By Michael Krueger
I’ll just pick up where we left off last time, talking about the how and why of diet craziness and what you can do to find your way to being healthy, happy, and having a good relationship with food.
Muscle is the Key
Weight training and quality nutrition are how you add muscle. The more muscle you have, the more metabolically active your body is, so you can stay lean. The part that is counterintuitive for many people is that you need to eat to lose weight, but you need to eat the right foods. I’m not talking about trendy “super foods” that are touted to cure cancer and burn fat. I’m talking, of course, about lean protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and good fats. It’s actually very easy to eat extraordinarily well with those ingredients. Simple ingredients well prepared make for the best meals you’ll ever eat.
Once you are fueled, you need to use that fuel to build muscle. When you lift weights, you need to challenge yourself. It’s not so much the weight or reps involved, it’s the effort. You need to push your limits in a way that works for you and is sustainable over time. You can’t just go through the motions. You also have to be sufficiently fueled so that you can actually work hard, so that means you need to eat enough to get you through your workout.
By eating well and working hard, you send the message to your body that all is well and it should feel free to use the calories you are ingesting as well as your stored fat as energy. If you starve yourself or are very inactive, your body gets the message that a famine is upon the land and you are trying to conserve energy to avoid dying. Your body is a primitive machine, and it has survival techniques coded in; lowered caloric consumption coupled with inactivity is the signal to shut down.
When you eat well and work hard, you create a positive feedback cycle within your body and mind. The better you eat, the better your training, and then you reward yourself with better food and your workouts get even better. Soon, this cycle becomes so natural that it simply becomes your life.
On those rare times when you do overindulge or miss a workout, it doesn’t become a disaster. You can just shrug it off and get back on track. There is no self-loathing, no negative self-talk or incriminations; it happened, and you moved on. You can even treat yourself to something that you wouldn’t normally eat without feeling guilty. The odd thing is that you will find after a while that those special treats don’t satisfy like they used to. A big sugary or fatty dessert just makes you feel sluggish. I find that now I’m much more likely to eat a larger portion of the healthy meal I made or perhaps share a smaller desert with my wife. Either way, I enjoy it and I don’t feel bad about having it, since I know that I have many solid, muscle-building workouts behind me and many more ahead.
Stress eating is a problem for many, and it is compounded by attempting to adhere to restrictive diets that leave you with little energy for working out and no resistance to binging on high-calorie comfort foods. When you only eat a few calories during the day, your body starts demanding food, and your brain is starving too. This combination is a recipe for disaster when it comes to making good decisions regarding what to eat.
So, let’s look at a likely scenario: You leave work and look for food. If you pass a vending machine, the packaging screams out to you, the desire for salty/sweet/fatty foods overwhelms your defenses, and all of sudden your money is in the machine and this nutritional tragedy is in your mouth. As you gobble it down, you think how satisfying it is and how good it tastes, but then you feel guilty. Then your insulin spikes from the influx of sugar and simple carbs, and you feel lousy; then you are out of control and looking for more.
By the time you get home (if you get home without stopping for fast food or bar food), you prowl the kitchen like a lion on the Serengeti. Unfortunately, unlike the lion, you most likely won’t be eating a lean, high-protein meal. More than likely, you will find nothing but packaged foods or junky snacks. So you settle down and eat and eat until your body sends the message that you have had enough. Unfortunately, you’d really had enough quite a while before your brain got the message, and now you feel bloated, sluggish, and depressed.
The best solution to this scenario is to eat enough during the day to sustain you and your activities. Not eating does not promote healthy weight reduction, it just starves you and makes you crazy. Figure out how much you need to eat throughout your day so that you never feel hungry and aren’t in any way tempted by garbage choices from vending machines and convenience stores.
The next thing is to preplan your evening meals. If you aren’t into making meals that can be frozen or refrigerated for later, then make sure you have plenty of options for creating a quick, healthful, and filling meal in a few minutes.
Having lean meats such as turkey breast or sliced beef along with whole grain bread or rolls and assorted vegetables on hand is a simple way to break the cycle of starvation and binging. Having quality food available, either premade or ready to use, will satisfy not only your body but your mind and spirit too because you know you are doing what is best for you.
After you have eaten, go for a walk to calm your mind and give your brain and body a chance to get on the same page as far as your hunger/satiation/insulin/cortisol cycle is concerned. The feeling of being fueled, full, and peaceful is a wonderful way to end your day.
You may have heard that eating additional protein is a good idea to stave off hunger and help build and preserve muscle. This is mostly accurate, but unless you’re keeping a very good food log and weighing and measuring all your foods, it’s very difficult to know how much protein you’re really consuming. One gram of protein per pound of body weight is the rule of thumb and even more if you are training hard.
Protein also helps stave off hunger because it takes longer to digest and it tends to keep you satisfied longer. It’s helpful in the building and sustaining of the muscle you are working so hard for, so it makes sense to be sure you are getting enough.
In reality, I find that focusing too much on any one aspect of a diet can muddy the waters and take some of the joy out of the whole fitness quest. When it comes to protein, a gram per pound of body weight can look like a big pile of meat on a plate, not to mention a big bill at the grocery store. Many people turn to protein shakes to fill the gap but, as I mentioned before, I’m not a fan of that.
My recommendation is to seek balance between the food groups and let your progress toward your goals be your guide. If you find you get hungry before your next feeding time, increase your protein a bit and see if that helps. Too many people eat a salad for lunch and then are starving later because they really ate mostly water. Once again, make choices based on your goals, and remember: Your goals are to build muscle and to have the energy needed to successfully get through your day and to power your workouts.
A word here about fat in your diet. Fat makes you feel full, and it’s an important part of a healthy diet. Fats from plant sources and cold water fish are the better choices, but even dairy and saturated fat have their place in a healthy diet– particularly if you are an active, hardworking, fit person.
The opinion on dietary fat and cholesterol has recently changed again. This can be very frustrating for anyone doing their best to make good choices in their diet. My only recommendation is to not go overboard in any direction. Sugar and processed carbs will never be a part of a good diet so avoid those, but for the rest, moderation is key. If you aren’t eating a good variety of foods, you are probably missing out on nutrients that you need. If you eat a lot of fat, you will probably end up being fat. Eat good food in moderation, and you should be alright; let your health, your progress toward you goals, and your training results be your guide.
In the End
What all this dietary talk comes down to is be good to yourself. You know that good food and quality training make you feel good in all aspects of your life. A sweet or salty snack might satisfy a craving, but if you had been eating better, you never would have had to deal with that craving in the first place. Your brain can be retrained to make good decisions, and habits can be broken and replaced with mindful practices that get you what you really want.
It’s time to review your life and see if any of these scenarios apply. If they do, make some plans and set some goals to create the change you desire.
Do this today, and tomorrow will truly be a new and better day.
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 MKPTLLC@gmail.