8 Habits to Help You Get and Stay Lean

In my time coaching clients I have realized that nutrition ends up being the most common factor as to why people do not reach their goals. Most of us have been taught or been around poor nutrition habits that have been ingrained in our minds for years.  

Then, instead of making small changes to improve our nutrition habits we want to do something drastic such as going on the keto diet, cutting out our favorite foods, or using extreme restriction methods. 

While this works for a few weeks and for some it may even work a few months, the inevitable happens and our willpower gives out. If you tell yourself you cannot have something, for whatever reason as humans we end up wanting it more and more. This then creates the habit that dieting is just not for us and we will never get to our goal. However, the problem is that we have not implemented good habits. 

The other major issue is that we lack consistency with our nutrition choices, one week is great, then the next two is a free for all, then the next few days are great, but then the weekend rolls around and it’s a free for all again. By focusing on improving our daily habits, this will improve our consistency, and over time will not feel overly restrictive. We dont have to be perfect, we just want to make better choices over time and reduce the poor choices. 

In this article I want to go over habits that will help you lose/ and or keep excess body fat off for good. No more drastic changes, just easy to implement habits that done consistently will ensure you lose body fat, and keep it off for good.

First, lets go over what a habit is. James Clear in his book Atomic Habits (which if you have not read, go buy it NOW) defines a habit as “ a routine or behavior that is performed regularly– and, in many cases, automatically.” 

Clear talks about why its so easy to overlook small habits. “Too often we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. Whether its losing weight, building a business, writing a book, winning a championship, or achieving any other goal, we put pressure on ourselves to make some earth shattering improvement that everyone will talk about.” 

On the other hand, a small improvement each day is not very notable, and it may not even be noticeable, but it can make a huge difference in the long run. This is why staying consistent is so important. 

Clear goes on to talk about how habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. He uses the example of money, over time money compounds, and the same effect happens when you implement a small habit daily. While they make a small difference that day, but then you look back two, five, or ten years and the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones become apparent. 

They are hard to implement because, as Clear states “if you go to the gym three days in a row, you’re still out of shape, if you save a little money now, you’re still not a millionaire”. We don’t see the results quickly so we start to slide back to our old routines. 

On the opposite end, if you eat an unhealthy meal or two the scale doesn’t move much, if you skip a workout you dont notice the effects that day, so a single decision is easy to let go. Clear says that “but when we repeat 1 percent errors, day after day, by replicating poor decisions, duplicating tiny mistakes, and rationalizing little excuses, our small choices compound into toxic results”. 

So think about that next time you are going to let yourself take it easy. 

It’s good to have goals so they can guide you, but instead of focusing on just outcome goals we need to make sure we have good systems/habits in place to get us to our goal. For example, if we want to lose body fat (lets say 20lbs), but we do not have a system/habits to get us there, then we will simply revert back to old habits that are easiest for us and the 20lbs does not come off. Leading to endless frustration, because we are just focused on the end result, and not actually doing the things we need to do to get us there and staying consistent with them.

Now that we know the importance of habits and how they can make a world of a difference over time, lets go over some habits that we can implement to lose body fat and keep it off for good.  

 

1. Get at least 30-90 Minutes of Activity Per Day*

*=Non-Negotiable

We are meant to move and modern society is making it tougher and tougher for us to stay active. Nowadays we have to seek out activity or it won’t happen. This can be a tough cycle to break though, as being sedentary can make us feel more tired and fatigued, which has been shown to be a potential barrier for exercising (Justine, 2013).  Being sedentary also has been shown to negatively influence satiety and hunger cues (Stubbs, Beaulieu, Van Walleghan). For example, Beaulieu and colleagues (2018) concluded that less activity most likely dysregulates appetite and increases cravings, which can lead to over consumption. 

So we are fatigued because we are sedentary, and then we use being tired as a reason to not exercise, but then by being sedentary we also have a tougher time regulating hunger and fullness cues, which can lead to overeating. This may not be much, but overeating a few hundred calories per day can lead to weight gain in the long run, a good analogy to this is spending. 5 dollars a day for a coffee doesn’t hurt you much in the short term, but over time this adds up ($150 per month, $1800 per year). It may not make a difference in one day, but over time these things add up.  

This habit is non-negotiable because a sedentary lifestyle is associated with higher risks of many chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression, osteoporosis, high cholesterol etc. Not to mention the negative influence a sedentary lifestyle has on cravings and satiety cues, all of which have been shown to lead to over consumption of food compared to those who are more active.  

 

Practical Application:

Aim for 30-90 minutes of activity per day. This can be in the form of any exercise you enjoy. For example, running, sports, biking, hiking, walking etc. It does NOT always have to be something that gets your heart rate up, however we will go over one form of exercise to do each week in a bit. 

Some ways to decrease sedentary behaviors is by increasing movement through everyday activities. For example, parking further away, taking the stairs, moving things to the other side of your house (like putting food or water downstairs so you have to walk up and down the steps), doing yard work, cleaning the house, stand instead of sit when you can, walk around when you talk on the phone etc. 

 

2. Resistance Training* 

The second non-negotiable habit is making sure you incorporate resistance training into your workout routine. Resistance training has been shown to have numerous benefits:

  • Improved strength, which helps protect your joints 
  • Improved/maintained balance and mobility, this helps you stay independent as you age
  • Increased muscle mass, which improves body composition
  • Increased stamina
  • Helps with prevention or control of many chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, depression, back pain etc. 
  • Improved posture
  • Can aid in pain management
  • Increased bone density, which helps reduce the risk of osteoporosis
  • Improved sleep quality and quantity
  • Increased mood and sense of well being
  • Enhances performance of everyday tasks

Essentially resistance training can enhance every part of your life. Another reason resistance training is important in getting lean is the muscle mass it builds. Benefits of improving muscle mass are:

  • Enhanced aesthetics 
  • Less injury prone
  • More mobile
  • More powerful
  • Healthier (to an extent, too much muscle may not be the best for long term health, but don’t worry 99.99 percent of us don’t have to worry about this)

 

As we lose weight our body adapts to this weight loss and will reduce energy expended in everyday activity, This reduction in energy expenditure during weight loss has been coined adaptive thermogenesis, muscle takes the biggest hit during adaptive thermogenesis, up to a 20% reduction in efficiency (Rosenbaum M, Vandenborne K, Goldsmith R, 2003). Basically your muscles and body will reduce how hard they work (becoming more efficient), the same activity you did when you were 20lbs heavier now burns 15 less calories during the same activity when you are lighter. Once again, this is not much in the short term, but over time this adds up. 

How can we combat this reduction in energy efficiency by the body? You guessed it, resistance training. 

In a 2018 study, Rosenbaum showed that resistance training resulted in a 10% reduction in muscle work efficiency in weight reduced subjects. Showing that resistance training can be a great way to ensure you can maintain weight loss and aid in fat loss. 

Practical Application:

If you are already resistance training then perfect, keep it up. However, if you are not resistance training yet, then 2-3 times per week is a great start. Here is a good example of a 3 time per week full body routine:

Copy of Hamstrings

If 3 times per week is not doable at the moment, then doing 2  workouts is sufficient to reap some of the benefits listed above. 

 

3. Slow Down Eating/ Eat Without Distractions

 

There are so many things to do and so little time. Work is crazy, the kids have multiple activities going on, your favorite TV show is on tonight, and traffic was terrible. When we have a lot of things going on, time becomes limited. With endless distractions around us and always something to get done, eating usually gets put on the back burner and it turns into something we have to do as quickly as possible and while accomplishing other tasks. Another term for this could be mindless eating. 

When we eat too fast and/or with distractions we miss important hunger and fullness cues. Studies have also shown that there is less meal satisfaction if meals are eaten too quickly and/or with distractions. 

Once again this is not something that happens once and you put on pounds of body fat, however consistently overeating even 200 calories in a meal can add up over time and lead to fat gain. 

This is why highly processed foods such as chips, candy, pastries, etc. can potentially be detrimental to fat loss progress. These snack foods contain a lot of calories with very little nutrients in return, they are designed to get us to over consume, and they are usually eaten when distracted. Next thing you know we just consumed 200 plus calories and don’t feel even the slightest bit full, we are not satisfied, and could even be more hungry.

If you pair certain activities with eating then you also start to associate those activities with eating without realizing it. So if every time you watch your favorite show you eat ice cream, don’t be shocked when you start to crave ice cream the next time your show comes on. 

 

Practical Application: 

If you have always consumed your food quickly or have always eaten while watching TV or while working then this habit is going to take time to get down. Don’t expect it to be perfect right off the bat, just focus on progress over time. 

Some ways to slow down your eating from Precision Nutrition:

  • Wine taste your food- savor it and chew it up like you were tasting a fine wine
  • Meal timer- find a baseline for your meals, and then slowly increase the time you spend eating your meals. 
  • Do something between bites- take a few breaths, set down utensils, focus on conversation 
  • Pace yourself to the slowest eater
  • Eat without distractions- no TV, phone, newspaper, books etc. By focusing on your meal you will be able to better regulate hunger and fullness cues and have a higher meal satisfaction. 

 

4. Add-in Rather than Eliminate Foods

Most diet protocols ask people to restrict certain foods. For example, in the keto diet you must eliminate pretty much all of your carbohydrates that are not vegetables and fruits, in the paleo diet you must eliminate sugars, grains, and most dairy products. In the carnivore diet you must restrict essentially everything that is not fish, eggs, or meat. The list goes on and on. 

However, we try these diets and do great for a few weeks, we tell ourselves we are never going to eat foods we enjoy again, but by restricting foods or eliminating foods entirely we eventually crave those foods even more.

Instead of eliminating or restricting, a better way is to fill up on the “good stuff” first, the goal here is that there will be less room for junk food. This is called dietary displacement. 

The typical American diet is characterized by a high content of proteins (derived from fatty domesticated and processed meats), saturated fats, refined grains, sugar, alcohol, salt, and corn-derived fructose syrup, with an associated reduced consumption of fruits and vegetables (Statovci, 2017). With a reduction in fruits and vegetables most American diets are lacking in fiber and are higher in saturated fat, this also tells us that most American diets are lacking in lean protein as well (since protein intake is high, but from fatty meats and processed meats).  Recent research has shown that diets high in saturated fat and low in fiber directly contributes to the development of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular diseases (Statovci, 2017). 

Based on these findings a good idea for most is to increase consumption of fiber and lean protein. Fiber and lean protein are important because they both help us feel full, in turn helping us consume less calories overall. Most foods that contain either a good amount of fiber or lean protein are also very nutritious, as they contain many other essential vitamins and minerals. 

 

Practical Applications:

Rather than focus on eliminating or restricting certain foods, first look to add in more nutritious foods to your diet. Some ideas on how to implement this:

  • Focus on 1-3 servings of fruits and vegetables per day
  • Aim to consume a lean source of protein with each meal
  • Consume your lean protein and fiber first at each meal
  • If you are craving a brownie for example, first eat a piece of fruit, if you are still hungry then eat the brownie

Another benefit of adding in more nutritious food rather than restricting or eliminating certain foods or food groups is that it helps with reducing the needless extra calories consumed that do not mean much to us, but still allows us to enjoy the things we value. For example, if you have a pizza night with the guys, family dinner every Sunday night, or brunch with your friends, we can still enjoy these things we value. Balance is key to all of this, and this is a great start. 

 

5. Reduce Portion Sizes

One of the biggest contributors to the overweight problem is we are simply eating more calories than we ever have. In a 2009 paper, Swinburn et al. looked at the changes in estimated energy intakes in US children and adults between the 1970s and 2000s. The estimated energy intake for children went from 1690 calories per day in the 1970s to 2043 in the 2000s. Adults saw their energy intake go from 2398 calories per day in the 1970s to 2895 in the 2000s. Other studies have also shown that rising obesity is primarily the result of consuming more calories (Bleich, 2008) (Mccory, 2002). 

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute food portions in America’s restaurants have doubled or tripled over the last 20 years. 

portion sizes

“Super-sized portions at restaurants have distorted what Americans consider a normal portion size, and that affects how much we eat at home as well,” said Dr. Elizabeth G. Nabel, director of NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

As we can see, its just much easier to overeat now a days. So we must be mindful of how much we are consuming. 

Practical Application:

One way to reduce our portion sizes is by using Precision Nutrition’s hand portion guide. This is a great tool because our hands are always with us, and the hands are scaled to the individual. For example, a bigger person will need more food and bigger people tend to have bigger hands. Smaller individuals need less food, and tend to have smaller hands. 

HandportionsFree             Precision Nutrition Hand Portion Guide         

As you can see you can adjust the portion sizes based on your needs, for example if you are more active then you can do 2.5 cupped hands of carbs rather than 2. If you are trying to lose weight and cannot then you can drop your carbs from 2 cupped hands down to 1.5. 

Another way to reduce portion sizes is by using smaller plates. A study showed that those who ate with a larger plated consumed up to 45% more food (McClain et al., 2013). 

 

6. Have a Grocery Store List

One of the biggest reasons why people will turn to eating out, going through the drive thru, or eating the snack foods in the house is because they don’t go to the grocery store to fill up on more nutritious foods, they simply are not available to them, so in a bind we fall to what is around us or what is easiest. 

We also don’t have a plan when we go to the grocery store, we just buy whatever sounds good at the moment, and with unhealthy food on every aisle, it becomes  impossible to stick to nutritious foods. 

When all we see at our house is junk food, its going to be nearly impossible to not eat it. 

So instead we need to figure how to set ourselves up for success by having more nutritious foods available at home and less junk food at the house. One way to do this is by having a grocery store list made out before each trip. 

This will help us stay on track while shopping by buying what we need to keep nutritious foods on hand, spend less time in the grocery store, and minimize impulse buying. 

Multiple studies have shown that having a grocery store list can be an effective tool to increase nutritious food consumption and lower BMI (Public Health Nutrition, 2007) (Dubowitz, 2015). 

By having a list it puts us in control of what we eat for the week.

 

Practical Applications: 

As with everything we are going to want to get this perfect right out of the gate, but its going to take some trial and error. For example, you may think to yourself “what if I dont get enough food” or “what if I get too much” etc. 

Instead of focusing on getting the grocery list perfect, just aim to improve it every time you go. Yeah you may not buy enough food the first time, but at least you improved some meals throughout the week compared to not improving any. 

Some tips on grocery shopping:

  • Have a designated day you go to the store each week. For example, every Sunday is the day you shop. This way you know each week when you will be going to the store. There are no questions. 
  • Make a master grocery list. This way you dont have to change things up every week. Look up foods that you know you should be eating more of and put them on that list. For example, I simply put fruits and then the number 2 after it, so I know that I need to buy 2 different types of fruit. By doing it this way it ensures I buy fruits, but it also gives me the flexibility to change up what type of fruits I consume each week.
  • Either that day or the day before add in or take out what foods you do/dont need that week based on what foods you have at the house or if you want to try any new meals.
  • Dont go to the grocery store hungry. 

            The main thing is that we stay consistent with this. At first this may seem tough, but over time you will get better and better at grocery shopping and more efficient. I used to dread grocery shopping and honestly I still do, but since I started making a list I have been able to get in and out of the grocery store in about 10-15 minutes. 

 

7. Drink More Calorie Free Beverages

Drinks can be a forgotten source of calories in your diet. 

Not to mention, people who drink sugary beverages do not feel as full as if they had eaten the same amount of calories from solid food, and according to the Harvard School of Public Health, we also dont compensate for the high caloric content of these beverages by eating less food. 

So it appears when you consume sugary drinks (aka beverages with calories) they are essentially just being added to your total energy intake, and providing little to no nutritive value. 

The Harvard School of Public Health goes on to state that “The average can of sugar-sweetened soda or fruit punch provides about 150 calories, almost all of them from added sugar. If you were to drink just one of these sugary drinks every day, and not cut back on calories elsewhere, you could gain up to 5 pounds in a year.” 

 

Practical Applications: 

  • Switch to a calorie free drink. For example, switch to diet soda instead of regular soda. Switch to sugar free Gatorade instead of the regular Gatorade. 
  • Add a lemon or lime to water
  • Drink a glass of water when you first wake up, and before each meal. 
  • Slowly wean off of caloric beverages, for example, week 1 go from 3 to 2 sodas per day, then week 2 go from 2 to 1. Week 3 go from 1 per day to 5 per week etc. If you dont want to completely cut it out, then find ways to reduce the mindless consumption of caloric beverages. 
  • Or just drink more water

 

8. Get a Consistent Meal Schedule

Many of us miss meals, and dont eat full meals. This can lead to snacking throughout the day and over consumption at later meals. 

We are busy and its easy to skip meals if you do not have a plan, especially if losing weight is your goal, because we are told we need to eat less to lose weight.  However, this can be a potential problem later on in the day or week. 

By not having a consistent meal schedule and skipping meals we can let ourselves get too hungry and stressed.  This may resemble times of restriction and control followed by binging/ anything goes type thinking later on. 

Hunger is the most common complaint as to why people cannot stay consistent with their diet. By having regular scheduled meals throughout the day we can reduce the times when we are super hungry. Not to mention we also do best with some type of routine. 

 

Practical Application:

-Plan to have a full meal every 3-5 hours. Most people do well with 3 full meals and a snack, but you can increase this based on personal preference. 

Most people have some sort of regular routine each day and week. So the goal would be to look over your schedule and see when you think it would be best to get a meal in.  Try it for a few weeks and adjust from there. 

Example: 9-5 job Monday-Friday

7-8a: Breakfast: aim for 25-40g of protein

12-1p: Lunch: aim for 25-40g of protein

3-4p: Possible snack time, aim for 15-30g of protein (if you like to eat at night then switch this time)

5-7p: Dinner, aim for 25-40g of protein

Most people struggle with hunger late at night, but if we are filling up earlier in the day with full meals, I bet that hunger late at night will go away or get reduced.    

 

Conclusions

There you have it. 8 habits that will help get you get and stay lean. No crazy restrictions, no advanced meal timing strategies etc. This process wont be easy, but it also does not have to be as hard as some people make it out to be. 

Look over this list and see what you struggle with the most. Then start working on 1-2 of these habits. For example, if you know you eat way to fast and are not consistent with meal times. Then you would work on slowing down your eating and getting a consistent meal schedule for about a month or so. If you think you struggle with everything listed above, then pick 2 that you feel are the easiest to start incorporating right now. 

Another option is looking at getting an accountability partner. In Atomic Habits James Clear discusses the importance of getting an accountability partner. 

“Knowing that someone is watching can be a powerful motivator. You are less likely to procrastinate or give up because there is an immediate cost. You are not only failing to uphold your promises to yourself, but also failing to uphold your promises to others.” 

If you feel like you need some accountability then feel free to apply for my coaching services here: https://jhhealth.net/apply/

Also give me a follow on Instagram @jeffh_91. 

Thank you for reading!

 

References:

Stubbs R, Hughes D, Johnstone A, Horgan G, King N, Blundell J. (2004). A decrease in physical activity affects appetite, energy, and nutrient balance in lean men feeding ad libitum. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Jan;79(1):62-9.

Van Walleghen E, Orr J, Gentile C, Davy K, Davy B.(2007). Habitual physical activity differentially affects acute and short-term energy intake regulation in young and older adults. Int J Obes (Lond). 2007 Aug;31(8):1277-85.

Beaulieu K, Hopkins M, Blundell J, Finlayson G. (2018). Homeostatic and non-homeostatic appetite control along the spectrum of physical activity levels: An updated perspective. Physiol Behav. 2018 Aug 1;192:23-29. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2017.12.032.

Crawford D, Ball K, Mishra G, Salmon J, Timperio A. (2007). Which food-related behaviours are associated with healthier intakes of fruits and vegetables among women?Public Health Nutr. 2007 Mar;10(3):256-65.

Dubowitz T, Cohen D, Huang C, Beckman R, Collins R. (2015). Using a Grocery List Is Associated With a Healthier Diet and Lower BMI Among Very High-Risk Adults. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2015 May-Jun;47(3):259-64. doi: 10.1016/j.jneb.2015.01.005.

Justine M, Azizan A, Hassan V, Salleh Z, Manaf H. (2013). Barriers to participation in physical activity and exercise among middle-aged and elderly individuals. Singapore Med J. 2013 Oct;54(10):581-6.

McClain A, van den Bos W, Matheson D, Desai M, McClure S, Robinson T.(2014). Visual illusions and plate design: the effects of plate rim widths and rim coloring on perceived food portion size. Int J Obes (Lond). 2014 May;38(5):657-62. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2013.169.

Rosenbaum M, Vandenborne K, Goldsmith R, Simoneau J, Heymsfield S, Joanisse D, Hirsch J, Murphy E, Matthews D, Segal K, Leibel R. (2003). Effects of experimental weight perturbation on skeletal muscle work efficiency in human subjects. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2003 Jul;285(1):R183-92.

Rosenbaum M, Heaner M, Goldsmith R, Christian Schulze P, Shukla A, Shen W, Shane E, Naor E, Leibel R, Aronne L. (2018). Resistance Training Reduces Skeletal Muscle Work Efficiency in Weight-Reduced and Non-Weight-Reduced Subjects. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2018 Oct;26(10):1576-1583. doi: 10.1002/oby.22274.

Statovci D, Aguilera M, MacSharry J and Melgar S. (2017). The Impact of Western Diet and Nutrients on the Microbiota and Immune Response at Mucosal Interfaces. Front Immunol. 2017; 8: 838.

Swinburn B, Sacks G, Ravussin E. (2009). Increased food energy supply is more than sufficient to explain the US epidemic of obesity. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2009 Dec;90(6): 1453–1456.

Bleich S, Cutler D, Murray C, Adams A. (2008). Why is the developed world obese? Annu Rev Public Health. 2008;29:273-95. doi: 10.1146

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Larger Portion Sizes Contribute to U.S. Obesity Problem. 2013. Retrieved from: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/news-events/matte1.htm

Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: tiny changes, remarkable results : an easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Berardi J, Andrews R, St. Pierre B, Scott-Dixon K, Kollias H, Deputter C. (2017). The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition (3rd ed.). Precision Nutrition.

 

 

 

 

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