Learning how to stop the stress eating reaction. Bouts of stress eating can undo your weight loss progress in a frighteningly short period of time. Stress eating is typically an impulse to which we succumb in order to try to escape uncomfortable feelings or fears. But it’s such a temporary escape — literally just a few minutes of distraction!
As a part of my series about “5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dan DeFigio, a personal trainer and nutrition coach in Nashville, Tennessee (GettingFit.com). Dan is a well-known fitness and nutrition expert who has been featured on CNN’s Fit Nation, The Dr. Phil Show, SELF Magazine, Readers Digest, MyFitnessPal, Muscle & Fitness, Shape Magazine, and a host of other media outlets. Dan is also the author of Beating Sugar Addiction For Dummies, and the founder of BeatingSugarAddiction.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the story about how you first got involved in fitness and wellness?
Sure, I was actually led into exercise more out of necessity than desire. I started lifting weights when I was a senior in high school, because I was told that I was missing a semester of gym class, and I wouldn’t graduate without it. I had a study hall period available, so during that time they threw me into a little closet loaded with dumbbells and one of those giant, 1970’s chromed multi-stations. Have at it, kid — there’s your gym class. Every day I went in there with another guy who was in the same situation, and together we just started lifting weights. We didn’t know what we were doing, but I knew that I liked how it felt. Turns out that the fellow I was with went on to become a Mr. Pennsylvania bodybuilding competitor, so it worked out really well for both of us!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One of the benefits of being a go-to trainer in Nashville is that I get a chance to work with some celebrities. The Hermitage Hotel is the 5-star hotel in Nashville, and when they get a VIP in town, they will often call me to take care of their guest’s exercise needs. One day I got a call to come work with a “Mr. Roberts.” This was not unusual — typically when there’s no first name given, it’s an alias for a celebrity who understandably doesn’t want to be on the hotel guest list under his or her real name. So when I showed up for “Mr. Roberts”, in walk Paul McCartney and his wife Nancy! I don’t get star struck very often, but I have to admit getting to hang out with them for a couple hours was very cool and very special.
Can you share a humorous story with us? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
I used to train an avid golfer who had a golf partner — let’s call him Harvey — who did not train with me. Or with anyone. So my guy, naturally, improves his game as he improves his body with better flexibility, explosive power, and balance. Harvey’s solution is to buy new clubs every year.
My client and Harvey had a tradition of beginning each new golf season with a lesson from the golf pro in order to work out some kinks. So they’re out there with the pro for their lesson, and Harvey has his new driver that he’s hitting with. Harvey is left-handed, and that matters for this story:
So Harvey hits some bad shots and begins griping about how he doesn’t like his new club, listing the litany of things that are wrong with it. So the golf pro says, “Let me see that driver.” Now mind you, the pro is right-handed. He tees up a ball, flips the club over so he’s hitting with the wrong side of the left-handed club, and smacks a perfect 300-yard drive out onto the driving range. He hands the club back to Harvey and says, “It’s not the club.”
I love that story, because “it’s not the club” is a great lesson for so many things in life. If something in your life is not working like you want it to, it’s probably not the club that’s the problem!
Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fitness and wellness field? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
I think people look to me to explain and simplify things around fitness and nutrition, and to get them the facts and some perspective. There’s a lot of confusing information out there, and it’s hard to know what to believe. I’m a nerd who admittedly loves to be a know-it-all, so it’s not surprising that I have fallen into the position of being a guy to go to for a factual answer and a good explanation.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I started personal training in the early 1990’s, and as a newbie I was fortunate enough to begin working in the same gym as a fellow who had been a successful and respected personal trainer since the 1980’s — back when the personal training profession was far less mainstream. Being able to watch how an established, successful trainer approached his work was a real gift. I am very grateful that I had Bill Nagel to model myself after. I could have very easily been influenced by the multitude of less-knowledgable trainers, or by unprofessional personalities like drill sergeants or meatheads, and I would not have known the difference. I got lucky!
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, exercise more, and get better sleep etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?
I think the #1 block to making health and wellness headway is the dreaded All-Or-Nothing thinking. That’s basically faulty conclusions we tell ourselves, like
“I promised myself I wouldn’t eat any junk food, but I ate a cookie so I’ve ‘blown it.’ I might as well eat the rest of these cookies. I’ll start my diet all over again tomorrow.”
“I want to quit smoking, but I caved and had a cigarette. I guess I’ll try to quit some other time.”
“I don’t have time to go to the gym every day, so I can’t start an exercise program right now.”
This kind of all-or-nothing thinking will always prevent you from losing weight, getting in shape, or becoming healthier. The all-or-nothing mentality basically says that if you can’t be perfect, then you can’t make ANY improvements or smart decisions. And that is totally wrong!
Block #2 is overwhelm. There’s a deluge of fitness, nutrition, and wellness information out there, and much of it is conflicting. And a lot of it is garbage! It’s really hard to know what’s good advice and what’s nonsense, what kind of workout you should be doing, or which nutrition path makes sense for you. When there are too many confusing choices, people often default to doing nothing. Overwhelm keeps people from trying anything.
Block #3 is over-reaching. When people get motivated to make changes, they often try to tackle too much at once. If your New Years Resolutions are to start exercising every day, give up desserts forever, get 8 hours of sleep every night, cook all your meals instead of getting takeout, and start meditating every morning for stress relief, you’re NEVER going to be able to make all those lifestyle changes at once. Baby steps work for making permanent improvements. Unrealistic intentions and promises can’t last.
Can you please share your “5 Non-Intuitive Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”? (Please share a story or an example for each, and feel free to share ideas for mental, emotional and physical health.)
1) “Sometimes” instead of “never”. You don’t have to totally give up your favorite treats. I like to have clients aim for BETTER instead of trying to be PERFECT. Making a few improvements here and there adds up to big progress over time. Healthier picks, even when done here and there, are still better than zero changes. Let’s say you’re a potato chip freak, and you know that one of the reasons you’re gaining weight is that you often eat too many chips while watching TV at night. A healthier pick that’s still a crunchy snack would be apple slices or baby carrots. So if you pick apple or carrots instead of chips every other day, you’ve already cut your potato chip intake in half — and you don’t have to “give up chips”!
2) Better exercise, not necessarily more exercise. Any exercise is better than no exercise, but if you’ve got limited time to work out, you can probably make some improvements to improve the results you get from your time and effort. If you’re doing 30 minutes of cardio several times per week, upgrade to a strength training circuit for more benefits in the same time window. If you’ve been doing a weight training split routine for awhile and your progress has stalled, switch to some high-intensity interval workouts to rocket your fitness to new heights. If you’re stuck where you are, you may not need MORE exercise, just BETTER exercise.
3) Learning how to stop the stress eating reaction. Bouts of stress eating can undo your weight loss progress in a frighteningly short period of time. Stress eating is typically an impulse to which we succumb in order to try to escape uncomfortable feelings or fears. But it’s such a temporary escape — literally just a few minutes of distraction!
The key to overcoming stress eating is to figure out what it is that you are truly seeking in that moment of stress — because it probably isn’t food. I put out a free guidebook that teaches you how to do this: https://beatingsugaraddiction.com/stop-stress-eating.html
4) Gratitude first. We hear this all the time, but it’s often hard to put into practice when we’re upset or frustrated about something. When it comes to emotional wellness and spiritual peacefulness, gratitude must come first. Any time you find yourself worried, angry, overwhelmed, or wishing things were different, take a moment to be thankful for all the things that are going right. Starting and ending your day with a mental gratitude list is a great way to keep a reality check on your stress!
5) Timeboxing instead of total denial. If maintaining discipline all the time feels too overwhelming, or feels like too much deprivation, you can take baby steps towards cutting back on the unhealthy foods or behaviors in smaller chunks of time — a “time box”:
Let’s say you’re trying to eat less sugar. Instead of trying to quit sugar cold turkey, put some time constraints around your decisions. Try something like “No sugar while I’m at work,” or “I won’t eat sweets after 7 pm.”
Giving yourself a ‘forever’ ultimatum (“No more desserts!”) can be overwhelming and unmanageable, but staying on track for a few hours (or even a few minutes) is much more doable. Dialing in your decision-making process into manageable chunks of time can help keep you accountable, since there is an “end” in sight.
Alcoholics Anonymous is a perfect example of timeboxing: They say “one day at a time” i.e. “I am not going to drink today,” instead of “I can never drink again.”
I find that the process of giving yourself permission at some point in the future is very empowering. Timeboxing is not denying yourself, it’s just putting it off — “Not right now.” Timeboxing allows you to practice pausing before eating impulsively, and practice is how you build healthy habits!
As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for the public. Aside from weight loss, what are 3 benefits of daily exercise? Can you explain?
1) Improved energy. Sure, you may get tired (or even exhausted) from a hard workout, but that’s temporary. Overall, when you exercise regularly, you’ll find that you have more energy and more motivation for everything.
2) Stress relief and antidepressant benefits. Working out is a great stress-buster and a healthy outlet for all the stresses and anxieties of our busy day-to-day lives. And research shows that exercise is one of the very best remedies for depression. A regular workout regimen is great for your body AND for your brain!
3) Reduces aches and pains. Sore muscles aside, a well-designed strength training program will help ease the chronic discomfort of arthritis, aging, neck and shoulder tension, and back pain. Strong, flexible muscles feel better than deconditioned, unused muscles.
For someone who is looking to add exercise to their daily routine, which 3 exercises would you recommend that are absolutely critical?
It’s hard to select specific exercises, because everyone’s needs are different, but my “toolbox” for practical strength and function would include:
1) Romanian deadlift, or a similar type of hinging exercise. These kind of moves strengthen the entire posterior chain — the glutes, the hamstrings, and the spinal erectors (your “lower back” muscles). In addition to strengthening these vital muscles, you’ll train your body to lift things with a correctly-supported spine. This is crucial to preventing back injuries.
2) Some kind of core stability move, like a plank or a Palloff press. Training your midsection to stabilize your spine is a tremendously important part of avoiding back pain and keeping your body functional for everyday life.
3) A simple horizontal row. Exercises that pull the shoulder blades together will help to improve your posture, prevent many rotator cuff problems, and aid in relieving tension headaches and neck pain.
In my experience, many people begin an exercise regimen but stop because they get too sore afterwards. What ideas would you recommend to someone who plays sports or does heavy exercise to shorten the recovery time, and to prevent short term or long term injury?
Two things come to mind right away:
1) Experiment with your exercise workload until you find the “just enough” amount. If you’re consistently too sore for days afterwards, you’re probably doing too much. There’s a difference between “nice and sore” and “can’t walk for three days”!
2) Proper strength training technique is essential for injury prevention. While it’s impossible to avoid contact injuries in sports, or freak accidents in day-to-day life, we can certainly avoid training injuries by making sure that proper technique is executed when working out. A qualified personal trainer can teach you how to do basic strength training exercises correctly, and can design a workout program that is both effective and appropriate to your individual abilities.
There are so many different diets today. Can you share what kind of diet you follow? Which diet do you recommend to most of your clients?
I’m on the “real food” diet. I try to avoid as many chemicals and processed foods as I can, and stick to clean, organic proteins, produce, and fats whenever possible. As long as your portions are reasonable, and your protein-to-carb ratios are in line, people seldom have trouble keeping their weight under control. If you’re having trouble losing weight, your problem is probably one (or both) of those.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you?
Early in my nutrition coaching career, I became a fan of Dr. Michael Colgan. Optimum Sports Nutrition really opened my eyes to the inescapable interactions of nutrients in our bodies, along with the concepts of bioavailability and the enormous differences between quality nutrition supplements and useless ones.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I think the biggest problems for the largest number of people are stress, anxiety, and overwhelm. If I could wave a magic wand to improve people’s lives, I would magically teach them the difference between being busy and being stressed. The first doesn’t have to cause the latter!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“You cannot expect what you do not do.” That’s my modern version of Newton’s third law of motion — for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. We get the results of what we do most of the time — whatever is “normal” for us. If we want to change what some aspect of our life looks like, we have to change what we usually do. We have to change what “normal” looks like. Fun tidbit — Sir Issac Newton and I have the same birthday!
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
It’s always a challenge to get my message out to people amidst the noise and bombardment on the internet. So I’d love to team up with a like-minded wellness proponent who has the ear of a lot of people who need this kind of advice — the Oprah Winfreys or Jillian Michaels of the wellness world. Another way to spread the word would be with a decision-maker in the retail book outlet business — if I could get some more of my books into major retail stores, that could help a LOT of people!
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Sure thing, here are my social media links:
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!