Here at Jungle Miami, we try and help people of all shapes and sizes become different shapes and sizes, with most of them trying to become smaller shapes and sizes. But then there are those people who are just naturally skinny. Damn them! But can we learn something from them?
In today's blog we will look at an article from Krista Scott-Dixon that we found on the Precision Nutrition website. I must admit, it is very interesting to read exactly what skinny guys think about food that makes them, well...skinny.
Weight Loss Advice from Skinny Guys
by Krista Scott-Dixon, October 12th, 2010.
Dontcha just hate those naturally skinny people?
You know, the ones who eat anything they want and stay rail-thin?
They seem to be blessed with some kind of magical metabolism. Their lives must be full of guilt-free chocolate eclairs and pasta buffets. And surely, the rest of us folks struggling to stave off the freshman 15 or the midlife spare tire can’t learn anything useful from them.
You see, while there are undoubtedly some physiological differences between “naturally” lean people and “naturally” heavier people (see All About Eating For Your Body Type for more), it’s not all just genetics or metabolism.
Naturally leaner people think and act differently too.
What could S2B and LE possibly have in common?
At a recent workshop in Toronto, I had the chance to chat with some guys enrolled in the Scrawny to Brawny coaching program. We talked about their struggles to get big — the opposite problem that people in the Lean Eating coaching program have.
But then I realized we all had a lot in common.
- After all, Lean Eaters are trying to get smaller and leaner. They have to learn to eat less.
- Scrawny to Brawnies are trying to get bigger and heavier. They have to learn to eat more.
- Both groups have to learn new eating patterns that go against their “normal” inclinations and habits.
At first, I pooh-poohed the idea that it would be hard to eat more. I mean, c’mon. Even as a small woman, with sufficient enthusiasm and enough nut butter and beef brisket, I could easily pack in the allotted caloric requirements for Scrawnies.
But the more I chatted with the guys, the more I learned that these folks found it genuinely hard to eat to excess… and the more I realized that their “natural” leanness had as much to do with their outlook and behaviours as it did with their physiological makeup.
I got to thinking that many of their experiences and insights would be useful to Lean Eaters. So, I hit up a bunch of other “naturally skinny” dudes for input. Lots of guys responded to my questions, and I got some great advice.
[For a quick summary of this advice, click here. Or read on for more...]
Food, Fuel, and Emotions
Food as fuel
One of the most important parts of the “naturally skinny” perspective is that food is just food.
Some guys liked food more than other guys. But in general, food was just… food. It wasn’t a reward, or a security blanket. It didn’t have a deep significance. It wasn’t their best friend.
|“Food is really a source of fuel. I would joke with my other skinny friends that if we could just take a pill and get everything we needed, we would. I know what good food is and even went to cooking school. I enjoy the taste of good food but don’t really crave it.”|
“I just expect food to give me enough energy to get through my day and my workouts.”
“Food was just something to end my hunger. It didn’t matter if I had spaghetti for many dinners, as I experienced during my childhood.”
The downside of this was that many naturally skinny people had poor dietary habits. They’d often just eat anything available, rather than worrying about the food’s nutritional quality or how it was nourishing their bodies.
The other problem was that many naturally skinny people didn’t view eating as very important. Before S2B, eating was a very low priority. Many other activities came before eating.
|“It is still very hard for me to set time aside to be able to eat everything I need to.”|
“[Eating] was something I had to do before I could get to more important things.”
For naturally skinny people, food was just a tool, and it didn’t dominate their day. They weren’t focused on craving and consuming food. On the other hand, this again meant that meal prep and healthy eating weren’t often priorities either.
Many of the naturally skinny people were puzzled by the idea of emotional eating. They understood the concept in theory, but they didn’t “get” it. Food was just fuel, so it didn’t make sense to them that food would have any deeper meaning, any more than brushing one’s teeth would alleviate depression.
|“The whole idea of ‘comfort food’ or eating when you’re depressed to make you feel better seems very strange to me.”|
“To my overweight friends, to eat what they want seems to be the most important thing… more important than their health. They eat for comfort, when they’re depressed, to make themselves feel better. They mention foods they ‘can’t live without’, such as potatoes, fries, desserts… carbs. It seems hard for me to understand how someone can find solace in food. “
Mealtimes, Hunger, and Fullness
How do you know when it’s time to start eating?
Many Lean Eaters struggle with knowing when to eat. Some heavier folks feel like they are “always hungry”. Other heavier folks tend to confuse “head hunger” (i.e. the psychological desire for food) with physical hunger (i.e. the actual physiological need for food). It’s the difference between “wanting” and “needing” food.
But the naturally skinny people almost always went by their stomachs or by pre-set, relatively infrequent mealtimes. And often, naturally skinny people relied on other people to remind them to eat.
|“I would start eating either by the clock or when I started getting hungry enough. Breakfast was easy since it was when I got in the car. Lunch was also easy since the group would head out at 12:00. Dinner usually would be when my wife was getting hungry.”|
“[I'd wait for my] stomach growling, or just plain hunger. Never really looked at the clock. Just ate whenever the opportunity arose. Sometimes I would just eat when my work schedule allowed.”
Thus, for S2Bs, one of the biggest challenges was just getting started on a meal. They didn’t want to eat when they weren’t truly hungry.
How do you know when it’s time to stop eating?
Naturally skinny people are like that perfect hipster party guest who shows up just late enough to be cool, then leaves early enough to make people think they have somewhere else important to go. They always know when to leave the party before things get pathetic and/or the cops show up.
In other words, they know when to quit eating before it’s too late. They’re tuned in to their physical cues for fullness and satiety, and they stop when they feel even the slightest tingle from those body signals.
One S2B’er even forgot he was eating half the time. Many of his meals ended with him wandering off to do something else.
The naturally skinny people also didn’t feel obligated to clean their plates if they didn’t have to. They didn’t seem to have absorbed the “children are starving elsewhere” message.
|“At restaurants or when the portion sizes were larger, I would take the rest home or leave it on my plate. I had no qualms about not finishing my meals if I felt as full as I wanted to get.”|
Starving or stuffed?
Let’s say that we have a continuum from starving to stuffed.
1 is starving, perhaps stuck in the desert without food for days
10 is stuffed so full your esophagus may rupture
10 is stuffed so full your esophagus may rupture
Prior to S2B, I asked the naturally skinny people, where did you feel best on this continuum? What feels good and normal to you?
Most guys said they were happiest between 4 and 6, much less than many of us prone to over-eating would like. One naturally skinny guy even preferred a 3 — “just enough so I’m no longer peckish”.
In fact, said many of the guys, they actively disliked the sensation of being full.
|“Being full is uncomfortable and makes me feel sluggish.”|
“If I’ve overeaten I don’t feel good physically or mentally.”
“I hate feeling like a 10 on the fullness scale. It’s just painful and distracting. Like my stomach is interrupting my brain’s every thought with ‘You are painfully full’.”
“Don’t you feel like sh*t when you’re stuffed? I remember going to a buffet (starving myself beforehand) and just going for it. I regretted it so much afterwards that I even stayed away from buffets altogether.”
As a result, the hardest part of S2B, in the words of one guy, is “Overeating. Stuffing myself until I feel sick. I remember going to bed on the first night I ate the muscle dinner feeling like a had a Swiss ball suck in my stomach. I even looked like I defied science… a dude who was 8 months pregnant.”
However, most naturally skinny people were philosophical about the experience of what felt to them like overeating, and intrigued by the way in which their bodies eventually got used to a change in food intake. They suggested that portion sizing was largely a learned behaviour — and that if they had to learn to eat more, other folks could learn to eat less.
|“S2B has been tough, but I’m starting to get used to it. By that I mean the amount of food that would cause a 9-10 fullness previously is now more like a 7-8. I believe it could work the other way for someone trying to lose weight.”|
“I was surprised when my 10 oz serving of meat crept up to 14-16 oz and I still didn’t have a problem eating it.”
Cravings, Entertainment, and Speed
Not every meal has to be a circus
While some of the S2Bs were self-confessed “picky eaters”, many were guys who appreciated good food in general, but didn’t feel like every meal had to be a fantastically elaborate event.
As David Kessler notes in The End of Overeating, and Brian Wansink observes in Mindless Eating, food manufacturers know that people tend to eat more when they have more options. Almost all of us eat more at a buffet than at a single-plate meal.
In addition, people eat more when there’s more “stuff” happening with the meal — crunchy textures, creamy textures, a variety of tastes combined, lots of colour, etc. (Think: ice cream sundae with all the toppings, chicken wings with dipping sauce, or a plate of nachos.)
In part, this is because humans seem to be stimulated by variety. The more we seek variety — and reward — at each and every meal, the more likely we are to overeat. Naturally skinny people didn’t expect every meal to be exciting or even particularly interesting. They enjoyed a good gourmet meal, but assumed this would be a rare pleasure.
I asked the S2Bs how fast or slow they tended to eat. Interestingly, they varied in their response to this one. Some guys rushed their food, viewing it as a bit of an inconvenience.
Other guys tended to dawdle and linger over their food.
One naturally skinny person said he takes about 45 minutes to an hour to finish his meals. Now that he has to eat more, said another guy, his slow eating speed is “particularly noticeable whenever I have breakfast, because I have been showing up late for work just because I cannot finish all of my breakfast fast enough! It takes over 40 minutes for me to eat it all; sometimes I don’t finish it all!”
Do you ever get cravings?
The naturally skinny people were split on this one. Some folks said they never craved anything in particular, no matter how appealing it looked or how tasty it was. As one naturally skinny person said, “I don’t eat a lot of sugar and can easily pass it over when everyone else orders dessert. I also have an aversion to a lot of fat. I have always trimmed all excess fat from steaks, buy the leanest ground meats they have and don’t use things like butter.”
Of the ones who had cravings, most agreed that simple carbs — bagels, baked goods, pizza, ice cream — were a top choice.
And interestingly, the cravers looooved chocolate.
|“I am a chocoholic for sure. If there’s milk chocolate in the house, I’m gonna find it and eventually eat it. All of it too. Sure, it might be stealing from kids, but hey, I’m an addict. What I try to do now is to put the one/two squares of 85% dark chocolate in my SuperShakes here and there; I find that helps with the cravings. But still, it’s not a good idea to leave me alone in a room with a 1lb. chocolate Easter bunny.”|
However, one key difference between naturally skinny people and heavier folks is that naturally skinny people often used different strategies to manage cravings. They rarely gave in to them, frequently distracted themselves away from the craving, and would often distance themselves from the craved food. Or they’d realize they just wanted a taste.
|“Sometimes I use the cravings as a self challenge, to see how much self discipline I have in order to resist the temptation. Eventually, with my short attention span, I forget I had the craving. In most situations where I am able to overcome the craving, I just don’t have the items I crave near or around me and am too lazy/unmotivated to go out and seek it.”|
“If I really wanted chocolate, I would grab a candy bar. Funny thing is, I would rarely eat the whole thing. I found that I usually just craved the taste. My stomach could be full of whatever, but if I just had a taste of chocolate, I was satisfied.
For example, last week I walked by a candy bowl, and had a strong craving for chocolate. Before S2B I would’ve just eaten a Kit-Kat and went on my way — but now since I want this program to work out for me and I want to follow it as best I can, I did something different. This may sound gross, but I took a bite of a Kit-Kat and chewed it up to savour the flavour, but then I spit it back out in the trash before I swallowed, and then had a banana instead. After I did it, I felt really stupid, but it satisfied the craving, and I went about my day as usual.”
“Most of the time it is a non-issue because I never buy those items at the grocery store so they aren’t in the house. I will look around my house for a while and see if I have anything. I usually don’t, so then I will eat fruit (before S2B) or have a Supershake (after S2B). I usually get back to working on something so I forget about it.”
One guy did confess to rare craving binges. In his case, he used the Kitchen Makeover strategy — not keeping his craved foods in the house.
|“If on the rare occasions, the items I crave are readily available, I will binge (this is the reason why I have asked my girlfriend not to have certain items in the house or if they are here, not to let me know about it). I have been known to consume a whole box of Oreo cookies dunked in milk in a 12 hour span. I think this binge aspect comes from my childhood. There were four of us kids in the house. Three of us were around the same age and we would have to make sure we partitioned the treats and ate them quickly otherwise, someone else would eat it for you and you would be out of luck!”|
Well, at least those naturally skinny people have some human frailties!
Movement and Calorie Burning
Naturally skinny people are NEAT-o!
Many folks assume that all they need to do to get lean is hit the gym a few times a week. Yet evidence suggests that it’s the non-gym stuff — the daily life stuff like housework, moving around, fidgeting, walking here and there, etc., that actually adds up to a leaner body in the long run.
In fact, research shows that sitting on your butt for several hours a day drastically impedes fat loss — even if you go to the gym every day. Simply being immobile for most of the day works against you, even if you’re technically “active” with regular workouts.
This non-exercise movement — known as NEAT, or non-exercise activity thermogenesis — plays a huge part in helping us get (and more importantly, stay) lean.
Not surprisingly, naturally skinny people are NEAT-o. They’re often in motion, whether that’s fidgeting, running errands, or walking the dog.
|“I’ve always been a high energy person who was very active. I’m a fidgeter, always moving around, shifting. I find it very difficult to sit still for more than a few minutes at a time. This quality also helped me become one of the only people I know to have failed kindergarten: I couldn’t sit still and it was before Ritalin! My work as a physiotherapist is also quite physical, from moving limbs to demonstrating exercises. I would estimate that I move a few thousand pounds of weight during a busy workday (body parts, loading/unloading bars/dumbbells, machines etc).”|
“I had a very active job (I broke a sweat at least once a day on an easy day) with long hours. I was on my feet most of the day walking around. When others seemed to be slowing down, I was still working quickly. I also was going to the gym twice a week and ice skating twice a week in the early mornings. I also fidget constantly.”
“Even though I work a sedentary job, I naturally move around a lot. I simply cannot fathom how people can just sit there like a slug for such long periods of time. It would drive me mad!”
“I walk around constantly at work, and I even pace while I’m on the phone.”
“I walked so much that I caused a stress fracture in both of my feet, separately! I walked between my apartment to the university, between my apartment and downtown, around the university campus (when I was working as a tour guide), visiting a new city, going for a leisure walk to enjoy the beautiful weather…”
Social Support, Messages, and Behaviors
Many naturally skinny people are sensitive to social messages about gluttony. (See All About GluttonyPart 1 and Part 2.) They avoid eating too much because it feels socially inappropriate.
|“I guess there’s a part of me that feels gluttonous about eating so much, and I do notice the occasional need to remind myself that it isn’t about being a ‘pig’, but about growing and nurturing strength and power.”|
Lean Eaters often feel concerned about “wasting food”. In their case, they tend to solve the problem by eating the leftovers. Naturally skinny people, on the other hand, avoid wasting food by starting with smaller portions.
|“Wasting food [by over-eating] was always the most challenging and guilt-ridden thing for me. Growing up, my parents made sure we knew that wasting food when there were people starving to death all over the world, was not good form (the images of those starving Ethiopian children during the famines of the 80s are etched in my mind).|
Maybe that’s the reason I tend to take only what I will eat (smaller portions) and go for more if I feel I’m still hungry, rather than risk having to throw food away.”
A naturally skinny person who had grown up in a household where money was tight was always conscious of food’s cost, so he was careful not to over-indulge.
|“When I was growing up, I always felt guilty if I took more food. So, I tried to stick with only one helping… occasionally a second helping if it was offered. I didn’t want to go through the week of groceries too fast because it was all we had for the week.”|
As a Lean Eating coach, one of the most common problems for Lean Eaters is social functions. They may feel pressured into eating, or find it difficult to resist a situation with lots of food. Many worry that other people are looking at and judging how much they eat.
So I wondered whether the S2Bs had the same problem. I asked them: Let’s say you aren’t hungry. You go to a social event or family function where people are pressuring you to eat. What do you do? Their answers were revealing.
None of them felt obligated to eat when they were not hungry, no matter how many times grandma nagged them to eat some more goodies.
|“My family/relatives always push food. Maybe it’s the German heritage: Who wants salami and cheese for breakfast followed by some beer??? I just politely decline.”|
“At almost all family or social events, food seems to be the main event. In my case, there are plenty of times when I’ve been pressured by friends/relatives to eat or drink when I didn’t want to or when I wasn’t hungry. For me, that feeling of being full was so unnatural that no amount of cajoling, entreating, or guilt could get me to budge from my stubborn resistance to taking in any more food.”
If a naturally skinny person cracked under the social pressure, they got creative.
|“In cases where my refusal was met with a full plate of food anyway (in my East Indian culture, refusing food is a big no-no and can potentially be seen as a sign of disrespect) I would accept the plate, take the customary bite, and find a way to unload the plate discreetly somewhere else.”|
“Take the smallest socially acceptable amount. Have a bite or two. Just mush up the rest and move it around on your plate.”
And naturally skinny people aren’t paranoid about offending people. They’re courteous in their refusal, or use humour. In any case, they stick to their guns. And eventually, food pushers accept this.
|“[If offered food I don't want] I’ll politely decline. I might have a small taste or spoonful just to try something new, but I won’t eat out of pressure. If fact, I used to just pat my belly and say ‘No, thanks, I’m watching my weight.’ It used to be a joke since I was so skinny, but since I’ve put on a few pounds, it’s actually the truth. People understand and don’t seem to mind, either way.”|
“I have found after you say no once or twice, it gives your willpower a bit of boost, to know you can just say no and people understand that.”
Body image and identity
Now here’s something I didn’t expect. I always assumed that naturally skinny people wanted to be more muscular — the proverbial “98 lb weakling” insecurity.
I didn’t realize that many naturally skinny people were actually very content being skinny. Many liked being smaller or lighter for their sport. Many of them talked about wanting to be very lean, with low bodyfat. A few said they had experienced something like the pressure that women feel to be very thin.
|“Psychologically, there’s a thing in there about whether it’s ‘okay’ or ‘appropriate’ for me to be a large, strong man. My self-concept was always about doing my best, but that was in spite of my size and lack of strength, rather than because of it.|
I was fast, quick and smart as an athlete, and the bigger and stronger guys were people I tended to think of as my adversaries that I’d have to overcome with talent, quickness and smarts. I didn’t ever think of myself as ever being able to develop my strength and power to match them. So it’s interesting to see myself, and especially at my age (!), developing that.”
Just as Lean Eaters often have to learn to think of themselves as “fit people” or even “athletes” in order to get leaner, naturally skinny people often have to learn to think of themselves as muscular. In order for behaviour to change, identity has to change.
What If You Were Over-Fat
Over-fat people often find it hard to imagine what naturally lean people think and experience. So I asked the S2B guys to consider the reverse: What is one thing that just doesn’t make any sense to you about people who are over-fat or who over-eat?
Many naturally skinny people couldn’t understand the consumption of certain foods, or excessive amounts.
|“Just looking at deep-fried Twinkies makes me a bit nauseous, but a lot of people eat them. I realize I am the odd person out here because the food industry still produces a lot of these items (highly processed, high fat items) and I see them in people’s carts and I have a hard time understanding how they can eat that food.”|
Other naturally skinny people also pointed out that over-fat people didn’t seem to implement proper portion sizing.
|“At a late-night chocolate buffet on a cruise, my girlfriend and I filled up our small dessert plates with what we thought was a large amount of treats (5-6 items). By the end, we could only eat half of one plate between the two of us!|
A lady joined us at our table. She was quite short (5′1″ or thereabouts) and quite possibly over 300 lbs. She had a full dinner plate piled high. She finished her plate and went for seconds. I was astounded that she was able to eat that amount of food in such a short period of time and be able to go for another full dinner plate (also by the fact that she had a medic alert bracelet for diabetes, but that’s another story!).”
Mismatch between desires and actions
Naturally skinny people seemed very confused by people who said they wanted to lose weight, but didn’t eat less.
|“I’m amazed at what a lot of people eat. The other day I was at lunch with a friend. He’s trying to lose a few extra pounds… Before ordering he talked about his workout routine and then proceeded to order a double bacon cheese burger.”|
“I don’t understand why they don’t have a mental kill-switch/override button. Why they can’t just stop eating and stop eating junk? They know they should, they often know how, but just can’t do it.”
Many S2B guys were married to women who struggled with their weight. A few households even had a “PN couple”: a husband doing Scrawny to Brawny and a wife doing Lean Eating. (I can just imagine the exciting negotiations over menu planning and portion sizing!)
This meant the S2B husbands got to observe a different set of experiences and perspectives first-hand, and compare them.
|“My wife is an emotional eater. When she’s having a bad day she’ll get a cookie to make her feel better. She knows she does it and is trying to overcome the habit. I, on the other hand, have never had any triggers to eat like emotion or boredom.”|
This lack of understanding doesn’t mean that naturally skinny people aren’t sympathetic to the plight of over-fat folks. Many are simply puzzled by what they see, or are able to observe a mismatch between people’s stated goals or needs, and their behaviour.
|“My overweight friends know they are overweight and are always talking about going on a diet. I mean always. The problem isn’t lack of awareness. One actually went on Weight Watchers for a while and lost 50 lbs. A few months afterwards, he gained it all back. So, the issue for him is not one of knowledge of how to do it.|
After my friend’s normal dinner, he’ll spend the rest of the evening snacking on chips, pie, cookies, and ice cream. He feels healthy because he puts some blueberries in his bowl of ice cream and has tea with the snacks instead of soda! He asked me incredulously once how I did it, how I was able to exercise such stern and constant discipline.
I told him that it’s not like that at all. I simply have no desire, no compulsion to eat that stuff. As he’s eating his junk food all evening, I’ll say no thanks when he offers it to me, and have a can of tuna for an evening snack. Honestly, to eat all that stuff he does seems kind of disgusting to me. I don’t mean I wouldn’t enjoy a piece of pie or a cookie, but the sheer quantity seems repulsive.
I read an article a while ago that said that overeating affects the dopamine receptors in the brain in the same way as cocaine and other addictive drugs. This seems to describe my fat friends’ behaviour and the difference between us very well. They seem driven, compelled, almost powerless, like addicts ‘feeding’ an addiction. So what they see in me as discipline is simply the lack of the compulsion, a lack of ‘addiction’ for me.
I was in the supermarket once with my Weight Watchers friend. His cart was loaded up with pies and cookies and chips. I said to him that if he wanted to diet, that now, in the supermarket, was the time to exercise the control. Once that stuff was in his house, he would eat it. If he didn’t want to eat it, he should decide that now and take it out of his cart.
After I said this, he looked away from me over to the overweight checkout clerk, and chuckled as he said, ‘Skinny people just don’t understand.’ She laughed back at him and said, ‘I know.’ Of course he bought all that stuff.”
Summary and Recommendations
So, does this mean that naturally skinny people are lurking in supermarket aisles, judging our carts, and wondering if we’re crazy? No, of course not. Nor does it mean that being a naturally skinny person automatically makes you healthier.
It simply means that their experiences and perspectives suggest that much of over-eating behaviour is learned – it’s built from childhood experiences, our outlook and worldview, social messages, and familiar habits.
Tips for losing fat from naturally skinny people
How can you learn to think and act like a naturally skinny person in order to reap the benefits for fat loss? Here are some tips.
Final thoughts, from one naturally skinny person:
|I think one thing I would like people to know is that just because I am skinny doesn’t mean I am healthy.|
Prior to S2B, I was not healthy. I try to promote an open dialogue about health and nutrition between people, but sometimes people seem nervous or afraid to mention they are trying to improve their health.
I think in many cases people who are very thin and those who are over-fat both need to be healthier, but the goals are slightly different. My friend who is trying to lose weight and I (trying to gain weight) frequently talk about our goals and “meeting each other in the middle”.
Even though we have different goals we can motivate each other to be healthier, happier people.