Now that we’ve gotten started on upping the ante in our intensity game, programming properly, and working our workouts into our real lives, it’s time to discuss everyone’s favorite topic: nutrition.
Many of you, I’m sure, have been dieting for years. We’ve all been there: on board with the latest health trends, finding that it’s *really* difficult to cut out every carb ever, decide pizza does taste better than skinny feels (whoever made that meme is lame) and eat a whole pizza, keep backsliding into ridiculously fatty/salty/sweet eating binges until we feel super gross and ascribe to the latest ultra-rigid plan...again.
I’m sure you’ve done this, because so have I. Over…and over…and over.
Until I decided that all that was doing was making food a reward in my brain: if I ate “well” over the course of 5 or 6 days (“well” in quotations because, really, that meant “perfectly according to restrictive plan”), then I could have a cheat day...which reminded me how great pizza is…which turned into a cheat weekend. I’d feel justified doing that because, “I was so good!” Then Monday morning rolled around, I’d weigh myself and be up 4-6 pounds from all the fat/salt/wine/inactivity. I’d feel intense feelings of guilt and shame, tie it to my worth, believing that I was bad and shouldn’t be taken seriously in fitness because how would anyone ever trust me if I swing that hard over just 2 days?, and be on a rigid plan again, promising that *this time* would be different.
First and foremost, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way.
I’m living proof that you can eat food that you actually enjoy. You can sometimes enjoy a slice of pizza and a glass of wine. You won’t balloon up immediately. This may be difficult to believe, since we’ve been trained to believe that eating well is boring, and if we can’t stick to “the plan”, then something is wrong with us, because it’s just food and we must have a problem if we enjoy it too much.
Let’s be honest here: food is emotional. It’s a source of comfort, joy, celebration, and love in many cultures, including our own. But it’s not something I want to consume my every thought, nor a decision that causes me agony multiple times a day.
Finding a way to eat that both satisfies you emotionally and provides the nutrition you need to serve your goals is a bit of a process, but 150% worth it, in my opinion. I’d much rather do the detective work, learning how to trust myself in any food situation without having to rely on a Tupperware full of chicken + broccoli or else have a free-for-all, than be up, down, and sideways without actually learning what the nutrients are doing for me.
Since most of our goals are body change in some form or another, it’s important to review 3 posts back. We have to balance our hormones before any appreciable permanent body change can occur. It’s physiology; there’s no way around it, long term. The reason many diets “stop working” is that we have failed to address the hormonal and psychological implications: often times they’re so restrictive that we feel deprived.
Our bodies like to diet about as much as our minds do (read: little to none), so the “eat less, exercise more” model, over time, causes our hormones to adjust drastically. This leads to a greater degree of hunger (and, therefore, a higher likelihood of binge), lower energy, increased intense cravings, and decreased metabolic rate: all ways for our bodies to avoid the physical stress of the diet.
Literally any diet will work for a short time: Paleo, Atkins, grapefruit, intermittent fasting…anything. They all work on the basic calorie balance principle. All diets are forms of calorie reduction: fill you up on the nutrient-dense stuff so there’s no room to consume extra calories in junk. If you follow these diets, there’s enough protein, fat, and fiber to fill you up before you can eat too many calories in sugar or salt. If you don’t believe me, try eating 2500 calories of broccoli. Good luck. ;)
There’s a lot more going on than just “eat less, exercise more,” but, at the end of the day, if you’re eating in an extreme calorie surplus, nothing else you do will matter: you’re taking in too much energy. Your hormones (along with the rest of your body) are working to take care of that by either using it or storing it more than they’re working with your will to be shredded.
As far as nutrition goes, it’s helpful for me to think in a week-long timeline, because it makes more sense. Our bodies don’t work on a 24-hour calorie cycle; the clock doesn’t reset at midnight, Cinderella. The froyo I ate at 1am after Monday’s sleepless night isn’t part of Tuesday’s calories, and I can’t just not eat all day Tuesday to make up for it; it all goes into the same system working over the same week, and this is where many dieters hit a rough patch. Look into your eating: I’d suspect you’d find times that you didn’t account for, or that you tried to balance out later in the day or week, further increasing your feelings of deprivation. Eventually, you’ll hit a day where you go crazy, eat everything in sight (*especially* the stuff that you “couldn’t” eat on your diet), and are back at square one. We perpetuate the negative cycle of either eating less and less (which grinds your metabolism to a halt, so that everything you eat, even if it’s sensible, isn’t used as efficiently to produce energy and build muscle as it could be) or adopting the “exercise it off” mentality (which is no fun…exercise is the joy of movement: look at little kids! They love to run and play, and we can too. The idea that exercise is supposed to suck…sucks.).
Trying to white-knuckle our way through a plan that doesn’t work for us, no matter how “perfect” it is on paper, sets us up for failure, hormonally, mentally, and physically.
When we exercise more, our natural response to the hormonal surge that comes with increased activity is increased hunger. This is normal and totally okay, as long as we are being mindful about which foods we use to fuel and satiate that hunger. This is also where a lot of us run into trouble! But, to crush our goals, it’s key.
A better way to go about eating for my goals, personally, even before I changed anything about my diet, was to change the way I thought about food. Food is fuel for our bodies, so when I increase my activity, to sustain my current body, I should increase my food intake. Vice versa, when I have a lower-activity day, to maintain my current body, I should eat less.
Then, I took the time to learn which foods served me and which didn’t. I ate mostly whole foods and a largely plant-based diet, with each meal being a lean protein (chicken, grass-fed beef, fish, mostly) and fibrous veggies (cruciferous veggies like broccoli and Brussels sprouts are my favorites, but this can include anything you like: green beans, spinach, kale, radish, asparagus, collards, onions, mushrooms, squash, cucumbers, celery, carrots…really, anything non-starchy like potatoes, beans, or corn). This was both an exercise in mindfulness (huge in fat loss: tune in to each food decision you make each day, and that simple trick alone will transform what you put into your body) and an exercise in, essentially, cleaning the nutritional slate. It’s far easier to see which foods serve you, digestively, and which don’t when you aren’t introducing a lot of common allergens at once (things like gluten, dairy, nightshades [eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers]). Eating this way, I could slowly reintroduce foods one at a time, see how I reacted (was I sluggish? Low energy? Bloated?), and either add them back into my diet, or decide that I should use those sparingly or not at all, depending on how I felt. No food is off limits – I’m not deprived in any way – some foods simply do not serve me well in my journey to better health.
I’m a firm proponent of not eliminating any one thing; one of my nutritional mantras is, “be a little less perfect to be a little more consistent.” Periodically, I work things into my eating that wouldn’t fall on a traditional rigid plan but that keep me satisfied and not feeling deprived. The second I feel deprived, I adopt a scarcity mindset, and go right back down the ‘f it’ cycle, because I feel like I’ll never be able to enjoy pizza again, so I need to eat it all…now. Circling back to our previous mindset emails, this is not to say I don’t fall into this trap still; I certainly do! But I catch it earlier and earlier, so that I rarely feel the guilt and shame of the spiral-out-of-control binge weekend anymore. Including things like cheese on my salad, a steak once a week, a few dabs of whatever cream sauce comes with that steak, avocado on a sandwich, etc. keep me in an abundance mindset, reminding me that any food I could ever want is just a walk away at the store, but I don’t need that much to feel satisfied. I can stay on track toward my goals and still enjoy what I’m eating. That mindset shift has been huge, so that I generally eat the same on Saturday as I do on Monday, these days.
Another hack of mine that I adopted from Jill Coleman is my Daily Nutritional Commitments: 3 things that are broad strokes- so broad that there is some wiggle room, but if I hit all 3, I know I really *can’t* fall off the wagon too hard. I also love the language of commitments, because, really, our nutrition is a commitment to serving ourselves. I, personally, hate to disappoint people, and this was a wakeup call for me to stop disappointing myself and instead act in service to myself so that I can better serve others. If it’s helpful, my DNCs are as follows:
1. One meal a day is a huge bowl of veggies (giant salads and stir fries are my go-tos.).
2. Each and every time I eat, there must be protein.
3. Drink a gallon of water every day.
As long as I take care of those, I’m okay. There’s room for the satisfaction factor in there, but not room for entire pizzas (if you haven’t guessed it by now, that’s my favorite “junk food”…and I still find ways to enjoy a slice or two without eating the whole thing. It’s possible. Promise.).
Getting a handle on hormones, resetting my nutrition, and making daily nutritional commitments has helped me find nutrition that provides enough energy to fuel my workouts while still fitting into my body change and general happiness goals. Eating to serve myself so that I can not only be in better shape, but also get back a lot of the mental energy that was devoted to food has been a game-changer. Food is fuel, joy, and everything in between, but letting it consume our thoughts does nothing to serve us, only things to stress us out.