'Congratulations on your competition! No more dieting, huh? So, it's back to eating normally again?'
Each time I hear this question, I cringe. If you've ever competed in a sport that required you to dial in your nutrition, you've no doubt encountered the same query. For all the times I've been asked it, you'd think that I'd have honed my one liner reply. Instead, I routinely stumble in an attempt to justify my response.
It is an entirely innocent question. There isn't (usually) any secret, sinister intention behind it. But the question itself hides a problematic assumption about the definition of 'normal' eating.
Is 'normal' eating really that all that normal?
Let's take a closer look at 'normal' eating.
Normal eating is a collection of automatic things that most people do simply because it's popular and it's a habit. These things don't seem odd until you stop and think about it. Then our default tendencies start to sound a little bizarre.
It's guzzling chemically laced flakes, bubbles or loops that cascade from a bright box to start your day.
It's gravitating to an enticing selection of cream biscuits, golden pastries and plump 'healthy' blueberry muffins to tide you over until lunch.
It's chomping on a polished, uncannily symmetrical apple that supposedly qualifies as a complete 'on the go' lunch before you race to your 12 pm meeting.
It's distractedly inhaling a blissful bundle of sugar that equips you to surmount the 3.30 pm slump, but not for long.
And for dinner, it's a stacked plate of refined grains and shrivelled slabs of meat or chicken, surgically detached from all traces of fat and smothered in an artificially enhanced sauce to compensate for the bland, lean taste. And maybe a side of dull peas, soggy spinach and a bland, boiled carrot in a feeble attempt to meet your vegetable quota.
There are foods that are acceptable to eat in the morning, and other foods that are deemed to belong at dinner. There are times that you are supposed to eat a meal, and other times that it is more acceptable to choose from designated 'snack' items.
Here's the thing. Our ideas around food, meals and eating patterns aren't really 'our' ideas at all. They are based on our social and cultural assumptions and shaped by commercial influences. None of this is necessary. It's just the status quo.
You are either on a diet or not, right?
After a competition, it's assumed that you are off your diet. You prepped, you competed. It's time to say adios to your in season foods and return to normal eating.
This misses the point.
It doesn't matter if you are leading into competition or in the middle of your off season - your priority should remain to respect your body. I don't put nutrient poor, processed foods in my body just because that's the default mode of eating. But I don't consider that I'm on a diet, either. In season or not, I prefer to eat nutrient dense, real foods the majority of the time. I don't label any foods off limits. I'll enjoy a free meal if I'm eating at a cafe or restaurant or there's a special event, and for that my only criteria is that it's delicious and my body isn't likely to retaliate later.
Four tips to reprogram your mindset from 'normal' eating to eating for performance
1. You are not either 'on' or 'off' a diet.
Your nutrition is not an on again, off again thing. If you think like that, then each time you slip and 'break' your diet, you'll think that it's back to square one. That's not useful or sustainable. Instead, choose just a single change that you can make today to enhance your nutrition. Could you add more protein to your first meal? Do you need to develop a habit of eating 3 or 4 consistent meals each day? Could you add just one vegetable that you don't usually eat? Could you try replacing that food that makes you bloat? Even if you think you're ready for a dramatic change to your diet, take it step by step. If you can do that first step, great! Take another one.
2. Embrace being the odd one out.
Dialling in your nutrition shouldn't consume your life, but you'll need to be open to eating in a manner that may not pass as 'normal' to your family, friends and the people around you. There's going to be times that you'll be eating in a manner that is a little strange. For example, if you eat a meal of beef and vegetables at 4 pm, you'll confuse people. Are you eating lunch really late, or a second lunch, or an early dinner? Be prepared to be a bit odd. That's ok. If you're seeking to be more than just average, you're going to be the odd one out at times.
3. You don't have to eat nutritious foods, you choose to eat nutritious foods.
It is your decision to prioritise your health and performance. You don't 'have' to do that. Similarly, you don't 'have' to eat better foods. You choose to. It's up to you to decide to respect your body and eat to support your health, boost your results and complement your goals. You can do better than a daily menu of packaged items, fast food, processed oils and refined sugar. You can shun the kind of food that comes tightly sealed in plastic, manipulated until you can no longer decipher the list of ingredients. Select foods that make you feel energised, focused and regular, instead of fatigued, bloated and constipated.
4. Make the most of the opportunity to nail your off season nutrition.
If your priority is performance, remember that the time to build a stronger body, gain muscle and develop skill is in your off season! Many processed and packaged foods contain ingredients that are inflammatory, difficult to absorb and terrible for performance. You can decide to optimise your off season nutrition to help you train and recover properly, or you can choose to let your nutrition slide. Yes, your in season diet is probably going to be more rigorous than your off season eating. But they shouldn't be so utterly different that they barely resemble one another.