Dear Doc: I suppose I'd consider myself a "gym rat." I've got quite a bit of muscle mass. I guess I'm what you could refer to as "stocky." This tends to be a problem around PRT (Physical Readiness Test) time. I'm a perfectly healthy guy in my 20s, but I have a lot of anxiety when it comes to weighing in.
I often resort to practically starving myself for a few weeks before the PRT and then recovering by eating a few sizeable meals after.
I've heard that this kind of "yo-yo dieting" isn't exactly the smartest thing to do and, honestly, I usually don't feel very good for a few days after. I also try to stay away from the many "fad diets" out there (Keto, intermittent fasting, Paleo, etc.), but I'd really like to know what I can do to avoid either of these things. Also, what are the dangers of what I'm currently doing and these types of diets?
-Petty Officer 2nd Class Jim Ratt
Dear PO2 Ratt: Many service members face the same issues. I found just the person to talk to about this. I contacted Army Maj. Jordan DeMay, nutrition domain lead for the Army's Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F) program at U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command's Center for Initial Military Training at Fort Eustis, Virginia. Here's what he said:
Weight is one measure used to determine how healthy a person is. It is not the end-all, be-all. However, in the military, that notion is complicated, to say the least. But there are several steps that you can take to improve your physical readiness without sacrificing how you feel.
Physical activity is a key component of maintaining one's health. A mix of cardiorespiratory, resistance, and flexibility training should be included as a part of an ongoing exercise plan. However, you cannot out-exercise a bad diet. Therefore, you must also have a healthy eating pattern that you can maintain long-term. In doing so, foods should not be labeled as 'good' or 'bad.' Instead, a healthy eating pattern should be centered on a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains, with other foods added in moderation.
The reason dietitians recommend staying away from yo-yo dieting or weight cycling is due to the way you may lose that weight. If you attempt to lose a lot of weight fast, you likely will lose fat (which is good) and muscle (which is bad). When you combine that with overeating after meeting your goal weight, you compound the problem as most of those extra calories are going to be stored as fat. In this case, you most likely will have a decrease in muscle mass and an increase in fat mass. Rather than crash dieting, a smart strategy to lose weight is to aim for losing about a pound or two a week, while incorporating all components of your exercise plan (cardio, resistance, and flexibility) and establishing a healthy eating pattern. This will allow you to maintain your lean mass while losing fat mass.
In terms of fad diets, the mere definition of fad is the primary reason to avoid such diets. A diet should not be short-lived. Instead, aim to establish an eating pattern you can maintain for the long run. It should provide the proper amounts and types of food necessary to fuel your body for the demands you place on it. This may look different if you have a physically demanding job compared to someone with a more strategic or cognitive role. While there are circumstances when your diet may change temporarily, such as during deployment, maintaining a consistent, healthy eating pattern is the primary goal.
Beyond achieving a healthy eating pattern, I would encourage you to focus on developing healthy eating behaviors. While more emphasis is often placed on what you eat, it is just as important to consider why and how you are eating. To do so, there are a variety of self-reflection questions you should consider.
-How Well do you plan?
If you are going to maintain a healthy eating pattern, you must have access to the foods you need to be successful. Create a weekly menu for your meals and snacks. That menu is then your guide to developing a shopping list. This will ensure you have the right foods available when you need them and help keep you on budget by stopping you from buying foods you do not need.
-Think about why you are eating?
Are you truly hungry or are emotions driving the amount or types of foods you are choosing? Perhaps certain social situations impact your food choices, such as when a coworker brings donuts to work. Or is your environment influencing your food choices? Examples of environmental factors are the number and type of food outlets you pass on your way home from work or product placement to induce impulse purchases at a grocery or convenience store. The better you can identify factors that affect your food choices, the better you will be at limiting those influences that can derail your progress to a healthier lifestyle.
-Which foods are you putting in your body?
Putting low-grade fuel or skipping tune-ups will eventually cause your car to break down. The same is true for your body. Limiting processed foods (high in fat, salt, and sugar) and focusing on high-quality items (foods with a high vitamin and mineral content compared to the number of calories) will help keep you in tip-top shape.
-Do you practice other mindful eating tactics?
Try to listen to your body's cues. Your stomach will communicate with your brain when you are full. The only problem is that this takes about 20 minutes. Slowing your pace of eating can help you to recognize these fullness cues. It is also helpful to just eat, when you are eating. Distractions can mask signs of fullness. Playing on your phone, watching television, or reading can all cause these distractions.
By this point, you may be saying to yourself, "but eating healthier is so much more expensive." While that is the case in some situations, there are ways we can lessen the cost and still eat a healthy diet. Buying fruits and vegetables seasonally can increase variety while decreasing your grocery cost. Also, some people often associate lean proteins only with meat products. However, nuts, beans, seeds, and legumes pack a hefty protein punch at a much lower cost than meat products and you will get some fiber and other nutrients to go with it.
I know I've covered a lot. The best place for you to start is to set a few short and long-term goals. These goals can include diet and physical activity, but also consider other aspects that can positively impact your health. Look to improve your sleep, mainly the duration and quality. Additionally, stress management is another area that can influence how you feel and your overall health. Tackle goals that are 1.) the most attainable for you and 2.) the ones that will have the biggest impact on your health. If you need more information or resources, check out the Warfighter Nutrition Guide found on the Human Performance Resources by CHAMP website. Best of luck!
PO2 Ratt, If you're looking to lose a few pounds (or more), it looks like slow and steady is your best bet. It also looks like awareness and planning are key factors in facilitating real change in your diet and exercise routines.
Hopefully, you can take Maj. DeMay's tips and adapt them to best fit your schedule and lifestyle. Additionally, here's hoping you can get to a place where you're satisfied with both your muscularity and your weight. I don't think you necessarily need to give up one for the other.
Good luck my friend and as always…take care out there!