Week 2 — How to fuel your mind and body for performance.
What to eat might be one of the most contentious topics on the internet right now, with the exception of politics. Vegan, Keto, Carnivore, Atkins, Fasting, Macros….they can’t all be right, can they?
There’s good news and bad news — the good news is that every diet will work in the short term. The bad news is that a diet that doesn’t work for you body will eventually stop working, and any weight you’ve lost will come back. So how do you choose?
I’m going to pause here and give you a bit of my own story. If you’ve been reading the blog for a few years you’ve already heard this, so feel free to skip ahead. I started as a personal trainer when I took a break from being a paramedic in 2006. I was the traditional macro focused trainer, religiously counting my calories, carrying around protein shakes and other supplements, and tracking everything I did and ate in a handy journal I kept in my purse or gym bag before online tracking and smart phones became mainstream.
Fast forward a few years, I got married in 2012 and we decided to have kids right away — and my digestive system has never been the same. It took years for me to realize that all grains make me incredibly sick now, especially wheat and corn. After over a decade of fighting against the low carb movement, I was at the end of my rope and decided to give it a try since nothing else had helped me.
I went gluten free first, which took care of a lot of my stomach issues, but not my issues with low energy and an inability to lose the baby weight. It took nearly two years for me to actually cut out all starches, reduce the amount of fruit I eat, and cut out sugar, because it can be so hard to realize you can’t eat what the people around you get away with eating and still function physically and mentally. At this point in my journey I’ve added time restricted eating I have no doubt that this is the right choice for now though — every time I waver from a whole foods keto approach, I feel completely awful, and my body just likes this right now.
So what can you learn from my story? Do you have to eat a keto based diet? Fast? Never eat another drop of sugar?
The answer is probably unsatisfying — maybe. Contrary to a lot of the information on the internet, the proper diet is highly individualized. There are definitely some universal standards that work for just about everyone, and those are where we should all start.
- Green veggies should be a large percentage of your daily carbohydrate.
Green veggies are low starch, high in nutrients, and are very filling because of the high fiber content.
- Protein should be part of every meal.
Your muscles need protein to recover and grow, and protein is important for helping you stay feeling full between meals.
- Stop being afraid of fat!
The obsession with eating zero fat really has to stop! Fat is necessary for your nervous system to work properly, is important for being able to feel full, is a great source of energy, and has quite a few other health benefits. Fat does NOT make you fat, it’s an important part of your daily food intake.
- Sugar is not good for you,
This doesn’t mean you need to never eat sugar again, but it does mean you need to seriously limit your sugar intake if you don’t eliminate it. Sugar decreases your immune function, causes problems with insulin which have the potential to lead to metabolic syndrome and other issues, and it causes weight gain and unpredictable energy fluctuations. You can still have birthday cake and the occasional treat if you want, but it should definitely not be something you have daily.
- Water should be the majority of your daily fluid intake — and you need AT LEAST one half your body weight in ounces daily.
Sodas and sugary drinks shoot cravings for processed garbage through the roof because they spike your blood sugar. Unfortunately, for a lot of people the fake sugar in diet drinks does the exact same thing. I know that’s counter-intuitive, but it’s still true — diet drinks do NOT aid in weight loss, and research shows that they probably hurt weight loss efforts.
Water, on the other hand, keeps you hydrated (every cell in your body needs water to function!), and helps to keep cravings at bay. Being hydrated helps your body function optimally which can help with weight loss indirectly, and it definitely helps with cognition and performance. One caveat — if you decide to stay low carb or eat a ketogenic diet, you need to supplement with electrolytes to stay hydrated. Starches cause you to retain water, which helps you hold onto electrolytes better. Low carbohydrate eating will eliminate that bloating, but you’ll lose the electrolytes along with it. Table salt (sodium), NO salt (potassium), and a magnesium supplement are all a good idea.
So how do you decide what eating plan is right for you? While this is incredibly nuanced, I’m going to give you a basic idea of how to approach choosing, and also updating, your eating plan.
Be really honest with yourself — how do you feel every day? When you get up in the morning, do you feel groggy for a while or need caffeine to get your brain and body moving? How is your energy throughout the day? Do you have that mid-afternoon slump every day? Do you forget things or feel mental fog at times during the day?
Most of us experience at least some of these, two of the most common causes are blood sugar fluctuations and unknown food allergies.
Food allergies is a tricky one. There are tests you can take now, but they’re expensive (insurance doesn’t generally cover them) and they’re not always accurate. What I recommend to clients instead is to eliminate all of the most common allergens for a few weeks, and systematically add them back in. This essentially looks like following the Paleo diet for 4 weeks — eliminating all grains, legumes, dairy, starches (like potatoes), processed oils (like corn or canola oil), sugar (table sugar or zero calorie sugar substitutes) and artificial/processed foods of any kind.
The idea is to get back to eating only things we could grow or hunt, because those are the least likely foods to cause sensitivities or allergies. If after 4 weeks there’s no improvement in how you feel, you can also try to eliminate eggs. Those aren’t as common as grains or daily, but they are still a fairly common food allergen.
After 4 weeks without any of the foods above, slowly add back in ONE of those foods at a time. If you still feel good after a few days, you can add back another one. If you add back in a particular food and don’t feel well — including stomach upset, lack of energy, emotional dis-regulation, or anything else you find particularly odd, eliminate it again and give your body time to recover before adding any other foods back into your diet.
This might seem really overwhelming, and I completely understand! Like I said before, it took years for me to finally admit that grains made me feel terrible and stop eating them. Truly, I understand the struggle of making your kids waffles, and then wondering what in the world to cook for yourself without using cheese, rice, flour, or potatoes. But I’ll tell you, I wish I’d saved my body the years of terrible reactions and made the commitment to figure it out sooner. If you have to, start with eliminating just one food — flour is the most common of all the food allergens I’ve found — and go from there.
If your only negative symptom has to do with energy fluctuations throughout the day, there’s a good chance that you’re experiencing blood sugar fluctuations.
*Disclaimer — I am not a doctor. This discussion is specific to managing energy levels throughout the day, and is not meant to be advice for treating diabetes or other disease processes that involve blood sugar regulation.*
That being said, there is a great deal of research that points to the rapid increase in our daily carbohydrates in the last 60 or so years as the reason for the random dips in our energy throughout the day. I know it sounds crazy — and believe me, the first time I heard of eating a low carbohydrate diet I laughed and swore it would never happen. I am currently eating those words, while my health and weight improve every day.
If dropping all processed carbohydrates seems out of reach, that’s okay. Start small — try keeping most of your starchy carbohydrates to the end of the day. Eating bread with breakfast actually sets you up for cravings all day long, and makes you sleepy. On the other hand, carbohydrates at night still make you sleepy — but at night that’s actually a good thing!
Also, try not to combine carbohydrates with fat in any significant amounts. Fat + protein is great, and carbohydrate + protein is okay, but Fat + carbohydrate leads to a mess of cravings, energy fluctuations, and research suggests that it’s actually the combination of fats + carbohydrates (rather than fats themselves) that cause plaque buildup in arteries. (The research is suggestive and not confirmed at this time — but there’s enough evidence to at least consider the possibility). This means that deep frying plantains, for example, really isn’t good — not even in coconut oil, a very healthy fat. The one exception to this is green veggies, because the carbohydrate count is negligible. So cook your green beans in full fat butter (I know it sounds crazy, but real butter is good for you! Margarine and oil based “butters” are really, really not) and enjoy them!
Please remember – even if you can’t take all of these steps today, you’re better off taking one step today rather than waiting until you can jump in with both feet. Life will never calm down enough, and each season of life comes with its own insanity. Take whatever steps you can manage to take, and take them today. You will never be sorry you started taking better care of yourself!
And since a lot of people don’t even know where to start when it comes to elimination diets like Paleo, here is one of my favorite, simple recipes!
The recipe can be easily adjusted to taste, so don’t worry if you don’t have the exact ingredients. I always adjust this recipe to what spices/veggies/meat I have on hand, and it’s never failed me. Remember, simplicity always wins, you don’t need insanely complex recipes to be healthy!
How do you structure your diet right now? How is it working for you?
Do you have a favorite simple recipe?