Fixing bad dietary habits for busy clients
Since I started working in the fitness industry, the most common problem I’ve seen is people having a hard time sticking to good habits. Most people will start to get into the groove and finally throw everything out after a mere couple of weeks. Usually, this breakdown happens when results start to decline, or the scale is stuck and won’t move anymore. Then the classic justifications come out: ‘’got too busy at work’’, ‘’family holiday’’, ‘’kids wanted to eat pizza’’…so what? You ate it for them?? That’s called ‘’life’’ and it will be there until the end.
But instead of throwing stones at your clients because they can’t sustain the plan, why not try to put yourself in their shoes and try to find a way to avoid those traps. You can’t just look at them and repeat the same boring fitness quotes like: ‘’It’s a lifestyle, not a diet’’, ‘’All progress comes from outside the comfort zone’’, and whatever else. These are all quotes that mean nothing in the real world. Sometimes, life hits hard and you got to know why it puts you down every time.
When you’re a real professional, things have to be done no matter what and trust me, I’ve worked with all sorts of clients of different career types.
Here are some examples you may relate to:
Oli is a professional drummer, probably one of the best I know. He plays in a world renown metal band name Kataklysm. This guy is always on tour, kicking ass on the stage by playing drums at a speed that we could call ‘’athletic drumming’’. But the life of a rock star isn’t always what we think it is: on the road, eating here and there with quick fix food, very little time to sleep, and kicking ass again on the stage before you even realize that you didn’t take the time to train and eat properly.
Rachel is a professional aerial artist and stunt woman. She needs to work out for hours every day and gives shows and presentations, sometimes 2 or 3 shows in the same day. All those acrobatics are very physical and draining. She barely has the time to eat more than 2 times a day, and you know how it is when you finish the day and you are completely burned out…you don’t want to cook food and usually fall for easy food. Sometimes, she even has to completely switch her body composition to stunt for a particular actor on the big screen. Not an easy task to do in a couple of weeks.
And what about Joe, who you can probably relate to. He is a gym coach and trains about 7-10 clients a day. That’s about 8-10 hours of non–stop client sessions. He usually eats protein bars and finishes the day with a fast food meal to fulfill his caloric needs. Oh, and where does he find the time to train? I still don’t know yet. But every time he has the time to eat properly, his motivation is down because he doesn’t know how long he will be able to sustain his strict diet. And usually, it’s not long enough to see any improvements in his physique, so he just never starts at all.
All those people are not lazy asses, I know them, I talk with them almost every week and they are hardworking and passionate people.
Because they are top of the game in their fields, you probably think that they manage every aspect of their life to a ‘’T’’, but like I always said, when life gets too fast, food is the first thing to get overlooked. It starts with a cheat meal and ends up with a totally dysfunctional diet in just one month.
What we can do about it?
Here’s what I ask my clients when they have kicked out their dietary habits for a while and can’t seem to be able to get back on track.
What’s missing in your diet is missing in your body
When people lose their good dietary habits, it’s usually for less nutritious foods that can be consumed fast and are fulfilling, so they can satiate their hunger. Fatigue and lack of energy are some of the first symptoms to occur, so they continue to fall into bad habits because they compensate for fatigue with bad food. This becomes a mental and emotional roller coaster, a vicious cycle, not caused by a lack of discipline, but usually a lack of essential nutrients. You know, like vitamins and minerals? Ever heard of them?
You know what’s missing in most people’s food choices?
Zinc, magnesium, vitamin D, vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acid.
Five key nutrients that are already hard to get enough of from good dietary habits, so imagine when you fall off the wagon for a couple of weeks. You just burn all of the remaining stores of these until you lack these nutrients and your body starts to show symptoms of malnutrition.
The main problem here is not to get those nutrients back. That’s simple. Just go to your coach, ask him to write you a whole new diet that is on point with all the strict eating patterns, get the scale back and eat five times per day. You will be back on track for maybe 3 weeks until everything falls apart again. So NO, that’s not a good solution.
The first thing to do is identifying the client’s possibility. How many meals they can eat and maintain a steady schedule on. If it’s once per day then let it be, just respect the client’s schedule, it’s your job to work around it. Find some foods that contain the proper key nutrients that are deficient and choose foods that they like from this list. Foods they will enjoy eating.
For example, if you want to fulfil zinc and magnesium levels, suggest more fatty fish, avocado, nuts, legumes, even dark chocolate. Get them to keep these foods around, so when they find the time to eat, they eat those, they like them anyway. Usually, I will tell my busy clients to keep nuts with them, so they can easily throw some down and get something good from them.
In need for some vitamin D? I suggest beef liver tablets and pre–cooked egg yolks they can keep with them in a cooler. That’s pretty easy, and in the worst case, supplements of vitamin D are available all over the place.
Let’s fulfil vitamin E now. Seeds, nuts, wheat germ, salmon….
As you can see, most animal proteins and good fats will give the body what it needs quickly and easy. So just throw down a list, ask your client to highlight the foods they like, and you’ve just essentially built their diet for the next couple of weeks. No calorie counting, no ratios of macros, no fitness complicated stuff. Just good food that they enjoy eating.
Regroup those foods and create a structured plan
I hear you asking: “But what about the structure of the diet? If there is no structure, how can we improve his diet? As a coach, am I no longer needed?” I can see the fear in your eyes now!
Take a breath and listen: the first goal is only to bring your clients back to a healthy eating pattern. By fulfilling their essential nutrients, vitamins, minerals, they will already feel better, physically, mentally and emotionally. Remember, you need strong and solid good behaviour to follow a strict diet, so if you count only on your client’s motivation to follow the plan, you’re bound to keep starting over.
Ask them to write down what their eating pattern for a week: what they ate, how much, how many times, etc. That will give you a rough idea of their eating habits because this is what they have been eating naturally with no constraints.
Look for regularities withing the pattern.
Example of a day with a frequent eating pattern:
6h00AM – 3 boiled eggs + half an avocado
11h30AM – handful of almonds between two sessions + one banana
4h00PM – salmon filet with rice and mixed veggies + 2 squares of dark chocolate
9h00PM – was tired after the day and ate an entire watermelon!
This is not bad. Ok, he did eat an entire watermelon, but you know, it’s not a bad food. This naturally self–made plan indicates several useful things to build his plan:
- He ate mainly proteins and fat to stay productive. Probably a dopamine dominant individual still needs tyrosine and phenylalanine as building blocks to build his dopamine. Those foods are what gives him the energy to start the day.
- As the day passed, he slowly started to introduce carbs. Probably due to high-stress levels and cortisol elevation, the need for serotonin becomes more important, so introducing carbs later in the day may be a good option.
- Eating an entire watermelon may not indicate something very important besides the fact that he was tired and didn’t want to cook food, but the fact he falls for such high amounts of fruits indicates that he may be lacking some calories during the day. Also, watermelon is high in B6 and magnesium. So, it may indicate that it makes him feel good at night so he can relax naturally. The B6 will also act as a cofactor for serotonin production.
Now based on this, ask him questions and take notes on how he feels before and after each meal. It helps to give cues on how and when to structure the diet.
Now it’s time to build the real diet.
Calculate how much calories he needs per day. Keep it simple, you can go on the internet and find all sorts of calculations, but things are rarely this precise. I usually go with this simple calculation and make adjustments ‘’en route’’:
Physically active clients (work or training hard and often):
Bodyweight (lbs) x 18 (lean individual)
Bodyweight (lbs) x 15 (overweight individual)
Sedentary people (can train but not on a high–profile degree – sit for most of the day)
Bodyweight (lbs) x 13 (lean individual)
Bodyweight (lbs) x 10 (overweight individual)
Now I hear you again! ‘’Yeah, but it’s like throwing approximation into our plan?? There’s no science behind this? Do you have any studies to back this up?’’
Yeah, it’s called try it for real instead of only reading it in a book. Apply it for a couple of weeks, and then make adjustments after you get the client’s feedback. The goal is to start something to create a physiological response. Stop overthinking and get stuck with so many numbers. Changing body composition is about action, numbers are only a guideline.
What about meal frequency?
You need to keep the same meal frequency that fits your client’s schedule, it’s their diet not yours. If their self–made plan shoots for 2 meals per day and one snack, then build it this way. Try to fit quality foods in those time blocks and respect the time they have to eat.
Also, you need to understand that if they don’t have that much time to eat, they probably shouldn’t overeat in the middle of the day since they need to be productive later. I cannot imagine someone who has to flip at 20 feet in the air eating 3 cups of rice and 350gr of proteins for lunch.
What about workout nutrition?
To make this simple, your client needs to get their nutrition back on track. So, don’t make it overcomplicated. I usually only give options for intra workout nutrition based on the type of training they do and also how many carbs they need in a day.
If the frequency of training is high, and the body composition of the client goes to a more muscular and leaner body, I usually throw in some carbs intra workout alongside EAA (essential amino acids), so it can help them to feed their workout even if food timing is not on their side.
For more overweight clients, only EAA can do the trick, since those kinds of clients usually need a bit of a kick to burn fat. Training in a low carb environment will usually help to burn fat quicker.
An easy rule of thumb to help your clients improve their body composition when getting back on a healthy eating pattern is to put the carbs on workout days and cut the carbs on off days while increasing proteins and fat a little. This way they don’t get too hungry on off days.
Is there any need for supplements?
Finally, when everything has been put in line with the diet and your client is happy with this kind of eating pattern, consider adding supplements to fulfill any missing links in the diet. For example, omega-3 is something really hard to hit only with food, even when you are on point with it, so adding some fish oil supplements can be a good alternative.
Adding some magnesium for a client who seems to have difficulty relaxing at the end of the day can be a great way to lower stress and anxiety, especially if it is combined with glycine or magnolia bark. Not only will it help muscle to smooth out a bit but it will help to produce some neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA to relax and lower cortisol.
Consider adding some Kelp since it is high in iodine and most people who lack quality in their diet will be deficient in it.
The final point is simple, give your clients time to come back to it. Bad dietary behaviours will never be corrected by falling into a strict and limiting diet. The steps are simple:
1. Focus on healthy food choices first. Create a list of healthy foods that fulfil the essential micronutrients that are missing and let the client choose what they like and want to eat. As long as the diet is not under control, stepping into a limiting structure will never work.
2. Once the pattern of food choices is corrected, you can slowly introduce a structure with X amount of calories and X amount of proteins, carbs and fats. This step can only be successful if you respect the rules established in step 1.
3. Complete any workout nutrition and supplements needed for the clients once you know that the main diet will be healthy and complete with the foods prescribed.
4. Make adjustments to the diet based on client feedback, results, etc. Usually, just getting these steps under control already gives great results.