I’ve been trying to think about a good Friday article for days now, but I’ve been completely preoccupied with figuring out how to carry around enough meat to satisfy my new dietary plan. I’m often pretty slow at recognizing the obvious. Today’s article is all about food.
Some years ago my wife and I looked at changing our diets specifically to lose weight. We settled on Weight Watcher’s Core plan, which allowed us to eat as much as we wanted from a specific food list. This fit our lifestyle and eating disposition well as we have a tolerance for eating the same things for days on end. We like eating good food, but we also like not having to think about food all the time. With the Core plan, our kitchen got reduced to vegetables, fruit, and single-source carbohydrates like popcorn, brown rice, and quinoa. On the Core plan we could eat as much of these foods as we wanted, without restriction or having to count points. As we already lean towards the OCD counting anything would have driven us mad. My wife comes from a long line of counters; her father counted every step he climbed while on vacation in Italy. My biological mother has had “London Bridge is Falling Down” stuck in her head for 40 years and hearing it played aloud will send her into shrieking fits. I’m not saying we come from undiagnosed autistics, but having an alternative to assigning point values to food was very, very good. The basic philosophy of the Core plan is:
nonfat dairy only (yogurt, milk, cottage cheese, etc.)
no sugar, wheat, or pasta
limit two tablespoons of oil per day
limit 1 serving single source carbohydrate per day (brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat pasta)
skinless, lean meats
most food’s simple sugar content can be offset by a high dietary fiber quotient
Using the Core plan we dropped a significant amount of body fat and were only mildly insufferable to invite over for dinner. We got to be known for having “weird food stuff” because of allergies and eating primarily vegetables and lean meats.
After a year or so we both hit a plateau and were pretty proud of our achievements. I lost about 40 lbs and found I was able to start doing more physical activity. My wife got her old body back and shed all her relationship fat she had slowly put on over the years. Even though we were officially off the Core plan we still maintained a kitchen that greatly resembled a Core diet. When I started running all the time I started increasing the amount of carbs in the house, much to my wife’s chagrin. It’s hard not to sabotage your partner’s diet goals if you’re both in different dietary needs.
After over a year of running and then cross training for triathlon I was still heavier than I wanted, and so I finally started asking for recommendations for nutritionists. There is no such thing as fitness in a can, and the only way to lose weight and build muscle is through a good diet and targeted exercise. I had three options on the table. 1) Ian Murray at Triathletix referred me to Matt Mahowald at New Performance. Matt helped an already supremely fit Ian safely take 4% off his body fat before a race. 2) Cole Mecray is a coach and trainer who works with The Panzer Plan, a system of daily contact with a nutritionist who will help you meet your weight loss goals. Cole is on their testimonial page and still has the abs to prove its efficacy. 3) My doctor has an in-house nutritionist who comes in on Wednesdays for consultation. After evaluating my three options and talking to Matt and Cole about their plans and methods, I chose New Performance. Why not just go with my doctor’s nutritionist? I’m not ashamed to say that I wanted more than just a weekly visit with someone, and I felt if I was paying retail for the service I wouldn’t hesitate to bombard my nutritionist with a neverending slew of questions. Given that both New Performance and The Panzer Plan cost about the same, $1,000 for the full workup and ongoing consultation, I fell into the Newage thinking trap that says “if it costs money it must work”. What I am finding is that there is little that separates these plans from one another, and it is having a knowledgeable person making little tweaks to a basic underlying science that drives the customized plan.
Human beings by nature are good at finding patterns. Mensa tests for high intelligence through an increasingly complex series of pattern recognition tests. Evolutionarily speaking, we are descended from creatures that were able to find patterns that resulted in finding food sources, replicating nature’s patterns in farming techniques, and building civilizations on replicable, proven testing. It is this same pattern recognition that results in a lot of magical thinking, since we often create narratives where it does not exist. For example, confusing causation with correlation is a common logical fallacy and to which we are prone as pattern seeking animals. But nutrition is not a mystical art. There are specific foods that have biological mechanics that work in slightly different ways from person to person. By and large processed sugar will make us fat, and modern foods are charged full of calorically dense high fructose corn syrup which satisfies our sweet tooth while blowing us up full of useless calories.
The first thing Matt and Cole had me do is start a food diary. There’s no other way to know what a person is eating unless they document it, but more importantly even before dietary changes are made, keeping a food diary holds a person accountable. When you have to write down every little snack you reach for, it changes how you perceive food and hunger. It certainly did for me. But since I was already eating a baseline of what I thought was “healthy” foods, I thought it would be easy.
Cole reviewed my food journal as a courtesy to evaluate whether the Panzer Plan would be good for me. Matt did as well. Both confirmed that my perception of eating “healthy” was way off. I wasn’t eating crap, but I wasn’t eating enough calories. On a day where I would ride 40 miles I would put in under 2,000 calories for an activity that burned more than 3,000! I felt fine, but my body was perpetually in starvation mode. After a week of the food diary, Matt made some significant dietary changes. This included eating almost every two hours, adding quite a bit of peanut butter into my diet as a fat source, and combining foods to eliminate my blood sugar spikes and crashes. His food plan greatly resembles the Weight Watchers Core Plan, the Paleo Diet, and a lot of the proven diets aimed at building lean muscle and reducing body fat through healthy eating. No magic pills, no crazy, costly supplements. Diet and exercise. It is food science, pure and simple. Meals usually consist of 2 full servings of vegetables, 6-8oz of lean meat, and a small serving of a single source carbohydrate like brown rice, grains, oats, and the like. Snacks are often a piece of fruit and some nuts. All natural, organic food sources that come from the ground or on legs.
I shaved off several pounds in those first few weeks leading up to my half ironman race and we put together a pre-race food plan that had outstanding results for loading up on fuel in the days before and during the race itself.
As detailed in the blog, I hit a plateau again at 180 lbs and started to have mood swings. Matt took a look at my food diary and we’ve made more changes including adding a lot more protein throughout the day. The weight is coming off again. Matt also runs a blood test to see how the body is responding to foods. I last saw Matt on a Tuesday, and my Saturday long ride day was a day of weird food by accident. First, let me detail the day:
Wake: 7am, coffee w/almond milk, 1/2c applesauce, 1 tbsp peanut butter
Putter around house, get stuff together for long ride.
9am, breakfast, 1c oatmeal, 1 tbsp ground flaxseed, 1/2c applesauce, 2 eggs
10am, 4 hour bike ride, 56 miles, ate 2 tbsp yam mix every 1/2 hr
2pm, whey protein shake w/ 1tbs peanut butter, 1/2c applesauce
4pm, bowl of popcorn, 2 nectarines
6pm, Chinese food dinner: eggplant, squid, green beans, brown rice
10pm, whey shake w/ 1/2c berries
Nowhere NEAR enough calories for the ride. It is no wonder I collapsed around 5, falling asleep on the couch. I was way off in my ride timing so I didn’t plan out my meals properly. When I started with Matt I had a triglyceride count of 80, nice and normal. Three days later and my triglyceride levels are at 130 because I had a lot of carbs Saturday and not enough protein to rebuild muscle tissue. Carbs stay in the blood for three days! This is why carb loading the night before a race is pointless. Having access to the blood test simply confirms what the food diary reveals.
My food plan isn’t the same as it will be for someone else. There will be similarities, but my caloric needs are based on my resting metabolic rate (how many calories my body needs daily just to function), and my goals are different. I want to get down to 10% body fat this year, which means a lean weight of 170lbs. But because I am eating all the time I have to think about food all the time. And in so doing a number of things have become very clear:
1) It is impossible to eat a balanced, healthy meal in restaurants unless you are willing to pay a fortune.
2) The only way to eat well is to make it yourself.
3) Anyone changing their food habits is a giant pain in the ass and ought to be flexible when a guest in someone’s house.
Restaurants are not making meals based on FDA guidelines. They tend to overload the meat, smother the scant vegetables in fat, and fill the rest of the plate with useless, cheap filler like baby greens and butter lettuce. There’s also frequently an assload of carbs either fried, wheat-heavy, or just huge and calorically dense. For someone like me who is away from home for lunch many days of the week, it is very, very hard to find a simple meal of two servings of vegetables, lean meat, and a single source carb. More often than not I go to a grocery store salad bar or the prepared foods counter at Whole Foods. At least there for $10 I can assemble something tasty that is cooked for flavor.
Lastly, I am incorrect when I imply that I am on a diet. This is how I will eat for the foreseeable future. Calling something a diet makes it temporary. These are lifestyle changes because I plan on being healthy, fit, and active for the rest of my life. Therefore as I experiment with foods, lunch bags, and dining out I’m trying to make them new habits. I can suffer through anything temporarily, but to make it part of who I am I have to enjoy it. Part of that enjoyment will certainly come from having six pack abs and doing a sprint distance tri in under 1.5 hours! Ooops – time to eat.