Gotta Get Those Carbs
Pistachios, nuts and other protein rich foods are an important part of this plan, but the thing I found lacking in the other diets was a good recommendation for carbohydrates. Cyclists need to eat lots of carbs and, in general, they should not deprive themselves in this department. By choosing the right carbohydrates you can actually consume fewer calories and have more energy—and even lose weight, if that is your goal.
I am recommending you stick to carbohydrates that are very low on the glycemic index. The glycemic index (GI) is a scale used to measure the body's insulin response to different types of food. In the above example, white bread or sugar would have a very high glycemic value, whereas the glycemic value of a pistachio is almost nonexistent.
Foods that are low on the GI have the added advantage of serving as long-lasting energy sources. We've all experienced the post-sugar-rush bonk after eating a bowl of white rice or a gel. You get that quick burst of energy, but very shortly the sugar is used up and the fuel gauge goes to empty. Quick-burning, simple carbohydrates are important for short efforts, but for a longer lasting source of energy, choose foods that are low on the GI
Foods that have a low GI are generally higher in protein, fiber and even fat because these things slow down digestion.
Fiber — Look for foods that are high in dietary fiber. Fiber slows down the absorption rate. Usually, the higher the fiber content of a food, the lower it ranks on the GI. Not only is this important for digestion and energy, but fiber is also very filling, so you can eat less and still feel full. It has also been shown to reduce the risks of some types of cancer.
Protein — You will also be looking for foods high in protein. I wish I could make the claim that you could eat protein till the cows come home (and then eat the cows) without gaining weight, but the doctors out there won't let me.
However, it is my experience that if you are striving to lose weight and really need to eat something to feed your grumbling tummy, you are much better off eating a protein than a carbohydrate, especially if it is replacing a simple, high GI carbohydrate.
Fat — Eat lots of healthy unsaturated fat! Fats are more calorically dense than carbs or protein so they are the first thing to get knocked out of most weight-loss diet plans. However, since fat does not trigger the insulin response, it seems logical that eating fat does not necessarily make you fat.
Fat can also be used for energy. Although you will want a simple carbohydrate for those short, intense efforts, on your next long endurance ride try replacing your energy gel with a bag of pistachios. It takes some getting used to but you can actually train your body to burn fat for energy efficiently.
I mentioned above that I tried a number of diets before I arrived at this one. The least effective diet I tried was one extremely low in fat. Not only was I hungry all the time, but I was constantly bonking on my rides, and even with a significant calorie reduction for several weeks I actually ended up gaining weight. Unless you have a heart condition or your doctor recommends it, I don't suggest a diet low in healthy fats.
Obviously, you want to avoid eating high GI foods. I like to keep to foods under 30 if possible. This means avoiding potatoes, rice, white bread, white pasta and bagels. You can find a good data base at www.GlycemicIndex.com, but since not every food is listed, use these guidelines for choosing the foods you eat on the pistachio diet. It may be difficult, but if you look hard enough you can find breads, pastas and chips that adhere to these rules.
Count Your Sugar
My rule of thumb is that I don't eat anything that has more than two grams of sugar per serving. By this I don't mean all carbohydrates, just simple sugars like glucose, sucrose, corn syrup, etc. Since serving sizes vary, I usually look in terms of a ratio.
Taking 100 calories as the jumping off point for a serving size, this means that the number of calories from sugar should equal eight in that serving (each gram of sugar = four calories). So if a serving is 200 calories, then there should be a ceiling of 16 calories from simple sugars.
This is probably the toughest part of the diet simply because there is sugar added to so many foods that would otherwise be healthy. What makes it even more difficult is the fact that foods with a high fiber content often have even more sugar added to them to compensate for the change in taste and texture.
Items like whole grain breads and healthy natural cereals often have ludicrous amounts of sugar added to them. My best advice is to ignore packaging that says things like whole grains, high in fiber or heart healthy and go straight to the nutrition label to see for yourself.
Count the Fiber
It's not enough to avoid sugar because as you will see from the GI, many foods that don't technically have sugar in them have a high GI. For instance, pure glucose, which represents the ultimate value of 100 on the scale, is only three points higher than a white potato. Since protein and fiber effectively lowers the GI of otherwise simple carbohydrates, these are the next two things I look for.
My goal with fiber is a minimum of five grams per 100 calories. It's a somewhat arbitrary number, but it was the best I could realistically find in off-the-shelf foods.
Count the Protein
OK, the last step of the process is to look for foods high in protein. Besides the above mentioned effect protein has on absorption, it is also essential to recovery and muscle building. I look for foods that have at least five grams of protein for every 100 calories.
Head to the Market
Now you are ready to go shopping! Stockpile a couple weeks worth of these kinds of foods and get into a new eating habit. What you should find is that you can eat less while feeling fuller and having plenty of energy to ride. If weight loss is your goal, very slowly reduce the calories you consume until you start to notice an impact on your training. Then bump it back up just a bit.
And while all you doctors are marking up my work with your red pens, the rest of you, enjoy your weight loss!