Saturday, July 28, 2018 1:44:22 PM
Three Steps to a Fresher Lifestyle

Successful lifestyle change is based on changing old habits into sustainable new habits. In the long run sustainable habits make us feel better than the old habits, which is why we want to stick with them.

While this may sound simple, one of the hardest parts of creating lifestyle change is figuring out where to begin. Here are my three steps to success that I share with my clients, from the average person who wants to feel better to elite athletes who are going for gold. 

Step 1: Focus on what you need to eat, not what you can’t eat next

The last century of weight loss advice has been negative, telling us all about what we can’t, or shouldn’t, eat. We have lists of foods to restrict and avoid, leaving us in the very unsatisfying place of eating by default. Whatever isn’t on the list that we can’t eat, is all that is leftover that we can eat. Clearly that has not been a successful strategy, as during the last half century our nation has expanded our collective waistlines many times over.  

When we interview folks who have lost weight and successfully maintained their weight loss over many years, they report a few common life strategies that have worked for them:

Eat the food that you love, but less of it

Eat more plants

Drink more water 

Exercise every day, or almost every day, forever

Nowhere in that list are foods that you should restrict or avoid. You can’t find the negative Madison Avenue marketing mumbo jumbo that tells you that your body is broken, and you have to starve it to reach your goals. On the contrary, success stories seem to be based on what you need to eat, not what you can’t eat next. 

Our bodies are amazing physiological organisms that are programmed to survive. That means we adapt and change to the internal environment that we expose ourselves to, and the external environments in which we live and move. When we fuel our bodies and feed our brains with nourishing foods, we nurture our cells to perform at peak levels. As that environment changes, our cells adapt in order to survive. Sometimes that survival adaptation is not in our long-term best interest, because what we have been feeding ourselves, or exposing ourselves to has not been even close to what we need. 

When we feed our body and brain the abundance of foods needed for optimal health and performance, we can heal, and we can feel good. 

Step 2: Feed your brain

It may sound odd, but the nutritional needs of the brain and central nervous system are slightly different from the needs of your muscles, bones, and some of your other organs. The standard message about eating a plant-rich diet applies to your brain as well as your body, but there are some important details that you shouldn’t miss. 


Somehow the conversation always comes back around to carbohydrates, but this time it’s about how much you need to eat, not how little. Your brain is an energy hog. On an average day your brain consumes 20% of your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR). RMR is the energy that it takes to run your body when you spend a day on the couch binge-watching an entire season of your favorite show. An average RMR may be 1300-1500 calories per day, so your brain is using approximately 260-300 calories per day. 

Glucose, the simplest form of carbohydrate in your body, is the primary fuel for your brain. Research has shown that blood sugar levels can decrease during hard mental tasks, and when more glucose is available to the brain, performance of hard mental tasks may increase. While this is not a one to one ratio and there is some contrary evidence, there is no doubt that your brain needs and uses glucose at its primary source of fuel. 

The brain also can use a secondary source of fuel: ketones. Ketones are a by-product of fat metabolism, and when glucose levels are low the body and brain can adapt to use ketones as fuel instead. This is a secondary fuel source which limits our ability to exercise at intense levels, but it seems that cognitive performance does not necessarily suffer once subjects are fully adapted to the high fat-low carbohydrate/ketogenic diet. 

Emotional well-being on a low carbohydrate diet is another story. The manufacture of serotonin in the brain, our most abundant “feel-good” neurotransmitter, is dependent on the presence of carbohydrate in the blood stream. Published data report that depression-prone individuals are at a higher risk for clinical depression when following a very low carbohydrate diet. Widespread anecdotal reports tell the stories of emotional swings, poor anger management and generally low mood in people trying to follow low carbohydrate diets. According to research, diets that are less than 40 percent of total calories from carbohydrate can be depressing in depression-prone individuals. 

Since all my clients exercise, and I want them all to be able to challenge themselves with some higher intensity workouts, I counsel everyone to include 40 percent of their calories from carbohydrates. They can fuel their brains, fuel their training, get the lean and sculpted look they desire, and feel great the whole time. That’s a sustainable strategy.

What food to include? All plants: grains, beans, fruits and vegetables. There’s also some carbohydrate in milk and dairy products, depending on how much fluid is left in the product. Most of the carbohydrate is in the whey, which is why Greek style yogurt with less water than regular yogurt, contains a little less carbohydrate. You can also have enough carbohydrate to use it in a targeted way to fuel your high intensity training. That’s how I use Vitargo (, a superfast pure starch, to fuel training and recovery. I count it into the carbohydrate that I need for the day. My number one strategy to feel great while you lose weight.

Egg yolks

If you haven’t heard the alarm bells ringing from the nutrition community, you should listen now. I’ll start at the beginning: while we as a nation have been dumping egg yolks down the drain for decades to keep blood cholesterol levels in check, there has never been a single study that demonstrated that egg yolks actually raise blood cholesterol levels. There was likely no impact on our risk of heart disease, but lacking egg yolks in the diet did lower our consumption of a very important B vitamin, choline. Choline is half of the most abundant neurotransmitter in our bodies, acetylcholine, which works every time we think or move: 24/7. Choline is also required to support the creation of channels in our brain cell membranes so that nutrients can pass into and toxins can pass out of brain cells. Without choline we don’t feel, think or move very well. Egg yolks are the primary source of choline in the US diet, and as a nation we have become marginally deficient in choline as we dumped egg yolks down the drain. 

To have a healthy brain and feel and perform at your best, start to eat the whole egg. I recommend at least one whole egg daily. That change alone will close to double the choline intake of most people. Several studies have shown that even 3 eggs daily do not raise blood cholesterol levels in healthy people. I like to encourage more variety in your diet to get the rest of your choline: cauliflower, mushrooms, dark leafy greens, shellfish, asparagus, brussels sprouts, bok choy, liver, and fish.

Fish, Flax, and High-Performance Fat

Sixty percent of your brain consists of fat. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in the membranes surrounding brain cells play a role in every step of serotonin function, including boosting mood and keeping it elevated. Serotonin carries messages between brain cells. The term that scientists use to describe a healthy brain cell membrane is fluid. We’re not talking about water here, but about the ability of brain cell membranes to send messages efficiently and effectively from one to the next. The better the ability to send messages, the higher the fluidity. The concentration of PUFAs in brain cells determines the fluidity of the membrane. High concentrations of omega-3 fats (specifically the type of PUFA found predominantly in fatty fish) are critical to fluidity. So eating wild salmon and low-mercury tuna is good for your brain as well as your heart. Forget the high fat content. This is healthy fat for your brain. The same goes for adding a tablespoon of ground flaxseed to your diet. You can use flax oil if you prefer (it costs considerably more) or packaged flax meal (much more reasonable), but don’t settle for eating the whole seeds (about a dollar per pound in bulk). We can’t digest the seed hull; the seed’s inner goodness and fatbusting qualities will pass right through you. I prefer the seeds to the oil because the fiber in the seeds is a great prebiotic. Whole flaxseeds are easy to grind in a coffee-bean grinder. I have a small grinder solely dedicated to flax. Some people don’t like the taste of flaxseed or flax meal, while others love the nutty flavor mixed right into a bowl of cereal or yogurt with fruit. If you don’t like the taste, it is easy to mask in a smoothie, or even a scrambled egg or hamburger patty. Here’s where home recipes meet science. A recent study examining the association between depression and selected nutritional factors found lower levels of PUFAs in the red blood cells of depressed women when compared to healthy women. It also found significantly lower levels of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and linoleic acid, two essential fatty acids found in flax. These study results support the results of several earlier studies. Flax, fish, and eggs put you back in balance. A study conducted in 1998 investigated the influence of total dietary fat on mood. During the first month of the study all subjects ate a diet consisting of 41 percent of the calories from fat. During the second month half of the subjects switched to a 25 percent fat diet. Following the second month, levels of anger and hostility increased dramatically in the low-fat group. Tension and anxiety was decreased in the higher-fat group. There was another benefit beyond the mood upswing of those who consumed more fat: HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol) levels improved on the higher-fat diet and declined on the low-fat diet. Remember, salmon, tuna, and other coldwater fish (sardines, anchovies, mackerel, herring, shellfish) are good for the brain and the heart.

Step 3: Plan for success

Are you tracking? Most people with goals have either been tracking or still are tracking habits. But tracking is retrospective; it acknowledges that you did what you had hoped you would do. The opportunity for success, however, is much more likely if you plan ahead in a regimented way exactly what, when and where, you will make your habit change. Then track whether you did it, and how comfortable it felt to do the new habit rather than an old one. 

To accomplish goals, you must have a targeted plan. There’s an old saying that “a goal without a plan is just a wish”.

*Dr. Susan M. Kleiner

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