Alisa Turner - Integrative Health Coaching

If your health is suffering and you’ve been living on the Standard American diet and/or yo-yo-ing” around your whole life, will there be some amount of sacrifice to achieve health goals?  Probably. You can’t have an unlimited amount of everything you want all the time. But you should never sacrifice everything you love all the time either, or you’ll never sustain the positive results you achieve no matter how much discipline you have.  

Health, like anything else in life, is about choices.  For me, 2-3 “indulgent” meals a week is the sweet spot because it allows me to look forward to several social meals, so I never feel deprived, and I’m still fueling my body properly the vast majority of the time such that I have plenty of sustained energy, a healthy gut, and immune system, mental clarity, impeccable blood work, a healthy body fat percentage, and I feel STRONG!  This combination means the healthy habits are SUSTAINABLE, which is critical because long-term consistency is where real results happen.

Friday is pizza and a movie night at our house pretty much without fail. Is it the healthiest choice? Depends on your definition of healthy, but I say it is (despite being full of gluten, pepperoni, extra cheese and served with a side of brown butter chocolate chip cookies).  Why?  Because it’s important to my son that we share this experience together, cauliflower crust pizza is not going to cut it, and these moments are just as important as veggies 🥬, protein 🍗 🥚, water, sleep, exercise, and meditation. 

I also go out to eat another 1-2 times per week, and I order whatever I’m craving.  Because my body has now been programmed to be in alignment with my values, I usually crave relatively healthy foods — but I never restrict. I don’t know how many calories are in my order because it’s impossible to know unless you make it yourself. And it doesn’t really matter because it’s only 3 meals out of 21.   

This one change alone – simply limiting the number of meals you eat out in a week and will get many people huge gains.  But those people don’t usually walk through my door because when it’s that easy, why bother paying someone. 

I seem to work with the people who have tried everything else and are still stuck. This is when we have to dial in the accuracy and track the WHOLE HEALTH PICTURE, not just the food. But for this post, let’s focus on the food piece.

If you think you can limit yourself to eating 3 meals out of the house per week, then 85% of your meals are made and eaten at home so you can know EXACTLY what’s in them as far as calories, and macros IF YOU TAKE THE TIME TO WEIGH FOOD AND SEARCH FOR IT IN AN APP.  

Now you can structure these meals to be in alignment with those other indulgent meals and still stay on target IF YOU PLAN. Then it’s usually just simple math.  This is an oversimplification, and the approach will be customized based on the client, but basically — you just estimate (almost always overestimate) how much higher your calories will be on your two or 3  “indulgent” meals and you lower your calories slightly on the other 18 meals of the week.

Here are a few potential pitfalls and their solutions. 

A. YOU’LL HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO DO THE MATH IF YOU DON’T ESTABLISH A BASELINE FIRST.

In order to figure out how to adjust the other 18 meals to allow for 3 indulgences, you have to know where you are NOW and where you are trying to go.  Most people have no idea how many calories they eat in a day so the thought of this is overwhelming.  Some people overestimate.  Most post people underestimate.  Either one presents a problem, and accuracy is key when you’re stuck.  

SOLUTION:  Track your current food intake for a few weeks.  Sometimes, just by tracking you’ll find that you make healthier choices and your progress resumes.  If so, problem solved.  If not, it’s time for a new strategy so let’s talk!

TIPS: 

  1.  Weigh everything and put it in an app like My Fitness Pal.  

If you’re not weighing your foods, your baseline will never be accurate.  (i.e.  135 g slice of pizza is VERY different than a 180 g slice of pizza), and you can see that a few hundred calories consumed consistently in either direction can make a big difference.  

Believe me on this.  I can stuff a cup of cheese into a 1/3 measuring cup, but the scale never lies!    

  1. Stay out of restaurants and avoid takeout during this short period.  

There’s no way to know what’s in it or how to track it if you haven’t made it yourself.  If you must go out, choose a place that lists its nutritional content because a salad can be 400 calories or 900 calories, and a slice of cake can be 300 calories or 700.  

Just remember that even if they are listing nutritional content, scoop sizes vary per scooper.  I promise you they are not weighing out the salad dressing and the oil/nuts back in the kitchen.  So really try to eat at home.  This is only for a few weeks.  Once we nail down our strategy, we build those restaurant meals back into your routine.  Often times, this one change is the only change you need.

  1. Once we have a strategy and we build back in your meals out, I usually recommend overestimating calories on your indulgent meals for tracking purposes.  Always call me if you’re uncertain about how to record a food in the app.  
  1. Make sure you’re choosing the appropriate protein:  raw or cooked matters because cooking releases water.
  2. Calorie-dense foods like nuts, seeds, cheese, & sauces are especially important to weigh in grams or ml.  

B. TRACKING IS TIME CONSUMING WHEN YOU EAT DIFFERENTLY DAY TO DAY

TIME IS VALUABLE SO PEOPLE GIVE UP BEFORE THEY KNOW THE NEXT STEP.

SOLUTION: MEAL PREP

If you weigh out your food in portions and assemble the basics for your meals on Sundays, tracking in the app as you go, the work is basically done because once  you enter the food in the app once  it stays in your history.   

Besides tracking purposes, this can also limit impulsive eating decisions because you won’t want to have to go back and search for something new and weigh it unless it’s really worth it.  

You’ll be more likely to eat something heathy when your hunger gets out of control if you have it ready to grab, whereas a bag of chips sounds like a fantastic idea when you’re really hungry and unprepared, and at that point, you’re not likely to put it on the scale.  You’ll reach into the pantry and inhale whatever you can get your hands on.  Or you’ll go through a drive-through.  And then you won’t know how to track what  you just threw down your throat.  

C. MEAL PREP TAKES TOO LONG

SOLUTION: SIMPLIFY YOUR MEALS

No one wants to prep their food on Sundays, and I get it!  Time is our most precious commodity. But if you stop overcomplicating your meals (5-10 ingredients is a good benchmark) and batch cook, meal prep shouldn’t take longer than an hour.  In this amount of time (once you get the hang of it),  you can have some hard-boiled eggs or overnight oats, 5 salads, protein balls, and extra protein/ grain/chopped veggies from your salad prep for dinners ready.  

When you prep simply like this, you actually  SAVE a lot of time in your week.  Once you see this happen a few weeks in a row, the habit feels more sustainable, and you’ll have a better chance of sticking with the tracking long enough to have clarity about what needs to change.

TIPS:  

  1.  Focus on prepping macros rather than meals. Meal prep feels less overwhelming this way.  You want to have all 3 macros in a meal:  carbohydrates (think veggies, fruit, rice, oats, beans), fat (think sauces, dressings, avocado, nuts, oil, eggs), and protein (think chicken, shrimp, beef, fish, tofu, yogurt, eggs, cottage cheese).
  1. Stick with whole foods not only because they’re healthier, but also because there are less options to overcomplicate meal prep this way.  As you enter them into the app, you’ll also learn that most foods are a combination of the 3 macros which is an enlightening experience that will help when I give you a macro target.  
  2. Eat repetitively.  If you eat the same 6 or 7 meals on repeat,  you save time trying to search for foods and convert measurements for new meals on subsequent days because when you weigh/enter food into the app once it remembers it.  This way it’s only tedious and inconvenient for first few days and you’re more likely to stick with something when it requires less effort.  

Eating repetitively has other benefits in the beginning as well:  

  • Takes thought out of meal plans which is helpful because a lot of people get overwhelmed and quit tracking too early.  
  • Helps ensure entries are accurate or at least the inaccuracies will be consistent and less likely to impact baseline calculations.  
  • Establishes routine which helps build consistency. 
  • Resets the brain and can have a positive effect on cravings.  
  • Shines a light on any nutritional weak spots.  

Get into a rhythm with 2 or 3 options you can rotate for each meal:

Breakfast:  I like to rotate overnight oats, eggs and fruit, cottage cheese or yogurt and fruit.  And collagen in my coffee.

Lunch:  I eat some slight variation of the same salad pretty much every day.  I make 5 lbs. of chicken in a crockpot every Sunday and use this on my salads every day.  I get variety by switching up the dressing, using different nuts, adding in some seasonal items, etc.  But essentially, it’s the same salad.  Because it’s fuel and it’s a really great way to eat a rainbow every day.

Snacks:  I don’t snack much because my macros are optimized but when I do I like grass fed turkey sticks, cottage cheese and fruit, veggies/hummus/guac, mushroom coffee and collagen, and protein bites.

Dinner: I use the same protein (usually shredded chicken from my Sunday crockpot) and veggies I chopped up for my salads and put them on tacos, rice, cauliflower rice, rice noodles, quinoa, heart of palm noodles, etc.  Again, you can get variety by using a different sauce and a different base each night.   Just make sure you weigh the sauces and bases for accuracy.  

D. EATING REPETITIVELY IS BORING

SOLUTION #1:  CHANGE YOUR MINDSET ABOUT THE FUNCTION OF FOOD AS FUEL.  

In order to eat repetitively for a while without dying of boredom, you have to switch your mindset:  FOOD IS PRIMARILY JUST A SOURCE OF FUEL.  If you’re expecting a creative masterpiece, comfort for stress or anxiety, or a gourmet delight of your tastebuds from every meal you will be miserable.  

Food absolutely CAN be all these things, but I suggest that you focus on it being strictly fuel for the beginning of this tracking strategy.  If you’re really struggling after only a few weeks, this is good information as well because it’s  a signal that something else besides food needs to shift.  You can be bored with food for a while if you have other tools to manage stress and other things to occupy your attention and stimulate you.  This is not forever.  We just need to get these habits nailed down, and we can switch things up later. .  

Once you’ve used this strategy a while, you’ll actually begin to crave the things you’ve been eating on repeat, which is a really cool transformation to witness.  Occasionally I’ll have a craving for something not on my usual rotation like stuffed mushrooms, lasagna, or enchiladas.  I also crave seasonal items in my salads.   Or I’ll see a recipe that calls to me, and I want to make a healthier version of it.  These times are when I switch things up.  I make a huge batch of whatever I’m craving and freeze leftovers for next time.  But I ALWAYS have salads, eggs, fruit, shredded chicken, and some sort of sweet treat ready to grab.  This leads me to solution #2:

SOLUTION #2:  IF YOU HAVE TIME AND MENTAL BANDWIDTH, FIND AND PREPARE/TRACK ONE NEW RECIPE A WEEK.  

You’ll slowly build a stockpile of recipes in the app.  MAKE SURE YOU DON’T DO THIS AT THE EXPENSE OF MAKING THE “REPETITIVE” FOODS EVERY WEEK BECAUSE THOSE ARE YOUR “SAFETY NET”

When “life happens” and you don’t have time to make that complicated dish you were planning because someone is sick or you got called in to a late meeting at work,  you’ll be able to grab one of these previously prepped staple items.  I bet you’ll find that “life happens” more frequently than you expected!  And if you somehow stay on track with that extra meal and now you have too much food, you can freeze most of those leftover staples, so they don’t go to waste. 

E. WEIGHING AND TRACKING CAN BECOME OBSESSIVE

SOLUTION:  Turn the strategy over to an expert.  

Tracking is a short-term evaluation tool, not a lifestyle.  This is why you have me.  I gauge when it’s time to take a break.  Once you learn your body and what portion sizes truly look like, your cravings subside, you establish some consistency, and you eat relatively routinely….the weighing and tracking fall away until the next time we need to pull them out.

F. YOU DON”T WANT TO GO TOO FAR OFF BASELINE INITIALLY WITH “INDULGENT” MEALS OR YOU RISK CREATING MORE PROBLEMS

SOLUTION:  SEE MY PERSONAL STRATEGY BELOW.

HERE’S  THE MATH BREAKDOWN OF HOW THIS WHOLE PROCESS LOOK FOR ME.  

In order for me to maintain my weight in this season of my life, I need to eat between 1800 and 2,200 calories per day, so let’s use 2000.  (It used to be MUCH lower, so don’t worry if you’re starving yourself on 1000 calories a day just to maintain your weight.  There’s a solution for this.)  

Let’s say I eat those 2000 calories spread evenly between 3 meals (I don’t).  That’s about 667 calories per meal.  If I’m eating 3 slices of pizza (135 g each), a small salad, and a whole foods brown butter chocolate chip cookie on Friday, I’ll estimate that meal at 1500 calories.  Adding in two 667 calorie meals for breakfast and lunch would put my day at 2800 calories which about 40% higher than my 2000 calorie maintenance level.  40% higher is significant.  I wouldn’t recommend going higher than that, and for those people just starting out, this could be too far outside their average target setting them up for failure on subsequent days.  It really depends on the person and what part of the process they are in.  That’s why I have a job!

But let’s just say that I’ve tried it, it worked, I felt great the next day, and I want to be able to have 2 meals like this every week.  I have a few options:  I can decrease calories the other 5 days a week by 15% from 2000 to 1700 calories and keep 2 days at 2800.  Or I can decrease all 18 other meals down 10% from 667 to 600 giving me five 1800 calorie days and two 2700 calorie days.  Or some combination of the two strategies.  

Regardless of the strategy, I’d better be darned sure that my macros are on point, I’m eating plenty of fiber/veggies/color, and I’m properly hydrated and well-rested those five days.  Otherwise, even that minor 10-15% reduction in calories could result in unmanageable hunger and a spiral of cravings.  

Both experiments carry a risk, but the reward is worth the risk.  You risk going too low in calories and you wind up eating two or three times what you had planned for your “indulgent meal” because hunger levels were so out of control.  You can also wind up with intense cravings on subsequent days.   This risk would be even higher if you were under a lot of stress, sleep deprived, and/or dehydrated.  It would definitely be unwise skip both breakfast and lunch attempting to ONLY eat pizza and cookies.  The reward is that you begin to learn your body, so there truly are no mistakes.  It’s more impactful when you try a suggestion and see what happens than it is when I just tell you what will likely happen.  This is one reason we track hunger levels (and many other things) throughout the day — to optimize macros and maximize the level and duration of satiety so you don’t wind up binging later on.  

These are all new habits and skills you’re learning so it takes grace and perseverance.  Just stick with the tracking until the habits start to solidify.  I’m very in tune with my body so I no longer weigh/measure/track on a regular basis  (unless I’m in a calorie surplus to gain muscle because that still SCARES ME).  If I create a new recipe, I figure out the macros and the portions in case clients want to try it, but I pretty much just adjust calories down or up depending on how I’m feeling.  But for the purposes of writing this article, I tracked, and I usually wind up at about 1800 calories on 5 days of the week and 2400 calories on 2 days of the week if I’m trying to maintain my weight. If I were trying to lose weight (I am not), I would just all those numbers down slightly.   As I’m trying to gain muscle, I am adjusting all those numbers up slightly.

If your maintenance (again, you need to track to know your maintenance) were 1500 calories, you could adjust the percentages from average accordingly to accommodate two higher calorie days.    You could have five 1300 calorie days and two 2000 calorie days.  

If you’re trying to lose weight starting from a 1500 calorie maintenance average, we should probably talk; we need to optimize a few things before slashing calories or you’ll set yourself up for failure.   

If you’re trying to lose weight starting from a 1000 calorie maintenance average, or you have no idea what your maintenance level is, we definitely need to talk.