What is a healthy diet?
This is such a challenging subject it seems. And yet it isn’t. But what makes a healthy diet is still such an area of confusion to so many people. And even when you follow your version of a healthy diet- is it really that?
I thought I would share my thoughts on diet. As a person who has been very food focused for many years, I’ve definitely read a great deal, experimented a lot, and am still finding myself frustrated and confused.
However, right now, and since I hired my coach, I feel better than I have all year. Do I look better? Well I still don’t feel as lean as I like to, but my show is still 6 weeks away and slowly but surely I am getting there. Before I go into what I’m doing now, I’ll share some of the things I’ve tried. And keep in mind, that although these things have worked for weight loss, they haven’t been very good for health or performance.
Last spring and summer, I was listening to many Paleo podcasts- Robb Wolf, Everyday Paleo, This Week in Paleo.. and was seriously afraid of carbs, grains, nuts, peanuts, soy… and many others. I didn’t want to eat any carbs because of their dangerous “craving triggering” and didn’t want to be the dreaded “sugar burner” who is always crashing in energy level. If you’ve listened to any of these podcasts, you will hear them mentioning things about how carbs are not necessary to the body- how we produce carbs and sugars when we break down foods naturally, and only really active people (like professional athletes) need them. Despite the fact that I was training for a 10 k, and so running about 2-3 times a week for an hour, as well as lifting weights 3 times a week, I didn’t think I fit into their definition of an athlete, so really didn’t need the carbs. I still had some fruit, but not alot, and definitely not near the amount I should have been eating for the energy I was expending.
I’ve since read some posts by Robb Wolf where he has restated the low carb approach, and really championed the idea of eating tubers (like sweet potato) around your workout. However, at the time, I just felt they were all talking to me and that I was doing what was best for my body.
Needless to say, I didn’t feel that good. And I looked really small. All that running and deprivation really ate away at the muscles I had worked so hard to earn.
For me, low carb was a very bad idea. Combining the low carb with the paleo approach made me even more restrictive, and also gave me a lot of anxiety over eating “non-paleo” foods like soy, peanuts, nuts in general (due to their high omega 6 content) and milk products. I think that the paleo approach is very good for the very unhealthy person, who really needs to clean up their diet, and understand that just because food is food does not make it a good choice for them. Weight loss? Yes.
Low fat/high carb:
After I went low carb, I slowly started increasing my carbs as I read about Martin Berkhan’s Leangains carb cycling method. He recommends that you cycle your carbs according to your training days. Basically, after your workout, you eat a high calorie, high carb and high protein, but low fat meal, and stay high carb on those days. On your off days, you eat low carb, and lower calorie, but also higher fat.
At first it was hard on my body to eat carbs again. They made me really bloated. And it wasn’t like I was eating junk food carbs. I still pretty much stuck to the paleo guidelines- so my carb choices were usually sweet potatoes, kabocha and fruit. And then I quickly became in love with carbs again. And had no problem cutting out fat. You might have noticed that most of the recipes I post are low in fat, or fat free. And not that I am fearful of fat- it’s just I have no problem cutting it out. And in fact, am more than happy to do so, if it means I can eat more carbs.
And so my diet this winter was very carb heavy. And because I was “bulking”, or putting on muscle (at least that was my hope), everything I read supported the carb increase. However, I found that I stopped cycling. Yes, I continued to have more calories on my training days, and less on my rest days, but I began mostly eating high carb, moderate protein, low fat on both days. And as delicious as this was- my body was not happy. I felt terrible. My digestion was awful. I felt bloated all the time, and really embarrassed and self conscious. And my digestion just got worse and worse. Every meal meant bloat, gas , discomfort and pain. So I stopped eating. I would fast all day. I did 22 hour fasts every day for almost one month, thinking that the fasting would give my digestion a rest. I had already began fasting since July, but usually only 14-16 hours, as per the Leangains suggestion. It’s really not bad- you just skip breakfast, then eat for the first time at lunchtime. I really like this because it saves me time every morning, not worrying about cooking breakfast before work, and really set me free from the must eat every 3 hours mindset that I acquired following a competition style diet. (For those of you not familiar with bodybuilding, there is a very strong methodology that says you absolutely must eat every 3 hours or your muscles will fall off. And yes I believed this.) Leangains, or Intermittent Fasting (IF) gave me so much freedom and relief that once I started it, I haven’t looked back.
However, as I was saying, I began extending my fasts. Instead of eating at 12pm, I would extend my fast until 6 or 7pm. Then I would eat a huge dinner with dessert, and stay in a calorie range of about 2000, go to bed, and repeat. I was surprised with how easy it was for me to fast all day. And I loved the big meals and dessert of course! But I still didn’t feel good. Again, my digestion didn’t like eating all that food at once, and I continued to have digestion problems.
High carb/low fat might work for some people, but for me- the carbs were too delicious and too tempting to limit. I ate too much and my body rebelled. Weight loss? At first, yes. After, no.
The bodybuilder diet:
My first trainer and coach had me follow the traditional bodybuilding diet and I hired her for me first three shows. My meal plan was this: eat 6 meals a day. Each meal must have 30 grams of protein. Some meals may have 30 grams of carbs. Each meal may have unlimited vegetables. Some meals may have 1 tsp of Udo’s oil. My protein choices were limited to chicken breast, turkey, white fish, egg whites, protein powder and salmon (at some meals). My carb choices were limited to oatmeal, brown rice, rice cakes and sweet potatoes (and orange juice but only post workout). And my vegetable choices were open to almost everything except peas, corn and cooked carrots. The only fat I was allowed was Udo’s oil, which is a flaxseed blend of Omega 3,6,9. This was challenging because it meant I had to cook and package 6 meals a day, 7 days a week. But I faithfully did it because I thought it was the only way. So you can imagine how busy my life was- on top of the training and cardio (and life and work!) I had to cook, weigh, package and carry food constantly. And it wasn’t very fun. Chicken so often. Only udo’s oil for fat. The food was so boring. No fruit. And unlimited veggies? Can you say cabbage bloat? Yes.
The traditional bodybuilder meal plan is fine for short periods of time- however, my off season plan was almost the same, which meant little food variety and satisfaction. Also, preparing and carrying around food all the time was exhausting. This works for some people, but not so much for me. Weight loss? Um yes and no. At the expense of adding in hours and hours of cardio, and cutting carbs more and more, I did lose weight, but this plan also caused me to gain weight in the beginning. Not such a bad thing, as I was bulking.
Since hiring Noel from Maximum Fitness Consulting, I honestly have felt better than I have in years. Yes, I already mentioned that I’m still not as lean as I’d like to be, but I also feel so much better. My digestion is awesome. Just that alone is huge. After a meal, I don’t feel bloated and awful. I feel good. My meals are delicious. I have variety. I also have balance. Although I can’t give out the details of my meal plan due to confidentiality, I can tell you the generalities. I follow a higher carb, lower fat meal plan on training days and a lower carb, higher fat meal plan on cardio, interval and rest days. Both days are moderate to high protein. On training days, I eat chicken, fish, egg whites, peanut flour, protein powder for protein. For carbs, I get cheese, kabocha, yogurt and fruit. For fat, I get fish oil and a fat of choice- either coconut butter or almond butter, or whatever I have on hand. On rest days, I get chicken, egg whites, peanut flour and mackerel or sirloin for protein. For carbs, I have fruit and cheese. For fat, I have coconut milk, chia seeds and coconut butter, plus my fish oil supplement. On both days, I get a portion of cruciferous vegetables from an approved vegetable list.
Noel also provides a food substitution calculator, so you can swap out one protein for another, or one fat for another, and find out what the difference in your portion is. This makes for so much more freedom and variety.
And yes, the foods are still somewhat repetitive, however you do need some repetition, not only for ease of food prep, but also to better track and monitor your results- which in my case, in prepping for a bikini competition, is necessary.
And as you can see, there is no limited foods in her plan. I can have dairy! Cheese! It is amazing! I was afraid of cheese for so long. And now I will dread the day that it is removed from my meal plan! And fruit- fruit is such an incredible thing, and to have it completely cut out of your diet for so long is just wrong! And, yes, peanut flour. No, it’s not paleo. Yes peanuts are high in toxins and omega 6s. Do I care? No. I’ve realized that by fearing “bad” or “unhealthy” foods has not made me any more healthy. It’s actually made me less healthy. I didn’t start having any food problems until I began elimination so called toxic foods from my diet. I still don’t really eat grains. But it’s not because I’m afraid of them. Yes, I do believe gluten is bad for us. However, if I had access to grain products that I loved and enjoyed (flaxseed and multigrain buns anyone?) I would definitely eat them. However, in Korea, they aren’t readily available, so I don’t.
For me, the best I’ve felt, is on a whole food, structured meal plan. A meal plan that has both fat, carbs and proteins, and structure so that I am held accountable. A wide variety of natural, whole foods, that includes dairy, lean protein, fatty protein (beef and mackerel), unprocessed carbs, fruit, nuts, nut butters, fish oil and vegetables. Weight loss? Yes, but slowly.
And what about you? What have you learned about your body? I know this is just another article in a vast sea of dietary advice- but I hope it shows you to keep in mind you and your body when you are trying something. Keep in mind: how do I feel? How is my body reacting? How is my digestion? Am I bloated? Am I low in energy? Am I experiencing cravings? Do I feel deprived? How are my results? Do I look good?
By answering these questions, you should have a pretty good idea about whether your meal plan is working for you or not.
Thoughts? I’d love to hear what you think.