Bunless Burgers v Rice Cakes with Peanut Butter: A Lesson
Our mindset when it comes to nutrition is vital to our success.
If we think of eating well as a chore- as many of us do, because “diet” is the worst four-letter word I know- we’re unlikely to experience success. You know the drill (so do I): we think of “getting back on the wagon,” we cut out the foods we love and opt only for the boring stuff we sorta hate, we crave sugar so jazz up a rice cake with some peanut butter and pretend to be happy, we see success for 4-10 days, then we’re face-first in ice cream, because rice cakes and peanut butter after dry chicken and loads of steamed broccoli aren’t cutting it.
What if, instead of examining this as a chore, we explored ways to serve ourselves?
What if we looked at our nutrition from the perspective of athletes who want to nourish our bodies, our minds, and our performance?
How would our attitudes change?
Imagine: we’re out to eat, and, while we know that no situation will be perfect, we’re aware of what “ideal” looks like for us. We know we need to prioritize protein for muscles, a few starchy carbs for energy, and a lot of fibrous, watery veggies to feel full and get our vitamins. We don’t have to skip a meal with our friends, because we know that the FOMO will lead to a regret-fueled, “I deserve this, because I sacrificed my social time” potato chip binge, so we navigate the middle, go out, have a glass of wine, a salad, a bunless burger, and maybe a French fry or two. We come home and feel satisfied, neither bloated nor deprived, we take the dogs for a short walk, and go to bed to wake up feeling rested and refreshed.
The nutrition is similar, but the approach is entirely different, no?
Instead of breaking it down and only seeing “good” or “bad,” we see the spectrum. We don’t agonize over every little detail. We’re able to separate the guilt from the choices, step back, avoid the f-it effect, and see it for what it really is: just food.
When our nutrition matches both our training and our values, we’re different people.
What I mean by “nutrition matching training” is that, naturally, we don’t move the same way or with the same intensity every day. There’s no way we can train like a Navy SEAL 7 days a week. Our caloric needs on a high-activity day are different than on a leisure-walk-only day, because the demands placed on our bodies are different. This may sound overwhelming (and, if you’ve spent time on the internet wondering about nutrition, you’ve probably felt said overwhelm), but, really, it’s all about listening to our cues: our bodies will tell us what they need if we slow down enough to listen. Which can be difficult, because, probably like many of you, I’ve fallen prey to eating just because something is delicious, ignoring hunger cues, and really forgetting what it feels like to even *be* hungry, clouding the messages my body has tried to send me. But creating a blank slate and playing detective has done wonders for my nutritional journey. The basics of finding the foods that we enjoy that also serve our goals are pretty simple, but it does take some work (read: some time.).
Before we go any further, I’d like to point out: I’m not big on calorie counting, mostly because it leads to being obsessed, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid. I do, however, support calorie counting for a week or so if you’ve never done it, just to get an idea of what a certain amount of calories actually looks like. From there, we can gauge how full we feel on a certain (approximate) number of calories, manipulate/redistribute where those calories are coming from to support our fullness and energy, and not have to actually count much in the future. How can we know where to go if we don’t know where we are?
So, let’s begin the detective process by breaking down what each macronutrient is doing for us and why it’s important, so that we can figure out how to best budget our calories for our psychological preferences (basically, a giant game of food cost/benefit analysis).
Carbs are often the big bad wolf…not because they’re evil, but because, if we listened to the people who don’t pay attention to calories, we’d think that if we eliminated carbs, we’d solve all of our problems. I’m here to tell you: false. Cutting calories at random, especially from one particular macronutrient (especially carbs, because our brains run on glucose, the building block of carbs), can actually lead to the exact thing we’re trying to avoid: fat storage and a slower metabolism. Carbs are necessary not just for our brains to work properly, but they also give us energy, so if you’re about to head into the gym to lift something heavy and you don’t want to pass out, maybe include something with carbs in it earlier in the day (or the night before, if you’re an early morning exerciser and completely worthless after 2p like me).
Everyone’s tolerance to carbs is different – some people can eat more than others (leaner people tolerate more carbs, in general) – but we all need some. The key for carbs is to pick the ones that support us, which are usually low in starch, low in sugar, high in fiber, and high in water content. Examples include apples, grapefruit, leafy greens (spinach, collards, chard, kale), quinoa, oatmeal, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, berries, oranges, cauliflower, rice, and skin-on potatoes.
Not everything you thought, eh? The carbs that are relatively starchy on that list are also high in fiber and/or water, whereas breads, cereals, and pasta are not. I wouldn’t say *never* eat things like that, because we all know what happens when something goes on the never list, but let’s pick and choose our battles and always remember that we are choosing in support of our health (also, if you’re not big on vegetables, there’s a wonderful article written by Precision Nutrition explaining why that may be, that also offers some suggestions/recipes for introducing them to your palate in a far more pleasing way than just sucking it up or adding a ton of bacon and/or butter. Check it here.).
In the context of lifting (and life, but more so if we’re lifting 3-5 days of the week), we also need a fair amount of protein and fat. Protein is the building block of muscle, and that’s the goal here, isn’t it? To lift stuff, increase the amount of stuff we can lift, and also look like we do that? Studies on how much protein, exactly, vary, but a safe place to start is 0.8-1.2g protein per 1kg of body weight. That usually keeps us in a range that will support our activity but not have us going hog-wild and way over our calorie targets.
Fat is also key…both for satiety (our perception of fullness between meals) and for the delicious factor. Limiting fat is a good idea – mostly because it has 9 calories per gram, where carbs and protein have 4 – but eliminating (or close to it) fat isn’t, because it does serve quite a few purposes in our bodies, as a source of energy, a support for certain essential vitamins to be absorbed (A, D, E, and K), a structural component of our cell membranes, and making food taste good. In an effort to not go waaaay over my ideal amount of food for the day, I’d rather put half an avocado on a salad than be hungry an hour after said salad and eat M&Ms. Priorities.
Social cues are also a factor, because we all live life with other people. I recognize that if I’m around people who eat crap, I’m more likely to eat crap, but I also don’t want to avoid going out for brunch because I’m not sure how to make it fit in. As alluded to before, this more often than not leads to intense feelings of deprivation, which almost never lead to eating in a way that respects our bodies. If we prioritize what’s important to us psychologically and emotionally (e.g., love pizza? Me too. Have a big salad and one slice, then check in and see how you feel. If you’re anything like me, you’ll likely realize, holy crap, you’re full! But not the unbutton-the-pants, oh-my-gosh-why-did-I-do-that-to-myself full. The, “wow, that was really great, and I can still move!” full. Huge revelation.), we’ll act (and eat) in a way that allows us to achieve our fat loss/muscle building goals without thinking too terribly hard about it. We’ll choose foods that allow us to meet our priorities (satisfaction nutritionally, enjoyment psychologically, awareness socially), regardless of what anyone else is doing.
If we change our mindsets, understanding that the whole reason we’re on this journey in the first place is to lead a happier, more peaceful, more well-rounded life of constant improvement, then the choices become effortless, over time. We can give ourselves wiggle room for pizza by upping our water and veggie intake earlier throughout the day. Instead of counting calories and going way super over when we’re already 100 over, we can make minor adjustments that will satisfy and support us without sacrificing what’s emotionally fulfilling to us.
Not that I love the word “balance”, but that’s what we’re looking for: putting each food in context of what else we’re eating/doing. If I’m starving in the jungle, a candy bar is nourishing. If I’m 100lbs overweight and in a 1000 calorie surplus already, adding a plate of asparagus isn’t helping anything. So let’s find a way to keep from either extreme and live a real life without toting Tupperware of dry chicken and unseasoned broccoli everywhere, please and thank you.
Have you experienced any food-related victories recently? I’d love to hear some of your strategies for making your nutritional mission fit into the context of real life! Drop me an email or comment anytime.