It’s a load of hogwash when immigrants claim exclusivity over their culture’s relationship with food. How many times have you heard, “Oh, my mom is (Greek/Israeli/Armenian/Yemeni/Aboriginal/Korean/etc), she’s a feeder.” Even WASPs, our favorite homogenized, flavorless punching bag of Americana, bond over their disdain of food. That’s still bonding over food. We’re animals, we bond over food whether it’s hording, pushing, confusing food for love, searching for that feeling of fullness to satisfy an emptiness inside, or starving the beast thinking it makes you stronger. Food is considered the 4th event of triathlon, but in truth we all should be aware of what we put into our bodies. Just like our interpersonal relationships, passive neglect is still an action that has consequence.
Almost a year ago I sought out the advice of a nutritionist, Matt Mahowald at New Performance nutrition. I was training six days a week and not losing any weight, which was very frustrating. Matt took finger-prick blood tests as I kept a food journal so he could determine how my body reacted to sugars (carbohydrates) ingested three days prior. He created meal plans for me to follow that in just a few weeks dramatically changed my body fat percentage, boosted my performance, and radically changed how I perceived “good” eating habits. Over the course of three months I went from 17% body fat to just under 10%. While my body weight did not change more than 7lbs I was much healthier and more efficient in my diet.
My diet was tailored specifically for me and my workload, but here are some global tips that anyone can use.
Calculate your resting metabolic rate (RMR), or the number of calories your body needs to function at rest:
Women: 655 + (4.35 x weight in lbs) + ((4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x age))
Men: (66 + (6.23 x weight in lbs)) + ((12.7 x height in inches) – (6.8 x age))
For this example, I’m 184 lbs, 34 years old, and 6’ (72”) tall.
(66 + (6.23 x 184)) + ((12.7 x 72) – (6.8 x 34))
My body needs 1,895.52 calories daily to function at rest.
Multiply this number by the Activity Factor to find how many calories you burn daily:
Sedentary (no exercise) – 1.2
Light activity (exercise 1-3 days per week) – 1.3 to 1.4
Moderate activity (3-5 days per week) – 1.5
Very active (6-7 days per week) – 1.6 to 1.7
Extreme activity (train twice a day) – 2.0 to 2.4
I consider 6 days a week, 15 hours of workouts at the top end of “Very active”.
Therefore I need 3,223 calories daily.
My body operates on a 3 hour glycemic window. I DO NOT GO MORE THAN 3 HOURS BETWEEN MEALS.
Once I exceed 3 hours my body will hold its fat, not trusting when more glycogen is coming down the pipe. I got into the habit of eating every two hours (snacks between meals), and in short time my body trusted the delivery schedule and started to burn fat. I must eat thirty minutes or less after a workout or else my body recoils from the shock and holds everything it can to survive. Human bodies have a 20,000-calorie warehouse – this is why we can last for over a week without food if necessary. (It means our bodies will literally eat themselves, but it’s how we evolved for survival in harsh conditions.) It’s also why if I work out for an hour or less I don’t really need to eat during the workout. But the moment I finish working out, I eat something!
A snack can be a handful of nuts, a piece of fruit (good fat + carb), and a piece of turkey breast. Combining foods is good, and single sourcing ingredients is even better. More on that in a moment. I love Larabars because they’re the only bar food I’ve found that are just nuts and fruit, nothing else.
Too many of us make the mistake of starving ourselves to get the caloric deficiency needed to lose weight. Or if we’re at a good weight and body fat we skip meals because we’re not hungry. Big mistake, and one we may not realize until three days later. Why?
I’m not eating for today, I’m eating for 3 days from now.
The foods I eat today, which are mostly various kinds of carbohydrates, take 3 days to make their way to muscle tissue. This is why “carb loading” the night before a race is pointless, unless you like having to take a huge dump in a porta-potty on race morning.
Green vegetables are wonderful carbs, but they take time to utilize. The immediate effect is the roughage, but the molecular effect takes days to make its way into my system. Same goes for starches, which are a great fuel source in limited quantity. My carb load starts five days before a race, and is restricted to simply increasing the volume of the already healthy carb choices I’m already eating.
Breads are basically junk – caloric density without nutritional reward. But root vegetables like potatoes, all of the rices, whole grains, and legumes are excellent sources of carbohydrates. Doubling the volume of these carbs loads up my muscle tissue with fuel, so the day before the race I eat lightly to avoid having a full belly on race day.
Eat by color.
This extends what I just touched on –classifying what I’m eating. Eating by color tends to be a good rule. A plate of brown is a plate of protein, carbs, and fatty oils. Even good oils are rich in fat and calories (it’s why they taste so good). Things drowned in oil tend towards brown, and brown is to be eaten in moderation. Whole grains are brown, and good, but in reasonable portions. A half a cup of whole grains tends to be enough for me, going up to a cup only when in the carb loading phase before a race. Sticking to greens and yellows tend to be healthier choices, rich in vitamins and minerals without caloric density. For example:
Lean proteins: fish, white meat chicken, turkey, buffalo burgers – white to beige.
Vegetables: leafy greens, spinach, green beans, broccoli, asparagus – green.
Healthy starches: squashes, potatoes, rices – yellows, orange, reds.
(I know that most cheese is white and yellow, but it’s also a huge amount of milk fat. The “-oses” are deadly – fructose, sucrose, and lactose and are eaten in extreme moderation.)
What is a complete meal for me? A complete meal has a serving of lean protein, two full servings of vegetables, and a small amount of whole grains, rice, or starch.
Fruits, while colorful, are dangerous. They are carbohydrates that provide a quick blood sugar boost, but have little nutritional payoff. Worse are drinking fruit juices – a huge amount of sugar and empty carbs that won’t help me in the long run. Literally. Using juice bars like Robek’s and Jamba Juice for meals is a recipe for packing empty calories into a big shake regardless of how much processed powders they dump in. I eat real food!
Don’t take my word for it – use this is a starting point and Google “eat by color”.
Keep a food journal.
Keeping a food journal is a way of being accountable. It’s private, it’s for me (and my doctor and nutritionist), and it was an incredible insight into how I ate. Many of us eat unconsciously, we graze or we starve, we eat from the package and lose count, or we trick ourselves into thinking we’ve got a good memory and are on top of things. WRONG. Memory is fallible. We are human, we live by a constantly changing narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves. The story of Me changes all day long depending on my mood.
I resisted journaling at first because it felt labor intensive. After the first two days it got much easier, and became a really good habit to understand my patterns. I got better at guessing quantities and ingredients. I noted what I ate, when I ate, when I worked out, and my perceived energy levels in the workout and at the end of the day. If I left the journal at home I used my cellphone to make notes, or even took photos of the meal to note later. There are now more than a half dozen iPhone apps that do this.
At the end of the week I’d ballpark the calories and look at my glycemic gaps, noting that days that had a low energy workout were the result of bad eating habits from three days prior.
Going more than 3 hours between meals told my body to store fat. Eating above my caloric needs added fat. Almost all of us, even the best eaters, slip and slide because we are human. Journaling makes us accountable to ourselves.
Eating out will almost always result in overeating.
Simply put, I had no idea what’s in my restaurant food. Most restaurants load up the plate with carbohydrates, protein, and oil. “Vegetables” are limited to mostly watery lettuce blends, tomatoes, and cucumber.
I spend a lot of time eating my lunch on the road between appointments. It is a daily challenge to find something healthy that is inexpensive and fast. More often than not I go to El Pollo Loco, order white meat chicken with a side of steamed vegetables and either corn on the cob or rice. It makes me laugh when McDonalds or fast food chains present their salads as being healthy options. Yes, it’s certainly better than a cheeseburger or fries, but it’s empty. I’m going to be hungry again faster because I didn’t actually eat anything substantial and once that hunger becomes ravenous it’s much easier to make bad decisions.
I didn’t invent any of these rules, and I’m not great about following them every hour of every day. For example, I love cheese. But I know that cheese is delicious because it is pure fat. I try only to eat artisanal, gourmet cheese on special occasions. That limits it to every few months in small bursts and I enjoy it even more. (I was recently at a celebrity’s birthday party where The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills laid out about $10,000 worth of cheese across four giant tables. I ate a little of everything with reckless abandon and the dopamine release was ridiculous.)
The formula is very simple – if I want to perform well I have to fuel my engine. If I want to lose weight I have to run a small (10%) caloric deficit every day and the weight will come off slowly, but safely. Rapid weight loss usually means rapid weight gain later. Or worse, rebound weight gain putting on even more weight.
Diet is how I eat for life, it’s not something I “go on” temporarily. There are ways to live well and eat well because those few indulgences are brief spikes on a much longer timeline.
I’ve seen what my genes have in store for me if I neglect my attention to what I eat. I’ve also seen what happens when I train like an animal and don’t eat like one. Neither is sustainable.
An interesting thing that has happened recently is that I’m all too aware of how many calories I need, but I’m getting less hungry. This is dangerous because it’s happening while I’m in peak volume leading up to a race. Mentally I know I’ve got to keep eating, but physically every meal is an effort. Hunger hits at strange times, and I definitely notice when I’ve pulled back my calories due to a lower appetite. I think it has to do with fatigue. Everything is ramped up – training, work, emotions, and it is suppressing my appetite. I am learning to eat based on the clock, not on my stomach.
I do this on the bike. I may not feel like eating but I try and drink one bottle of liquid nutrition every hour. For workouts over one hour I need to ingest 300 calories per hour in order to maintain workload. This is not easy. I don’t get gastric distress, for which I am grateful, but I do lose my appetite. This makes it all the more important to eat better when I’m not training, which comes back to forcing myself to eat by the clock.
I’m happy that when my hunger hits I no longer crave foods like baked goods or cheese. Sometimes I get off the bike and I just want to attack an entire rotisserie chicken. (Dark meat is full of fat, but oh, so delicious.) But as I head into my taper week before Oceanside I have to remind myself every two hours to eat whether I want to or not – I have a race coming. If I don’t eat now it won’t be in my system on race day. And I plan on devouring that course.