Back in 1993, I came home from middle school and told my mom and dad that I was going to be a vegetarian. I'm sure they thought that it was just an adolescent phase, but they had no problem with me choosing to "not kill animals". I remember throwing away my lunch (chicken patty) and for some reason, I felt as if giving up meat was my way of giving my respect to animals. All my life I have adored all animals, creatures and anything that crawls, slithers and wiggles and still to this day, I believe that anything that breathes the same air as me, has feelings. At the age of 11, I had no thoughts as to how being a vegetarian would impact my health but I knew that once I called myself a vegetarian, I would always be a vegetarian.
It's been around 18 years since I have eaten meat and fish and truthfully, I couldn't imagine my life any other way. It's apparent that I do not endorse a vegetarian diet because I am not here to tell you what not to eat, but rather what to emphasize more often in the diet. While my journey as a vegetarian athlete has been a big learning process, I have a reason behind my personal choice of eating everything on this earth except meat and fish.
We live in a culture where Americans love a new fad diet. While we would hope that eating habits should reflect an improvement in health and help to meet body composition recommendations, sadly our culture is obsessed with the perfect body image. For if we were surrounded by people who all weighed the same, there would be less pressure to eat a certain way. While there is good reason to be at a healthy weight, there is so much pressure to achieve the "perfect" body image...which is often as a result of comparing our own body with someone else and wondering what that person eats to look "like that" as quick as possible. Also, because people feel a lack of control with eating, there is also added pressure to find a way to get in control no matter what the cost. Often, a diet plan (something to follow) is next on the agenda. Sadly, food and body related thoughts may result in a disordered way of eating and obsessions that extend beyond our immediate control. Where at once the focus was on eating healthier, a focus on "bad" food gradually turns into a fear of foods with calories, carbs, sugar, sodium and/or fat.
But rather than focusing more on foods that aren't processed and learning how to appreciate foods that help fuel workouts and improve health, people feel the need to stick to a regime plan to eat only x,y and z. While this plan works for most people for a certain time, gradually those negative thoughts and obsessions come about when the plan isn't exactly followed.
Although I am proud to say that I become a vegetarian well before it was "cool" to be a vegetarian, I feel as if my eating reflects my love for an active and healthy life and my body appreciates the way that I eat. Because at the end of the day, the only thing that differs between me and Karel (and my family and most of my friends) is that I choose not to eat meat and fish.
The problem I see with so many health-conscious individuals is that being healthy is often the purpose of changing eating habits. But far too often, people have disordered thoughts and feeling about foods and feel a lack of control and understanding when it comes to fueling the body with nutritious foods. I can't stress enough that it isn't about what you CAN'T eat but rather all things you CAN eat.
I recognize that the gluten-free and Paleo way of eating has worked for so many but primarily because of the elimination of carbohydrates. For when we eliminate, we reduce calories and a reduction in calories has been shown to encourage weight loss. But more and more research is showing that it isn't about the calories that you are eating but rather what is in those calories and how you eat those calories. As a result of having "good and bad" food in the diet, people are forced to focus on other available foods to keep them satisfied and nourished. Thus, people start preparing foods at home and take time to understand what is in the food they are eating. What great ideas..however, you don't have to read a book and follow a diet to eat wholesome food with little to no ingredients. You don't have to be a vegetarian to emphasize a plant-based diet and you don't have to eliminate foods if you portion control and focus on balanced meals and snacks.
I believe that it is unnecessary to eliminate foods just because we feel a lack of control when it comes to eating those foods. For if you remove something (voluntarily or unvoluntarily) in your life, you likely miss it and crave it until you get it back. Then, well, it is up to you how to respond when you get "it" back into your life. Because I recognize that a large portion of our population is not physically active and many people consume an excessive amount of calories, there is reason to believe that changing habits will encourage weight loss and an improvement in health. For carbohydrates are often to blame for changes in body composition and performance because out of all the foods in the diet, they taste the best, they are easy to overconsume and they are very accessible.
I find it silly that athletes feel the need to eliminate carbohydrates (besides fruits and veggies) because they tend to overeat on bread, pasta and pizza (as an example). For it is our habits that we must change in order to develop a healthy relationship with food. We all know that carbohydrates are a vital component of our performance when exercising, training and racing but just like with any food (or exercise routine), too much of one thing is not a good thing. I am not here to tell athletes that they need to eat cereal, pasta, pizza, sandwiches and oatmeal every day or at every meal. However, I want to encourage everyone to create a lifestyle that works for you, so that you are in control of your eating and that you aren't letting food run your life. I want you to make the best choices that you can make on a daily basis, with an understanding that every choice that you make, builds on one another, and will help you become a more balanced active individual. For not every choice is going to significantly impact your performance and/or body composition goals so keep in mind that consistency and not worrying about the occasional times, will help you live a quality life.
With a little daily planning of meals and snacks and an understanding of how to change eating habits to properly fuel and recover from workouts, I believe that health-conscious individuals do not need to follow a popularized "diet" fad in order to reach performance and body composition goals. I do believe that we should emphasize food that is grown straight from the earth and we should focus on meals and snacks which include whole grains, quality protein and healthy fats. But we must recognize a healthy way to consume certain foods because if we consume too much of one food, we are often too full to consume a variety of foods that can also fuel and nourish our body.
As athletes, we are not the population that is being studied for diabetes, heart disease or obesity when it comes to carbohydrates in the diet. How many times have you heard someone tell you that "carbohydrates are bad, they will cause diabetes and cancer and make you fat". Now, think about how many active people you know in your life that are currently dealing with type II diabetes and heart disease? How many people do you know that have used exercise as a way to decrease weight? I come into contact with people all the time who have told me how exercise has improved their health and I have also met many people who have been extremely active but consumed a diet that did not support lifestyle and exercise requirements, thus encouraging health problems. Even if you are new to exercise and may come from a history of health problems, our active lifestyle supports the need for carbohydrates (such as whole grains) as well as calcium and protein-rich dairy. The misconception with so many people is that sugar, carbs and calories from carbohydrates are bad for our health and will make us gain weight. But even in the diet of a diabetic, sugar-free is not recommended and there is a method of counting carbs so that they are consumed in moderation. In my understanding of the body, our complex body needs a lot of vitamins and minerals from a variety of foods in order to support metabolic processes. I recognize that carbohydrates are not the only macronutrient needed for daily living and I also advocate that carbohydrates are not consumed in excess...even for the endurance athlete. However, by focusing on your own needs, it's very simple to find enjoyment out of consuming a balanced diet where no food is off limit.
It is likely that your active lifestyle, regardless of diet, is helping reduce the chance for for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But because diet plays a significant role in how your body uses food during activity, it is important to consume foods in moderation so that we create a balanced diet, all while developing a healthy relationship with food.
My tip to you...start your morning with a filling breakfast....after you have a recovery protein snack post-workout. Your breakfast will likely differ depending on your morning workout but I recommend to consume protein and fat with your carbohydrate choice. Fruits and veggies are also recommended.
Make it simple and satisfying:
eggs w/ veggies and salsa with 1/2 cup brown rice
1/2 cup oatmeal w/ nuts and berries
Protein smoothie made with milk, whey and fruit, topped with a serving of whole grain cereal
PB&J on whole grain bread w/ fruit
If you are hungry within 2 hours after eating, that's ok. It is encouraged to eat snacks between meals and to eat every 3-4 hours, but rather than watching the clock until you can eat again, go back to your previous meal and see if you can change around the combination to make the meal more filling. For example, if you are eating egg whites, add a whole egg. If you are having a "light" piece of bread, have a whole grain piece of bread. If you are using 2tbsp PB, use 1 tbsp and add yogurt or a glass of milk. If you are just eating veggies, add olive oil for healthy fat. Try to switch up the distribution of your macronutrients (carbs, protein and fats) so that you add more wholesome nutrition ("real" food) rather than thinking that you always need to eat more calories or add more "diet" foods. I recommend breakfast to be around 350-450 calories +/- 50 calories, which does not include your post-workout recovery snack of around 100ish calories per hour of exercise.
Once you find a good breakfast that works for each day of the week, start logging your foods for meals and snacks and recognize how you feel throughout the day. If you feel hungry, lightheaded, or without energy, look back at the previous meal/snack to see if you can make the meal more balanced by focusing on nutrient-rich foods.