By Michael Krueger
Recently, I almost got involved in an online “discussion” about nutrition. I only posted once, realized my error, and then got out of there–fast. It seems that everyone involved in fitness, bodybuilding, endurance sports, or whatever has deeply held beliefs regarding their diet and, by extension, everyone else’s diet. Of course, when it comes to convictions, anyone with a differing opinion must be wrong for them to be right; it just has to be that way.
I’m not sure about all that; so, If your diet is working for you, so be it. Who am I to tell you otherwise…
…but let’s talk.
Long ago, I worked for a trainer who insisted that he had the “strength of his convictions” behind his opinions regarding diet and exercise, so he could be as persistent and annoying as he wanted to be. He accomplished little other than turning people off to what was actually a reasonable message, and that was a shame.
Most people give little thought to their diet, much less hold strong convictions regarding it. They eat what they always ate or simply what they like to eat. They don’t review their diet with regard to their overall health or performance, so they don’t really know if it’s working or not. They may get a report from their doctor about their cholesterol or blood sugar levels, but those are just numbers, and if they can take a pill rather than change their diet to get their numbers “good,” they are content to do that.
I have said more than once that diet always matters. That means it matters for both good and bad. When we hear that someone is “going on a diet,” we assume that they’re trying to lose weight, but that is such a narrow definition and it doesn’t do the term “diet” justice. You may be on a diet to add to or reduce your weight, you may be on a diet that will improve your health and performance, or you may be on a diet that causes your health and performance to deteriorate. It doesn’t really matter; by definition, you’re on a diet. Your diet is what you eat; it’s that simple.
When I talk with clients about diet, I go into Dr. Phil mode and ask, “How’s that working for you?” The most frequent response is a shrug of the shoulders and a noncommittal, “I don’t know.” The truth is that of course they know; it isn’t working or they wouldn’t be sitting across from me asking for help. The first thing to accept is that you do know, but you don’t want to accept that you know and that’s it’s up to you to change. You want someone or something else to make it all better.
When I talk with people about improving their diet, I stress the fact that they will feel better, but first they will feel deprived, depressed, and very cranky. If they can get past that point, and it usually takes a few weeks, they will be on their way to feeling and performing much better. I don’t know exactly what it will do to their cholesterol, blood sugar, or even their weight (all these things will more than likely improve), but I’m sure they will feel better.
So, my conviction is that everything will improve when you fuel up with better food. Whether improving your fuel sources means you need to put in only premium fuel (i.e., organic) or you can get by on regular is up to you. For most people, just getting a reasonable amount of veggies, fruit, fiber, good carbs, and lean protein will make such a difference that they will be hooked.
Just a little note regarding food sensitivities and allergies: While they are actually fairly rare, they do exist, and if you are one of those who are affected by them, it would be very much in your best interest to identify them and adapt. If you’ve always had stomach issues, headaches, or some other symptom that no one has found a cause for, you might have a sensitivity to some food. The simplest way to learn if this is the case is by eliminating potential allergens from your diet and then wait to see what happens. It might take a few weeks, but it’s well worth this small investment in time and effort. If it turns out you are allergic/sensitive to something, eliminating it from your diet can make all the difference in the world. You will be shocked at how great you will feel.
Far too many things in life are presented as flat-out good or bad. If it’s bad for me, it must be bad for you and vice versa. We all have a metabolism that is unique to us and us alone. This fact is often used (erroneously) to justify being overweight (we’ve all heard someone say, “I don’t eat much, but I have a slow metabolism”), but the uniqueness of the individual is still mostly true. Everyone has heard of the guy who smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and lived to be 100 or the woman who never ate a vegetable in her life and is healthy as can be at 95. These people are genetic outliers, and it just goes to show how variable humans can be.
The reality is that your dietary choices do make a difference and, except for a few fine adjustments, most dietary rules apply to all of us. The current trend to label foods as either good or bad has caused more harm than good and really needs to be reconsidered.
A few years back, eggs were the enemy; now, not so much. Dietary cholesterol was seen as the cause of heart disease; now, maybe not. Now trans fats and high fructose corn syrup are the major villains. Will they still be in a few years? My guess is yes, but who knows for sure. It may not be necessary to eat only organic, although it certainly wouldn’t hurt. One thing I will agree with is that food that comes out of a laboratory and reads like a chemistry project probably isn’t the best choice.
If you pay attention to how you feel and how well you perform on your current diet, you will come to understand how foods affect you–maybe not how they affect everyone else, but how they affect you. This is the first step toward creating your personal diet profile.
You may find that refined sugars make you lethargic and mentally sluggish. You may find that eating gluten makes your stomach do flip-flops at the most inopportune times. You may find that a diet rich in leafy greens and high fiber makes your trips to the bathroom a pleasure rather than an ordeal.
There are so many things that food affects, but because we tend to eat the same things without thinking, we don’t hear the messages our bodies are sending us. It is remarkably easy to give up a food that has been a part of your mealtime since you were a child once you realize that it has been irritating your bowels for equally as long a time. It’s not unusual for people to be astounded by how good they feel once they revamp their diet. It’s not a guarantee, but I have yet to find anyone who wasn’t pleasantly surprised by what they found once they started paying attention to what they eat.
Your body is your own personal nutritional experiment. If you fill it with excess calories and processed foods, you will find out how poorly it works. If you eat reasonable quantities of quality food, you will also find out how well it works. It sounds absurdly simple and, on the surface, it is; unfortunately, as you dig deeper, you may find implementation to be somewhat difficult but certainly more than worth the effort.
It’s still 100 percent up to you; it’s your body. If your car wasn’t running well, you would take the time to find out why, so if your body isn’t performing up to expectations, it will be in both your long-term and short-term interests to find out why. The simplest place to start is to analyze your fuel.
There’s an old computer adage that applies to your body, too: “Garbage in, garbage out,” and to really, finally drive it home …
you are what you eat.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at [email protected]