Nutrition is the First Discipline Simple, Sustainable, Functional, Enjoyable
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” – Michael Pollan
Anything that I say about the basic elements of nutrition are just an elaboration of Pollan’s statement above. An engine is only as good as the fuel that it consumes. The same is true for human beings. We all operate at an optimal level when we are eating the diet that is best suited for each of us.
There are many, many diets out there that claim to have the solution. The way to make you lose all your extra weight, gain more energy, and solve all of your problems. The unfortunate reality is that many of these diets are gimmicks.
If it’s not sustainable, it’s not effective.
There are a few keys to an effective daily nutrition strategy.
It must be sustainable – It must be a way of living which can be implemented for the long term, not just a short time frame. Otherwise, the unhealthy habits will return once the diet ends.
It should be simple – We human beings have a tendency to want to over complicate things. Many times the solution is really quite simple, and it’s staring us in the phase, even if we choose not to see it. Diet is much the same way. Eating healthy does not have to be complicated.
It should be fun – We should always find ways to enjoy what we put in our bodies. That enjoyment should transcend the simple pleasure we get from “taste”, which is short lived, and extend into how we feel, how we perform, and psychological well being. It can become enjoyable to cultivate a healthy lifestyle.
It should be functional – Everything we eat has a purpose. That purpose may be to provide our daily stores of macronutrients, or deliver nutrients to our bodies, or simply to give our brains an immediate and pleasurable sensation. We must recognize that some foods provide greater function to that which we are trying to accomplish, whether it be athletic performance, mental clarity, or a generally healthy lifestyle. As Hippocrates is credited with saying, “let food be thy medicine.”
The goal should not be to lose weight or to fit into that dress or pair of pants. The goal should be to discover the joy and fulfillment of enjoying life giving foods that energize your system, provide maximum brain power, and maximize performance.
Below, we present some options on how to implement simple and sustainable nutrition strategies.
Nutrition is the First Discipline in any Exercise Program
Daily Nutrition Guidance (Click on Each to Expand)
Before changing your diet, consult with a medical professional, and make sure you are keenly aware of the risks associated with any nutrition strategy.
Too many so-called “diets” overcomplicate nutrition. The reality is that a simple solution can be more effective, more enjoyable, and sustainable. The key is to find a solution which empowers you, not one that limits you. You should not put added stress on your body, starve yourself, or eat until you’re overly full.
The first important part of transitioning into a healthy nutrition strategy is to make sure you are getting the necessary nutrients and minerals from your food. Thus the first step to better health through nutrition is very simple. Start adding healthy foods to your existing diet!
What types of healthy foods should you add? Primarily this means fruits and vegetables. If you want to be healthy and fit, your diet needs to include generous portions of fruits and vegetables so that you are a) replenishing your glycogen stores in a healthy and controlled way, b) getting adequate fiber, and c) absorbing critical naturally occurring vitamins and minerals into your system.
Remember, this first level is simply adding healthy and natural foods to your existing diet (if you’re consuming unhealthy foods at dangerous levels, or your health is at risk, please seek the guidance of a medical professional!), not a complete diet makeover. The key to this first level is to begin developing healthy habits. This is critical!
Most of our failures with nutrition come from the space between our ears, so we have to change our psychology. Developing the healthy habits of consuming nutritious and natural foods as a supplement to our existing diet begins to imprint those behaviors. Over time, the addition of these healthy foods will become a replacement for unhealthy foods, as long as we have the discipline to be consistent.
There are two simple steps to imprinting these healthy habits:
- Consume fruits and or vegetables before or during every meal. Make plants the basis for everything you consume. If you eat veggies before the meal, this will imprint healthy habits going forward.
- Snack on healthy nuts, seeds, fruits, or vegetables (seriously, you can eat as many fruits or veggies as you want!). Reach for an apple before you reach for the candy bar.
Note: This is basic nutrition advice only, NOT a prerequisite for this training program. Each individual is different in terms of their tolerances, and if you feel that you have certain sensitivities to foods, you should seek specific guidance from a certified nutritionist or healthcare professional.
It is said that nutrition is the fourth discipline in triathlon. In my opinion, it is the FIRST. In order to perform at the highest level, and not be encumbered by gastrointestinal issues, cramps, sluggishness, or fatigue, you have to fuel your body effectively. The challenge is that everybody is different with regard to what they can tolerate.
Thus, rule #1 becomes “Understand your body.”
Once you understand your body, you will know how different foods affect your performance. You may find that dairy slows you down and makes you feel tired. You may discover that eating bread or pasta every now and then doesn’t bother you, and perhaps even benefits your performance. Once again I will say that everyone is different, and learning about which foods work best for you is a process of trial and error.
So how do we start with understanding how different foods affect us? Fortunately, learning to understand our bodies and how different stimuli (food) affects us can be relatively simple. Unfortunately, in practice it can also be challenging because we have to give up unhealthy habits or vices. It’s a necessary process in order to establish a “clean base” from which to build a healthy and functional nutrition plan.
Step One: Cut out all the junk, and eat cleanly for 2 weeks to a month.
As the name implies, you begin with a “clean base” of foods. It’s very simple. You cut out all the foods which have refined or added sugars (in their many forms) or are highly processed, and begin to consume only healthy and natural ingredients. When you eat “cleanly”, you are more in tune with the signals your body is giving you and your body operates more effectively. On the contrary, when you consume junk food (i.e. refined sugar and processed foods), the signals become jumbled, and stress responses are produced. To understand your body and your tolerances, you need clear signals, which requires a completely clean and natural diet.
A couple definitions:
Refined or Added Sugar – Any sugar which is not a natural ingredient to the primary food. Sugar goes by many names on the side of packages – Sucrose, dextrose, maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup, malt barley, etc. It is best to avoid any foods with these as ingredients (unless it is being used during a long workout – more on that in the workout nutrition section). Many of these sugars are highly concentrated, and spike the blood sugar rapidly. When not used, this sugar is stored as fat in the body and is tied to diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Unfortunately, these sugars are hidden in a VAST majority of packaged and processed foods, such as salad dressings, pasta sauce, juices, sodas, chips, crackers, and even deli meats. The list goes on and on.
Processed Foods – Foods which go through multiple processes between their natural state (if any) and their final state. Within the processes, the product can make dramatic transformations. For example, sugar can be added, nutrients can be lost, preservatives or antibiotics can be added, and so on. Examples include many boxed foods with ingredients that are unrecognizable (cookies, crackers, frozen meals, chicken nuggets, etc. To avoid processed foods, look for only natural ingredients.
Humane Meats – For the sake of this program, “humane” means cage free, antibiotic free, and animals that are fed a healthy diet. Animals which are treated inhumanely is not only a moral issue, but it’s also a quality issue.
Low/High Glycemic – Foods which are low or high on the glycemic index. The glycemic index measures how fast a food raises blood glucose levels against pure glucose. The faster the blood sugar rises, the greater the stress response.
Guidelines for Establishing a Clean Base Nutrition Program:
Very simply, eat completely clean by cutting out refined/added sugars and processed foods for at least three weeks, preferably one month. More specifically…
Eat lots of vegetables and low glycemic fruits. Vegetables and fruits (especially vegetables) should be incorporated into all meals, as they serve as the primary cleansing and nutrient rich foods.
Eliminate all refined sugar from the diet (this includes fruit juices. Don’t be fooled by the phrase “contains real fruit”, or “100% Juice”. It is still sugar).
Look up all the synonyms for sugar, and be aware of them as you look at ingredients. This can include “High Fructose Corn Syrup”, “Dextrose”, “Maltodextrin”, etc.
Eliminate all processed foods from your diet (this is easy to identify by the ingredients on the side of the box/bag. Only natural ingredients should be considered – for example, Almond Butter – Ingredients: “Almonds”)
Generally, the more ingredients on a food item, and the more obscure the name of the item (think maltodextrin or xanthan gum, for example), the more likely it is you should avoid it.
Try to avoid eating anything after 8 pm so that you are not wasting energy on digestion during hours of sleep.
Cook most of your own meals. It is understood that you may go out to eat every once and a while, but to make sure you know what’s entering your mouth, you want to own the ingredients from start to finish.
For those who travel, or must get out of their own kitchen, there are some options where you can get clean meals (Whole Foods comes to mind). Do some research.
Other clean food sources can come from cage free eggs, “humane” meats, nuts, butter, olive oil, organic oats, brown rice, or quinoa, for example.
If you are used to consuming a high sugar and/or highly processed diet, you will have a period of detox. This period will be challenging, as the cravings for your previous diet will overwhelm you. You may feel tired and run down, you may get sick, you may become irritable. Don’t give up! This WILL pass, usually within a few days. Make sure you stay hydrated, as that will aid in detoxing. After a few days, you will find you will have greater amounts of energy, clarity of mind, and improvement in mood.
Practice eating simple and clean foods for one month, that will allow the body to adapt. After one month, you can begin adding or removing specific foods to see how they make you feel, one at a time (for example, breads or pasta) for a couple weeks at a time. It’s also advisable to keep a journal to log how you feel on a daily basis starting when you begin the plan, and proceeding through until you are comfortable with your nutrition plan.
As you introduce/remove foods, how do they make you feel? Are you more fatigued? Is it causing you GI distress? Are you running slower at a higher heart rate? Are you benefiting from it? Does it only work for you at certain times of the day? If it makes you feel worse, you’ve identified a type of food that you do not tolerate well. If you are feeling better, more energized, happier, etc., you have found your superfood! (Sorry to say it, but cookies and ice cream will probably not be your superfood!)
After practicing a clean base nutrition plan, over time you will instinctively begin to understand which foods you tolerate more than others and what macronutrient balance works best for you, and you adapt accordingly. Knowledge is power, and knowing your body paves the way for a powerful body!
Does this mean that you can never again have that ice cream cone? No more Brownie Sundaes? Heaven forbid, no more donuts? Of course not, but that’s up to you. As long as you practice extreme moderation, you will continue to understand how these foods affect you, and change your relationship with food so that what you put in your belly is related more to its function rather than its flavor.
This is advice on how to eat a healthier, cleaner, and more energizing diet. If you are concerned that you have hypersensitivities to certain foods, and the clean base plan is not effective for you, it may be best for you to seek assistance from a certified nutritional expert.
Think that you won’t have time to prepare all of these healthy meals? Think again. There’s always a way to maximize your time management. After all, time is a product of energy and efficiency. Increase either energy, efficiency, or both, and you increase the amount of time you have.
Eating a healthy diet increases your energy, thus you can make better use of your time. If you think a greasy cheeseburger or candy bar will save you time because you can get them quickly, you’re in for a disappointing surprise 20 minutes later when you feel tired, run down, and undermotivated.
The next element is efficiency, and that element is improved through planning and strategy. The best way to enact a plan is to have a certain subset of foods that you can eat on a weekly basis. Put it on the calendar, and make sure you list out the ingredients for the trip to the store. The best way to do this is to have a number of ways to prepare each meal. For example, list out the meats you will purchase. Then you can list out a variety of ways to prepare them. For chicken, you may have recipes for citrus rosemary, garlic and herb, and mesquite grilled, just to name a few.
Now list out your side dishes. For example, sweet potatoes, brown rice (with various herbs and spices), vegetables, etc. Now simply mix and match the side dishes with the meat. There can be endless varieties. Make it a game!
You can also become more efficient through meal prepping. This is good for those who work. Prep some healthy meals and snacks for the week to grab and go (such as bags of vegetables, nuts, fruits, etc.). If you have these snacks at the ready, you’ll be less likely to go out and buy something unhealthy. You can also do this for the meats you will eat. You can have them marinated and in the freezer ready to be removed, defrosted, and cooked in no time at all.
What a person puts into their body affects everything from physical wellbeing to mental health, to longevity, to physiological performance and healing, to overall happiness. While we may enjoy an ice cream cone the moment we are eating it, the long term effects of eating an unhealthy diet can lead to chronic health issues, aggravated anxiety and/or depression, and lack of motivation.
Eating healthy, on the other hand, while not offering the same level of instant gratification, offers tremendous long term health benefits which can help to improve performance and reduce anxiety and depression symptoms. Here I will break down the components of a healthy diet.
Macronutrients are the primary source of calories (energy) within a diet. They include carbohydrates, fats, and protein. The three of these “macros” in various combinations make up 100% of the diet. For example, one macronutrient ratio may involve 50% carbohydrates, 30% fats, and 20% protein.
Carbohydrates – 30-50% of daily macronutrient intake
Carbohydrates provide the body with glucose, the “fast” energy source for the human body. This can come from sugars, fibers, and starches. All of these carbohydrates break down into their simplest form, which is glucose, which is then used by the muscles for energy.
Sources of carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, grains, wheat, beans, sugars, and many others. The modern industrialized world diet tends to be too heavy on carbohydrate intake, and the main reason is that sugars are added to many foods, while fats are deemphasized. Simply cutting out refined sugars and processed foods will serve to restore the balance of carbohydrate intake dramatically.
During periods of heavy exercise volume (for example, training for a half or full distance triathlon), carbohydrate intake will naturally increase as carbohydrates are consumed during workouts to restore glycogen stores and provide energy, but during periods of low volume and base building exercise, a lower carbohydrate intake is more appropriate (30-40%).
Carbohydrates can take one of three different paths in the human body. First, it can be broken down into glucose and used by the cells for energy immediately. Once this capacity is reached, any additional glucose from carbohydrates will be stored as glycogen in the muscles and liver. Since there is a limited capacity to store glucose, excess carbohydrates consumed will be stored as fat. Typically, unless you are in an active state, carbohydrates that are broken down quickly, such as simple sugars and high glycemic foods, will often produce an elevated blood sugar response and store glucose as fat. Carbohydrates that have more fiber, or are lower glycemic, will burn more slowly and are therefore better for non-active states.
Good sources of carbohydrates include (with the exception of any food intolerances)
- Low glycemic fruits – Berries, apples, peaches, pears
- Whole grains, such as brown rice
Fats – 30-50% of daily macronutrient intake
Unfortunately, fat has been subject to guilt by association. Many people believe that consuming more fat will make you fat, and large food companies have exploited this association for the last many decades. The truth is that fat is a healthy part of a diet, and provides us the long term energy stores we need for endurance. In fact, endurance athletes, and those looking to lose weight, prevent chronic disease, and live healthier lives should increase their daily intake of healthy fats.
Unlike carbohydrates – which can only be stored in limited quantities – fats are not burned immediately. They are stored throughout the body in unlimited quantities. Fats are utilized when our efforts are low, or when we have to exert ourselves over long periods of time. When we condition our bodies to burn more fat for fuel vs. glycogen, we build endurance, we begin to lose more weight, we get healthier and less injury prone, and we enjoy more energy throughout the day.
Healthy sources of dietary fats include (with the exception of intolerances):
- Nuts – almonds, walnuts, cashews, etc.
- Oils – Olive oil, coconut oil
- Dairy – Milk, cottage cheese
- Seeds – Flaxseed, Chia
- Animal fats
Protein – 15-25% of daily macronutrient intake
Protein is made of of amino acids, which are responsible for building and repairing muscle. This is certainly an important aspect in athletics because building and repairing muscle is critical to performance. Therefore protein becomes an essential part of recovery.
Timing the intake of protein in the diet of athletes is important also. Right after a workout, an athlete should consume 15-20 grams of protein to aid in recovery. This can come from a number of different protein sources, and not all have to be sourced from animal. There are vegan options for protein powder available over the counter.
Protein should be avoided during workouts however, with the exception of workouts over many hours. Even then, it is advisable that you avoid protein or at least consider if you really need protein during a workout/race. If you do take protein, use only minimal amounts of less than a few grams per hour after about 4 hours.
Healthy sources of protein include:
- Grass fed beef
- Wild caught fish
- Cage free poultry
- Hemp seed
- Whey protein concentrate