The Downside to the Power of Story for Fat Loss

Last August I posted Using the Power of Story for Fat Loss, which I think is one of the more important posts on this site. The short version is that if we can wrap the complexities of an effective diet into a simple story that inspires us and aligns with our values, it has a much higher chance of working.

For me, I developed the Peasant Diet. This is a diet of simple cheap foods that are higher in volume and lower in calories. The Peasant Diet is not a modern poverty diet. Potatoes, not Doritos. It worked for me because not only did I drop calories, but because it saved me time and money, both which are important to me. You can read the full story at How I Used the Peasant Diet to Lean Out.

The story was working. Everything was going strong. Then came my injury on September 19th. It didn’t affect my diet at first. But after a few months, it was clear my injury was not getting better. It was getting worse.  So in addition to starting physical therapy, I reduced my daily steps from 10,000 to around 5,000.

The progress I was making most of 2017 came to a halt. My story was no longer as strong. Instead of being the Peasant walking across my village, I was the modern man at home sitting in front of my laptop.

Pause the Story

Then in late November, I read the book Nutrition for Injuries by Lyle McDonald. The takeaway lesson I got from that book was that I needed more calories to heal from my injury. Eating like a Peasant was likely hurting my recovery.

I will absolutely be eating a higher calorie diet rich in dairy protein during this recovery and future ones.

By pausing the story and eating more calories, especially dairy, I knew the risk was I could gain weight if I got the calories wrong. But since my primary goal was getting my knee health 100%, I accepted the risk.

The Recovery Plan Failed

Increased rest and increased calories didn’t work. Nor did PT. Instead of the extra calories going to make my knee better, I gained 6 pounds (197 to 203). Considering I started at 222, I’m OK with the risk I took, but I’m pulling the plug on the higher calories for healing plan.

Weakening the Story

My story for fat loss was solid, right up until I got injured. Then it got weak because my primary goal shifted. The good news is I caught this quickly.

This week I have been thinking about every time period where I made measurable progress in health and fitness and every time I slipped. The times I did best were times when I was following a simple story. The times I didn’t were when the story got weaker.

A weaker story is not necessarily bad, especially if there are flaws in the story. The lesson I want to share is that without a strong story, motivation and compliance will fall. Find a new better story if the old one is no longer working.

My New Story

I’m ditching the majority of these dairy calories I’ve been consuming the last two months. I’m returning to Peasant. Potatoes, grains, legumes, eggs, etc. I’m highly motivated. I don’t like the idea that I spent all that extra money on food only to gain weight. Eating cheap to get lean aligns with my values best.

For my knees, I have accepted that I may never get to 100% healed. I’m trying new exercises thanks to a few commenters. Maybe they will work, maybe the won’t. Time will tell.

Another plan that aligns with my Peasant Diet is to use the Fasting Mimicking Diet to increase the production of stem cells in my body. I’m hoping that tripling the level of circulating stem cells will speed my healing. But even if they don’t assist with the knee recovery, they still have a lot of other benefits and I’ll save money those 5 days. Win, win!

My story is strong again.

My latest Peasant discovery are these whole grain mixes I found at Cash & Carry. I got both for around $15 total. Watching these simmer for 35 minutes is no fun, but this week I cooked both via the pressure cooker in about 8 minutes. Saving money and time. Pure Peasant!

Using the Power of Story for Fat Loss

In previous posts, I mentioned how this year I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of stories when it comes to fat loss and diets in general. Stories provide easy to understand compelling frameworks to follow. Stories can provide novel ways for us to view our relationship with food in ways that inspire us to take action or be more compliant.

Stories are often more persuasive than facts and good stories will have a visual component.

Every successful diet is some combination of a reduction in calories and increase in activity. CICO or Calories in Calories Out. Eat Less, Move More. This is boring. It is not inspirational. And we all know it has a high failure rate.

Most people that have tried to lose weight have attempted to go head-first on a diet in this manner and most have failed. Many have failed repeatedly. So even if we know we need to do this again, we mentally hesitate not just because it is hard and requires willpower, but because we know we likely will fail. Knowing this might be a conscious or subconscious thought, but we know it.

Most people that have tried to lose weight have tried to go head-first on a diet in this manner and most have failed. Many have failed repeatedly. So even if we know we need to do this again, we mentally hesitate not just because it is hard and requires willpower, but because we know we likely will fail. Knowing this might be a conscious or subconscious thought, but we know it.

Paleo, The Zone, and Vegetarians

Paleo is an example of a great story. In this story, we have visions of warriors walking the plains and hunting ferocious animals. We have an enemy: Modern foods. And because so many other people have discovered Paleo, we also have a tribe. A simple and compelling narrative we can follow.

The result of a Paleo diet is increased focus on nutritious foods, more activity and a reduction or elimination of processed foods. For many, this leads to a reduction in calories and an increase in fat loss. The story serves their need even if the details weren’t always true.

Meanwhile, The Zone Diet which made a splash in the late 1990s never gained the traction and excitement that we see in Paleo. The idea of a magical zone of nutrients captured our attention for a while, but making 5-6 small meals each day with the correct ratios was a chore. Although it did the same thing the Paleo Diet did, it was a worse story.

Vegetarians have an amazing and compelling story which is they can do their part to stop the suffering and slaughter of animals. Although vegetarianism isn’t a fat loss diet, it does have a high compliance rate. That story is extremely powerful.

Both Paleo and vegetarianism are visual stories. The Zone is not.

paleo desert

Photo by Wilson Szeto

The Problem With Stories

Although it is possible to adopt a simple story and use it successfully for months, years, or even longer, we live in a world where we are bombarded with conflicting information. Our stories will be challenged. That may or may not be a good thing.

Going back to this post where I told how my friend believes firmly in the Atkins Diet and carbs will also make him heavy regardless of calories. If that story falls apart for him, will it inspire him to find a new path and improve his health more or will it send him down a path where he feels even less in control with more hopelessness? In this case, I suspect the latter. So the story he believes, which isn’t completely true, is serving him well right now.

But people like us – the people that read health blogs – don’t live in bubbles. Our stories get challenged all the time. If someone successfully rattles our beliefs, our story will lose its power to inspire us. Maybe not 100%, but the seeds of doubt will have been planted and that same inspiring story will no longer be as motivating. And without an equally compelling story to move to, you very likely will find the gains you made slip away from you.

Building a Story

You may not need a story, but I’ve discovered they can be extremely motivating and powerful. They work. But we can’t lie to ourselves. Calories do count. Willpower is not unlimited. We live in a world of endless food choices, many of which have been designed by food chemists, that know you better than you know yourself.

Stories work because they provide the simple framework we can use to navigate our modern world without having to think about the details. Good stories should also be visual. A Paleo warrior hunting is more visual than a Zone dieter weighing food on a kitchen scale. Both are going to eat similar amounts of protein, yet one vision inspires and one doesn’t.

In an upcoming post, I will tell you about the story I created and how well it has worked for me so far.

The Time the Vegetarian Got Sick

Several years ago I was at a potluck and one of the dishes was a vegetable soup. A friend of mine who had become a vegetarian had the soup. She enjoyed the soup and seemed to be in good spirits and health.

Later the discussion of health and nutrition came up. She went to thank whoever brought the soup because she couldn’t eat the meat dishes. At that point, the wife of the couple that brought the soup informed her that the dish wasn’t vegetarian and they used chicken stock as the base.

Within the next 20 minutes, I saw my friend go from happy and healthy to miserable. Her stomach hurt. She was nauseous. Her skin was pale.

Then the husband of the couple that brought the soup returned from the store and was informed of what happened. He shook his head and stated that he cooked the soup with a vegetable broth. The soup was 100% vegetarian. The wife said she saw the box of chicken stock in the kitchen. He told her that was for another dish they were taking to a potluck the next day.

My friend now knew she never consumed a meat product in that meal. Yet for twenty or so minutes she believed she did. This made her sick. Legitimately sick. Everyone could see her getting ill. Once she learned she hadn’t had meat, the paleness of her skin went away, but she claimed to still feel ill. But less so. She seemed uncomfortably confused. Cognitive dissonance.

This episode demonstrated to me the power our mind can have on our body when we believe something we ate is toxic. The belief of how harmful meat is the body was so powerful to my friend that she developed symptoms from just believing she had consumed meat.

This story is not meant to poke fun at vegetarians. You can see it with people that discover they consumed wheat and believe they are gluten intolerant. Maybe they were at one point, but the symptoms don’t appear until they discover later what they ate.

People also use positive associations to feel better. Vitamins are the classic case. Take this capsule and you’ll be better. And they do feel better, right up until the day they discover most vitamins are worthless.

The takeaway lesson here is that stories on nutrition and health can be extremely powerful even when they aren’t completely true.

When I think back to times when I made the most gains in health were also times that I was exposed to a new compelling story about health. And the times when I slid the most were the times when those stories fell apart.

I have a very smart friend who does not believe in the CICO (Calories in, Calories out) model for him. For others maybe, but not for him. He KNOWS for himself that carbs are bad for him and as long he follows Atkins he will lose weight. If he doesn’t, he will gain weight. This belief has become a self-fulling prophecy. When he follows Atkins, he stops drinking, exercises and controls his meals. When he slips, he eats normal food, drinks wine and doesn’t exercise.

I don’t bother correcting his belief because, without it, he’d likely gain more weight and drink daily. It is all he has.

In my next post, I am going to discuss a nutritional belief of mine that got shattered and when it did, the weight started falling off.


Photo by Tanja Djordjevic