Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Some Thoughts on Nutrition

No knitting in this post - I need to fight my camera to get the pictures off it. Will hopefully get those up later today.

Yesterday's workout was just a short run (12 minutes) at a fast pace. Well, fast for me. I was hoping to make it to spinning class last night, but was feeling too sick by the end of the day. Some kind of cold/congestion/ear thing, I don't know. I will be glad when I can shake it. And I'm starting to worry about the Sanitas run on Saturday, thinking it's going to be more of a stumble than a run. Will try to get another run in before then, maybe the Switzerland trail on Friday. Maybe running at 8000 feet will make Sanitas seem easier.

Today Tim's post talks about the importance of nutrition and references two diets: the Zone diet and the Paleo diet. I wanted to write a little bit about my take on these and nutrition in general. I recognize that I am not an expert, and different things work for different people.

First, I think it's important to understand that people's relationship with food is psychological. While it is true that food is fuel, it is more than that. Sharing a meal with family or friends can give you a sense of belonging, and eating favorite foods can bring you pleasure. Sometimes food can be a comfort, and sometimes it leads to guilt and anxiety. When stressed, people may eat more or eat worse. Thinking about food as fuel to power your body is a good idea, but I think it is important to acknowledge that we instinctively regard food as a primary reward and treat it as something with a special value and power, both at the individual level and the social level.

So how do we know what to eat? I think that diets like the Zone and the Paleo diet appeal to the data-driven Crossfit community because they seem scientific, with their rules, ratios, and evolutionary inspiration. These diets do have some good advice about choosing quality, nutrition, and whole foods over empty, processed calories. I think, though, that any diet that separates things into good foods and bad foods is missing something.

What are good foods? Some are easy to identify: whole fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, nuts, etc. What about bad foods? Doritos, oreos, trans fats, fast food, corn syrup, candy, that's easy. But there are a lot of foods whose categorization is not so easy. What about eggs? Dietary cholesterol, saturated fat, but lots of nutrients, many of which you miss out on if you only eat the whites and skip the yolks. What about red meat and dairy? These are food categories that are often maligned, but they are the best ways to absorb iron and calcium - I am quite skeptical about the body's ability to absorb these two nutrients from supplements or fortified foods. What about pasta? White rice? These foods give me energy - do I need to completely cut them out or replace them with chewy, less satisfying substitutes? What about alcohol? Study after study shows that moderate amounts of alcohol improve heart health, but alcohol is empty calories and hard on the liver. What about coffee and tea? Chocolate? Antioxidants good, caffeine bad?

In addition to the good food/bad food distinction that these diets make, I think that they specify unnecessary rules and regulations. The ratios in the Zone diet seem scientific, but what data actually back them up? Is there any independent evidence to suggest that these specific ratios are better than other ratios, or to identify the time-scale at which they are are most effective (per meal, per day, per week, etc.)? The evolutionary arguments that the Paleo diet uses may seem scientific, but remember that they are post-hoc. Just because we evolved under certain conditions does not mean that those conditions are ideal, that our adaptations to those conditions are privileged in some way, or that we cannot adapt to new conditions.

Support for these diets tends to be anecdotal, and that is no surprise. People eat better, and they see results. Who could blame them for crediting the diet? But credit goes to the specifics of the diet when it should probably go to the general approach instead. Sometimes the added structure of a specific diet with lots of rules is key to getting someone on the right track. So I'm not saying that these diets are bad or that they don't work, just that they make some claims about how they work that are not necessarily supported by controlled experiments.

Many Crossfitters want to improve their nutrition. I know I do. However, I don't think it is necessary to adhere strictly to a diet (unless you are someone who really needs that diet structure). I think it is better to listen to your body and go for variety, quality, and moderation rather than following rules, ratios, and restrictions. I have been trying to better understand my psychological relationship with food, to deal with food guilt, to be more aware of the effect of stress on my eating patterns, and to focus more on enjoying high quality food.

Some things I try to do:
- cook from scratch as much as possible
- lots of fruits and veggies
- whole grains most of the time
- high quality meats and dairy (no hormones, free range)
- watch for hidden sugar and corn syrup
- add flavor with spices and reasonable amounts of fats and salt
- watch portion sizes

The thing is, it's hard. We have so many options available all the time, so many temptations, so many demands on our time. Sometimes you just want to say screw it, I'm putting cream in the pasta sauce and having cookies for dessert because I worked hard today - there's that psychological component! It's an ongoing battle and there are no easy answers, just a long string of decisions laid out in front of you.

1 comment:

Bluescaptain Joe said...

Any diet that doesn't include honey nut cheerios is just not acceptable. Same with bbq, or bbbq. The extra b is for 'byobb.' that extra b is a typo.