Back in 2014, the 16th season of The Biggest Loser starred former professional and Olympic athletes looking to reclaim their glory days. It’s a depressing image: people who were once at the peak of athleticism and health, now struggling to make it through a treadmill workout and weighing over 300 pounds.
This is an extreme introduction to a problem that plagues everyday athletes. The former high school and college standouts that find themselves in their mid-twenties with little motivation or energy to exercise, gaining weight they never struggled to keep off before, and in a vicious cycle of trying fad diets and trendy workouts in an attempt to find the right formula for “getting their body back.” They’re lacking the passion and discipline that came with organized sports and see their friends fighting similar battles.
If this sounds like you, you’re in the right place to start reclaiming your health.
As an athlete, you understand the benefits of exercise. In the peak of your athletic career, exercise alone helped you stay physically fit and gave you a false sense of comfort to eat whatever you wanted: the standard calories-in/calories-out mentality. As long as you worked it off, or “earned,” your food, the type and quantity of food you ate was irrelevant. You likely fueled up with carbs, drank sports drinks to replenish your electrolytes, and went out for pizza after a big win.
For most athletes, organized sports and competition phases out after college. You hang up the cleats and put away the trophies, and exercise becomes a hobby to fit in to your schedule. When you’re no longer accountable to a team or gearing up for competition, other priorities start to sneak in. Then one day you notice you’re lethargic and your clothes are fitting tighter, and working out isn’t giving you desired results.
You think it’s because you’re not exercising enough or with as much intensity as you used to because now you have a full-time job and a commute and a family and social events to attend with friends.
And that’s where athletes get it wrong. Working out harder or more often is not the solution. It’s eating better. It turns out that you can’t out-exercise a poor diet. It’s a simple mantra, but the challenge is that athletes know how to exercise. They don’t always know how to eat well.
Just like with any sport, eating well starts with the fundamentals. Unfortunately, most athletes aren’t coached on nutrition as they are on strength, speed, and agility. You now have the opportunity to practice a new skill that will reap incredible benefits to your health. There are three simple fundamentals that will help you see food as the fuel you need to continue your athletic pursuits and realize your health potential:
1) Eat Real Food
Shop the perimeters of the grocery store, focusing mostly on vegetables, quality meats, dairy, eggs, and seasonal fruit. Stick to buying organic produce if possible to avoid consuming harmful pesticides, or shop from EWG’s Clean Fifteen list that identifies the top produce each year that tested low for the presence of pesticides.
Quality is important when it comes to meat, dairy, and eggs. Organic, grass-fed, and pasture-raised sources are more nutritious than conventional sources. You are what you eat. Literally.
Avoiding the center aisles at the grocery store is key. That’s where you’ll find convenience foods that are filled with sugar and highly processed ingredients. They’re often marketed as healthy, but you’re smarter than that. Read the labels and only choose packaged foods that have natural ingredients (AKA: food in the form that nature intended).
Carbs are not the only source of energy athletes need. Fat is no longer a villain, and it’s a great source of energy in combination with carbs—especially for endurance athletes. Carbs are like the kindling of a fire and fats are the slow burning log. Both are important for our energy output.
Not to mention that fats act as building blocks for cell membranes and hormones, aid in the absorption of key nutrients like vitamin A, D, E and K, and allow for the proper use of protein in the body.
Most people eat too many carbs and not enough fat and protein. Try balancing your daily food intake so that it is made up of 40% carbohydrates, 30% fat, and 30% protein. Apps like MyFitnessPal are a great way to track these macronutrients, even for just a short period of time to educate yourself more on the macronutrient breakdown of your meals.
Everyone’s body prefers a slightly different balance of macronutrients, depending on their activity level, goals, and digestive health, but start with 40 C/30 F/30 P and see how you feel.
Healthy sources of carbohydrates: a wide variety of in-season vegetables, starchy carbs like sweet potatoes and plantains, whole fruit, and soaked or fermented whole grains and legumes if you can tolerate them.
Healthy sources of fats: nuts and seeds, olive oil, avocados, fats from pasture-raised animals (ie: butter), organic virgin coconut oil, and wild-caught salmon.
3) Be Mindful
This fundamental is more on the mental side of eating.
Eat purposefully, thinking about how the food you’re eating is driving your health. Try to eat in a relaxed state of mind and take the time to chew your food 20-30 times per bite. It’s torture at first, but it soon becomes a wonderful practice that helps you appreciate the deliciousness even more. It’s hard to slow down in general, but I find it easier to do when food is involved :).
Work these food fundamentals and let me know how it goes in the comments below.