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All About Measuring Compliance


We have a simple test to determine where you are in your nutritional journey.

This test consists of two questions:

Question #1: When you look in the mirror, are you pleased with your level of muscularity and leanness? Also, are you happy with your energy and health? (OK, we sneaked one more question in here.)

Question #2: If no, have you followed a nutritional plan conforming to PN instruction, day in and day out for at least 5 weeks, with no more than 10% of your meals falling outside of those criteria?

Think about these questions before you answer.

The first questions above are outcome based: What happened? (Or didn’t?)

The second question above is behavior-based: What did you do? (Or not?)

Asking (and answering) both outcome- and behavior-based questions is essential for progress.

Why measuring compliance is so important

It’s easy to get wrapped up in so-called nutritional “do’s” and “don’ts”. But they don’t really matter — well, at least until you test them on yourself.

Many people will blindly cling to a nutrition tidbit without ever having tested it on themselves. Or they’ll decide that something works or doesn’t work without actually having good evidence.

Someone says, “Carbs make me fat!” However, do these people really have a clear definition of a “carb?” Have they tested out eating different sources of unprocessed carbs? And have they stopped short of being absolutely stuffed when eating carb dense foods? Without this information, we have no feedback. They want to change their behavior but don’t have the evidence to do it.

Or perhaps someone will say, “Carbs make me fat!” And maybe carbs — especially simple, processed carbs — really do make that person fat. Turns out that’s a pretty good educated guess. Except that person doesn’t actually do anything about it. Most of the time, they don’t actually avoid eating a lot of simple, processed carbs. Their behavior doesn’t match their evidence.

Think about this. If you had a set of directions for constructing a desk and you only followed 50% of the instructions, who do you blame when the desk falls apart? The instructions? Or yourself?

(If you’re an instruction-blamer, you may be wondering why your body composition isn’t where it should be. Time to rethink your attitude.)

This is what measuring compliance is all about. Until you measure your compliance against set eating “directions” — unless you actually, measurably, follow directions as specified — leave me alone. I need to get back to my Justin Timberlake scrapbook.

What happens when we don’t learn from experience

What you should know about measuring compliance

If you’re to succeed in any endeavor, and have a specific goal you want to achieve, you must be able to measure your progress and the outcome of your efforts. The things you measure should be specific and diverse — robust, if you will.

If you’re a patient person and simply want to look and feel better, your measures can be less specific. You can take your time. Start eating better, one step at a time. Simply do things you know will help you reach your goals. Kick back, ignore the scale, ignore the calipers, and just live the life. Just stop once and a while and rate how you look and/or feel.

If you are impatient and want to lose X amount of body fat by X date, break out the notebook and track body weight, skinfolds, girths, and photos on a regular basis. This is how you’ll know if you’re on track. And, with this information, you’ll know whether you need to keep doing what you’re doing or whether you need to make some modifications.

In the end, it’s up to you. Based on your goals and what you want to accomplish, you can be an aggressive outcomes-based decision maker. Or a less aggressive one.

Either way, you should pick some outcomes, pick your measurement intervals, and make your decisions based on these outcomes.

There’s no shame in admitting that you are unwilling to do what it takes to shape the best plan for you. The only shame lies in trying to convince yourself that you’re doing everything it takes when you’re not coming close.

How to measure compliance

If you have a PN binder, you can make copies of the PN Compliance worksheets, found in the Individualization Guide. If not, you can develop your own spreadsheet. Next, start measuring your compliance.

Here’s how it works:

1) Each time you eat a meal designated for that time slot, you get to put an “x” in the box.

2) Each time you miss a meal, put a 0 in the box.

3) Each time you eat a non-compliant meal, put an * in the box. A “miss” is whatever you define it as. It could be eating refined carbs with a meal, eating fast food, drinking calories, not listening to hunger cues, etc. Or it can be anything that isn’t on par with the 10 PN habits. There’s some gray area here. But you’ll know a miss when you see it.

At the end of each week, evaluate your success. Simply tally up the total meals scheduled for the week and subtract the boxes that are either blank or contain a star.

Meal 1 2 3 4 5 6
Day 1:
Training day
x x x x * x
Day 2:
Non-training day
x 0 x 0 x x
Day 3:
Training day
x x * x x x
Day 4:
Non-training day
x x 0 x x x
Day 5:
Training day
x x x x x x
Day 6:
Non-training day
x x * 0 0 x
Day 7:
Non-training day
x 0 * 0 x x

In this case, out of 6 possible meals x 7 days, 7 meals were missed, and 4 were noncompliant. 11/42 = 26%, which means that 74% of meals were compliant and properly administered. Not bad, but could be better.

You can use the compliance checklist for any facet of your nutrition.

Is your goal to:

  • eat only local food 5 days each week?
  • eat plant-based meals for all but one meal a day?
  • take fish oil twice a day?

Simply measure your compliance to whatever criteria you set out for yourself, then evaluate your strategy. Consider performance and health goals too. Maybe your only goal is to have more energy each day and sleep better at night. Maybe you want to lower your LDL levels for your annual physical exam.

Now what?

There are two possible outcomes of your “measuring compliance” experiment:

  1. You got the results you wanted.
  2. You didn’t get the results you wanted.

(Stop me if this is too complicated.)

If your controlled experiment (i.e., your nutritional plan) yielded the first outcome — the results you wanted — keep at it. If you wish to maintain or improve any of those results, you can simply continue the plan as-is until it stops working.

If your plan yielded the second outcome – less than expected results – then you must change something.

There are three possible explanations for less than expected results:

Explanation #1: Unrealistic results

Maybe 12 weeks to prepare for your first Mr. Olympia or NFL combine wasn’t quite enough. Or maybe it’s never going to happen, no matter what. We love ambitious goals at PN, but not goals that are unrealistically ambitious.

Losing 10 pounds of fat, gaining 10 pounds of muscle, lifting 10 more pounds, or finishing the race in 10 fewer seconds over the course of two weeks is unrealistic. I think we’d all agree.

Strangely, many want to believe these results are probable. This is due to societal norms, the media, and advertising. Feel free to continue this “blame fest,” but the important thing is that you now start accepting reality.

Things are more difficult than we think they’ll be and take longer than we think they’ll take. Welcome to life.

Thus as you evaluate goals, determine your upper level of achievement — the level you could achieve if everything went darn near perfect.

Then, consider rate of achievement. This is how long it will take to you to reach your goals if everything is dialed in.

You can figure this out based on observations. Ask others who’ve achieved similar goals how long it took them and what level of dedication/effort was required. Take an average, don’t just ask the most elite person you know and base your progress on that. Find several people.

One of our favorite principles of improvement is continually trying to improve yourself over time (a principle well-known to Japanese business as kaizen). This continuous improvement can be small or big. The key is that it’s continual, and it’s based on only bettering yourself.

Here’s a key point: You are not inferior. You are not superior. You are simply “you”. Getting “better” is relative to you.

To wrap up explanation #1, you should choose a goal. Select a measure that enables you to track your progress toward that goal. Set your expectations, both upper limit and rate of achievement. Then consider the idea of trying to simply progress by the minimum measurable increment every two weeks.

Oh yeah, and consider building in a “buffer zone” or backup plans, because you should know from experience that life isn’t darn near perfect.

Explanation #2: Expectations were realistic, but execution wasn’t up to the task

Less than 90% adherence means poor control. This means inaccurate data on your food intake. Variables lack control and we don’t know what works and what doesn’t work. Uh oh.

Before you actually start making changes to your nutritional intake, you have to adhere to a habitual food intake. You have to be compliant enough to know whether the plan needs changes or you need changes.

If the plan is too radical for you to stick with, then that tells you something. Maybe efforts need to be scaled back and more achievable goals should be set.

Or maybe you never need to measure compliance. Maybe you stick to the basic PN principles of eating and exercise, and that leads you to your goals. Then you’re set.

Explanation #3: Realistic expectations, and execution up to task, but your plan was inadequate

Don’t abandon your plan entirely. If it was based on PN principles, assume it was mostly accurate. All you have to do is tweak as necessary. Learn more about tweaking your plan with our full selection of All About articles.

Whether you're aggressive or not, in the end it's about healthy habits
In the end it’s about healthy habits

Summary and recommendations

If you aren’t meeting your health and body composition goals, try measuring your eating compliance against set criteria. Make sure to measure outcomes as well.

After measuring your compliance and outcome measures, figure out if you’ve met your goals.

If so, keep it up. If not, review one of the three possible explanations (above) and begin tweaking from there.

Eat, move, and live… better.©

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