I’ll start this post out with a disclaimer: I’m not a nutritionist or even a really good role model when it comes to food. In fact, I probably have no business presuming to write about it. But as with running and cycling, I’ve done a good bit of eating (and eating while training) and I’ve learned a few things that might be helpful to others. I’ve also done a good bit of weight loss along the way–some of you will remember me 20 pounds heavier, others will have a hard time imagining that–as well as spent some time that probably constitutes categorization in the eating disorder territory. So with all that in mind, this will not be a calorie-counting, finger-wagging list of “super foods” and forbidden snacks–none of that worked for me when I was trying to lose weight and it was actively harmful to me when I spent parties in the bathroom counting calories. Instead, I’m going to shoot for a list of thoughts that I hope will help you relate to food better whether your trying to lose or gain, training for an event, or just attempting to eat a bit healthier.
1. Find an diet you find at least somewhat palatable.
I said it before, but it bears repeating: “The diet that works is the one you stick to.” Which, again, is not to say that it’s all about your willpower, but rather if you live for pasta, a carb-free diet is failure waiting to happen. There’s bound to be some change in the way you eat when you become more thoughtful about it, but giving up all your favorite foods cold turkey is a recipe for a tail spin. If you know you’re going to regularly crave sugar or dairy or what have you, find a diet that helps you toward your goals that doesn’t completely cut those things out. Eating shouldn’t feel like some huge monastic feat. Yes, food is fuel, but it’s also part of the sensual experience of being in the body your in. I’ve found as I make changes to my diet my cravings have changed and I’ve certainly learned to enjoy new foods, but that was a slow process that was years in the making. And I still have a weak spot for french fries and potato chips that I know I have to make room for…and you thought I was training for charity! 🙂
2. Make a plan, but make sure it involves cheating.
Plan your meals for the week. Make your lunches in the morning and avoid eating out. Come up with a social eating strategy that feels manageable. But make sure there’s room for periodic splurges on your favorite ice cream, cocktail, or fried food. I had thought this was just something I had to do to keep my sanity, but apparently even Jessica Biel does this to keep from going “a little nutso.” She gives herself a day of the week to eat what she wants. If I work out for more than an hour, I get to eat whatever my taste buds desire. Whatever plan you work out for yourself, just make sure there’s room to let up on yourself every once in a while too.
3. Listen to your body. It’s wiser than you know.
More than any diet-hawking food guru, your body knows what it needs. If you feel bloated after eating a certain food, maybe it’s time to let it go. If you get regular headaches or stomach aches, consider which foods might be the culprits. If your skin seems to clear up after you sign up for the CSA and eat a ton more veggies, perhaps there’s something to that. If you’re finding you sleep better now that you’re eating fish on a more regular basis, the two might be connected. By modern American billboard messaging standards, bodies communicate subtly, but once you’re tuned in, you’d be surprised as how little guess work you actually need to do.
4. Find your own “super” foods.
This is more in the “listen to your body” vein, but particularly when you feel pressured to eat something because it’s a “super food” or pressured not to eat something because it’s “bad for you.” While I know most of those lists are meant well, I’m not a fan of worshiping or demonizing particular foods. And I’m even less a fan of the idea that every training diet needs to look the same. Each body is uniquely suited to process certain foods better than others, but there’s such diversity in those bodies! An example? Check out my list of favorite energy foods: dates/figs, beets, bananas, one cup of coffee 3-4 hours before physical activity. I have a marathoner friend who gags a little when I even mention bananas. I have a competitive cycling friend who couldn’t make it through a work day on one cup of coffee, much less her aggressive training schedule. Find what works for you and don’t let anyone bully you into eating anything else–including me. 🙂
5. Hydrate! Sleep! Exercise! (Food is medicine, but it’s not a silver bullet.)
Eating better can go a long way, but it’s not going to help you much if you’re not sleeping, exercising, or drinking water ever. The body is an intricate interconnected system. Hydration is key to exercising, digesting and sleeping well. Sleep is key to weight loss, athletic performance, and immune system function. Exercise can help you sleep better, digest more efficiently, and might even help you avoid the next round of colds at your office. It all works together. Start small, but just know that you may have to make some other changes along the way to get the results you want.
As an aside, for those who are exercising for more than an hour at a time, hydration is about more than water. You don’t sweat water–you sweat salt water, so be careful to replace both. That’s why drinks like Gatorade exist. If you want to avoid artificial coloring and loads of sugar and other stuff you don’t necessarily need, here’s the replacement I’ve been using successfully for about 6 months: 1 part juice (I use 100% blueberry for antioxidants and so it’s not too sweet), 1 parts coconut water (for potassium and electrolytes approximately equivalent to Gatorade; different brands have sugar or not so look at the labels!), 2 parts water/ice, and salt (add until you can taste it but stop before it’s really salty).
6. Plan to change the plan.
I’ve been telling people that I eat like a tornado right now and that’s not far from true. While it’s certainly true that I should try to maintain “race weight,” it’s also true that I just need to plan to eat more and more often once my metabolism gets fired up. And man, will my body tell me if I haven’t adjusted properly! (I’ve had worse exercise hangovers than I have alcohol related ones and I’ve been known to do a little drinking.) Also, interestingly, when I was struggling to lose weight years ago, I sought out the help of a nutritionist. I had cut back the calories a ton and was seeing little of the results I was looking for. She was the first to tell me that it’s possible to slow your metabolism down by eating to little (basically it’s like throwing the hibernation switch, as I understand it). Yes to some degree metabolism is genetic, but it’s also a bit fluid–I mean, evolutionarily, it would have to be right? So plan to have the change the eating plan periodically, same as you would change up your exercise routine once your body has adapted to it.
Have a favorite non-shaming, totally practical food practice for weight loss? Let’s hear it in a comment below!