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Lessons from Russia: Why Communism provides the best diet

Don’t worry friends, it’s just an attention grabbing title, albeit one with some truth behind it. During my travels I was able to catch up on one of my psychology books, “Behave”, by Robert Sapolsky (who also wrote the great book “Why Zebras don’t get ulcers”). Many of the themes in the book go hand in hand with what we do in the fitness industry. From goal / reward systems, to willpower and satisfaction. As serendipity would have it I was living a life in Russia that would concrete one of the psychological theories discussed in the book.

Choices = dissatisfaction

Barry Schwartz wrote a book in 2004 called “The Paradox of Choice” in which he describes how shoppers given more choices are left feeling less satisfied with their purchase than those who are given fewer choices. There are many reasons here but ultimately those that are given more choice are also left with more doubt and less resolve.

As the days went by in Russia I realized that this paradox is also a wedge driven into many peoples failures at their diets and goals. We have too many choices when it comes to food.

When it comes to breakfast, lunch, dinner, or snacks we are often left feeling like there is NOTHING to choose from because there is SO MUCH to choose from. It’s like scrolling through the entire catalog of Netflix and feeling like there is nothing to watch. As soon as you start one show, you start thinking of another show to watch and immediately become less satisfied with the one you put on. We didn’t have this problem in Russia. There was no choice. It was eat what was served or starve. And you know what!? People’s body composition got better! People got leaner and put on muscle. This was no wonder diet either. This was cafeteria food. Rices, potatoes, stew meats, vegetables. Breakfast was always eggs, slices of ham and cheese,a sausage product, sometimes vegetables, and some kind of fermented milk product. Sometimes a fruit would be served with lunch or dinner, and maybe twice there was a dessert product of some kind given instead of fruit.

I ate at 830am, 130pm, and 7pm every day. No snacks. The only other nutrition I had outside of this was a protein shake at the end of each training session (remember, we trained twice a day for about 2.5 to 3 hours each time). *Side note, looking at those times, guess what else we can say helped out so much here!? That’s right, circadian eating habits. All of my eating was done within an 11 hour window. Coupled with walking at least 10 min after each meal, it was easy for me to quickly see how athletes can make so much progress off of simple consistency. Another interesting thing happened too. At the start it was very apparent that everyone was not the happiest with the food choices, but as time went on it became just as obvious that it mattered less and less and in fact the feeding times were looked forward too with increasing satisfaction.

The kind of food became less and less important as simply the matter that it was time to eat became the main concern.

There is one major key reason missing here though as to why this all worked so well, and that is priority. We were all there for the main reason of training and learning. Yes, at first it was easy to bitch about the food (especially with each of us coming from a diet tailored to our liking), but as the training kicked in and it was all we could do to simply get up and not die in the next session the food served its purpose. It’s fueled us, it kept us alive, and if you could it enough of it you would grow and get stronger.

I’m here to say if it hasn’t been said before that choice is killing your success in your body composition goals.

Let’s take an extreme look at this to understand. If I were to ask you to write out your diet plan, you would likely have no idea where to even begin. Now, let’s say you can only eat a few things. You can only have water, ground beef, green beans, rice, chicken, coffee, and carrots. On top of that, you can only eat 3 times a day. If I tell you not to worry about amounts, just write me breakfast, lunch and dinner I bet you would have no problem now, right?


The thing that keeps messing you up is “but what do I eat when I get hungry?”, “is this snack ok?”, “what if this”, “what if that?”. You keep feeling entitled to all of these choices even though you are asking someone else to tell you how to reach your goals. Give choice up!

Ok, big question. Jance, do you really think this is sustainable?

NO! But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work! Do you think Olympic medalist eat the way they do when they are in training for the rest of their lives? No, but it got them to that medal, right? Who cares about your sustainability until you get the body you want to sustain. If you want to lose fat then you need to eat to lose fat until you get there. If you want to gain muscle, same thing.

This isn’t new. Many diets are based around elimination, but I’m not sure if there are many sources out there saying explicitly that no matter which diet you follow, choice is a killer.

So what do we do? Thankfully Schwartz outlined some guidelines to help with this paradox.

  1. Decide your goal/s

  2. Prioritize your goals with other influences in life

  3. Write out choices, based on desire and knowledge

  4. Out of those choices, decide which ones align with your goals

  5. Devise your plan

  6. Modify as you progress

This just gets easier and easier folks.

  1. Fat loss / muscle gain

  2. What are the things that determine when I can eat that I cannot change

  3. Write out food choices, and times of the day you can eat. If you are fat loss, write 3 times a day you can eat. For gaining, 5 times. **

  4. Out of your food choices, discuss with your coach which ones are good, which are bad, and when to time your eating choices. Ex; bread maybe for dinner, but not so much for breakfast

  5. Write out your meal plans and feeding times

  6. As your weight adjusts, or other food choices become known to you, modify.

**before you start pitching forks saying that smaller meals are better than fewer for weight loss, that is false. Timing does not matter over caloric totals.

Wait! What about caloric deficit / surplus!? Isn’t that what matters most? Yes it is, but again put the horse before the cart. Before you can count calories, you need foods that have calories. People who feel they have everything to choose from often feel like counting calories is like learning a second language. How are you supposed to know the caloric content of ALL the foods out there you can eat? Starting this way you would only have to learn how the calories of several foods. What will happen is you will learn them so well that eventually you will learn that this or that size is this or that many calories. This will continue as you introduce more foods into your diet.

Say goodbye to snacks too (if you are trying to lose fat). The adjustment can be hard, but the body will adapt. Trust me, if we could all train twice a day a few hours each time on 3 meals a day and not keel over in hunger pains I’m confident you can work your job with a snack. What you are likely feeling is a habitual hunger pain and not a true to fact low calorie hunger pain. You have simply conditioned your blood sugar spikes to be fulfilled on command and you brain is not used to dealing with it yet. Your body will thank you in time for regulating blood sugar rises to just a few meals a day, so stay away from snacks. Besides, if you workout then you are likely to be feeding your body tasty amino acids and protein around training, so….all the more reason not to skip your gym time, right?

If you are filling with despair thinking of taking this on, then you really need to take a look at the hold food taste has on how you measure satisfaction in your life. You also need to take another look at number 2 on the list and ask where your priorities lie. This is not the most horrible, sadistic diet. In fact, this isn’t even a diet. I’m simply trying to bring to light maybe an underlying reason why diets have failed for you in the past.

I never did explain what happened on our day off in training while in Russia, when we got to go out and eat around Moscow. Do you know what happened? We enjoyed ourselves. Most importantly though, we KNEW we were enjoying ourselves. The food tasted and smelled better. That’s the thing. People are almost always eating what they want, not what they need. Under these guidelines I would say plan for free eating on Friday and Saturday nights. Just those single meals, not the whole days. Compliance is easier the more you stick with it, and always remember this is a means to an end. Just as our focus shifted from the food quality to training quality, your focus will eventually shift from always trying to satisfy your taste buds to feeling satisfied with your body composition goals being met.

I’ve put together a small list of foods you could start from. Try to stay away from arranging them into recipes or meals. Keep it simple and leave them as single ingredients. This will make it easy to identify foods that agree with your body and those that don’t. It also makes preparation easy.

Is it comprehensive? No, but it’s not supposed to be, that’s the point. Pick your choices and stick to them. You choices should be what is easily available to you and realistically able for you to prepare for yourself. If not by meal prepping, then on the spot or easily picked up at the grocery store. Use seasoning where you need to, just be sure to watch your condiment choices for sugar, fat, processed ingredients, etc.

I will forever on out be an advocate of walking after every meal to help your body regulate the blood sugar spike as well as aid in digestion.

Also, another thing I will be an advocate for that this plan easily tailors to is keeping your eating within a feeding window. If you are highly inflamed and overweight than a 10 hour feeding window works best, if you are doing OK then a 12 hour window is the next best choice and also the most realistic for most people, but these only work if you stick to them! Even on the weekends.

Restricting foods to a few healthy choices, adhering to feeding times, obeying circadian rhythms of the body, walking after meals, planned “desire” meals. This plan has everything!

Again, this is nothing new, but maybe re-framing some of the correlations and causation's might help a few people in identifying where they keep breaking down and hopefully this will help them make some progress.

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