I have made many positive changes in my running and fitness routine since the start of this year, most noteably in the areas of implementing a regular prehab routine to keep my physical weaknesses under control; doing functional HIIT style cross-training sessions to get fitter and to injury proof my body, and most recently, exploring sports nutrition. My primary driver behind this was wanting to get a leaner and more athletic looking body and to become a better runner.
I knew right from the start that training more was definitely not an answer to gaining the extra edge in racing and to get a nicely chiselled bod, being painfully aware of my proneness to injuries, and simply wanting to have balance whilst juggling training, fitness blogging, looking after my Hubby and two Pussycats, and doing a busy full-time office job. So I turned to my tastebuds for some answers – and during this journey, I have identified a number of pitfalls I needed to tackle so that food could become my true ally, and not my foe in reaching the above mentioned fitness goals. I am sure I am not the only one wanting to heal my relationship with food so I decided to share some strategies I have been applying to take control over what I eat, instead of food controlling me. And I am happy to report that I have never looked better, felt better, and felt more in control of my eating!
Food Foe #1 – Overindulging
Let’s face it – we all have our favourite things that are very hard to say ‘no’ to. I love pizza, lasagna, tortilla chips with guacamole and loads of cheese, chocolate and ice-cream… Mmmm. We all want to treat ourselves sometimes (or not look like complete weirdos in social situations such as Christmas parties and birthday dinners). Deprivation sucks and it almost always leads to backsliding and rebounding, because willpower is sadly not finite. So is there a way to enjoy treats AND not feel ashamed about eating them?
Fitness and lifestyle coach Neghar Fonooni has come up with a strategy to tackle these kind of situations. Ask yourself three questions before you fall too deep into the binge-eating rabbit hole:-
- Does this food support my intentions for my body? (If so, go for it!)
- If not, will I feel guilty about it later? (If not, go for it!)
- Will this food that doesn’t support my intentions add to my experience in some significant way? (If not, don’t eat it!)
Hopefully, using Neghar’s strategy will help us all indulge intelligently and make mindful decisions–as opposed to mindlessly consuming whatever is in front of us/served up on our plates!
Food Foe #2 – Untameable Hunger
I used to have days when I felt I could eat all day. Literally. No matter what or how much I ate, my hunger grew insatiable – resulting in me pigging out or snacking which escalated to a point where my husband had to hide the snacks at home from me to ensure there was some left for him as well. Oops.
And then I started to eat clean at the start of this year. Even though I have observed many positive changes, my hunger levels were still untameable at times. Finally, after consulting with my gym’s nutritional expert, the penny has dropped: eating clean is not enough. Then my attention was drawn to protein. Protein is one of the three macronutrients (besides carbohydrates and fats) – the word originates from the Greek word ‘protos’, meaning ‘the first one’ or ‘the most important one’. This is no coincidence: protein is like a ‘construction crew’ because each cell of our bodies is built and repaired with protein, these are the building blocks of the body. From a sports nutrition perspective, protein is the single most important nutrient for weight loss and a better looking body. The reason for this is that high protein intake boosts metabolism, reduces appetite and changes several weight-regulating hormones. Boom!
I realised I was eating a high carb, low fat and low protein diet and that’s why I was having trouble controlling my hunger levels. So I decided to up my protein intake and got myself acquainted with the primary sources of protein, portion sizes, macro breakdown, meal timings and Voila! My energy levels are now better regulated; my cravings have died down and I recover quicker between workouts.
So I would encourage you to familiarise yourself with the best sources of protein which suit your lifestyle and dietary habits (e.g. vegan/vegetarian/omnivore) and try to add some protein to every meal to make sure you get enough. How much you need will obviously depend on a number of factors, one being your fitness goals and lifestyle – for example, I need to consume almost double the daily standard amount to be able to effectively fuel my athletic lifestyle and performance! If you would like to find out more protein, here is a great two-part article from the Kettlercise crew: Part 1 and Part 2.
Food Foe #3 – Overeating and feeling Bloated (Ooops, how did this just happen?!)
Our portion sizes have become inflated over the past decades – highlights an interesting article I have recently read on the Guardian website. If you want to see what a normal portion size looks like, watch an episode of the Antiques Road Show (seriously, it is not as boring as it sounds!) and look at the saucers, plates and wine glasses people showcase there. (Contrary to what you think, they were not designed for a doll house!).
There has been lots of research on eating behavior and it has been proven for example that oversized tableware makes us consume bigger portions. Another interesting fact is that the only people who are immune to big portions are tiny children- apparently, until the age of about 3 or 4, they have a rather enviable ability to stop when feeling full. The problem is that we are pushed more food, more often, every day – for example, ready made meals have ballooned in size and certain (ahem…) restaurants have also started to offer super-sized meals. In many families and in many cultures, a lavishly set table and lots of food symbolise prosperity; children are encouraged to clear their plate, no matter what, so we are conditioned in our early years to carry on eating even when we are not hungry any more. (Has anyone else ever been to a Hungarian wedding?!) So to overeat in such an environment may be less about lacking willpower than being set in our ways.
However, there is still hope! The Japanese seem to have nailed this down quite a bit so we can definitely borrow a few tricks from them, most notably around portion control. When I visited Japan with my husband a couple of years ago, we both noticed that meals tend to be smaller than elsewhere. They put a lot of effort and time into meal preparation and displaying food in a thoughtful and appealing way, dividing these in smaller plates and bowls. When food is presented this way, I am sure you agree that we are more likely to fully enjoy each bite, eating slower and more mindfully. As a result, we are likely to eat less, because we have more time to register when we are feeling full. Another advice to heed is a saying in Japanese ‘Hara Hachi Bu’, which means ‘Eat until you are 80% full‘, so maybe this is why people in Japan live so long and have one of the lowest obesity rates in the world!
Food Foe #4 – Confusing Psychological Hunger with Physiological Hunger
In his article called Phsycologial vs Physical Hunger, Andrew Heming questions whether hunger if a good guide for our eating; and how we can be sure if we are really physiologically hungry or just bored/stressed/acting on ‘autopilot’?
I have personally found his article to be a real eye-opener:-
“Hunger is a natural feeling that the body uses to let you know it needs some food. (…) However, (…) food is no longer just something to provide essential nutrients to the body. It is our fun, our enjoyment, our pleasure, our entertainment and (…) food manufacturers work hard to create combinations of food that maximally stimulate your taste-buds (…) then they bombard you with advertisements so food is always on your mind. As a result, your basic hunger mechanism and natural desires for certain foods are often warped.
Here is a top tip from Dr John Berardi from Precision Nutrition: when you (think you) feel hungry, ask yourself what you want to eat. If the answer is something healthy (e.g. raw veggies and hummus) then it is likely physiological hunger. If the answer is some specific type of junk food, then it is likely psychological hunger.”
So, when you feel hungry, stop and think about what you are feeling hungry for, by tuning into your body. If you have identified it as psychological hunger using the above method, I suggest that you try to distract yourself with something other than reaching for food or snacks – e.g. have some water first, go for a walk/away from your desk, pick up a book or magazine, do some housework etc.
Food Foe #5 – Overthinking Your Eating
Let me put this simply: chill the f*ck out! One of the biggest change that had the greatest impact on me was learning to just let go, and just relax. It means stopping obsessing over the trivial things and instead focussing on the few key principles that produce the majority of results. So after consciously getting myself into this way of thinking, I am now feeling much less stressed about ‘healthy eating’, knowing that one blow out day every now and then is not going to cancel out all the good things I have done to achieve my fitness goals, as long as I do my best to nail down my macros as close as I can, and as often as I can. This realisation has been liberating and has helped me to be able to enjoy my healthy eating journey more and indulge in occasional treats without feeling guilty.
I’m not gonna deny it, I do love an occasional Sunday morning date with my Hubby in Patisserie Valerie – their sumptuous Pecan and Walnut Tart with a cup of Cappuchino is sheer delight (nuts are healthy, right?!)
So don’t sweat the small stuff – of course, as long as a ‘blow out day’ does not turn into a ‘blow out week’ which then sends you into some kind extreme detox/cleanse/purging cycle which is unhealthy and is really hard to break. Instead, keep things simple. In the words of Joey Percia who is one of the fitness professionals whose advice I trust: follow the 80/10/10 rule — consume 80% foods whole foods that you like and are good for you, 10% foods you might not love but know they are good for you, and leave the remaining 10% for the fun stuff!