We are creatures of habit.
We like routine and are generally good at following guidelines and advice.
On the flip side most of us do not do as well where we are set strict rules - these usually mean restriction and limitation.
When it comes to nutrition, exactly the same situation applies.
We therefore need to develop a different approach to coaching new clients on improving their healthy eating habits, and this is about providing guidelines and habits to follow, not rules.
In this article we explore the art of habit coaching, and in particular you will learn the 10 most effective habits to use with your clients and why.
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Give someone a set of guidelines to follow, they do it; set strict rules and the chances are they will break the rules and just give up.
This is the main difficulty with setting a strict calorie and/or macronutrient intake for every client – these are too many rules.
As the saying goes, rules are made to be broken.
For the average client (someone who follows a typical Western diet) who is starting out on improving their nutrition, counting and tracking daily calories can feel like a difficult task.
A new client may also not know what a calorie is, nor have any understanding of ‘how much of what’ is in the foods they eat. This can be a big learning curve, and one that can instantly put new clients off.
Also in order for a new client to start tracking calories they will require measuring devices, food labels, databases and a calculator to keep on top of it all.
As a nutrition coach, you know calories matter in relation to a person’s goals, so you might have certain food/nutrient requirements in mind for your client.
However, throwing numbers at new clients right at the start may not bring the same results as if it were you or I following the same plan.
When new to good nutrition, numbers are just too complicated and focusing on getting these right interferes with the client learning to treat food as the fun, social activity that it should be. It becomes just dealing with numbers.
It can also create a lot of anxiety and confusion, which is usually the main reason they have sought your help – to remove the ‘fear factor’ of nutrition.
Some nutrition coaches get around this ‘numbers game’ by doing the calculations themselves and setting their client a strict, rigid nutrition plan that adheres to the correct numbers. This is usually in the form of quantities for each suggested meal, along with frequency and timing.
Having such a rigid eating plan has the same effect as actually showing the numbers to the client – it’s still a set of strict rules they will have to adhere to.
And here’s the thing – someone new to good nutrition does not need this amount of detail to see results.
Many clients have acquired bad nutritional habits, and they practise these every single day, such as:
As you can see it’s not just a case of counting calories or tracking numbers for these people, it’s about breaking and improving their healthy eating habits.
By changing the clients daily bad habits for improved, healthier habits, the ‘numbers’ usually take care of themselves and impressive results can be achieved from this alone.
From my experience, there are a number of good habits that most people could do with forming, and then adhering to, every single day.
Unlike numbers that come across as rules (which are likely to be broken), the new set of habits comes across as guidelines to simply follow and stick to.
At Exceed Nutrition, I use the following ten healthy eating habits as our nutrition cornerstones when working with new clients.
Experience has shown that great results can be achieved from this alone, and no numbers should be applied until these guidelines become daily consistent habits.
What is habit coaching
Habits are formed when actions are tied to a trigger by consistent repetition so that when the trigger happens, you have an automatic urge to carry out the action.
- When you wake up (trigger), you go brush your teeth (habit)
- When you get to work (trigger), you grab a coffee (habit)
- When you get stressed (trigger), you eat junk food (habit)
Everyday we go through this constant state of triggers followed by habits, and they happen without us even noticing.
How habits form
- Through constant repetition over years.
- At first they were conscious efforts but with time they became more automatic and less conscious.
- There is a feedback loop that encouraged us to repeat the habit for a good length of time.
For example if you feel stressed and eat junk food, you might feel short term pleasure or satisfaction (positive feedback).
But if you’re stressed and stop yourself from eating the junk, you might remain stressed (negative feedback).
The body likes to take the path of least resistance, so it will consistently aim for the positive feedback, causing us to repeatedly carry out an action when the trigger occurs.
This is why improving their diet or exercise routine consistently proves so difficult for many of our clients.
Getting that ‘ah-ha’ feeling yet?
Then check this…
If their ‘healthy diet’ is boring and bland, then it’s unpleasant to follow (negative feedback), so when they give up and eat their favourite foods again, they enjoy it (positive feedback).
And if they currently feel like this around ANY of the changes you are making towards an improved diet or lifestyle then this feedback loop is set up to normally ensure they don’t stick to those changes for very long.
But you know that’s not how to coach your clients anymore.
So let’s sort you out with a better approach, shall we….
The 10 Healthy Eating Habits
1. Eat Every 3-4 Hours Without Snacking
One of the most important healthy eating habits your clients can create, is to ensure they eat regularly throughout the day, while being tuned with their hunger and fulness cues.
By missing meals we tend to under-eat, which leads to a lack of energy and performance. Drastic under-eating also causes a temporary reduction in our metabolism, and can actually slow fat-loss.
Snacking can also reduce our natural hunger cues and ruin our appetites. This can result in irregular eating patterns and lack of eating routine.
For some people, this is the key reason as to why they gain weight.
This habit will also help your clients ‘re-connect’ with their body. The connection you have with your body is the most precious thing you have. It is your past, present and future. Understanding how your body can work for you, and processing the knowledge to make it perform optimally, is the most important information you can ever learn.
Our goal as nutrition coaches is not to just tell people what they should eat and when, but empower them with the ability to finally understand what their body needs from a nutritional point of view, and why.
2. Eat Solid Protein at Every Meal
Many people are drastically under-eating protein, despite it being the key macronutrient for optimal body composition. Its high thermic effect helps boost our metabolisms, making us look better, build lean muscle tissue and reduce body fat.
Over the years a high protein diet has taken the headlines as being unhealthy, but research never holds this up. It is our job to educate clients on the importance of having a high protein diet, and the actual benefits to be gained from doing so.
The easiest and simplest method to achieve this is by following the guideline of ‘eat protein at every meal’.
If you want to take this one step further, you can recommend 2 palm sized portions of protein (both width and thickness) per meal (half this for females).
This instantly boosts protein intake and monitors portion control without suggesting a single number.
A typical serving of protein from a palm sized lean meat will give approx. 15-20g protein. Therefore 2 servings will give approx. 30-40g protein, which is an ideal amount of protein to be consuming per meal.
3. Eat Vegetables at Every Meal
Just like protein, getting clients to eat more vegetables with every meal is highly important.
Green vegetables in particular are incredible sources of energy for the body, along with the provision of huge amounts of micronutrients and important phytochemicals from plant chemicals.
This keeps us healthy, increases satiety and creates an ideal environment for achieving optimal body composition and health.
As nutrition coaches it is important to instill this habit into our clients and show them how eating vegetables can be beneficial and extremely worthwhile.
To take this one step further, you can suggest having 2 closed fists’ worth of vegetables at each meal (half that for females).
4. Eat Healthy Fats
Just like protein, fats have taken a lot of negative press over the years. As a result the popularity of the ‘low fat, high carb’ diet came around and this is still very prevalent today.
The truth is that many people are still scared of fats, yet the research shows that adding fats to some of our meals will actually help with fat loss and improved health.
Out of all the macro nutrients, fats are usually the least understood nutrient and significant effort may be required to re-educate the client on the benefits of eating more.
To take this one step further, you can suggest eating 2 entire thumbs of fat dense foods with most meals (half this for females).
5. Eat Carbohydrates Based On Activity
We know the importance of carbohydrates within the diet, but as they serve as dense energy, they should not to be consumed with every meal.
Also, we know there may be optimal times when our body is more sensitive to receiving carbs and thus will use them for energy and not for fat storage.
It is therefore important for us to educate clients on the ‘why’s’ regarding carbohydrate intake - amount; type; frequency and timing.
General guidelines for quantities would be 2 cupped handfuls of carb dense foods (half this for females) in most meals.
6. Eat Whole Foods
When many people begin to improve their nutrition, particularly when fat loss is the main goal for doing so, a focus is put on supplementation or ‘quick fix’ (fad diets) protocols in order to see results.
They do not believe real food can bring the results they seek, as this is what they have already been following without success.
We know that supplementation will only enhance and compliment a solid meal plan consisting of whole foods. By eating whole foods we will see:
Compare this to diets relying on heavy supplementation or meal replacement shakes – the benefits are clear. The question to always ask is:
By following a whole food approach, the client is much more likely to achieve their goals, stay healthy and maintain their results in the process.
7. Eat Single Ingredient Foods
So the client is eating whole foods, and we can take this one step further to ensure optimal results – by eating single ingredient whole foods.
By creating great tasting meals we will be able to easily manage what nutrients and foods go into the body.
When eating a diet high in processed foods, we are getting extra man-made properties such as sugar and artificial sweeteners/preservatives.
The more ingredients they contain, the more likely they have been processed and the chances are they contain more chemicals/calories as a result.
Just eat real food. When we replace real, traditional foods like butter, meat and vegetables with crappy processed junk foods, we get fat and sick. Real single ingredient food is the key to good health, processed food is not. Period.
8. Drink Plenty of Fresh Water
The majority of the population are dehydrated on a day to day basis. Fact.
Most of our clients will take being hydrated for granted and considering their water intake does not cross their minds when improving their nutrition.
For the human body, water is truly a vital resource as we can only go a short number of days without it, unlike weeks without food.
There is no more important nutrient for our bodies than water. No other substance is as widely involved in the composition of the body and the processes it undertakes.
When the water in the body is reduced by 1% you become thirsty. At 5%, muscle strength and endurance declines. When reduced by 10%, delusion and blurred vision can occur. A reduction of 20% or more can result in death.
The body will also use a significant amount of water daily, so it essential to replace and top up our fluids regularly to compensate for this loss.
A man’s body is about 60% water, women are around 50% and the human brain is made up of around 75%. It is therefore important for clients to ensure they get and stay optimally hydrated every single day.
Optimal hydration levels have been achieved when our urine becomes clear. Note- many supplements such as vitamins and minerals may discolour urine.
9. Remove Intolerances from the Diet
Many of our clients will have intolerances/allergies/sensitivities to certain food groups, which can suppress hormones and disrupt the digestive system.
This usually results in poor outcomes and despite people’s best efforts, progress can come to a complete halt.
As this area of nutrition coaching becomes more popular and further researched, it’s important to understand the difference between the terminologies when speaking about it with clients.
10. Improve Sleep & Reduce Stress
When managing a client’s nutrition habits it is also important to highlight two key lifestyle factors that can have a huge impact on the results – sleep and stress.
Sleep plays a vital role in good health and well being throughout life. The way we feel during the day depends in part on what happens while we are sleeping. During sleep, our bodies are working to support healthy brain function and maintain our physical health.
Reducing chronic low levels of stress in our clients’ lives will also greatly affect the results they achieve from following your nutrition advice.
A high stress environment can increase output of cortisol, which over time can increase blood sugar levels, lower testosterone, suppress the immune function and increase inflammation in the body. So essentially this can result in the complete opposite of what we are trying to do with improved nutrition.
We will all suffer from high states of stress at some point in our life. In today’s busy society we are involved in regular stressful life situations, along with frequent and exhausting training schedules.
This stress is a burden on the body, and we must highlight to our clients the potential damage it can do on the inside of our bodies and how it affects their health.
This article has highlighted the key healthy eating habits to consider with your clients who are just starting out in improving their nutrition.
For us, this is the basics and something most of us do daily anyway, but you will find these are not yet the daily healthy eating habits of your clients.
This article should also help you understand how to coach your clients in these important cornerstones without rigid meal plans and strict rules.
Nutrition coaching is about trying to reap the ‘most from the least’ for people, as not everyone wants to track their food intake and count calories. In fact we know there is a high failure rate with these methods.
So for now, try starting your new clients on these 10 healthy eating habits to start with, and assess their results – I bet they will surprise you.
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