Around this time of the year I get A LOT of emails from people asking me if I can help them with their diet. The subject usually reads "nutrition help" and the email usually starts off with something about not being able to stick to my diet plan. I love answering emails and I'm usually pretty prompt to get back to people. Luckily, I love what I do and I like address issues individually when people write to me. However, when the same topics come up over and over again, I find that it is more practical to write on my blog because my emailers are probably not the only ones experiencing nutrition problems. So, if you think this blog is in response to your email to me, please know that I am writing in response to the concerns of many athletes out there :)
When I think about falling off of a diet I think one of two things.
1) There was a solid nutrition plan to begin with.
2) The nutrition plan was too restricted and difficult to maintain.
First I'd like to address the 2nd thought. If you are sticking to a nutrition plan that leaves you feeling restricted, obsessively counting calories and macronutrients carbs, protein, fats) and makes you feel depressed when you see others enjoy your "restricted" foods, then you are likely to fall off your diet more than 1 time. It is no fun having to stick with a certain nutrition plan, especially if you are an athlete. The body requires certain nutrients in order to perform well but your hard work and effort after weeks of solid training provides your body with some leniency to eat a little extra of the foods you want. I find that people associate certain foods as good foods and bad foods and, although it is ok to see a food as bad, it should be viewed as bad for only 1 reason-Heart unhealthy. A food isn't bad because if you eat it you are guaranteed to gain weight. The body doesn't work like that. It takes around 3500 calories to gain a pound but if you are carrying extra weight the right fuels must be used in order to lose that weight. Maybe you find that you can't stop eating that food when you do try to just eat a little but foods such as cereal, ice cream, chocolate, bagel, cheese, chips, etc. aren't going to put on lbs if you eat them every now and then and in a small quantity. However, foods which are high in trans fat, processed with hydrogenated oil and/or fried/greasy are not healthy for the heart. No matter if you are training for a marathon, IM or you enjoy exercising on a daily basis, no amount of working out can validate putting food in your body which can increase your chance of coronary heart disease and high cholesterol or increase your chance of having poor cardiovascular health. Furthermore, heart unhealthy food should not appeal to you because it is not something that an athlete wants to put in his/her body on a daily basis. We all know that a donut every now and then won't clog your arteries but if the daily diet isn't balanced, the heart will eventually feel the affects when your every now and then food becomes a normal food in your diet.
It is important that you focus on ways to incorporate healthy foods in the diet so that you enjoy eating them. This doesn't mean you have to eat broccoli for dinner every night but you need learn to enjoy healthy food. Try to stick to basic foods which aren't bagged, canned or frozen. Seek foods on the perimeter of the grocery store and/or check out a fresh food market. If you are living on a diet which has no flexibility to enjoy a little of everything, you will feel like a failure if you eat something that is not on your restricted diet plan.
However, if your diet is balanced with whole grains, good sources of protein, good fats and lots of veggies and fruits, you can still feel successful with your weight loss goals even if you have a daily 100-calorie treat of something. It is important that you are conscious of your eating and that you focus on having healthy food around you at all times. Because we all know we will eat it if it is available (especially after training) then provide yourself (and your family) with foods that will never make you feel guilty. Ever feel bad about eating grapes in the evening after dinner as oppose to going to bed with a cup or two of ice cream in your belly?
Now that I discussed how you should never be on a nutrition plan that you can't stick to on a daily basis, I want to talk about my first thought.
Many people come to me asking for help with a new nutrition plan. Therefore, that person doesn't know where to start. They need to clean up the diet, they want to incorporate more exercise in their lifestyle and they want to have more energy. I love these people because I have a blank slate to fill a head with knowledge. It doesn't take long for people to realize that it isn't that hard to have a healthy diet and I love hearing about the success stories. More so, with the weight loss seakers, the initial focus on weight loss turns into a found appreciation for a cleaner diet and a healthier body.
However, for a lot of people out there, the off-season has approached us and it is difficult to keep off the pounds as we decrease our training volume. I just finished up an article for Iron Girl about off-season exercise so I won't go into too much detail but I want to express the need to keep yourself active with fun activities to burn calories. If anything, this is the time where it doesn't matter if you feel tired after a workout because you have no upcoming race to get ready for. It is ok to not exercise on a sat but it is also ok to run 60 minutes, 4 days in a row and only get on your bike for 3 hours once a week. You can bonk, just get through workouts, walk on the treadmill....whatever you want! However, I do suggest keeping the workouts fun and although your goal is burn calories with a lower calorie diet, don't make every workout intense. Get the heart rate up, feel the burn and don't let your life revolve around training.....just exercise for fun! There is nothing wrong with riding your bike for 4 hours on a sunday but just don't make yourself feel like you have to do it. Exercising in the off-season (especially for the first 2-3 months) should incoporate new activities in addition to those that you already enjoy as a triathlete. Do workouts that you have never done before, train with new people and get yourself in new environmental conditions.
So, for those just exercising for the next few months it is important that your diet reflects your training routine. If you are only working out for 10 hours a week and want to lose 10-15 lbs, you must cut out calories in order to burn more calories than you take in. Remember, you have nothing to worry about when cutting out calories. If you are exercising at a moderate intensity (I recommend long fat-burning workouts) you aren't going to bonk or hit a wall. Please don't try to get by on a 1000 calorie diet. You can easily lose weight at 1700-1800 calories for women and 2200-2400 calories for men. It is most important that you focus on smaller meals and snacks in order to reach your calorie recommendations.
If you feel like you fell-off your diet and you already had a solid nutrition plan you are probably just feeling the affects of the off-season. Take some time to remember that a piece of pizza is fine. 2 pieces of pizza is extra calories. If you "use to" eat healthy when you are training you are probably finding that you are having trouble stopping at 1 piece, 1 serving or 1 scoop of certain foods. I'm sure those foods are yummy but you still need to remember how many calories your body needs on a daily basis in order to lose or maintain weight. Remind yourself that you don't need to eat those extra calories. I know sometimes it takes willpower to restrict yourself from having extras of foods (even if it is healthy) but it is important that you focus more on your caloric intake of a well-balanced diet rather than focusing on the foods you can or can't eat in your diet.
I think the majority of people out there who feel like they can't get their nutrition down in the off-season are simply eating more than they need. Whereas you could eat a bowl of pasta once a week during the season and not gain weight, it is important to focus on reducing your calories and eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables so that you can maintain or lose weight, while exercising daily, without feeling like your nutrition plan is difficult to maintain. I promise, if you swap out a few snacks (especially after dinner and workouts) for more healthier options and cut back on a few calories at each meal you will find yourself seeing results in the mirror in no time!
I recommend talking to people in your house (or at your work if you live alone) and letting people know about your nutrition plan. Do not complain to them that you are fat or that you need to lose weight because it is your responsibility to serve yourself portioned controlled food, to provide yourself with healthy foods and to stop eating when you know you have reach your caloric recommendations. However, telling people (especially if you are in a relationship) that you really want to start eating healthier and that you want to reduce your intake of x-food (or not bring it in the house) will hold you accountable. There is something about being honest about your weight loss plan or daily nutrition plan and letting others know what you are doing instead of just keeping it to yourself as you attempt to eat a salad as others are talking about going out for pizza. If you know you are being true to your own nutrition plan (which needs to be reasonable so that you can lose weight and be able to socialize and be in group settings without feeling self-concious about your food choices or restricted) you won't feel bad about the lifestyle choices you are making. If you are eating around people who insist on eating unhealthy food and are unsuccessful in weight loss, don't let others sabotoge your nutrition plan. Eating healthy is contagious but you must be the first to start. It will take time to make changes but never feel like you have failed. If you fall-off your nutrition plan at 1 meal do not worry. There are 364 more days to feel great about your food choices and 1 meal, 2 meals or 5 meals won't ruin a solid nutrition plan if you are willing to stick to your plan for the rest of your life.
*Never start a nutrition plan tomorrow, next Mon or in a few weeks. A good nutrition plant isn't an event and it doesn't have a timeline. If you have to start tomorrow then you are telling yourself you aren't ready to give up something that has contributed to where you are with your weight. Starting now will get you where you want to be but you must recognize what you can do to make healthy changes which will last a lifetime.