Living For Lunch: Why Linear Diets Fail—And What We Can Do About It

In our line of work, the problem I deal with the most–and the problem that’s most challenging to address–is compliance.

Actually, “compliance” is a term used by medical doctors when talking about patients and whether or not they take their medicine how, when, and for as long as they’re supposed to.

So maybe we should probably use another phrase–something along the lines of “adherence”, dedication”, or “persistence”. But, honestly, we prefer “compliance” because it’s the most neutral, objective, and detached word available to us–not to mention the least judgmental. Client willpower, nor their fortitude, nor lack thereof is never invoked. All that matters is whether or not what needs to happen in order to achieve a desired, positive result is, in fact, happening.

These nuances and distinctions came into sharp relief very recently, as everyone here at ARM Systems reviewed an interesting, confounding case involving a new client who’s set to begin an intensive, corrective, month-long programme here in July. Let us tell you a little bit about him, what we noticed that no one else did, and how we’re going to approach his unique situation in a customized, personalized way–so he can get the results he deserves.

This client–let’s call him Theo–is big and strong, with lots of brute strength but not a lot of endurance. He’s very overweight–about 50 extra pounds, concentrated around his middle. As you might expect, with a pear-shaped body like this, he’s pre-diabetic, his sex hormones are all over the place, and he deals with occasional, alternating bouts of clinical anxiety and depression.

With a deep affection for dairy products and starchy carbohydrates–and a tendency to put on weight easily–Theo spent two decades (from the time he was 20 to the time he was 40) trying every single nutritional plan under the sun. Some of them, like veganism, made his situation worse. Others, like the isocaloric diet, worked really well. Actually, ketogenic dieting worked the best–at least in terms of reducing his weight and improving his lipid profile. But it also made him so crabby and hypersensitive that, one time, while trying to get by on zero carbs per day, he actually punched a hole in a wall during a client meeting. After that, he “kind of gave up on eating well” (his words, not ours) and for the past three years has been chowing down on pretty much whatever his appetite tells him to.

But Theo isn’t just pounds and inches. Let’s get to know him as a complete human being, like we always do here at ARM. Currently 43 years old, he’s a branding consultant with a long list of clients, each one of them coming from a different industry–and each one of them wants something different from him. For one company, he writes marketing copy. For another, he manages a website and a bunch of social networks. For yet another, he develops products and designs packaging. Plus, whenever there’s a free moment–which isn’t very often–he writes. Songs, novels, articles, screenplays… he does it all.

It’s not just Theo’s assignments that change all the time. So does his actual schedule and work environment. Sometimes he’s on site, working side-by-side other people as part of a larger team. Other times, he’s all by himself at home. Yet others, he visits his friends in The States–that’s where he’s originally from–while working remotely from a different cafe every day.

When we first met Theo, we assumed–as, quite frankly, people in the fitness industry typically do–that he was lazy, distracted, and undisciplined; that getting in shape, regardless of what he said, wasn’t as important to him as his job was; and that he was going to have to change his priorities and his approach to life if he was ever going to achieve and maintain the specific, measurable results upon which both his medical and naturopathic doctors were insisting.

Anyway, since Theo was constantly maintaining social networks, we decided to execute his week-long intake a bit differently than normal. Rather than asking him to keep a food journal, we instructed him to post photos of everything he ate and drank, along with a note of where he was and what he was doing. This was totally up Theo’s alley. His compliance (that word again!) was perfect–so we knew that he was capable of, even enthusiastic to, try new things. He found the time. He cared. Great.

Reviewing his Instagram feed–everything beautifully styled and perfectly photographed, of course–we started to notice certain themes. On days he worked from home, his dining plans (heavy breakfast, moderate lunch, light supper) went right out the window. Instead, wanting to get down to business as early as possible, he started the day (around 7AM) with a quad espresso, ate a gigantic home-cooked meal once his appetite got the best of him (usually some time between 3PM and 5PM), and didn’t eat or drink anything else until he was done working (9PM) or ready for bed (around 9PM), at which time he used starch or sugar to calm himself down. Of course, eating so many carbs so close to sleepytime, he was also ruining his cholesterol and triglyceride levels, not to mention ruining his REM sleep. But, at this point we weren’t judging, just looking for clues, patterns, an a-ha moment.

Theo’s days on the road were totally different. First of all, every meal was eaten out. Second of all, he stuck to the broad strokes of his dining plans, but the quantities and combinations never quite worked out. Plus, clients often asked him out for a snack or cocktail without advance notice, adding a whole other meal to his daily intake.

Aside from the obvious nutritional problems with this set-up, Theo told us he was spending way too much money on restaurants. He wanted to standardize the way he ate, to buy higher-quality groceries and cook at home more often, and to find a dining schedule he could follow regardless of the day’s itinerary. As to the question of what to eat, and how much of it, he said that was up to us. He was entirely, blissfully open.

Our fitness director suggested that, since Theo was a sensual, passionate type–with a love of local and organic ingredients and an understandable business case for eating out a lot–he might be best off with a “gourmet traditionalist” diet–a little of everything, but only the very best, with everything in carefully calibrated moderation. “He needs to get over this fantasy that he’s going to pack his lunch,” our fitness director said. “It’s just not going to happen. He needs to learn to dine out healthfully and affordably.”

Our wellness director suggested that Theo stop drinking coffee, no matter how much he loved it, because its appetite suppressing effects didn’t matter much once all that caffeine wore off and he ate enough food for a family of four in one sitting. After all, our wellness expert reminded us, “pre-diabetic patients need to stabilize their insulin levels. For people like Theo, coffee can really mess with insulin, making levels rise and fall more sharply than in those with healthy blood-glucose control.”

But it was our indulgence director who made the observation that led to the recommendation we’ll be making to Theo on his first day back. Let us try to remember exactly what he said:

“This guy’s problem is that he’s beating himself trying to eat the same way every day. But that’s not his life! In reality, every day is different. So he wakes up, and none of his plans ever work out, because something gets in the way, or he loves his job so much he can’t wait to get to his desk and start designing. What he really needs is a non-linear nutritional strategy: a way to eat at home, a totally different way to eat on the road, and a third eating plan for when he’s in The States. Because, let’s face it, no one sticks to their diet when they’re visiting family.”

In other words, Theo’s problem isn’t that he’s lazy, nor that his case is impossible to manage. He is compliant–when it doesn’t hold him back from doing the work he loves. So we’re going to hook him up with a non-linear diet that’s built around his lifestyle and schedule–and that allows him to eat all of his favourite foods–with only a few, small, hardcore changes to focus upon learning. Here’s a sneak preview of what we have in store for him. As you’ll see, over the course of a week, his overall intake will be balanced across all macronutrients, but distribution will be dynamic. Also, the smart use of fibre-rich protein smoothies, spiked with matcha and cacao, will help him save money, control his appetite, and avoid being too dependent on coffee. Finally, by scheduling mealtimes when he’s most vulnerable to bingeing, we’re going to nip his overeating problems in the bud.

ON DAYS THAT THEO IS HOME
• On days that he’s home, we’re going to ask Theo to eat a relatively large, fibre-and-carbohydrate rich breakfast, avoiding wheat and dairy. Eating some of his favourite foods (brown rice, black beans, scrambled eggs, tomatillo salsa, et cetera) first thing in the morning will lead to better, smarter choices for the rest of the day. Fortunately, meals like this are easy to prep in advance, store in individual containers, and reheat in a toaster over.
• Once Theo gets going, he really doesn’t like to stop nor get interrupted. So we’re going to suggest that he chug one or two protein smoothies–made with lots of fiber and a heaping teaspoon of matcha to replace the coffee he loves–while he’s at his desk.
• When Theo’s done with work, no matter how late nor early, we’re going to suggest that he eat a low-carb, high-fat, high-protein meals, preferably salads with healthy fats and well-raised proteins. While eating late usually isn’t a good idea, if one must, especially if one is overweight, meals like this can minimize the damage.

ON DAYS THAT THEO IS AWAY
• On days that he’s away, we’re going to ask Theo to chug a fibre-rich, matcha-spiked protein shake prior to leaving the house.
• In terms of lunch, we’re going to suggest that Theo go with the flow, always eating out, but only once per day. A little dairy won’t kill him, but he still needs to avoid wheat, as it stimulates his appetite.
• If clients ask him out for a cocktail, Theo should drink wine (preferably red) and eat either nothing at all or something fatty and low-carb, for example nuts, seeds, deviled eggs, and meaty tapas items.
• When he gets home, Theo should chug another protein smoothie, this time without matcha (it’s too stimulating for bedtime) but rather cacao (which will make the smoothie feel like dessert, especially if he adds coconut milk or peanut butter). Once he’s been with us for a while, if he gets bored with two smoothies per day, we’ll show him how to bake low-glycemic, high-protein dessert truffles, which can be consumed instead without a shred of guilt.

ON DAYS THAT THEO FEELS BLOATED AND/OR TIRED
• We’re going to suggest that Theo experiment with intermittent fasting–only on his days off. Skipping food altogether one to four days per month is perfectly safe for most people, the idea was already suggested by his doctors anyway, and for someone who loves food, not eating at all is oftentimes easier than eating small portions.
• Of course, on these days, he’ll need to drink lots of water, preferably spiked with organic lemon juice.

ON DAYS THAT THEO IS VISITING FRIENDS AND RELATIVES
• When Theo makes his monthly visits to The States, we’re going to recommend that he eat a standard breakfast, lunch, and dinner–eating pretty much anything he wants (except for white sugar and wheat flour) and as much of it as he wants–for a period of no more nor less than 72 hours, beyond which too much cheating in a single month can start to roll back everything achieved to date.

We suspect that the ARM approach–tailoring nutritional plans to the way clients actually live rather than expecting them to halt everything just to follow a diet that looks good on paper but is impossible to follow with a full-time job and family commitments–is going to work for Theo. Of course, Theo could have come up with this on his own, but he’s not a nutritionist, and even if he was, he doesn’t have the time. That’s where we come in!

–Adam

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