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 PN Coaching 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 PN Coaching program have.
But then I realized we all had a lot in common.
- After all, PN Coaching clients 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 behaviors as it did with their physiological makeup.
I got to thinking that many of their experiences and insights would be useful to clients looking to lose fat and weight. 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.
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.
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.
Mealtimes, hunger, and fullness
How do you know when it’s time to start eating?
Many clients 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.
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.
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
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.
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 behavior—and that if they had to learn to eat more, other folks could learn to eat less.
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 color, 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.
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.
“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.
“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 Super Shake (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.
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 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
Clients 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.
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.
As a PN Coach, one of the most common problems for clients 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.
“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.
“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.
“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 body fat. A few said they had experienced something like the pressure that women feel to be very thin.
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 clients 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 behavior 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.
Other naturally skinny people also pointed out that over-fat people didn’t seem to implement proper portion sizing.
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 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 PN Coaching. (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.
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 behavior.
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’ behavior 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 behavior 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:
Next week, we have a surprise for the Scrawnies: The PN Coaching clients weigh in with some tips for getting huge.
Eat, move, and live… better.
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