can trigger both muscle and fat loss. This can be problematic for how you feel, as well as for both short- and long-term health.

It’s critical to prioritize maintaining muscle during any transformation program. Not only does muscle provide an aesthetic “toned” look, but it is vital for your health and immunity. Building and maintaining it requires adequate calories, ample protein, stress management, and regular resistance and strength training.

Learn more about the truth behind scale weight here: Measuring Body Weight.

You may need to start with exercise.

I always say that 80 percent of success is above the neck: Your mindset is critical.

During any transformation journey, celebrating frequent small wins keeps the consistency going to drive behavior change and healthy habits. As you see little wins and successes, you get hits of dopamine that can drive excitement and motivation for continued change. It’s a snowball effect.

In a lot of cases, nutrition can feel intimidating to change when compared to fitness. Exercise typically involves an hour or so of focus on a given day, whereas nutrition changes involves a larger span of your waking hours. It’s especially subject to getting thrown off by schedule disruptions, cravings, and old habits.

Sometimes shifting exercise habits first can start the ball rolling with a healthy lifestyle, giving you the (literal and figurative) reps under your belt to make nutrition changes feel more doable. Plus, from my experience in working with clients, when you exercise, it’s a lot more likely you’ll stay on track with your daily nutrition.

You need a lifestyle change, not just a nutrition change.

Did you know the average person tries to lose weight four times per year — and has trouble keeping off whatever they lose?

If we know anything, it’s that “diet” doesn’t work for long-term success as a verb. The concept of dieting itself infers restriction. Instead, try to focus on the work “diet” as a noun, referring to what you choose to eat on a regular basis.

The truth is that your diet (as a noun) is impacted greatly by your environment, social circle, exercise habits, stress levels, and sleep. For example, a lack of sleep, a strenuous workout, or a stressful day can physiologically trigger cravings. And when cravings hit, it can be tough to stay on track with nutrition, leading you to mentally beat yourself up for slipping.

In any successful program, it’s critical to recognize the interconnectedness of your exercise, nutrition, and lifestyle in context. They all feed off each other, and to be successful, all areas need to be accounted for.

You need a finish line.

Think of the last time you felt motivated; it’s likely there was an upcoming vacation, event, or reunion you wanted to prepare for.

When a comprehensive program has an end date, countdown, or finish line, it automatically builds in urgency and motivation to make changes as the days of the program go by. It also builds in the opportunity to make the necessary shifts to your exercise program (training style and training phase) to continue to see progress, along with a time to reevaluate your results and reestablish your goals.

However, for programs that focus only on food (without context regarding real-life scenarios, such as going out to eat or what to do if you deviate from the plan), when exactly is the “right” time to stop?

There’s no end date to good nutrition habits. The most important and effective nutrition approaches ought to by nature be longer term. While they can — and should — be dialed in as part of your overall approach, it gets tricky if your program does not include some of the other core components and changes needed to be successful.

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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