This is something I get asked about a lot as a trainer and coach. However, today I'm not going to talk about what to eat for weight loss or optimal athletic performance. I want to talk about food and joy.
Do those two words not go well together for you? Maybe there are weight issues, or body issues, or maybe you're trying to eat for performance so that you can go faster in your sport. In these cases, eating isn't always joyful - it's for fuel, or it's for a goal, or it's for trying a new way of clean eating or whatever. And then after awhile (and trust me, sometimes it's a long while), eventually you crave and eat that food that is "bad," or that you "shouldn't eat", or you have a "cheat" meal, or you say," I can't have a box of that in my kitchen because I'd eat the whole thing." And just for that moment, you feel bad about it. Sometimes you even feel bad in your stomach if it's really greasy. But anyway, even if it's just for a moment - what would you say if someone said that food and joy can go together ALL OF THE TIME? That you can have joy with every bite that you ever eat and never have food guilt or obsession again?
I doubt it, you say. Well, stick with me here.
Clean eating: this one of my pet peeves: what does clean eating imply? That there's a dirty eating. What does cheat meal mean? That most of the time you are following a rule, and that you have now thrown it off and cheated. What about foods that we shouldn't eat? That there are things that you should do that you are not doing. What does a "bad food" imply? That partaking is doing something bad. Does anyone like to be dirty and bad and be a cheater? I don't. That doesn't sound like joy. And I don't care if it's even for a few minutes, I don't want to feel like that.
Bear with me, don't send me an email yet or flame me out in the comments - there is a LOT of information out there in the web-o-sphere on nutrition and weight loss and sports nutrition and everything else under the sun having to do with food and non-food. There is really fantastic, solid, physiologically-based empirically-determined research done by a lot of people with lots of initials after their names who have an understanding of the human body that most of us can just dream about. And that's good and amazing and really needed, and I'm not taking away from that. We absolutely need to know what the body does and why. We need to understand what's happening in there. I'm just talking about the following three questions:
1) Are you hungry?
2) What are you hungry for?
3) If you stop eating now, is your hunger quiet for now, or not?
These are the questions that Meg Meranus (FYI, not a doctor, not a nutritionist) asks in her aptly-named book, Diets are Fattening. Based on her own experience and observations, she believes that food restriction leads to eventual weight gain, and that listening to the hunger cue can tell you a lot about what and how much you need. She blogs about it, has a facebook page, a $10 Kindle book. And I think she's onto something. And I'm not going to try to convince you that she's right, I'm just going to tell you my story.
In my former life as a young swimmer, I struggled with weight and body image issues, and all of my life I never really understood how it was that a human body maintains a weight by eating normally.
WAIT, WHAT?? Ali, you've always been skinny! I've known you forever! You're naturally thin and you have never once been fat!
And you would be right. I have been skinny. Because I knew how to maintain my weight by restricting my eating in terms of eating healthy foods primarily, and restricting portions, but it did NOT COME NATURALLY. I worked at it and I watched what I ate. After I got through with college and a dark period of eating way too little, I came to a normal healthy weight, I ate healthily. But I didn't think healthily - I could not figure out how to not constantly be watching what I ate. Sadly, I didn't realize that the hunger cue was the key to not worrying about how or what to eat.
Worrying - some might say, Ali, I don't worry. I just care. I just have a concern about what I eat and what's so bad about that? I want to go fast or I eat like crap or I need to lose 50 pounds, Ali, can't you understand that? I do. I do understand that. But focusing on the food and what you should eat only ADDS to the amount of time that you spend thinking about food and what you should eat. There is ANOTHER way. Meg's book - which you could read if you want - talks about all of that; those are her three questions above. And the questions come from this general idea: the body you live in, whether you believe it was created by an infinitely intelligent eternal being, or came to be after years of evolutionary sharpening, has to know what the heck it needs. For life, for endurance, running after kids, running after elephants, whatever. It has to! Why does a dog eat grass? Cesar Milan says that they do it to fill a nutritional need or extra fiber. Now, if your dog can't figure out how to get the Pupperoni out of his Kong, and HE can know what HE needs, don't you think that your body with smartphone-wielding brain cells can know what it needs? In the natural order of things, there are instincts, and there is reason, and there is wisdom. We don't have many instincts in the sense that animals do, but doesn't your body at least have reason and wisdom?
Someone will say - hey, I'm going to the Olympics in 2016, or I want to go to Ironman Kona, or I just want to be the best that I can; I'm an elite athlete looking for top performance, or I'm looking to lose weight fast because I've neglected my weight over the years. To that I would say, then you should do what is right for you. You don't have to listen to this. You can go on a diet or eat healthily - you can do all of that now. But you HAVE TO LOOK LONG TERM. You have to look at whether there is complete and total joy for you on your quest. You have to look at whether the process of (quick or SLOW) weight loss or performance is creating a preoccupation with that one aspect of your life. Maybe you're like, YES, and that's fine with me. If so, great! If you want to count macros and cross off boxes and look at percentages, more power to you and I stand behind you in meeting your goal! As a coach, I will support you in every way possible! But that is not my personal philosophy, and I think that it's worth considering that planning and cooking and eating this way can contribute to an unhealthy and latent brooding about eating that certainly isn't complete and total joy all the time.
If you are going to eat like that, we have to recognize that as a goal-oriented diet and not a sustainable lifestyle.
Next time, I'll continue talking about how those three questions get answered in my life.
As the Saturday Night Live Coffee Talk lady would say, "discuss amongst yourselves."