Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Even MORE Thoughts on Nutrition

Today's WOD:

AMRAP in 20 minutes of:

10 KB snatches each arm 12 kg (Rx: 16 kg)
7 burpees
Run 200 meters

I got 6 rounds exactly. Was trying to not go 100% all out to give my body a bit of a break. I kind of overdid it yesterday with the heavy weightlifting and was hurting pretty bad (shoulders plus IT band on the right side). On the plus side, I got 2 PRs yesterday, 65# on the snatch and 85# on the clean. And I am feeling a lot better today. Will go lighter on the clean and jerk tonight and work on form (getting lower!!!).

Even MORE Thoughts on Nutrition

So, at today's class there was some more discussion of nutrition. And some strong conflicting opinions! I've given this topic a lot of thought over the last few months, my perspective continues to evolve, and I want to share it. Today I'll talk about my personal experience in detail and how I think it may apply to others. While it is true that different things work for different people, there are some principles, many that run counter to conventional wisdom, that really do apply to everyone. In my reading and experimenting with my diet, I have tried to figure out what is really critical. I'm still in the middle of this learning process, but I think I have picked up some important insights, which I'll discuss at the end.

I have tried the conventional, USDA notion of "eating healthy". Back when I was running a lot, I ate a diet that was high in carbs and fairly low in protein and fat. Lots of grains, pastas, and vegetables, some low-fat dairy, fairly little meat or fat. This diet did not do me any favors. I managed my weight on it okay for a while, but I was in my mid 20's, when my metabolism was still at full speed, and as soon as my activity level fell off just a little, I started putting weight on. I kept struggling with my weight and could never seem to lose more than a couple of pounds no matter how "good" I was. When I started exercising more intensely (especially when I started CrossFit), I did start slimming down, but I noticed that I could not sustain my energy with this conventional diet. I craved meat and fat more, so I added in more of those, but I worried about putting on weight with the extra calories, so I stressed about portion size. All this just wasn't working.

Then I came across the Zone diet. I was skeptical. But I had never worked out with such intensity, and the CrossFit community advocates this diet so strongly that I figured maybe there was something about it that just worked for that kind of athlete. So I gave it a try. I didn't weigh and measure my foods, but I tried to eyeball and approximate amounts according to the Zone tables, at least until I got a sense of what portion sizes should be. Blocks sound technical, but it takes very little time to get the hang of them, and I think they are a great tool for figuring out portion sizes that will work for you. I won't explain it fully here, but any of the Zone books or articles explain it well. The idea is that a block is a basic unit of food, with balanced amounts of carbs, protein, and fat.

One thing I needed to figure out was how MUCH to eat and how to spread out my food throughout the day, based on when I'm hungry. I can't get much down in the morning, so a 3-block meal at 7AM isn't going to work. Through some trial and error (and some hungry times and too full times), I figured out that this works well for me:

breakfast (around 7) - 2 blocks
lunch (around noon) - 3-4 blocks
snack (mid-to-late afternoon) - 1-2 blocks
dinner (around 7 or 8) - 4 blocks
snack after dinner (sometimes) - 1 block

This adds up to about 12 blocks a day, pretty much every day. I think the ideal eating schedule varies a lot across people, and while this works for me, I don't think there's anything special about it. To cut back on my planning/work, I also came up with some ideas for a typical meal/snack and swapped things in and out. For example, a breakfast that works for me is 2 eggs and a glass of juice. The eggs have 2 blocks of protein and (about) 2 blocks of fat, and the juice has 2 blocks of carbs. Sometimes I'll swap toast for juice. A snack that works for me is 1 block of cheese (cottage cheese - a couple of heaping spoonfuls, or a cube of cheddar, a string cheese, etc.) or yogurt, 1 block of fruit (1/2 an apple or equivalent of some other fruit), and 1 block of fat (handful of nuts, olives, some sliced avocado). I might double it if I'm really hungry, for example, when I get home from a Saturday workout or if I'm staying late at work. And I honestly don't worry that much about the portion size on the fat - the Zone books even say you can up the fat without much problem, especially if you're very active (and a lot of CrossFitters do). Lunch and dinner are more difficult - I start with the protein, add some fat, and then try NOT to add in too many carbs. So I might have a sandwich for lunch, but that bread means absolutely no other carbs (fruit, vegetables, pretzels, etc.). I might have pasta for dinner (don't much anymore), but that means no salad, no bread, and keep the amount small and have some meat with it.

When I first started doing this, I was pretty strict, but for the past couple of months, I have been following more an approximation of the Zone diet. I think that something that scares people away from this particular diet is the rigor, the weighing,the planning. But if you focus on the main principles and don't worry too much about the details, it's easy. For me, it's been largely about shifting the way I think about foods. I used to think of certain foods as "good" or "healthy" and others as "bad" and it didn't much matter what I ate with what. Now I really think about combinations. When I have a snack, I try to get those three components, carbs, protein, and fat, in approximately the right ratios. When I have a meal, I don't just heap carbs on my plate like I used to (potatoes, a piece of fruit, AND a salad), I try to limit them to be in balance with my protein. I'm much more cognizant of getting enough protein at each meal (especially breakfast!) and also getting enough fat. This gives me more energy and helps me avoid the mid-afternoon crash I used to experience every day, it helps me think more clearly, and it makes me feel more satisfied with less food.

I view my diet as a work in progress. While the effects on weight loss and overall energy have been good, my performance improvements in the gym have not been quite what I would hope. So I have a good basic plan, but I need to fine-tune it. When I get stressed or feel depressed, I tend to turn to sugar, especially chocolate. I don't have a problem with doing this once in a while (I think a small piece of chocolate is not going to undo all your healthy eating), but I do want to be careful to keep the amount small and to make the best choice, e.g., a high-quality bittersweet chocolate that is very satisfying rather than a piece of Hershey's chocolate/wax that's really all sugar and just makes me crave more sugar. I also plan to cut down more on grains (bread, pasta, etc.) and replace them with more fruits and vegetables. And finally (as painful as this is), I'm going to try to rely less on dairy products to fill out my protein requirements. I never drank milk and I had to give up ice cream and some cheeses because I'm slightly lactose intolerant, but I still love cheese. I'm going to try to stick mostly to cultured dairy products (yogurt, cultured cottage cheese) and cut back on the other cheeses. BUT I am not giving up any one food, just making adjustments and moving some things from the staples category to the treats category.

Okay, so those are the details of my eating plan, what has been working for me, and where I'm headed. What are my insights, the principles I think that everyone needs to pay attention to? There are five that I think are the most important.
  1. Make sure you're getting enough protein at every meal and snack.
  2. Make sure you're getting some fat at every meal and snack. Don't stress about fat, especially if it's healthy fat like olive oil or nuts. If you're not feeling satisfied from meals or snacks, you're probably not getting enough fat.
  3. You're probably eating way too many carbs at any given sitting. We all do. Don't order the whole grain pancakes with a side of fruit and a glass of juice and some granola and think you're being healthy, no matter what Whole Foods tells you. ---Side note: there are some (lucky lucky) people in this world that don't have a quick insulin reaction to carbs - they are sort of carb-immune. While they would likely benefit from reducing carbs or at least moving to more fruits and vegetables and fewer grains, they probably don't need to be as strict with proportions as the rest of us do.
  4. Fruits and vegetables are carbs, just ones with lots of nutrients that your body digests slowly and doesn't turn into sugar. When possible, choose them over grains and starches. When you do choose grains and starches, just don't have large portions of them.
  5. Know your food psychology. Don't completely cut out any one food or food group if it pains you to do so. Some of us thrive on variety and adventure in eating. If you love wine, have it in moderation and balance it with protein and fat. If you love chocolate, have a small piece and stick to the good stuff. On the other hand, if you're a black-and-white kind of person who prefers strict rules to keep yourself in line, or if you want to simplify your food decisions and you can stomach the thought of completely cutting out certain foods (a la the Paleo diet), go for it. You have to know yourself and what is likely to work for you.
A final thought: if you find something that works for you, it's important not to force that on someone else. I think that if they are open to these five basic principles and open to experimenting with their diet and trying some new things, they will find something that works for them. It may be a little different than what works for you. I have been really pushing the philosophy of the Zone diet on my husband and my parents, and I'm sure I have been annoying the crap out of them. But it's not the specifics of the diet I want them to be open to, it's the principles, principles that emerge from an evidence-based approach to nutrition. They run counter to conventional wisdom, the USDA, and what "feels right" to us after decades of being fed misinformation. But using these principles, I believe we can take control over our weight, our energy level, and our lifelong health.


Margaret said...

you're right Amy, I like it.
I too find the zone fairly easy to stick to.
Paleo seems at once too strict - no dairy at all - come on! and too lenient - sorry when I'm allowed to eat as much as I want as long as its on a list, I just keep eating all day.
Not being an 'A' type person I also just don't get too fussed if I have a couple days that I'm not "in the Zone' One of it's nice tenants is that you're only one meal away from eating right.

claudia said...

What do you do for protein at lunch and dinner?

I too have been really watching carbs, especially starches. I do let myself eat all the veggies, salad and fruit, though. Its pretty darn near impossible for me to get too much of that.

rosanne said...

Nicely put Amy!
Thanks for the "go ahead" on the wine too. Makes me feel better!

Robin said...

Great post. It's probably redundant to say this, because if someone is sticking to the Zone it won't affect them much, but I find it very helpful to also think in terms of not eating white sugar/high fructose corn syrup. I've never been a soda person, but when I started paying attention to ingredients years ago, I was surprised by how many "regular" food items contain HFCS.

I think for many people, if they don't want to deal with "blocks" and "portions" (although, as you point out, it's not hard at all once you get the hang of it), just following the no sugar/HFCS rule could make a big difference in their energy levels, mood and overall health. Just my two cents!

Amy said...

Great point Robin! I should definitely add "avoid sugar/HFCS" to the 5 principles.

A few weeks ago I was desperate for a healthy snack at work and found "natural" granola bars in the cupboard of the office kitchen. Guess what the second ingredient was?

Hopefully demand for biofuels will make corn more expensive and food manufacturers will stop putting corn syrup in everything.