Firstly, it’s so much more than than just the food…
Like me, you may have grown up being told, “You are what you eat!” And while that’s not entirely wrong, neither is it entirely correct.
Before we dive in, the below is an adapted extract from my book, Everyday Athletes. I wanted to share this here as I believe it’s so important to understand how our lifestyle choice, including food, have a direct impact on how we feel and perform.
I also want to be clear about the purpose of this blog post. It’s intention is simply to empower all of the fellow Everyday Athletes around the world to make more informed choices that lead to improved long-term health and performance. I also want to help simplify the whole subject, too. It just doesn’t need to be complicated.
Now, I’m aware that the world is flooded with “experts” on the subject of diets. There’s almost an equal number of books to be read, and the same is true for the types of diets that people follow these days.
Even the word diet itself can be problematic. Thanks to modern marketing, the word has become synonymous with weight loss, which is not the sole meaning. Just now, I referred to my following a plant-based diet, but I’m not trying to lose weight.
I much prefer the dictionary definition for the word:
But, as you’re about to discover, we’re not going to use the word “diet” again in this chapter. Instead, we’re going to reframe the whole subject of food and talk in terms of nutrition.
To help in this task, I enlisted a nutrition wizard from San Diego named Jenn Ryan. I’m a great believer in seeking advice from those who walk the walk, i.e., who demonstrate by their own results that they have the expertise to which you and I ought to listen. Jenn meets that criteria.
Not only is she a certified sports nutritionist, hormone specialist and gut health expert, she’s also a medical professional with many years spent working in an emergency room. Additionally, Jenn walks the walk every time she steps onto the competition floor in the world of functional fitness. In fact, as she traverses life through her 40s, Jenn continues to show what’s possible athletically as a CrossFit Games athlete. She is happy, healthy, and getting stronger every year.
So, let’s return to the subject of nutrition. For me, just the connotation of the word “nutrition” is more appropriate and powerful than “diet” given our intention to improve our long-term health and performance. Lets calibrate our understanding of the word, however, before we move on.
Jenn describes herself as a nutrition coach rather than a nutritionist. This distinction may seem minor but it’s important as it changes the basis of the relationship she has with her clients. Let’s be honest, for enduring lifestyle changes to take root her clients are required to be present at all times and are very much a participant on the journey. It’s not as simple as handing over a meal plan each week or month. It is — or should be — far more inclusive and far reaching than that.
In fact, it’s important that a much more holistic lifestyle approach needs to be considered. On the subject of nutrition, these considerations go far beyond simply what goes into the mouth. They include:
Naturally, what goes into your mouth remains critically important, too. But think about how many times you’ve heard someone say, “I’ve been trying to lose weight for a long time but it’s just not working.” Maybe it’s something you’ve said yourself.
You’ve likely also heard someone say, “Just eat less and exercise more” or “Calories in equals calories out.” While neither claim is particularly helpful, the latter is true to some extent, at least in terms of a baseline for body composition and performance.
That said, it’s far too simplistic to think in these isolated terms.
For example, it’s not only merely the quantity of calories that need to be considered, it’s the quality of the foods providing those calories as well. Consuming 500 calories from a whole-food meal is not the same as getting 500 calories from eating a doughnut. The way in which your body processes and metabolises those calories is vastly different. So what we eat and how much we eat are both critical factors.
But hormonal balance is another key consideration. This will have a direct bearing on the calories out part of the equation. If your hormones are out of balance, you may not see further body composition or performance improvements, regardless of how clean your diet is.
This chapter is called “Food for Life” for a reason. In the spirit of accountability, what we put into our mouths every day is something we have control of and inextricably linked to how we look, feel, and perform. Consciously or otherwise, as with all things, we live with the ramifications of the choices we make. So why would food and drink be an exception?
So far, I’ve only touched on weight loss and calories. Why? Because these concepts are the starting point of most conversations that Jenn has with new clients. And it’s a minefield out there given the marketing juggernauts and the artificial intelligence they rely on to cast digital magic around the world. How many times have you looked at the cover of a magazine enviously, wishing you looked like the picture-perfect model who didn’t even need airbrushing in the first place?
Like most people, when I step out of the shower, my eyes naturally drift to the parts of my body of which I’m least proud. It’ll come as no surprise to learn that most people are not 100% happy with the way they look — their aesthetics. But here’s the thing… it’s all a matter of perception, literally. The word “aesthetics” derives from the ancient Greek and means “sense of perception.”
As Jenn asks, “Wouldn’t it be great if people forgot how they perceive they look for a moment, and instead focused on how they actually feel?” Switching our focus onto how we feel is an interesting proposition. You have to wonder how many people would break through their glass ceilings if they simply switched their focus.
So, where to begin?
When Jenn is presented with a client who states a goal of weight loss or getting rid of body fat, she asks a series of questions that often leads to their realisation that, aside from their aesthetic perception, they feel like garbage. Some describe a brain fog, stress at work, highs and lows throughout the day, or poor sleep patterns, which in turn causes frustration… the list goes on. Maybe you can relate to one or more of these feelings.
Interestingly though, it’s almost as if the clients gather the negative energy from all those feelings and channel it into a less-specific, general unhappiness about the way their body looks.
If you can relate to any of this, or know someone who might, the following are the kinds of questions Jenn asks a client during the onboarding process. Maybe you want to ask yourself these questions..
First, it’s about setting the scene. What do you want from this process in the next three months? Nine months? Twelve months?
A few typical answers she receives to the above include:
Once you’ve written the goals down, it’s time to start asking the question, “Why?”
But guess what… 99% of the time, the first answer given is not the actual reason. In fact, it’s almost never the real goal. And here we find ourselves back on the topic of chunking, as discussed in Chapter 2.
You can keep drilling down, asking why each time a new answer is offered until you reach the core reason driving those more superficial motivations. Understanding the deep-down motivations will provide a clearer, stronger connection with your why.
Once the inner honesty cops have finished their interrogation, Jenn moves on to understand more about the client’s daily schedule, writing down the answers to questions like these:
What time do you wake up?
How do you feel when you first wake up?
What do you do immediately after you wake up?
When do you have your first meal?
When do you get yourself outside?
How do you feel in the middle of the day?
How do you feel in the evening?
How’s your appetite?
How’s your digestion throughout the day?
Following that discussion it’s also normal to dive into more details about what for is and how we can use it to feel and perform better.
OK, it’s finally time to talk about food. ‘What is food?’ may seem like an unusual question but, how would you define food?
It means many things to most of us. It can be comforting, it can be sexy or it can simply be fuel. But regardless of how you categorise it, food is a necessity of life. Importantly, as we’ve already discussed in the context of calories, all foods are not equal.
Aside from a minority of outliers, most people would agree that nourishing our bodies means eating more whole foods, ideally local, organic and non-GMO. My real-world philosophy is simply to eat food from as close to the ground as possible. That means eating more real food and less processed food. I know, I know, I can hear your objections already… We lead busy lives, and processed foods are certainly a convenient “grab and go” option. But, they’re rarely nourishing your body, in fact, quite the opposite is true.
Now, I’m conscious that food can be a highly emotive subject for many people. Let’s face it, there are so many different types of diets being promoted, the premises for which often contradict each other.
Here are some examples…
There’s often so much white noise out in this space that it becomes deafening and the path of least resistance ends up being the maintenance of the status quo, i.e., to change nothing.
I find Jenn’s approach to this disarming. When new clients come to her, confused about what foods are good or bad, she starts with a simple approach: “What do you see yourself being able to do for the long term and what’s non-negotiable?” she asks. If someone really wants to eat meat or is determined not to give up dairy, then that’s how it will be. It’s much more about the combination of food types being consumed from a nutritional perspective that is in focus.
This is very goal-centric and takes into consideration whether there’s an obstacle that could get in the way of them achieving their goals. Undoubtedly, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” panacea in this space.
Imagine a client asks specifically about intermittent fasting because they saw an advert, clicked on a Facebook post, watched something on YouTube, has a friend who’s doing it, whatever. What if this client is someone who struggles with binge-and-purge-eating, or with consuming a proper amount of calories, or some other type of eating disorder? In this person’s case, fasting 16 hours a day might not be an easy or sustainable — or safe — thing to attempt.
Suppose the person struggles with binge-eating. A likely result is that they’ll try the fasting, fall back into the bingeing habit, and end up just feeling bad about themselves — which could very well start the cycle all over again or trigger other unhealthy behaviours. Is that going to motivate them to reach their goals? It’s more likely to just compound the underlying problem, and possibly make matters worse by convincing this person into believing that there’s no hope — they tried… and failed.
So, the next time you feel a bit overwhelmed or stressed when dealing with this subject, just stop. Take a breath and be kind to yourself. It doesn’t matter what you’ve heard or seen elsewhere. It doesn’t matter what results other people claim to have experienced on a certain type of nutrition plan (I wanted to say the “d*et” word but promised not to). What matters are your personal goals in combination with your personal circumstances.
A turning point for me was to rethink the idea of what I can’t eat, and instead think about what I will eat. If I eat more of the good stuff (nutrient-rich foods) by default, there‘s less opportunity for the junk. Do you see the power of that reversal? Put another way:
“Displacement rather than restriction.”
It’s an empowering approach as opposed to a list of “don’ts” or “can’ts.” By choosing to eat more of the good stuff, the other stuff just falls away. And the real empowerment comes when you physically — and even emotionally — feel the benefit of eating well. You’ll naturally want more.
A word of warning though: unfortunately, a lot of bad foods are designed to feel good. That’s why we crave them. I use the word “designed” quite deliberately as many bad foods commonly stem from a laboratory, not a field.
The reality is, each and every day, most people around the world are unwitting proof points of how successful modern food formulation can manipulate the human brain and exploit our evolutionary DNA.
In the food formulation world, there is a term called the Bliss Point. The Bliss Point is the perfect amount of an ingredient such as salt, sugar, or fat which optimizes deliciousness. That’s what makes you crave more and more. It’s designed by food engineers in white lab coats to do just that. The food manufacturers have learned how to monitor our brains’ responses to our sense of taste. And they design food products based upon that data. I don’t know about you but, I don’t like being manipulated in this way.
Side comment: If you’re interested in learning more, check out a documentary titled, “That Sugar Film.” It’s usually available on Stan or Amazon, with highlights on YouTube, as well. It features Australian Damon Gameau as he goes on a journey of eating a diet of modern foods marketed as “healthy.” It features cameos by Hugh Jackman and Stephen Fry, to name a couple, and it’s both entertaining and insightful.
OK, where to start in terms of what to eat?
No matter what your food preferences are, knowing how to create and put together a meal is the starting point. Equally fundamental is determining the baseline of how many meals a day you plan to eat. For example, there’s no point of someone saying they want to eat two large meals a day only to wind up snacking on Tootsie Rolls and Doritos. That’ll lead to a physiological game of macro-Tetris and you run the risk of not getting in the required macronutrients. Whatever your plan is, it needs to be goal-centric and sustainable.
So, keep it simple and build from there. Get used to it and settle into a routine.
Once you’re ticking along the next step is to start writing down what you’re consuming. Both the quantity and the quality being consumed. We’re still in helicopter view at this point, big picture stuff. What does your caloric intake look like, what are the macronutrient breakdowns? These are just some basic awareness starting points.
Now some of you may already be starting to feel a little lost or overwhelmed. That’s OK, it’s not your fault. Few of us received an in-depth nutrition education growing up. In fact, truth be told, most medical and fitness professionals don’t either. It’s most commonly an extracurricular endeavour borne from their own interest. Therefore, don’t beat yourself up for not knowing this stuff.
Just keep on keeping it simple.
Let’s break down the terminology. Macronutrients are nutrients that the human body uses in relatively large amounts and, therefore, typically needs to receive daily. These are proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Unfortunately, the marketing juggernauts have been at work again and mass confusion is inevitable, if not intentional.
As a result, there is often an imbalance in the ways these macronutrients are talked about. It’s not only the food producers’ marketing teams that create this, but with the proliferation of popular TV shows such as “Masterclass,” we are all bombarded with unbalanced messaging. The most prominent of these relates to protein, which always seems to be positioned as the most important of the macronutrients.
On the flip side, for as much as protein protein protein is placed atop the hierarchy, it’s not uncommon that carbohydrates and fats are resultantly demonised. All of this lacks perspective, balance, and understanding.
What I find fascinating is the strength and stridency of the views that so many people hold on this matter. In reality, these are often just a representation of the inadvertent indoctrination from our upbringing and/or the marketing we have been pummelled with ever since. As someone whose diet is plant-based, I regularly get asked, “But where do you get your protein from?” The suggestion being that a non-meat eater must struggle to consume sufficient amounts of protein.
This, of course, is not true. It’s just the result of generations of marketing and folklore that have led the masses to believe that you have to eat meat to obtain protein. There are two ways I can best demystify that myth. The first is to explain the types of foods I eat, such as dark leafy greens, legumes and other non-meat based sources of protein. One of my little party lines is to reveal that a potato, derided by many as just a starch, is in fact around 9% protein (who knew?).
The second way I can resolve that misunderstanding is slightly more thought-provoking. I ask the questioner what protein is and why I need it. Most people will scratch their heads and struggle to answer that question (which is why I tend to defer to answer number one). Of course, it’s not their fault, they’ve simply been conditioned over many years into parroting the need for lots of protein without any explanation why.
Until I ventured down the path of plant-based eating, I held that same commonly inherited belief.
The answer to “What is protein and why do we need it?” sounds like this. Protein is composed of amino acids and is an essential nutrient, as the body cannot live without taking it in and cannot produce it on it’s own. We are able to make a few of the amino acids, but we are ideally looking for protein sources with more complete amino acid profiles.
When you hear that animal proteins are better than plant-based varieties, what this actually means is that they are naturally more complete, i.e., they have all of the essential amino acids. While many plant-based proteins have some amino acids, they typically do not have the entire gamut of them. The solution to this is,however, is simply to consume a range of different plant-based protein sources to ensure a more complete amino acid profile. What one source might be lacking, another contains aplenty.
Remember, we are what we absorb, and when we eat protein sources, they are broken down during the digestive process into amino acids. These amino acids play a role in every single process and function in your body. One of those processes is muscle repair, which is why protein supplementation is so prolific in the fitness realm. This is another reason that protein is placed rather high on the hierarchy of macronutrients.
It’s also the most satiating macronutrient. If you ask somebody to eat three chicken breasts, as opposed to three handfuls of almonds or three apples, they’d obviously struggle to swallow it all down. It also has a very high thermic effect, meaning that we actually burn up to about 30% of those protein calories in the digestion and assimilation processes. Conversely, carbohydrates burn around 5% and fat, 0%.
So, for someone trying to shed body fat or change their body composition, one approach is to keep their caloric intake a little bit higher by using protein. It stands to reason that if you are (quote/unquote) “burning” 30% of those protein-derived calories (as opposed to 5% from carbohydrates and 0% from fat), this is an obvious strategy to follow. Naturally, we can’t know for sure which calories are actually being burned but… you get the picture.
So that is, in a nutshell, why you quite often hear people placing protein on a pedestal. In fact, as we get older — and by that, we’re talking 30-plus — our natural muscle mass starts to decrease. That’s why it’s important to perform exercises that stimulate the muscles, such as resistance training, and to make sure we’re consuming proper amounts of protein.
Hopefully, you now have a better baseline of understanding about protein, what it is and the role it plays. Next time you hear the marketers instructing us to eat more and more protein, ask yourself whether you can name one person you know who is suffering with a protein deficiency? Me neither.
Let’s move on and talk about the other two macronutrients, which are just as important in terms of overall health and performance.
If I was a carbohydrate, I’d be looking for a PR agent and, hell, maybe a defense attorney. Despite the common demonising of this macronutrient, there are so many great things about carbohydrates (carbs). Now, unlike protein, carbs are not an essential macronutrient. That means we can survive without them as our bodies are highly adaptive and can make glucose from ketones (chemicals made within the body). Our bodies can actually break down muscle tissue and use the amino acids, and the liver will metabolise it to create the necessary glucose (energy).
However, just because we can survive without carbs doesn’t mean we should. Harking back to our ancestors once more — we’re not living the same life as they did. Most of us are not hibernating for months each year prior to a spot of hunting and gathering. Most of us are highly active and burn carbs all day long, every day. Even our brain uses carbs (unless you’re in a state of ketosis, which most people are not unless they’re actively trying to be so) so even a so-called sedentary desk job places energy demands on our bodies.
So carbs are not bad and can contain a wide variety of micronutrients. But of course, not all carbs are equal, and those derived from processed foods will not deliver the nutrition required to function optimally.
Let’s move onto the third macronutrient: fat.
Eating fat will make you fat, right?
Wrong. We need dietary fats to live. Fat is an essential macronutrient and, just like protein, we cannot make our own. Some people have a little more stored than others, and that’s OK within reason, of course, as the body loves having that stored energy to call on if needed.
However, having the right amount of dietary fat is a precursor to maintaining our hormonal balance, which is really important to give your body energy and support cell growth. This is where low-fat diets can fall down. If women follow such diets and eat just 40-45 grammes of fat a day for an extended amount of time, it can be challenging for the body to maintain a proper hormonal balance. And while this is especially true for women, who have a lot going on physiologically (as we’ve already learned in Chapter 3), it’s also important for men.
So, neither men nor women should be eating super low amounts of fat for extended periods. Yes, there are times in a professionally programmed nutrition process in which the fat levels can be reduced a little so as to use carbs for energy but it’s not something that should be sustained for a lengthy duration.
Similarly, as with carbs, not all fats are equal. Those derived from processed foods will not deliver the nutrition you require to function optimally. Sound familiar?
Now, unless you’re really into nutrition there is every chance that, like me, you’re not actually sure what 40-45 grammes of fat actually looks like in practical terms. So, how does all this translate into the real world for everyday athletes who are busy with work, home and life?
Well, to answer that question it may be easier to grab yourself a copy of the Everyday Athletes book which, as a reward for reading to the bottom of this blog post can be yours for FREE. We’re only too happy to send you a physical copy of the book – you just need to help out with the shipping!
… extract from the Everyday Athletes book, written by Mat Lock.
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