What do you think of when hear the word diet? The first word that springs to my mind is restriction, closely followed by hunger and hard work. Generally not something anyone is too excited to embark upon; in fact, it seems a little scary.
The reason for this is that most diets today are focused on fear in one way or another – fear of fat, fear of calories, fear of carbs. Not to mention the fear of high GI foods, sugar, anything artificial, or fear of eating the wrong ratios of macronutrients, not eating every three hours, not eating breakfast, or eating carbs after 7:00pm. The list goes on. I don’t think I’m saying anything groundbreaking by suggesting perhaps these diets aren’t quite working out well in the longer term, since we’re all still on diets. Not to mention if you tried to combine them all you’d probably find yourself on a not so exciting (and not so nutritious) diet of organic, grass-fed low-fat beef jerky, with a side of organic non-GMO lettuce, unless you’re vegetarian that is.
Then on top of all the diet rules, we add your athletic goals into the mix, be it improving performance in your sport of choice, building muscle, losing fat, running faster – or for the ambitious folk, all of the aforementioned. So you train and train and train, and if you hit a plateau you just train harder and dedicate yourself to following an even stricter version of your diet. If you weren’t losing weight on 1,400 calories a day, the logical next step is to go down to a miserable 1,200, right?
End result: you’re more tired than ever, trying to get motivated to train whilst your undernourished body raises all the strength it has to fight off the latest flu going around, eventually leaving you bedridden for a couple of days (and possibly curled up with a nice pile of comfort food, and back to square one).
Even starting off with the best intentions of a balanced approach we find ourselves getting that little bit stricter in the hopes the results will come faster, and this is where a lot of people get themselves into trouble. And it’s not just for the low-calorie folks out there, the same applies whether it’s low-carb, paleo, Zone, or whatever your chosen diet.
But I’m going to suggest perhaps the problem is not that you’re not being strict enough – it’s that you’re being too strict.
So, lets take a step back and consider ditching the diet, losing the fear of whatever it is, and coming up with a plan to nourish our bodies and support our athletic performance. After all, real food is the sustenance of human life. It makes no sense to be fearful of it. But how do we do this?
Firstly, give up the idea that you’re going to lose 10lbs of fat or gain 10lbs of muscle in the next two weeks. Embrace the idea that you’re about to start nourishing the amazing body you’ve got.
Secondly, follow some basic guidelines on what you should be eating. Note the use of the word guidelines not rules. Hence, it’s a general idea of what you should be eating most of the time, not a five-step test for everything that passes your lips, only to beat yourself up about when you “fail.”
1. Eat a wide variety of natural and unprocessed foods as often as possible. It’s a dummy’s way to ensure you’re not eating anything too poisonous, and you are getting lots of vitamins and nutrients. If it grew on a tree or in the ground, or had a face once upon a time, chances are it’s okay to eat. If it’s organic, hormone-free, and grass fed, then great. If not, that’s okay too – remember, guidelines!
2. Eat according to your energy expenditure. Quite simply, how big are you and how much do you move? Now make sure you eat around about the right number of calories to support this. Consistently eating significantly more or less will get you into all sorts of trouble in the long run. (And for those of you who just thought, “Oh so if it’s only troublesome in the long run, I’ll shoot for 1,200 calories just for a few more weeks until I drop a few pounds, then switch to a more moderate approach,” remember to bookmark this page so you can come back to read this when you’re curled up in bed with the flu next month.)
3. Avoid things that make you sick. This one is where listening to your body comes in. Sometimes our body is very vocal about what makes us sick (think back to your last hangover), but sometimes it’s subtler. Bloating, skin problems, sinus issues, and inflammation are all signs of your body not being too happy about something. If you suspect it’s food related, remove the potential culprit from your diet for a month and see how you feel.
4. Actually listen to what your body is telling you, and I mean really listen, not just to the stuff you want to hear. More often than not your cravings are telling you something. If you’re a low-carber and after a workout all you can think about is something sweet, maybe your body is trying to tell you it needs a few more carbs. Or perhaps that coffee hit you want so desperately is actually just leaving you with an upset stomach and has you craving your next hit in a few hours.
5. Eat primarily to nourish your body and to fuel your athletic performance, but every now and then eat for pleasure. We were given taste buds for a reason!
I certainly don’t believe there is one perfect human diet out there that everyone should be following. We are all individuals. Our bodies are different and what we ask of them is different. But for most of us, following these five guidelines and tweaking as required on an individual level will not only get you a long way towards the body and performance you want, but leave you with a much healthier and happier relationship with food.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.