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.