4 strategies to turn clichéd advice into useful self-knowledge.
By John Berardi, Ph.D.
Clichés like “listen to your body” and “do what works for you” sound like good advice. But they’re not actually that helpful unless you know how to use them. Since most people don’t, I’m sharing these 4 important strategies today. With them, you’ll learn to build the self-knowledge you need to more easily reach your health and fitness goals.
Not everyone’s body is the same.
Nor are our goals. Or our lives. Or our idea of what “health” is.
Nor should they be.
While we may have many commonalities, each human being is a little bit different. And fitness and nutrition advice should account for those unique differences.
That’s why, on the one hand, it’s reassuring to hear messages like:
“Listen to your body.”
“Do what works for you.”
“Follow your hunger cues.”
Generally, these messages are a nice antidote to the other, more prescriptive things we hear from the health and fitness types — the “eat this, not that” stuff.
However, while they sound nice, they’re not actually that effective.
On their own, these pieces of “advice” amount to clichés that feel nagging and lack any kind of real direction.
Here’s what I know from observing the nearly 100,000 clients who have gone through our Precision Nutrition Coaching program.
Unless you provide a detailed framework to help people learn how to “listen to their bodies” and “do what works for them,” this advice does more harm than good.
Well, most folks lost touch with their bodies’ signals a long time ago.
After years (or decades) of dieting, hunger and fullness cues have long since been overruled by strict calorie rations and drowned out by the highs and lows of emotion-driven binges.
They don’t know what “works for them,” or how to begin to figure that out.
They feel confused, overwhelmed. Hurt and angry.
They feel lost.
So tossing them a flashlight and some general instructions about “doing what works” tends to backfire:
“I’ll never figure out how to be fit again. What’s the point in trying?”
What people need, instead, is a detailed blueprint to help tune in their bodies’ signals and discover what works for them.
In this article, I’ll explain the framework we use at Precision Nutrition to help our clients learn (or relearn) how to listen to their bodies and develop a deep understanding of which nutrition and exercise strategies work for them.
Plus, I’ll walk you through the specific strategies we use with our clients so you can use them for yourself (or, if you’re a coach, your clients) too.
First, some background.
Body awareness is crucial to improved nutrition and exercise habits.
Being deeply aware of your body and able to understand things like your hunger cues, how your emotions drive your movement and eating decisions, and how stress manifests in your body is highly valuable.
In fact, it’s one of the differences between people who struggle with diet and exercise their whole life, and people who develop a healthy relationship with their bodies, food and fitness.
The successful folks have built the skills, through practice, that allow them to be mindful, pay attention to their emotions, and tune into their body’s signals.
Fortunately, the skill of accumulating self-knowledge — what we might call listening to your body and learning what works for you — is just that, a skill.
And, like other skills, it can be developed with a series of strategies and practices.
Four strategies to learn how to “listen to your body”… and build your self-knowledge superpowers.
One thing that’s important to remember: Like any other skill-building, this stuff takes time. And, for some, self-knowledge can be a particularly challenging undertaking. (As Benjamin Franklin said, “there are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.”)
That’s why this type of skill development is most effective when done with a coach.
A coach can provide you with a solid step-by-step plan (or curriculum) that’ll help you build these skills — much like a music or language teacher has a pre-set plan for helping you develop music or conversation skills.
Even more importantly, a good coach can provide objective feedback and help you identify your blind spots (we’re all human beings, and it’s normal to fool ourselves — in fact, it’s extremely difficult not to).
But there’s a lot you can do on your own, too.
Here are the skills we help Precision Nutrition Coaching clients develop, and teach to our Certification students so they can use them with their own clients.
Strategy #1: “Food and feelings” assessments
Assessments — or worksheets, diaries, journals — can be used to help you objectively observe and evaluate your eating and exercise choices, and how those choices make you feel.
An assessment allows you to capture information so you have an actual record of what’s going on; in other words, it allows you to collect data for you (or your coach) to interpret and make sense of.
This is a good first step towards accumulating self-knowledge because it helps you get the facts, rather than just going by general feelings or concerns.
How to implement this strategy
These assessments are most effective when they’re used from the very beginning of a nutrition plan (or coaching program) you’re using to improve your eating habits and work toward body composition or health goals.
Sample assessment tools
1. Eating Behaviors Journal
By tracking what you eat, and what you’re thinking when you eat it, you may uncover reasons for eating (and the resulting feelings, too) that have nothing to do with hunger and fullness.
The idea here is to observe and record — without judgment — to learn about your own motives. Over time, you may discover patterns that you want to break.
Download the Eating Behaviors Journal.
2. Behavior Awareness Worksheet
Use this assessment to understand emotional eating or bingeing episodes.
Research shows that while our behaviors may seem “spur-of-the-moment” when it comes to overeating the groundwork is laid several hours in advance (by our daily rituals, habits, mindset, and automatic thinking).
Overeating is simply the last link in a long chain. If you can break the first link, you have a much better chance of never getting to the last link.
This exercise will help you build an awareness of what your overeating episodes have in common. Maybe it’s a time of day, or a situation, or a type of food, or another person (or being alone), or a feeling – or all of these.
Download the Behavior Awareness Worksheet.
3. How Food Feels Journal
Use this exercise to get a better sense of how your body reacts to certain foods.
Tracking physical sensations — especially unpleasant ones — can help you uncover trigger foods, and even sensitivities or intolerances — that are getting in the way of your health goals.
Download the How Food Feels Journal.
4. The Hunger Game Worksheet
This worksheet helps you get in the habit of finding and tuning into hunger and fullness cues. Through this exercise you develop the ability to:
Understand real (physical) hunger cues
Eat only when you are truly hungry
Stop eating when you’re 80 percent full
Notice your thoughts and emotions around eating times
Distinguish “need to eat” from “want to eat” or “should eat”
Download the Hunger Game Worksheet.
Strategy #2: Awareness-building practices
These are regular activities — you might also call them practices or habits — that can help you develop the skill of tuning into and understanding your body’s signals.
With all areas of health and fitness, the ability to focus and tune into your own body is incredibly useful. And it’s particularly important for people who want to improve their eating habits.
Many of us have lost the ability to be present and aware while we eat, and have long since stopped paying attention to our own hunger and fullness cues.
Fortunately, being aware and present — what you might also call mindfulness — is a skill like any other: It can be developed with practice.
How to implement this strategy
Use these practices daily — ideally after you’ve completed an assessment or two to give yourself a baseline.
Commit to using a given practice every day for 2-4 weeks; after that, you can fall back on the practice any time you notice yourself feeling disconnected from your body.
Important note: The point is NOT to aim for perfection here. All you have to do is practice daily, and the skill will build on itself naturally. You’ll be amazed.
Try these three practices from Precision Nutrition Coaching to help you learn how to better listen to your body.
Again, this should feel easy. If a practice is too challenging, make it simpler (for example, instead of a 5-minute mind-body scan, try for 2 or 3 minutes at first).
And don’t tackle all three at once. It’s best to focus on one at a time.
Practice #1: Eat slowly
At each meal today, take a few extra minutes to simply… pause.
Put your utensils down after each bite. Take a breath. When you take a bite, notice — and enjoy — the taste and texture of the food.
Take another breath, or a sip of water.
Wait a few more moments. If you still feel hungry, take another bite.
If you’re struggling to slow down, try a timer. When you’re done eating, see how many minutes have gone by. Now you have a baseline for improvement! Cool.
And if you add only 1 minute of meal time per day, by the end of 2 weeks you’ll have slowed the pace of your eating by nearly 15 minutes.
Practice #2: Eat to 80 percent full
You probably know what “stuffed” feels like. That’s the post-holiday meal feeling where you have to loosen your belt and breathe in little huffs after your fourth helping of dessert.
Let’s call that 150 percent full — waaay beyond capacity.
You might know what “really hungry” feels like. Let’s call that 0 percent full.
Somewhere in between is 80 percent full.
80 percent full is when you’re just satisfied. No longer hungry. (Or just a teeny tiny bit hungry, which passes after a few minutes.)
But not full. And definitely not stuffed.
At each meal, try to find that 80 percent point on the spectrum. (That first practice, eating slowly, really comes in handy here.)
You won’t know what 80 percent full feels like right away; but you don’t have to get this “perfect” or do any complicated math.
Just eat a little bit slower, and a little bit less, at each meal, until you recognize (and can reliably target) that 80 percent mark.
Practice #3: Mind-body scan
What’s a “mind-body scan”? While it sounds like something that aliens might invent (along with probing of your, ahem, backside), a mind-body scan is quite simple.
Step 1: Find a quiet place
Every day, take 5 minutes and find a quiet place without interruptions.
This could be just before bed, or just after waking up. In your office. Sitting on a bench after your workout. Sitting in your parked car. Walking. Doing yoga, stretching, or foam rolling.
Heck, even the bathroom will do.
All you need is 5 minutes of quiet, distraction-free time.
Step 2: Notice physical sensations
Start at the top of your head and go all the way down to your toes, piece by piece.
See what you notice yourself feeling physically.
What are you feeling in your eyes? Your ears? Your nose?
Are you clenching your jaw? Are your facial muscles tight or loose?
How are you holding your head? Straight? Pushed forward like a turtle? Tilted to one side like a curious dog?
Is your chest tight or open? How are you breathing — deeply or shallowly?
Where are your shoulders? Up around your ears? Hunched forward? Hanging loosely? Is one higher than the other?
Do you feel a breeze on your face? Is it warm or cool in the room? Are you sweating? Shivering?
Are you wearing a scratchy sweater? Can you feel the label in your shirt?
You get the idea.
Work your way down to your toenails with this step-by-step “scan”.
Don’t judge or rush to change anything. Just observe, like a scientist.
Write down your observations if you like. Over two weeks, you may notice patterns.
Step 3: Notice emotions and thoughts
Once you’ve done your “body scan”, do the same thing for your emotions and thoughts.
Again, don’t judge or try to make sense of it. Just observe, and document if you like.
Step 4: Ask yourself 3 questions
Now, ask yourself:
…what am I feeling, physically?
…what am I feeling, emotionally?
…what am I thinking?
It’s OK if you can’t put words to everything you’re feeling and experiencing.
Just observe. That’s all.
Again, with the three practices above (Eat slowly, Eat to 80 percent full, Mind-body scan) you don’t have to do all three at the same time. Rather, choose one to work on for a few weeks and put in the reps. Then you can move on to the next.
Strategy #3: Daily observations
As you continue to work on building awareness, take a couple minutes each day to record your observations.
This helps you turn your experiences into feedback about your body, health, and life that you can build on.
This doesn’t have to be time-consuming and arduous; just practice becoming more aware of what you’re learning and make a point of recording it.
How to implement this strategy
Use this strategy daily, accompanying the above awareness building practices.
(By the way, in Precision Nutrition Coaching, these types of questions come at the end of daily lessons, so you can reflect on what you’ve learned. This practice of questioning works best as part of a coaching curriculum, but it’s still worth trying on your own.)
Use these questions as a starting point. When doing your assessments and daily practices you might think of questions to add (or get rid of) depending on which topics are most resonant to you.
When practicing eating slowly you might consider:
What did you notice about that meal? Were you able to eat slowly, do you feel good about your food choices, etc?
When practicing eating to 80 percent full you might consider:
Aside from physical hunger, what makes you feel uncomfortable about eating to 80 percent full?
When practicing a mind-body scan, you might consider:
What did you notice yourself feeling physically?
What did you notice yourself feeling emotionally?
What did you notice yourself thinking?
As you continue the mind-body scan practice, you might also make notes about the following:
What are you learning about yourself as you practice the mind-body scan?
Are you starting to see any…
interesting patterns or tendencies?
links between emotional feelings and physical feelings? Where are your emotions located in your body?
links between feelings (physical or emotional) and thoughts or behaviors?
Strategy #4: Reflective journaling
Use specific, “Socratic” (critical thinking)-type questions as a launchpad for reflective writing — an exercise that helps you build and solidify your physical and emotional self-awareness.
This type of practice may get you thinking about things like:
Your eating and exercise choices and habits
What is working or not working for you
Physical changes (weight loss or gain, strength, size, speed, endurance, etc.)
In Precision Nutrition Coaching, we ask clients Socratic questions every few weeks, inviting them to reflect and write down their answers. Through this exercise, they figure out how to apply what they learn through assessments and practices, to make progress toward their goals.
You can do the same.
(And coaches, this is something you can offer to your clients too.)
How to implement this strategy
Use reflective journaling about once a month.
If you’re not working with a coach/curriculum, create a monthly reminder on your calendar so you don’t forget.
The following are examples of Socratic questions that are likely to help you accumulate and solidify your awareness and self-knowledge, and make progress toward a specific goal.
Questions to ask yourself after you’ve been working on your goal for several weeks:
What have you put the most effort into over the past few weeks?
What are you most proud of from the past few weeks?
What healthy action will you take as a high-five to yourself for the hard work you’ve done?
What basic habits would you like to revisit and/or do better?
What’s the next meaningful action you can do right away to start down that path of doing things a little bit better?
Questions to help yourself when you’re a little further along on your plan / journey:
Actually learning what works for you and tuning into your body’s needs and cues is an ongoing practice. One of the most important success factors is actually consistency — continuing on.
So to help you keep going and learn along the way, try answering these questions:
Look ahead: Thinking ahead to the next few weeks, what are you most looking forward to?
Knowing your goals / what you’re working on or working toward, what superpowers do you have that’ll make progress more likely?
Knowing what’s coming up in the next few weeks, what things are likely to stand in your way?
How can you prepare, right now, to make sure those things don’t prevent progress?
Questions when you feel like you’re getting stuck:
What do you feel like you’ve “done wrong”, or “screwed up”, or “failed” at over the last few weeks?
Why haven’t you achieved your goals already? What’s blocking you?
What do these mistakes tell you, either about yourself, or what you might need in order to be successful?
If you were going to be your own coach, what would you suggest to yourself?
In the end, remember, while journaling and responding to thought questions is an interesting activity on its own, the goal of these activities is really twofold:
1. To gather data about yourself you’re unlikely to discover any other way.
2. To use deliberate practice to build the skill of “paying attention” or “listening” to your body.
What to do next: Some tips from Precision Nutrition
1. Consider what “listening to your body” means to you.
If you’re trying to “listen to your body” or “figure out what works for you” or follow some similar advice, take a second and think about why.
What are you hoping to achieve? Is there a specific goal you want to reach, such as a healthier relationship with food or better stress-reduction habits? Why is this important to you?
Any journey is most successful when grounded in real meaning and purpose.
2. Pick one of the above strategies.
Then give one of the practices a shot.
Approach the process with curiosity, as much as you can. Try not to judge yourself, or the practice, too much. See how it goes. Make observations.
(And coaches, feel free to share these with your clients.)
3. Build your ‘Owner’s Manual’.
Try out the ‘Owner’s Manual’ concept on yourself. Make it an ongoing practice collect information about yourself. Write down what you learn.
Think of the Owner’s Manual as an ongoing, evolving thing that allows for you to continue to change, grow, and get to know yourself better.
Start now: What do you already know about yourself? What can you already put in your Owner’s Manual?
4. Find your support system
This stuff gets easier with the help of someone else, whether that’s a coach or trainer, a therapist, a mentor…even an “awareness partner” like a spouse or friend.
They can help you overcome your own blind spots and stay strong through the challenging work of getting to know yourself better.
If you don’t have anyone on hand, why not ask us… that’s what we’re here for.