"I should be pencil-thin for all the exercise I do."
"I don't keep cookies in the house. If they are there, I eat way too many of them."
"I'm afraid if I start eating, I won't stop?"
Too many athletes are at war with food and their bodies. In their quest to attain the "perfect body" that is leaner, lighter and presumably faster and better, they have developed atypical eating patterns that are far from peaceful. As one client reported, "I'm trying so hard to lose five pounds but I'm getting nowhere. In fact, I'm even gaining weight. I'm "good" at breakfast and lunch, but after I get home from the gym at night, I end up devouring everything in sight. On weekends, my eating is even crazier." Sound familiar?
The Problem With Dieting
The first three letters of diet are D-I-E. Dieting conjures up feelings of deprivation and denial. Dieting is unsustainable, no fun. Few dieters win the war against hunger. Even 50 percent of people who had gastric bypass surgery regained weight within two years (1).
Why does this happen? Because the body perceives a diet as a famine and strives to protect itself from starving to death by signaling hunger. Hunger leads to the overwhelming urge to binge-eat. Research with healthy, normal-weight men who cut their food intake in half (similar to what many dieting athletes try to do) reports most regained the weight they'd lost—plus 10 percent more—within three months (2). Another study with middle school kids who were followed through high school indicates all efforts to lose weight resulted in disordered eating patterns five years later—but not leaner bodies (3). Dieting tends to create more long-term problems than it solves.
How to Find Peace With Food
Let's take a look at some ways to transform blown diets into appropriate fueling (while you chip away at losing undesired body fat). A first step is to remember food is fuel, not the fattening enemy. Food not only enhances athletic performance but also prevents hunger and out-of-control food binges.
As a human, you are supposed to eat, even if you are overweight. If you restrict your food intake, you also restrict protein, carbs, fats, vitamins, minerals and other bio-active food compounds that contribute to good health and high energy. Your body needs those nutrients.
Current research suggests a sustainable way to lose undesired body fat is to knock off about 200 calories a day (4), such as 10 ounces of wine, 20 tortilla chips or one roll with butter. By knocking off the calories at the end of the day, you can lose weight when you are sleeping (as opposed to when you are trying to train and function during the day).
Bread, bagel, pasta, rice, crackers—all those dreaded carbs—are not fattening. Your body does not readily convert carbs into body fat. Rather, your body preferentially burns carbs to fuel your workouts. If your muscles become carb (glycogen) depleted, you will feel an incessant, niggling hunger that can lead to non-stop snacking. You may believe you are eating because you are just bored, but your muscles are telling you they want carbs to recover and refuel.
Do not try to "stay away from carbs." Egg whites for breakfast, salad for lunch, and fish with broccoli for dinner leave muscles unfueled and your body unable to train and compete at its best. Oatmeal, whole grain breads, brown rice and sweet potatoes are just a few wholesome suggestions. Enjoy them as the foundation of each sports meal.