What the %#@& Should I be Eating?!
What the %#@& Should I be Eating?!
by Kortney Karnok
It’s time to address this common question newbies and seasoned athletes alike seem to have:
What the heck should I be eating?
While most of us know that a regular diet of chips and kebabs washed down with a litre of cola and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s is a sure fire way to look and feel like crap, often times wading through the intricacies of diet dogma and conflicting information out there can be frustrating and confusing. While I must always first point out that there is simply NO ONE SIZE FITS ALL diet (this is why it gets so confusing!), I can review a few basic principles or guidelines that I generally recommend for *most* people to get headed in the right direction. And if you prefer to skip all the blah-blah-blah, you can jump to the end where I’ve included an example one day meal plan.
Disclaimer: please keep in mind a twenty-something 200 pound man training twice a day at a mere 8% body fat trying to optimize his sports performance will have very different dietary needs than a 200 pound mother-of-four in her early forties with 42% body fat just looking to protect her health by losing weight, gaining control of her emotional eating while seeking to stabilize her energy levels. It’s hard to generalize to the extremes — but I will do my best to lay out a rational strategy for eating where *most* people could benefit as a starting point. There are ALWAYS exceptions and this is by no means the ONLY way to find a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
1. Eat regularly. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are a good place to start. If it’s a training day, you might add an additional pre-workout and post-workout meal or snack. If you have an early dinner, add a bedtime snack an hour or so before bed. There’s no right or wrong way about this. If you’re hungry –really, truly hungry–eat. If you’re not hungry, don’t eat. (Beware: boredom, stress and even thirst are often confused with hunger!) If you’re trying to lose body fat, you may have to tolerate a bit of hunger along the way. If you’re trying to gain weight, you might have to eat more than you’d like to as well. Another great option is to really tune in to your body’s hunger/fullness cues and be happy where your body settles.
2. Eat protein. Strive for one to two palm sized pieces of lean protein, fish, or a vegetarian source of protein at every main meal, and about half that amount for a pre-workout snack if you need one. We all have hands–if you don’t, borrow a friend’s. Look at your palm (not including your fingers), feel the width. This is approximately how big your portion of meat or protein should be. If you’re a man, you can shoot for up to TWO palm sized portions of lean protein.
A few examples of lean protein include but are not limited to:
- chicken breast or skinless dark meat chicken
- turkey breast joints
- turkey breast steaks
- lean beef fillet or sirloin
- 5-10% fat beef mince
- beef joints/roasts
- pork chops or tenderloin trimmed of fat
- all types of fish or seafood–tinned works well, too.
- eggs: whole eggs and egg whites
Appropriate cooking methods may include:
- slow-cooked in a Crock-Pot (my favorite go-to method!)
Try to avoid battered, breaded, and deep fried proteins. Be mindful of fattier cuts of meat like lamb, pork shoulder, or fattier cuts of beef, sausages, or processed charcuterie/deli meats. Limit these to once or twice a week.
If you’re a vegetarian or prefer meatless sources of protein–which is a good habit to explore as well–be sure to eat complementary proteins throughout the day to get all the essential amino acids your body needs. Meatless sources of protein may include:
- beans/legumes and rice
- nuts/seeds – chia and hempseed are complete proteins
- whole grains – buckwheat and quinoa are complete proteins
- cottage cheese
- sprouted grains and seeds
If it’s before or after a workout and you can’t bear the thought of eating solid food, protein supplements like powdered whey protein isolate can be handy mixed into water, almond milk, juice, or even added to a serving of high protein greek yogurt (like Fage, Glenisk, or Liberte) for a protein boost. Try casein protein mixed into yogurt as a bedtime snack for a slow release of amino acids to your muscles while you sleep.
NOTE: While some is good, more does not equal better! There is a limit to how much protein your body can actually use–there’s no need to go crazy. A good rule of thumb is 0.7 – 1 gram per pound body weight for strength training adults. Aim to divide it equally through your day.
3. Eat vegetables. Strive for at least one to two fist sized serving of vegetables at every meal, or two LARGE handfuls of green leafy vegetables. Yes, even breakfast if you can! (If veg for breakfast really puts you off, try eating an additional helping as a snack later in the day.) Look at your fist. It’s really not that big. You can manage to eat a minimum of one to two fist sized portions of:
- brussels sprouts
- beet root
- sugar snap peas
- green beans
- mange tout
- romaine lettuce
Any vegetable will do, you name it! Eat it raw, steam it, microwave it, saute it, add it to omelettes/frittatas, throw it in a Crock-Pot, bake it, grill it. But dear God don’t boil it to death and then toss the water–it’ll take many of the nutrients with it! If you *shudder* boil vegetables, use the minimum amount of water needed and try to consume the cooking liquid as well–hey, that sounds like soup! If all else fails, eat your veggies raw with a dip. Hummus or plain greek yogurt with mixed herbs and seasonings is great for this.
Absolutely HATE veggies? Try blending greens into a smoothie or puree your vegetables into a sauce to ‘hide’ them. Or just keep trying different veggies and different preparations until you hit on a winner. Some research suggests it can take up to 11 tries to develop a ‘taste’ for foods you originally don’t like. Change how you think of them: consider vegetables as medicine. You need to to take them for your health. Beware of juicing as it strips the important fiber from the vegetables. If you enjoy and prefer juicing, be sure you meet your fiber needs elsewhere in your diet.
4. Add a portion of healthy fat. For most meals not immediately following a workout, you’ll want to include healthy fats. Look at your thumbs. Add about one or two thumb sized portions of:
- olive oil or extra virgin olive oil
- grassfed butter
- nut butter/peanut butter
- MCT oil
- coconut oil
- coconut meat
- fish oil and fatty fish
- grassfed cheese
- nuts/seeds–including chia and flax seeds
Fats are important. But they are also calorically dense. Be mindful of your portion sizes. If you’re trying to gain weight, don’t be afraid to lash on the oils (outside your post-training ‘window of gainz’)–it’s an easy way to hit massive calorie demands when you’ve met your other macro targets. If you’re trying to lose weight or stabilize energy levels and cravings, foods containing healthy fats can be a very satiating and hormonally neutral option–i.e. no blood sugar spikes and crashes.
5. MAXIMIZE your post-training recovery carbohydrates! After a workout, skip the fats mentioned above in favor of extra carbohydrates. In your first meal post-training–ideally as soon as possible or within about 2 hours or so–be sure to include at least two to three cupped handfuls of starchy or quick digesting carbs for optimal muscle recovery in addition to your lean protein. Research shows muscle gains are greatly enhanced with BOTH protein and carbohydrates post-workout. I could get more detailed concerning simple carbs vs complex carbs, but for simplicity’s sake here are a few post-training suggestions: (Yes, even the ‘bad’ carbs are not always bad when timed appropriately for SOME people’s goals. Paleo gods, please don’t crucify me on this one…)
- white potato
- white or brown rice (yes, white rice post workout can help muscle recovery)
- wholegrain bread and wraps (even white bread or wraps can be beneficial post workout)
- wholegrain or gluten free pasta (or sometimes even the white stuff…)
- other fruit and dried fruit
- muesli, cereal
- porridge oats
- grains: cous-cous (technically a pasta), corn, quinoa, amaranth, teff, bulgar, wheat berry, wild rice
- sweet potato
- air-popped popcorn
- corn cakes
- rice cakes
In some cases, simple sugars like glucose/dextrose or higher GI carbs are beneficial during or after training when looking to improve performance and muscle recovery–particularly if you are lean and insulin sensitive. And, while you’re at it, you may also want to limit fiber in the post-training recovery meal as well. Healthy diet dogma rules be damned! However, in general, I’m not advocating a junk food diet–and not everyone is a high performing elite level athlete–in which case, stick to the ‘healthy carbs’ and you’ll be grand and won’t develop diabetes in 5 years.
6. Drink plenty of water. Often thirst is mistaken for hunger. Dehydration impairs performance and cognitive functioning. Drink water. Fizzy water with a squeeze of lemon is refreshing and satisfies the craving for a carbonated caloric beverage. Try herbal or spice infusions to get a hint of flavor and beneficial phytonutrients without added sugar or sweeteners or caffeine. Aim for 20 mL of water per kilogram body weight. For most people this is between 1.2 – 2 liters of water a day.
7. Get plenty of sleep–strive for 7-9 hours a night. Sleep has a direct influence on our hormonal functioning and consequently appetite regulation, muscle recovery, and fat storage. Optimize your sleep for optimal hormonal balance.
8. Avoid excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages. Alcohol may do more harm than good, especially in excess. Not only does it impair your judgement in making healthy choices, but while your liver is busy metabolizing alcohol it can’t be bothered to metabolize the carbs, fats, and proteins you’re eating simultaneously, so they just get stored as body fat. Basically. I’m sure there’s a better biochemical mechanism to describe what happens, but that’s the gist. Also? It affects your sleep cycles, which affects your hormones, which affects everything! Also, too much alcohol may directly impact your gut microflora (i.e. the trillions of bacteria and yeasts that live in your digestive tract)–which could lead to impaired digestion, reduced immune functioning, and a host of other adverse effects including mood regulation–the FEAR is real! Science is only beginning to uncover the impact of the gut microbiome on mental health–but alcohol and diet are sure to play a role.
9. Indulge guilt free. We’re all human. Do not set rules or restrictions or punishments on any type of food. Do not attach ‘good’ or ‘bad’ connotations to food. It’s just food. It may help keep you strong and healthy, or it may cause you to feel sick and tired. Find what feels right to you and do it the majority of the time. Indulge some of the time.
10. Experiment with what works best for you. Remember: the GOOD programme you follow is better than the PERFECT programme you quit. You can intend to have all the ‘rules’ in the world, but if it’s not realistic for your lifestyle, it will never stick.
If you’re interested in learning more about optimizing your nutritional habits, no matter your goals–whether for fat loss or performance gains, sign up for the next session of Eat Clean Be Lean starting in September. The programme is constantly evolving and is sure to contain something for everyone! Click here to get your name on the list: http://goo.gl/forms/xF3uaOtRgw. If you’re interested in one-on-one nutrition coaching or a bespoke nutrition programme, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to work with you on customizing your diet to suit your goals!