One of the first questions I get asked whenever I talk to someone about my fitness progress so far (especially after I tell them I only really “work out” once a week) is “what diet are you on?”
The knee jerk reaction is to say I’m not dieting, but the question is more complex than you might initially think. Yes, the concept of the diet to temporarily drop weight, sometimes at the detriment of other health concerns, is outdated and potentially counter-productive. However, it is also folly to claim that the way you take in nutrition is constant and unchanging, a “lifestyle” as so many people say. It is rare to find that exact balance between your outbound calories (exercise, etc) and what you take in without doing a lot of adjusting. Also, it is common that you might be in a phase, for example, where you are trying to increase your lean muscle to body fat percentage, or increase your intake of fiber to find a healthy balance.
So my answer usually is “it is complicated” and then I try to explain how I eat in as general terms as possible, trying to avoid the “eyes glazing over” effect. Unfortunately, it seems that the reason the question is asked is that people hope there’s an easy answer, a magic formula that will give them the same success I’ve found so far and continue to find. Obviously there isn’t, at least not in a “here’s a shortcut” way. However, at the same time, once you’re used to it, the way I eat is actually fairly simple to follow.
The general concept I try to follow is to minimize the caloric density of my food while maximizing nutritional value. So for example, vegetables when eaten raw or cooked in non-fat based methods have very low calorie amounts for the amount of nutritive value and volume you get. On the flip side there’s processed foods like breads and sugar, fairly low nutritive value with a lot of calories. Even in the vegetables, there’s things like celery which don’t provide a lot of nutrition, and then there are the green leafy veggies and roots that give a ton of bang for the buck.
Ok, that sounds like a whole lot of “meal plans” out there. Thing is, most people have a lot of trouble just outright swapping to a fully vegetarian/vegan diet, and the bottom line is that in my experience I just haven’t found the need to fully go that direction.
I split my week up such that on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays I am a whole food vegetarian/vegan. I do eat some eggs/cheese and if fish comes my way I won’t lay off, but I will minimize my intake of it. I supplement the vegetables with nuts, chia seed and occasionally quinoa and tofu (a friend of the family here in Sacramento makes amazing non-GMO tofu that is absolutely fantastic, and he sells it at Nugget markets now too, link at the end of the article). I also throw in some protein shakes and bars there when I get lazy, and I will eat a bit of bread and rice, but again only in small quantities when it makes sense for the meal. Basically it is a flip of “SAD” (Standard American Diet) which usually consists of large quantities of meat, processed breads and sugars, cheeses and then a smattering of occasional vegetables.
Now, for the exceptions: weekends I revert back to a mild carnivore but continue to try and make healthy decisions. One of the meals might be fairly “bad for you”, but I try to stick that one at the tail end of a longer run. If chicken and fish are available, I try to choose those (again, from a caloric density standpoint those fall in below red meats) but I don’t worry too much about it. Nearly every weekend my father in law will be cooking some fish he caught recently on a trip, so it works out perfectly.
The other big exception is the afternoon and evening of Tuesday. As you’ve seen, my workouts happen on Tuesday and those afternoons are about as close to “free days” as I get. When I stagger back home I immediately consume a big protein bar I have found I really enjoy (peanut butter based), a Fage yogurt and a banana. Then I wait about an hour and after that basically whatever I want, I eat. The bar, yogurt and banana are stuffed in there for a couple reasons. One, they are great recovery foods for the intensity of the workout and give me the protein I need to recover. More importantly though, they stifle the initial “holy crap I need a large pizza right NOW” thoughts. However, if after that meal I still feel that I want to to wander over to Round Table and pick up a personal, I do it.
The concept is basically eating to your body’s caloric requirements, and it works very well. 1 heavy workout a week plus a few short runs and one long run a week have resulted so far in a dramatic body composition change from 5 short months ago. I continue to lose around 1/2 to 1 pound a week, but that number means very little as I am continuing to build both muscle size and density. In a week or two I will be taking a body fat composition test to get a real baseline on my muscle/fat ratio. My “target weight” is around 185lbs, but the real target will likely be both a look/feel as well as a series of health related goals such as bp, resting state heart rate, body fat percentage and perhaps a few muscle size measurements. In the end, body weight will be whatever it will be, though because of my knees lighter is better.
The other important facet of this way of eating is the ability to have variety. I know a lot of people who go on the diet of the month and wax nostalgic for breads, or meats, or whatever it is that they are now forbidden eternally to eat. The result is, nearly always, an abandonment of that diet and regaining of the weight they lost. Sadly, what often happens is that a portion of the weight they lost was muscle and much of the weight they regain is fat, a vicious cycle that makes it that much harder to get yourself back into a functionally healthy state again.
And, as you can see, it is unnecessary. In the 5 months I’ve been doing this I’ve eaten pizza, burgers, chili fries, just about all of the things people crave. I certainly haven’t cut myself off of ice cream or cake either. However, what I have done is removed those items from my common meals list and thrown them into the treats area.
One thing I would like to touch on also is the concept of “cheat meals”. I hate this term. It carries with it so much baggage, as though you are somehow a lesser person or doing harm by eating that burger. Ridiculous. The problem is that once someone feels like what they’ve done has lessened them somehow, that they’ve “sinned”, it can make them feel bad or depressed, even if it was a “planned cheat meal”. As we all know, negative feelings like that can result in overeating, or being so down and tired you decide to not do that workout, or not give it all you got. Turn it around. EARN those things you crave and feel good about not only eating them, but the hard work you did to get there. Just make sure the reward is worth the outlay. 10 pushups does not a large pizza make. Be smart about it. You aren’t trying to fool yourself or trick your workout/eating plan.
The bottom line is that we are all different in the way we burn calories. Most calories are burned from just living, and we all burn different amounts. Some people can eat more, some need to eat less. More importantly, regular cardio exercise mixed with occasional lifting/crossfit style workouts and/or yoga are all important parts of being a healthy human.
Link: Sacramento Tofu Company
Non-GMO fresh made Tofu, right here in Sacramento! You can also buy it in a refrigerated pack at local Nugget markets.