Kelli Keyes

How to make long-term changes from a short nutrition challenge

Every year we do a nutrition challenge as part of a fat loss contest. Participants follow a series of guidelines that progress as the weeks go by, and many of them make some pretty dramatic changes to their body in a relatively short period of time.

This approach is not without its drawbacks. Short-term rule following is difficult to transform into long-term “unconsciously competent” habitual behavior. The encouragement of the former can even impair development of the latter.

The physical changes you make in a 4 or 8-week nutrition challenge will be temporary unless the process also informs knowledge and behavior that lasts long after the guidelines are no longer taped to your refrigerator.

In this sense, the most valuable part of the nutrition challenge is what happens in your mind, not what it does to your body.

The physical transformation is always transient, but changes in perspective are usually not. The extent of what you learn – the changes in knowledge and awareness that you make – are determined by what you pay attention to.

The central premise of our nutrition challenge is to eat only things that you do or feasibly could make yourself, from food that you can recognize. Meaning plants and animals. Things that come from the soil, swim in water or fly around.

It’s basically the Don’t Eat Shitty Food Diet ™.

This sounds simple in practice, but inevitably produces a landslide of technical questions and rule-beating behavior.

“What if the brownies are ‘paleo?”

“Can I just do protein shakes all day?”

“Is LaCroix water ok to drink?”

This last one: LaCroix water, is a good marker for the divide between short-term physical impacts over longer-term mental/emotional processes.

LaCroix is a brand of fizzy water with “natural” yet unspecified proprietary flavoring and something around zero calories.

Now, the immediate nutritional distinctions here are insignificant in the short term. Will LaCroix water make you gain fat or get sick if you drink it for a week or two? No.

If that’s all you’re concerned about, it’s fine.

Keep in mind, however, that short-term rule-following won’t produce long-term behavior change, and that lifelong health and fitness will be a permanent struggle without those changes.

From that point of view, the behavioral components here are more important than the short-term nutritional impacts. You can think of this “nutrition challenge” as a way to gain awareness around your relationships with food.

In particular, look for instances of dependency and reflexive, automatic decision-making. Become curious about how your consumer behavior has been funneled so that you’re emotionally reliant on an industrially-manufactured product to satisfy some combination of thirst, hunger and boredom.

These feelings put you in a place in which your impulsive drive is to seek these products as a remedy.

The important question to ask here is “Why?”

What need is being met by this product? What job is being done? How could this story be different?

The actual outcome, whether you decide you need to drink some artificially-flavored fizzy water to feel better or not, isn’t as important as using the tension this decision produces to gain some insight into why you eat and drink the things that you do.

It’s knowing that a decision is being made, that there are alternatives to that decision, and that a series of largely deliberate factors (on the part of an industrial food system and the marketing divisions thereof) have led you to make that decision, preferably unconsciously.

Many industries are built on convincing people that they need to purchase the ability to do something. That you can’t go jogging without special clothes and a fanny pack full of exercise candy with three different water bottles. That you can’t go hiking without a $400 stop at REI for the right outfit and specially-formulated snacks that enable you to walk up a hill.

It’s all nonsense, of course.

When it comes to buying little cans of flavored fizzy water, you could just as easily make your own carbonated water with a gadget like a Sodastream and add your own flavoring, by squeezing some lemon or lime into it.

What you’ll notice, though, is that carbonated water plus freshly squeezed lemon does not taste all that much like the “naturally-flavored” lemon-esque beverage you can buy in a store, and that you may have developed a preference for the manufactured, artificial version.

Examining the basis for this preference is what matters.

Again, whichever you choose isn’t important within the confines of a short nutrition challenge. But, there are long-term implications both with the products themselves and in how that decision-making echoes through the rest of your eating behavior.

The part of this that requires awareness and examination is why you’ve developed this automatic preference, and if you feel that it’s best to maintain it or change it, and if the same thing happens elsewhere.

What you reflexively do in one instance is quite likely the basis of what you instinctively do in every other comparable situation.

For nutrition challenges like these, those 30 days are about looking more closely at what those impulses and decisions are, becoming more aware of the process, and always asking why.

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