Category Archives: Nutrition

3 Tips for Healthy(ish) Holiday Eating

Dinner parties, cookie exchanges, and chocolate gifts oh my!

‘Tis indeed a season full of tempting treats. This means three things for anyone who finds healthy eating to be a challenge at the best of times:

  1. It’s about to get a whole lot harder to stay on your healthy eating plan.
  2. Many of you are going to feel guilt about this, thus initiating a nasty spiral of negativity.
  3. That will be compounded by the “How to Earn your Holiday Treats” exercise memes that will start floating around facebook any day now, which can further accelerate that negative spiral.

How about this year, we choose a better option to enjoy the holidays? With that in mind, here are my 3 tips for enjoying a healthy-ish holiday:

  1. It’s the holiday season. Hopefully you’re going to go to parties and take part in feasts with family and friends. Accept it and plan to enjoy the holiday eating. Celebrations and connection are important. And throughout history, food has been a central part in celebrations. For those of you trying to follow healthy eating plans, adjust your expectation for the month. Instead of aiming for healthy, aim for healthy-ish. Is there cake for dessert? Have some. Are there cookies at your staff meeting? Have one. The world won’t stop orbiting around the sun if you do so, and your pants will probably fit almost as well at the end of it. Switch back to healthy in January, and by the end of January, you will be back where you are today.

    "Planets2013" by WP - Planets2008.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - Modified by E Vaino to include note about cookies.
    “Planets2013″ by WP – Planets2008.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons. Modified by E Vaino to include note about cookies.
  2. Seek out and say yes to vegetables every chance you get. This is my best tool for healthy-ish eating, and the best option I can suggest to stay healhty-ish and avoid jumping into the deep end of holiday indulgence. Going to a Christmas party? Seek out soup or salad for lunch that day. Is the dinner party family style (serving dishes on the table and you fill your plate), or buffet style? If so, go a bit heavier on the veggies and a bit lighter on the non-veggie options. Vegetables provide a fantastic one-two punch for healthy eating. They are low in calorie and chock-full of micro-nutrients, and they take up space on your plate that would otherwise be filled with lesser foods.
  3. Judge your indulgences before you enjoy them. My criterion is 8 out of 10 for indulgences. Sometimes it’s 7, if I’m in a “meh, calories-schmalories” mood. If my perceived Deliciousness Factor (DF) for a cookie, cake, pie, beer, or second serving of stuffing isn’t at least a 7 or 8 out of 10, then I pass. Don’t worry if you find yourself scanning and thinking “these are all 6s, but I want a treat!” Trust me when I say that this will either never happen, or if it does, your goal for next year should be to become friends with better cooks.

That’s it. Three simple tips to enjoying the holiday season without stressing about the food. It’s a celebration! Relax and enjoy!

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada who apparently doens’t believe in spell check or re-reading blog posts to check for basic typos.

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If you’re Canadian and food labelling is important to you…

Consider stepping up and being part of the solution. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has created a survey for consumers and industry about proposed changes in direction to the food labelling system in Canada. If you’re Canadian, and you have an interest in the direction we take in our food labelling, then please take the time to fill in this survey.

Unfortunately the survey is clunky and long, and I know it’s not easy to find time to fill in surveys like this. In fact the instructions say it will take about 45 minutes to fill in. I didn’t keep track of how long it took me, so I can’t confirm or refute that estimate, but it isn’t short. The upside is that you can save at the end of each section, so you don’t have to finish all at once. The other downside is that some of the questions are oddly worded. In fact they remind me of project meetings from back in my consulting days. My guess is the survey was designed in-house. Oh well. The upside is that there is a lot of room for comments, so if you have ideas do share them. Hopefully someone will be reading.

Also keep in mind that this is a survey for industry and consumers. My bet is that there will be no shortage of responses from industry. This means that if we the consumers don’t take the time to fill it in, the direction of our food labelling system will be (more?) skewed in favour of industry.

What if only industry representatives answered the following question (from the survey):

“Are you in favour of a model in which industry takes a more active role in the development and maintenance of policies on consumer values claims?”

This is my answer:

At the end of the day, industry is responsible to its shareholders, not to the public. By definition that means they have goals that are related to profit over health. They should of course be a stakeholder along with the Government, nutrition and health practitioners, and consumers. But the size of their role should be strongly scrutinized.

I have a friend who is in the frozen foods business, and he once told me that one of their key performance indicators was oil uptake. They try to adjust recipes to increase the relative quantity of oil because oil is their cheapest ingredient. My guess is that all manufacturers have their own version of that KPI, and it is very clear that that does not align with either the Government, health care, or consumer goals for food. This is why industry should not have a bigger stake.

Want to make sure interested Canadians have as much of a say as interested industry?

Here’s the link to the survey again: Canada Food Labelling Survey. Please fill it in if you have an interest in the future of the Canadian food labelling system. The deadline is June 30th, 2015. If you have an extra interest in food labelling, there is an email address for the initiative at the bottom of the first page of the survey.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa who counts on effective labelling to help make healthy choices.

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Pizza and beer for fat loss?

You know how sometimes people write crazy titles just to get your attention, and then it turns out the content is either completely unrelated or is only marginally related to the point that you lose all faith in that person? I’m excited to say that this is not one of those cases.

This is a two month follow up from the start of My Daily Pizza project. Admittedly calling it my daily pizza is a bit of an exaggeration. I have actually only been eating pizza three or four times each week. And for full disclosure: there was one week where I had no pizza. I know, shame on me. But it was only one week! I shared some of the details about how I managed to eat pizza that often without increasing my waistline in the above linked post as well as some observations about how it was going two weeks in.

So that’s the pizza part. I also mention beer in the title. Say it with me in your best Homer voice…mmm…beer…Indeed, beer consumption has occurred over the past two months. Real beer; not that low carb or light beer crap. Craft beers mostly. In particular I’m on an IPA kick, so lots of Flying Monkey, Muskoka Detour, and a few varieties of Beau’s.

And not just once a week either. I’m consistently drinking beer or wine three or four times per week. That probably sounds like a lot, and no doubt some of you are getting your judgement faces on. That’s okay, I can take it. But before you finish putting your robes on, let me explain how I came to my four days of alcohol plan, along with the few other habit changes I’ve made, and then you can decide whether this makes sense.

Strangely, the idea for adopting a beer and pizza diet came from following my 8 week Get Lean challenge. Or more specifically, from contemplating how to adopt the get lean challenge principles into my regular life beyond the 8 weeks of the challenge. The 8 week get lean challenge is cool because it gets you thinking and trying a variety of habitual changes in the hopes that some either stick, or they help you to figure out what would stick. The reality is that we have different goals, desires, expectations, and bodies. We also have big differences in how easy or hard certain changes are for us. It only makes sense that the optimal lifestyle plan for each of us is unique. How you can adapt healthier habits in a way that works for you long term is something we address in the challenge.

In my case, I knew that alcohol consumption was something I wanted to reduce as I had reached a point of having a glass of wine or two every day or almost every day. I also realized that I didn’t always stop eating when I’m full, and I sometimes snack for reasons like “I’m bored”. Lastly, I know that I didn’t get enough sleep and that getting at least 7 hours each night was very hard for me. I realized that my success in living well but also living healthily required finding a way to manage those elements. And so for me, the follow-on to the Get Lean challenge was figuring out how to address these. After following the Get Lean challenge for 8 weeks, I came up with the following plan for myself for the long-term:

  1. Sleep 6.75 hours per night
  2. Alcohol at most 4 times per week
  3. When reaching for food ask myself “Am I actually hungry?”, and if not, walk away
  4. When going to get seconds or something to finish off a meal, wait 15 minutes. If at that point, I still am hungry, then I have it.

I initially created a tracking sheet that I put on my fridge so that I could give myself credit when I met my goals, and also created a plan that helped guide me as to when or whether I should replace or adjust one of my selected actions. My goal was 85% compliance. Using this goal setting and tracking sheet was tremendously helpful to me as it formed a voice in the back of my head reminding me when I was about to break one of these rules. But equally important was arriving at the right set of actions for me. If the actions are too hard, I would fail, and if they were too easy, I wouldn’t change. It was a process.


I spent the first four weeks trying to implement actions that weren’t quite right for me, and so I didn’t succeed enough, but then I made some refinements to arrive at the plan above, and in the month since then have met or exceeded my goals consistently.

The result is that I lost five pounds since starting this process. This is weight that I put on somewhere between one and two years ago, and had not been successful at dropping it again, until undertaking this process. Granted I didn’t try very hard either. I wasn’t motivated to make drastic changes to my eating and exercise habits because, well, I just didn’t want to. I enjoy food and beverages, and I don’t want to exercise more than I already do. Life enjoyment is more important to me right now than losing five or ten pounds.

Interestingly, it was my desire to eat more pizza that led to my new plan that allowed me to lose weight. Bet not many people have claimed that before! As a means to bring more pizza into my life, I figured out how to balance the rest of my lifestyle habits to make room for pizza. As it turns out, I also figured out how to keep the calories down in the pizza itself (without sacrificing deliciousness). And the result was losing five pounds. Cool!

You’ll notice that there is no mention of limiting chocolate, ice cream, chips, or dessert. That’s because I love pizza and beer much more. When I have beer and pizza in my life, I rarely reach for other indulgences. Since it’s so rare, I chose to not put any limits on it. And that worked – I still rarely eat those things, and when I do, it’s okay. What’s particularly cool is not just that the foundation of my diet is beer and pizza, but that I’ve found a balance of lifestyle habits that has long term potential and allows me to be happy and healthy.

The aforementioned four habits seem to be the changes I needed to make to my lifestyle to reach the balance of happy and healthy, but my guess is yours will be different. Hopefully this process has triggered some of you to think differently about what habit changes make sense for you that can improve your health over the long-term. So many people jump straight into “I want to lose weight so I’m going to cut out all junk food, sugar, bread, alcohol and never eat out”. Without a doubt if you do that, you will lose weight. Unfortunately most people who try that fall of the bandwagon fairly quickly, at which point they regain the weight. Sometimes when the weight comes back it brings friends.

Next time you start thinking about cutting out everything “naughty” from your diet, consider instead picking a few small changes to make. It’s true that the initial results from small changes will be smaller, but over time, small changes grow up to become big changes.

Want a little kick-start to help you make changes? Consider our Get Lean 8 Week Challenge or our Get Healthy Challenge (almost the same but a better choice for those who are apprehensive as it’s a bit easier to stick to).

Elsbeth Vaino is an engineer turned personal trainer who enjoys health, food, and exercise

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My Daily Pizza: Observations from the first two weeks

Somehow a decision to try making my own pizza from scratch last weekend evolved into a nutrition lifestyle experiment involving eating pizza every day. It was an acknowledgement of my love of pizza, my enjoyment of cooking, and my amazement at how easy it was to make pizza. As I made the pizza, I also started to rethink it. Is it really a “junk food”? How can it be when the ingredients are flour, yeast, salt, olive oil, a very small touch of sugar, tomatoes, basil, garlic, pepper, cheese and toppings. This is not unhealthy stuff.

Topping selection certainly can affect healthfulness, but if you make it yourself, you can control that. The other challenge with pizza is that it is calorically very dense. Dough is dense; as is cheese. And if you use things like sausage and olives as toppings, it doesn’t take a large pizza to deliver a large meal.

As I pondered the ingredients, I wondered: Was it possible to eat pizza every day without affecting my physical goals? I don’t have any aspirations for six pack abs and am quite content with a bit of “padding”, so long as it doesn’t interfere with my ability to enjoy playing my favourite sports or affect my confidence in how I look.

I realized it would be fun to find out, so I embarked on this “research project”. The response from Facebook suggests that I am not alone in wishing for the freedom to eat pizza daily.

I am now halfway into my second week of the project and already there have been some interesting observations:

  1. My new pizza serving size is smaller than my normal pizza serving size. It would seem that knowing there will be another one tomorrow reduces any need to get what I can now. Or maybe it’s that making it myself means I’m only putting the appropriate serving size in front of me. I’ve never been one of those people who only eats half of some delicious meal and saves the other half for another meal. If it’s delicious and it’s in front of me, it won’t be there for long. But home-made means I can make a normal sized serving.
  2. I tend to snack when I’m bored, or when I have something I’m trying to avoid (yes, I do that). So far, I have done none of that. No unnecessary snacking, and no desires for junk foods. Because I know I’m having pizza later, I feel a desire to eat extra well the rest of the time.
  3. If I’m going to succeed with this, I have to be careful about my topping choices. Realistically, this means limiting meat and olives. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with either, but both pack a lot of calories, which will likely put me over the edge.
  4. I'd like to hang out more often chorizo; but I think it's best if we spend some time apart
    I’d like to hang out more often chorizo; but I think it’s best if we spend some time apart
  5. I’m going to limit toppings to no more than three, preferably two (not including cheese and sauce). I think this just makes sense from a love it, don’t smother it perspective. I think it’s going to take a while to figure out what combinations are the best from an I love this! and a this is still healthy perspective. More research!
  6. I need to keep an eye on the cheese quantity. Not “no self-respecting pizza-lover would make this” low – the point is delicious and healthy pizza, not ruining pizza. I think the key will be following the concept of Minimum Effective Dose, or in this case, Minimum Delicious Cheese. I think experimenting with different types of cheese may lead to great things here. Not all cheese is created equal.
  7. I am trying to sort out what is an appropriate serving size. I know it has to fit in with my overall daily nutrition, but I’m not sure how just yet. It will take me some time to figure out what portion of my daily menu should be taken up by the pizza, both from an enjoyment and a satiety perspective. I started using a nutrition tracker to help sort that out, and will continue to do so until I have a better idea. So far my pizza servings have stuck between 420 and 585 calories, and a macronutrient breakdown in the range of 50-60% carbohydrate, 17-22% protein, and 18-27% fat. Not bad!
  8. Artichoke hearts, mushrooms, pesto, mozzarella, and goat cheese. 420 calories, 60% carbohydrate, 22% protein, and 18% fat.
    Artichoke hearts, mushrooms, pesto, mozzarella, and goat cheese. 420 calories, 60% carbohydrate, 22% protein, and 18% fat.
  9. I bought a digital kitchen scale to help with this. It’s too hard to eyeball the portion of the package to get an idea of how much cheese I’m using and my analog scale is very hard to read accurately.
  10. I’ve had a side serving of vegetables with each pizza this week, because veggies are amazing. I have decided to make this a mandatory accessory.
  11. Even though I’m calling it My Daily Pizza project (I even bought the url. Not even joking. Nothing there yet, but maybe soon.), I’m not going to literally have pizza every day. Not because I worry it won’t be healthy, but because I don’t want pizza-making to feel like a chore, and as it turns out I do actually like other foods. Last week I had pizza five days, and this week looks like it will be four of five days of pizza.
  12. Once the dough and sauce are made, it is actually remarkably quick to make the pizza. And making the sauce and dough on Sunday is really not that much work either. I’m still a bit surprised at how easy it is.
  13. I think my body is doing well from this challenge, but it’s too soon to tell. I haven’t actually weighed myself in months, and I don’t really have an interest in starting. I’m generally happier when I don’t weigh myself regularly. Molly Galbraith of Girls Gone Strong had a great line in a presentation at the Women’s Fitness Summit last year (might be slightly paraphrased): “Should you weigh yourself? Does weighing yourself make you a crazy person? If yes, then no.” It turns out I am closer to the yes than the no end of that spectrum. Instead I’m keeping track of my results based more on observations: how well my clothes fit, how I look in the regular exercise videos I record, and how well I perform at the gym and on the ski slopes, ultimate field, and tennis court. So far so good, but it has been less than two weeks. Once again – more research!

I’ll report back in another week or so. In the meantime, have any pizza options you’d like to suggest?

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer at Custom Strength in Ottawa, Canada and a believer that it is possible to eat food that is both delicious and healthy.

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How to eat the foods you love without consequence

I have uncovered the secret to enjoying the foods you love without negative consequences: Stop eating the things you don’t love.

It sounds ridiculous, but read on and I think you’ll agree.

This post stems from a my mission to be able to eat pizza everyday without any negative effect on my body. I adopted this mission on the weekend after making a delicious pizza from scratch. I have always loved pizza, but I don’t have it as often as I want because I know it will soften me up and that will have negative consequences on my performance in sport and in my job (I’m a personal trainer). But making the pizza from scratch was like a light bulb turning on. It was so easy, the ingredients were so basic, and the friend I cooked for brought over a salad so we had pizza on half the plate and vegetables on the other. Huh. Does that still merit being categorized as an occasional treat, or could I adjust the ingredients and serving size such that it actually becomes a healthy meal?


That research is joyfully on-going (pizza 3 days in a row and counting!) and I will report the results once I have more data.

A couple of hours after enjoying last night’s experiment (half plate of olive, mushroom, mozzarella pizza with a side of steamed baby bok choy) I headed to the kitchen for a small handful of chocolate chips when my inside voice stopped me in my tracks: “If you add chocolate snacks to your week, it might make your daily pizza experiment results look bad.” Whoa. That is not an acceptable exchange. I am excited about the possibilities my daily pizza experiment holds, and there is no way I’m going to let a snack I don’t really care about contribute to it’s failure.

I smiled as I returned to the living room empty handed. I wasn’t actually hungry, so I didn’t feel deprived for leaving the chocolate in the cupboard. The smile was because I had just schooled myself in one of the key habits I encourage in the Get Lean Challenge I created: When making food decisions, taste is an important consideration. As part of that program, I encourage those taking it to make two lists:

The A List: 3 not-so healthy foods you love
The B List: 3 not-so healthy foods you don’t really care about

Here is the sample I provide in one of the program emails:

My A List:

  1. chips
  2. red wine
  3. molasses cookies

My B List:

  1. Pie
  2. Store-bought cookies
  3. Most restaurant French fries (don’t get me wrong – I love good fries. In fact good fries would make top 5 on my A List. But fries at most restaurants are very disappointing)

After making the lists, they are then tasked with referring to those lists often, and any time they reach for an item on their B List, they are to ask themselves if they are really sure, and to remind themselves that they would probably be happier if they either chose something healthier or held out for something better.

Last night I skipped the chocolate chips because I was holding out for more pizza tonight. It’s remarkably easy to say no to junky foods you don’t really love, when you put it in that perspective.

What is on your A List and B?

Once you’ve made your lists, try this strategy out for a while. If the experience of the participants in my get lean challenge is any indication, you’ll find this a very effective strategy for healthier and happier eating.

Intrigued about this 8 week get lean challenge?
Truthfully we really should re-brand it as an 8 Week Get Healthier Challenge. But often Getting healthier results in getting more lean. In fact, this thought lead to creating a second version – The Get Healthy Challenge. It’s basically the light version of the Get Lean Challenge.

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Weigh less and exercise more?

December 31st. The day we all take notice of our shortcomings and decide to do something about it. And for many of us, it’s about 3 days before we revert back to accepting our shortcomings.

Are you a new year’s resolution person? Have any for this year? Are they related to weight loss, healthy eating, and exercise? If so, I have 3 suggestions I’d like share:

  1. Have a read through this post I wrote previously about resolutions. Or interpret this super-dense summary: “A small resolution that you do for a long time becomes a big change. A big resolution that you do for a short time becomes a small change.” Are you contemplating a big change? Is it one you’ve tried before without much success? If so, maybe it’s time to break it down a bit.
  2. If you’re gung-ho on the healthy eating, exercise, and weight loss realm, then check out our online habit-based Get Lean 8 Week Challenge. We’ve been offering it since 2013 with great reviews. It’s an 8 week program where you take on a new habit each week, and each day, you receive an email with information and insight into that week’s habit. Click the link above for a few more details and to register.
  3. Pick up a copy of Erin Brown’s ebook, As Is: A 21 day practice for finding a home and peace in your skin. Seriously. Do it. You will thank me for the recommendation. Especially if you are a woman, or if you are the parent of a girl. In truth, I am only halfway through at the moment, but it has already had a very big (and positive!) effect on my own body-image and on how I talk to myself. I just can’t state enough how much I think you should buy this book.

    That’s it that’s all. The only thing left to say is Happy New Year! (and to go find out what the rest of the Auld Lang Syne lyrics are…)

    Elsbeth Vaino, CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa. She trains clients at Custom Strength in west centretown.

The problem with blaming obesity on low-fat guidelines

There was a post going around the internet recently called, 12 Graphs That Show Why People Get Fat. It’s definitely interesting, and I think raises many great points. But it also includes one point that is misguided.

#4. “The Obesity Epidemic Started When The Low-Fat Guidelines Were Published“. It’s got a nice graph that shows clearly the introduction of low-fat guidelines in the mid 1970s and the beginning of a rise in obesity also starting in the mid 1970s. And in fairness, they do point out that “correlation doesn’t equal causation”.

Here’s the problem with including low-fat guidelines as a suspected cause for rising obesity rates: The guidelines didn’t result in people eating less fat. Here’s a table of data extracted from the Statistics Canada Publication, Food Statistics 2005 that shows the breakdown of calories, fat, protein, and carbohydrates eaten in 1975 and in 2005:

macro consumption trends canada

In the 30 year period from 1976 to 2005, people increased their fat intake by 18%. They also increased their overall food intake and their carbohydrates, but only by 11% each. In other words, since the low-fat food guidelines came out, people didn’t decrease the portion of their diet that is fat: they increased it. Can we really blame a low-fat diet for our rising obesity rates when we haven’t been on a low-fat diet?

Much of the current research about weight management suggests that there isn’t much difference in the long-term success of any diet options, but rather success reflects the ability to follow the guidelines. Which is pretty much what the data above shows for the past 30 years: not following a recommended low-fat diet leads to an increase in obesity. Although I will flag that with “correlation doesn’t equal causation.”

(details about the basis for the data in that table, including a note about data quality can be found in the post, Is it really the carbohydrates?

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa is a fan of facts.

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Carb tolerance related to geography?

I’ve long suspected that how we respond to food is influenced by where we come from. It just made sense. Human evolution is just too smart to not have adapted to the foods around us. I’ve also often thought that for those of us living in countries like Canada and the USA, that we can’t just take for granted that the food here is what we are meant to eat. Many of us are first or second generation in this country, which, following my thought process, suggest that we may be displaced nutritionally. And having seen different people respond very differently to the same food, it only made sense to me.

Which is why this blog post by a nutritionist at Precision Nutrition caught my attention. It reviews recent research about genetic variations as they relate to carb-tolerance, and how those variations seem to have geographic ties. Here’s the full article for those like me who find this stuff fascinating, and here’s my super-brief summary version:

  • Research has recently shown that ability to make amylase correlates with obesity
  • Amylase is made by the AMY1 gene
  • It turns out we don’t all have the same number of copies of genes; and in fact we can have from 2 to 16 copies of AMY1.
  • Those with more copies of AMY1 can breakdown carbs more effectively than those with fewer.
  • “People living in historically agricultural societies like Japan had, on average, seven copies of AMY1, while people near the arctic circle in places like Yakut, Russia had, on average, four copies of AMY1.”
  • “If you have more than nine copies of AMY1 then you are eight times less likely to be obese compared to someone who has fewer than four copies of AMY1.”
  • The article points out that the variance above was based on a small range of BMI (25-27kg/m2), so care must be taken in interpreting the meaning.

Fascinating stuff! It’s very clear that there is much more to learn on this topic, but still – interesting!

I guess because this is about carbs, but this topic makes me think of the new research Gary Taubes is doing. In principle, it’s an impressive undertaking, as they are looking at individuals in isolation where they can actually monitor response to food as opposed to counting on the ever-flawed self-reporting. What concerns me is that all of their participants are overweight or obese. If the research above holds true, then those who are overweight or obese have a different carb-tolerance than those who are not. So if Taubes’ research does show that a low-carb diet is better for their participants, is it applicable to the entire population? Or just to those who are already overweight?

Clearly the result of that study is still going to be interesting and important; but it probably shouldn’t be taken as being “the best diet”.

All that to say – there is interesting research going on in the world of nutrition!

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa who finds nutrition and exercise research to be intriguing.

8 Pre-Requisites for Fat Loss

[Updated June 18 2015 from 5 to 8 pre-requisites. What are the odds it's exactly one year later?]

This post came to me while running on the beach this morning. Ya, hard life. I thought about the fact that my main source of exercise during my vacation this week is running, not going to the gym. This made me think about Alwyn Cosgrove’s great article, The Hierarchy of Fat Loss, which is one of my favourite fitness articles ever. My version of exercise this week is way down the list. And yet it strikes me as exactly what I need right now because it’s relaxing and beautiful, and more importantly, I want to do it.

All this lead me to think about a different perspective on the hierarchy of fat loss. And so I came up with my own version: The 8 Pre-Requisites for Fat Loss.


1. Have Goals

It’s really hard to stick with something when you don’t know what the point is. Let’s face it, we live in a world where food and beverage temptations surround us almost constantly. Some of them are literally manufactured with the intent of being so delicious that you have to muster every ounce of willpower to say no to them. That’s a lot easier to do when you know that it’s contributing to something meaningful.

Some people try for goals like “lose weight”, or “be more healthy”. That rarely works. Goals need to be more specific to be helpful. They have to mean something. I wrote more about this a while ago while I was going through a period where I was struggling with saying no to chips and saying yes to working out. I didn’t have any meaningful goals to keep me on track.

You need goals that mean something to you. Is it sports performance? Looking awesome in a bathing suit? Avoiding having your pre-diabetes become full-fledged diabetes? Preventing another heart attack? Losing weight to take strain off your painful knees? Continuing to keep up with your grandkids? Proving to yourself that you can run a mile, or bike for an hour, or lift weights, or play a round of golf…There is no end to the possibilities when it comes to meaningful goals. Think about what eating better and being more fit will really mean for you. Can’t come up with any goals that really mean something to you? Then maybe fat loss is not a viable option on your short term to do list. If you can’t think of a good reason why you want to do this, are you really going to succeed? If this is you, it doesn’t mean you should do nothing. If being more healthy is a goal, then add in a few simple healthy changes until you sort out your goals. Two of my favourites are:

  1. eat a primary protein
  2. make half your plate vegetables

Do that for at least two meals each day. It’s a great step toward health, makes you mindful of the connection between eating and health, and isn’t that hard to do because it doesn’t require taking anything away.

2. Your Goals Must Be Achievable

Part two of having goals is making sure they are realistic. Losing 50 pounds in 3 months is not a realistic goal. Yes, I know you saw someone do it on the Biggest Loser, but that’s television. It’s not real. Not even a little bit. Weight loss goals should be achievable in the real world. Think closer to 1 pound  per week. If you overshoot it, great! If you meet it, still great. Remember, this is your life and your health we’re talking about: here’s hoping it’s a long race!

This also means you need to break it into bits. If your goal involves losing 50 pounds, break that down into 5 or 10 pound chunks. That means you’ll be thinking about 5 to 10 week periods. Celebrate each mini victory along the way. This is crucial because our brain works like the economy. Your brain evaluates rewards using a net present value principle. That is, it discounts rewards that are far in the future, and places a higher value on immediate rewards. That chocolate cake next to you is delicious and now. Your reward for saying no to it is in the future. The more meaningful the goal, and the less time until you meet it (the first part), the more likely you’ll be to say no to another piece of chocolate cake.

3. Address Why You Eat

“Do you only eat when you’re hungry?”
“Do you stop eating when you’re full?”

I believe these are the two most important questions you can ask about fat loss, and I’m guessing most of you answered no to one or both of those questions. I know I did. What that means is that there’s an emotional element to your weight. This is the crux of why I think books like Why We Get Fat are mostly irrelevant: they address eating with the assumption that people eat too much because they’re hungry. But most of us actually eat for many reasons. Sometimes it’s out of hunger,but other times it’s because we start thinking about (or see) delicious food, which leads to thinking about how much we’ll enjoy it. That’s enough to fire up our brain’s pleasure centre, and before we know it, we’ve got our hand in the cookie jar.

Other times we eat because we’re stressed. Or because it makes us feel less lonely. Or in some cases, it’s a defence mechanism.

I’m taking us into a bit of an uncomfortable topic, but it’s too important to ignore. The truth is that for many people, food is an emotional response to issues that we’re having trouble addressing. Neither a trainer, nor a nutritionist is equipped to help us address that. For many of us, getting psychological counselling to help us address these underlying emotional reasons is the most important step we can take for our physical health.


4. Your Medications May Be a Hurdle

If you have fat loss goals and you are on medication, ask your pharmacist or doctor if there are known impacts of the drugs you’re taking on weight. There are prescription drugs that may make it very difficult for you to lose weight. There’s no simple solution here, unfortunately. Your best bet is to talk about it with your doctor about it. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to improve your health through lifestyle changes! It just means you may need to temper your expectations if your goal is fat loss.

5. The Best Exercise is the One You’ll Do

In the aforementioned article, “The Hierarchy of Fat Loss”, Alwyn Cosgrove lists the order of importance for what type of exercise you should do to optimize fat loss. I believe he is 100% right from a physiological perspective. Assuming you will do the exercise, the order he presents is bang on. The problem is that’s a big if. The reality is that most people don’t continue their exercise regimen. They stick to it for somewhere between a few days and a few months but then they quit. If that’s the case, then the best exercise program is not much better than the worst one.

What if you found a form of exercise that you really enjoy? You might actually look forward to it. Odds are you won’t quit if it’s something you love. If you’re someone who has a hard timing sticking to an exercise regimen, it’s time you started thinking about movement that you love. Do you play sports? Did you as a kid? Maybe it’s time to take up a sport again? If you never have, have you wanted to? Odds are there are beginner adult leagues in your area. Let coach google help you find one. No? What about running? Hiking? Biking? Yoga? Weightlifting? Swimming? In-line skating?

What’s the ideal? In my opinion, the ideal week of exercise is what I include in my Get Lean Challenge:

  • Some form of exercise for at least 30 minutes, at least 5 times per week. 
  • At least one each of the following:
    • Something that makes you stronger
    • Something that makes you move
    • Some physical activity that you love

There is a trap that some people fall into that I hope you will all avoid as you become aware of it. Adding a moderate amount of exercise does not require you to eat extra food. If you are doing intense exercise, then yes, things like pre and post workout nutrition become relevant. For half an hour to an hour of moderate exercise each day, a regular healthy eating plan will do.

By the way, did you know exercise makes you smarter? Fact! A new area of research has shown that in addition to the many physical benefits to exercise, it is also one of the best ways to generate new brain cells. Neuroplasticity! Is there anything exercise can’t do?

Here’s a great chalk-board animation about the ridiculously long list of physical benefits of exercise.

6. Be Prepared to Be More Disciplined…for a While

Let’s be honest with ourselves here. If we’re accustomed to eating seconds (one overflowing plate is really the same as seconds), and daily desserts and wine, we’re going to have to cut back on some of that if we want to lose fat. You don’t have to make radical changes, like going from daily chips and coke to no processed foods and no sugar. But you do have to make changes if you want to see changes. Maybe you’ll go from daily dessert to three times per week, or you’ll go for either wine or dessert.

Whatever changes you adopt, be ready for your personal version of the cartoon devil and angel verbally duking it out on your shoulders. Because devil you will try to convince you to give up. Over and over and over.
“It’s just this one time. You can go back to the changes tomorrow.”
“This pie? It’s not really dessert; it’s fruit.”
“Exercise? But you had such a long day. And the new season of Orange is the New Black is out.”

Angel you will be there fighting back to convince you to stick with your plan, with reminders like:
“Just wait 15 minutes and see if you really want it.”
“You’re doing so well, and you get to have a treat tomorrow; so hang on today.”
“You know you’ll feel soooo awesome after you exercise, and then you can wath OITNB.”

The good news is that the more often you give devil you the cold shoulder, the less power her or she will have over your food and exercise choices. And the longer you stick to the changes you make, the easier it is to continue to stick to them.

7. Get Enough Sleep

If you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re not going to lose fat. Pretty interesting, right? Sleep rules when it comes to fat loss, and a host of other health issues. Studies about sleep and weight have been pretty consistent in their conclusions that lack of sleep makes you more likely to eat bigger servings of food, puts you at a higher risk for obesity, and even for type 2 diabetes.

8. Don’t Beat Yourself Up

What if instead of chastising yourself when you stumble on your eating and exercise plan, you asked yourself “what happened and what could I do differently to prevent the stumble next time?“, and then let it go instead of beating yourself up? The reality is that focussing on the negative as a means to motivate yourself doesn’t work for most of us. And it’s unpleasant for all of us. One thing I’ve noticed about the clients I have who have done my Get Lean program, is that the ones whose self-talk sounds something like:

“I felt guilty about the night before!”

“I was chaste after my indulgences of yesterday and frankly too angry at myself to be naughty two days in a row. I guess sometimes guilt is a very useful thing :-)”

“I fell off the wagon and feel very guilty and bad about it…. I just needed to start doing it “

are less successful than those who focus on a positive goal. I think this ties back to the point above about how the brain assesses rewards: the focus on feelings of negativity about previous performance is not a powerful motivator!

If you’re someone who beats yourself up, and you motivate yourself with feelings of guilt or shame, do yourself a favour and try a different tactic for a while: focus on a positive goal and see how you do. You may find you have more success, with the fringe benefit that you’ll likely feel better about yourself in the process.


Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada.

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If you love red wine like I do and are trying to cut back…

Fact#1: I really enjoy drinking red wine.

Fact#2: drinking a glass of red wine every night is reasonably healthy. Moderation and lots of antioxidants and whatnot.

Fact#3: going out once or twice a week and drinking 2 or 3 glasses of red wine is reasonably healthy. That moderation thing again.

Problem: Implementing Fact#2 and Fact#3 in the same week activates the Cumulative Moderation Effect (CME).

Awesome Side Story: one of my clients shared the Cumulative Moderation post I wrote a couple of weeks ago with a co-worker of hers. Apparently it really resonated with the co-worker, because over the last 2 weeks, this co-worker says a number to my client every time she sees her. That number is the number of pounds she’s lost since reading my post. Eleven is the number! Wow! I love hearing stuff like that. CME is such a simple concept, and yet I think it’s one that is often overlooked. If you haven’t read the post, I suggest you do so now. I’ll wait…

Back to the wine…: I’m sure you’ve all guessed that the reason I brought up the facts above about red wine consumption is that I suffer from that strain of CME. Or at least I used to. Now I’m cured of CME thanks to my new Miracle CME Cure.

Do you also suffer from the red wine strain of CME? Can’t wait to find out more about The Miracle CME Cure? You’re in luck! For only 3 equal payments of$24.88, I will share with you this Modern Miracle Cure…

…Or maybe I’ll just tell you, because maybe it’s less miracle and more just something that works for me.

Miracle CME Cure

I have replaced my daily evening red wine with a sparkling water, lime and ginger cocktail, served in a wine glass. It’s really very tasty. And drinking it out of the wine glass with the sliver of lime and piece of ginger in it makes it feel quite special. Oh – and it’s somewhere between neutral and healthy on the nutrition scale.

Try it out! Or find yourself another way to treat yourself. The thing about that evening glass of red wine, is that we tend to reach for it as a oh ya I feel relaxed now measure. But there are other ways.  Meditation. Reading. Herbal tea (this one is especially delicious!). Fancy sparkling water with lime and ginger. Perhaps you have another option to share?



Elsbeth Vaino, CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada who is fascinated by the behavioural aspect of food and drink.