Thursday, August 13, 2009

nutrition: what i eat

i'm writing in response to some questions people have posted regarding what i eat. i'm guessing some of you are wondering what i'm doing to maintain my body mass and body fat (for the past year, around 68 kg, or a little over 150 lbs, and 5-6%, respectively), and want to compare notes on the diet and nutrition that's helping me to stay to these numbers. my apologies for taking so long to write things up--there was a lot to discuss, and i feel it's important to give this some attention.

keep in mind that anything i write here should not be taken in isolation, and that body mass and body fat scores are a function of not only what i'm eating, but also my exercise regimen, personal habits, and living patterns (i talked about this in the last post: exercise doesn't make you thin...uh, excuse me?). i should also note that these numbers are not always consistent, and that the average man of my size can gain or lose as much as 5 lbs. in a single day due to food and hydration (or loss thereof). consistent to this range, i've noticed that i tend to fluctuate in a range of about 150-155 lbs. and between 4-7% bodyfat during the course of a year. i attribute this to just natural biological processes, and am happy so long as i stay within a consistent range.

someone suggested in the last post that i give a write-up of the foods i'm eating. i thought about obliging, but then i changed my mind.

the problem for me is that i don't think about my diet and nutrition this way.

i used to for the better part of my life. but at some point in the past few years i switched away from this, partly because it was driving me nuts constraining myself to specific foods day after day after day after miserable day (because you see, i like food, i really like food, as in: i-watch-the-Food-Channel-every-day like food); partly because it was making me neurotic obsessing over the "right" food and identifying "good" food, in ways that made me think of specific foods as being the magic bullet that would address my weight issues (and yes, i did have weight issues); and partly because i just simply didn't have the time to go out and hunt down and locate specific "safe" foods (because they just aren't located everywhere, and invariably are somewhere just far enough away to make it inconvenient to shop while running from school to work to training to errands to family to home to sleep to rise to start the process all over again).

instead, i can tell you how i do think about diet and nutrition now, and how i approach what i eat.

basically, i start with some basic principles:
  • for endurance athletes, the recommended breakdown of daily carbohydrates/proteins/fats is roughly 70-80%/10-15%/10-15% (i've written about this before. reference: kenyan marathon runners (part 2: diet)). these ratio values are by calories. keep in mind that carbohydrates and proteins have roughly 5-6 calories per gram and fats have roughly 10-12 calories per gram.
  • for sedentary males of my size, the recommended daily caloric intake is around 2,300-2,500 calories. sedentary means no exercise. but i'm not sedentary, and even on recovery days my metabolic rate is dramatically higher than these recommended caloric intake numbers. however, they do provide useful minimums that i can keep in mind. having said that, i also have a notion of rough maximums; i know that when i'm in the Ironman training cycle my daily caloric intake can shoot as high as 5,000-6,000 calories (and i suspect there have been a few times i reached around 8,000-9,000 calories--those were the days when i just ate and ate and ate and ate and ate and ate...and still felt hungry).
  • despite the numerical guidelines here, you may want to try and develop a mind-body connection in regards to food. i know this sounds really touchy-feely, but it makes things much easier in terms of maintaining healthy eating habits, particularly in terms of not having to expend mental energy counting calories or measuring portions or choosing foods or timing meals. what i mean is that you want to develop a sensitivity to how you feel in relation to your activities and your eating, so you have an intuitive grasp of what, when, and how you should ingest food. friends have described this as a "zen" approach. i see it as just being more in tune with yourself.
  • little things add up. a muffin here, a slice of butter there, some extra salad dressing, a little cream, and next thing you know by the end of the day you've taken in enough extra calories to constitute an extra meal. you want to be conscious of just where you are in terms of a total daily caloric and nutrient allotment during the course of any given 24-hour period--this will help you monitor your own food choices.
  • fats are not all evil. there are good fats and bad fats. good fats are mono-unsaturated fats and poly-unsaturated fats. they are found in things like nuts, fruits, vegetables, and fish--especially if allowed to remain as natural, non-processed foods. bad fats are saturated fats and trans fats. they are found in things like meats and processed foods (if it's packaged or canned or pre-made, it's very likely processed).
  • carbohydrates are not at all evil. they are sometimes good and sometimes bad and sometimes both. complex carbohydrates have low glycemic indexes, meaning they digest slowly and so release energy gradually over the course of a day--which incidentally moderates your insulin, thereby helping to suppress your appetite and maintain your energy levels. simple carbohydrates have high glycemic indexes, meaning they digest quickly and release energy matching the accompanying insulin spike and resultant post-insulin crash, which generates an increase in appetite and a resulting lethargy and drowsiness. complex carbohydrates are found in brightly colored vegetables (such as chili peppers, spinach, collard greens, mustard greens, broccoli, asparagus, etc.) and whole grains (non-processed, non-refined flours made from wheat, sorghum, bulgar, quinoa, barley, millet, etc.). simple carbohydrates are found in starchy vegetables (such as potatoes, rice, etc.). simple carbohydrates are good when ingested in the 45-60 minute window following a workout, when your body is in desperate need to activate the recovery process. complex carbohydrates are good when ingested outside the 45-60 minute window, when your body needs to restore its normal functions.
  • proteins are not all evil. in fact, protein itself is not evil. the sources, however, may require some discretion. red meat has more bad fats and bad cholesterol, and white meats have more good fats and good cholesterol. but red meats do hold some useful nutrients (especially some kinds of amino acids) that are difficult (although not impossible) to get from other sources, and so should not be discounted entirely as a food source. and while vegetarian/vegan diets certainly do have legitimacy, meat is a very convenient source of protein. it also seems to help most people feel full, thereby controlling appetite.
  • calories are not evil. calories are units of energy. if your body is expending a lot of energy, you're going to need to replenish your body with energy. the issue is what kind of calories (i.e., how those calories are distributed by carbohydrates/proteins/fats).
  • refined or processed foods are bad. very bad. they're short on nutrients. long on calories. meaning that your body can't use them in its recovery and will just store them in its fat reserves...leaving you hungry and still in need to eat more.
  • nutrients are good. very good. you want nutrient-rich food (i.e., lots of minerals, vitamins, amino acids, etc.) and unrefined or unprocessed foods are higher in nutrients.
  • eat gradually. it takes time for your body to signal your brain that you are full. if you eat too fast, you overshoot the signal and take in more food than you need. this applies over the course of the entire day. this means that i take in 4-5 smaller meals (as opposed to 3 big ones), each of which i allow 30-60 minutes to ingest.
i use these principles in light of these points:
  • the ratios of carbohydrates/proteins/fats is not fixed. it depends on what i'm doing that day. for days when i'm doing strength training (i.e., focusing on muscular development), i make a conscious decision to allow more protein into my diet, usually at the expense of fat. for days when i'm doing conditioning training (i.e., building aerobic base or increasing anaerobic capacity), i try to take in more carbohydrates, usually at the expense of both fat and protein. sometimes, especially after particularly long endurance workouts, i'll allow in a little more fat--with a little being around 1-3 percentage points more.
  • the quantity of calories is not fixed. it depends on what i'm doing that day. i try to keep an eye on the amount of exercise i'm getting, and adjust the caloric values accordingly.
  • i took the time to develop the intuitive "zen" approach to diet and nutrition, allowing the time (for me, several years) to generally get a feel of what, when, and how to eat to produce results in terms of physical or mental states (whether in training or in recovery).
  • i took time to develop good eating habits. considering how many years it takes to develop bad eating habits (for most people, their entire life to date), it should be no surprise that it takes some time to develop good eating habits. but over the course of several years, i found it became easier to maintain, since i noticed that my taste buds changed, and that my cravings changed, to the point that i now actually like "healthy" food--for example, i used to crave the taste of vinaigrette dressing on salads, but now i find that i prefer the taste of plain vegetables and fruits and dislike the taste of any kind of salad dressing.
  • developing an intuitive sense of diet and nutrition, in addition to healthy eating habits, required some work in terms of doing the due diligence to educate myself regarding food. and be warned: food information is not always reliable. in fact, it is rife with distortions, omissions, mislabels, half-truths, and outright lies. things advertised as organic are not. things advertised as whole grains are not. things advertised as nutrient-rich are not. you really sometimes have to do some work to find out the actual nature of the food you're eating--including in terms of things like glycemic index, complex v. simple carbohydrates, good v. bad fats, refined or processed ingredients, or even calories and nutrient breakdown. for example, at one time i got so frustrated with how difficult it was to find unrefined, unprocessed, whole grain carbohydrate sources that i took to just buying oatmeal, because it was the only food whose nutritional labeling i could trust.
  • i never lost food cravings. i still crave certain kinds of foods. but in the process of improving my diet and nutrition, i found that i retrained my cravings so that i thought about healthy foods as opposed to unhealthy ones. my belief is that your mind generates food cravings because it recognizes certain deficiencies in diet and nutrition, and associates those deficiencies with the foods that compensate for them. however, this association is dependent on the vocabulary of food options you stored in your memory over the course of your life. as a result, a youth of poor eating habits means your mind having to make associations from memories of unhealthy foods. here's a personal example: where before i used to get cravings for bacon (lots of bad fats), which was probably my brain interpreting my body's signals that it needed more fat, i now crave salmon skin (lots of good fats). for me, i believe that people need time to create a new store of healthy food memories, which supplies the brain with a new set of vocabulary from which to make associations regarding what foods can address detected diet and nutrition deficiencies. this takes time, and another reason why it takes some initial effort to develop good eating habits and food intuition.
  • the effort involved in improving diet and nutrition is like a rolling boulder: initially, it takes some level of effort to get the rock rolling, but once you've overcome the initial friction you'll find that things generate momentum, and that as the momentum builds it generates an energy of its own, to the point that it can sustain its own motion without your effort.
  • i don't constrain my food choices. at least not too much. the only foods that i really categorically avoid are simple sugars, since the body processes them in ways that seem to lead to fat storage. this means i've eliminated the major sources of simple sugars: no candy, no soft drinks, no fruit juices, etc. i also categorically avoid mayonnaise and sour cream, but mostly because i just don't like their taste. it's not a big deal--it turned out to be a minor sacrifice.
  • moderation is key. in quantity and quality and choice. even if you stray, it will be okay as long as you contain the damage. once you've built up momentum in good diet and nutrition, you'll find that your body has some resilience to bad food, and so you can take in some measure (but not total) accidental (or perhaps even intentional) ingestion of unhealthy foods.
this is all probably more than some of you were expecting, and more than you wanted. i hope that's not the case. this is about as good a summary of my eating as i can make. i don't think so much about the identity of the foods i'm eating (i.e., pot roast versus green bean casserole versus ham sandwich), but more about the value of the foods i'm selecting (i.e., caloric density, nutrient density).

i'll finish by nothing that once i managed to get healthy eating habits, i found that taste, satisfaction of hunger, and nourishment all took care of themselves. trust me, i've found that healthy food can be every bit as tasty and filling as unhealthy food (grilled bell peppers, mushrooms, and onions drizzled with olive oil and garlic? mmmmmmmmmm....), and i just don't have the desire for unhealthy eating anymore. i remember i used to love In-n-Out double-doubles with a large order of fries (In-n-Out is a California thing...if you don't know, suffice it to say it's one of the greatest fast-food burgers joints you'll ever find). i still think about it. but now, whenever i do indulge in them, i find myself completely grossed out and afflicted by several days of indigestion--all of which is enough to make me limit my consumption of In-n-Out to once (at most twice) a year...which is fine, because i think the alternative has turned out much better.

hope that helps. let me know if there's anything else you want to know.


Clint R. Murphy said...


I am building my nutritional vocabulary as we speak and my goal weight is actually the same range as you - i.e. 150-155 lbs., which I hope to hit in the next 6 months - 1 year.

Clint R. Murphy said...

Thanks Jonathan!

I am building my nutritional "vocabulary" right now actually and take much the approach you talk about.

I don't "count" my calories per se, but I generally know at all times roughly what I'm takin in and my goal for the day (right now I'm somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 / day as I try to lose weight).

My goal weight is the same range you're in 150-155 lbs. and hopefully I'll join you there this year.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the insight. I find myself at a point in my "eating career" where I need to make a small, but difficult change. As I reach my late 20's, a desk-jockey lifestyle has thrown my eating habits out of whack. I rely too heavily on convenience and taste over thoughtfulness and nutrition.

I loved your comment about being "Zen" with your eating. I've had a few week-long stretches where I've been Zen with how attuned I was with regards to my intake, and it absolutely, without a doubt improved the way my body felt throughout the day. No sluggishness or indigestion (amongst other unpleasentries). I just need to try harder to achieve this on a more consistent basis.

I appreciate you sharing your experiences - keep up the great posts!