Updated: Sep 7, 2019
In a society of meal plans, diet books, nutrition apps and #cleaneating, food confuses the hell out of us. Why is that?
Eating energising and nourishing foods should be a simple, natural task. Instead, it's physiological and psychological chaos, complicated by social, cultural and environmental saboteurs.
There are more 'experts' than ever selling nutrition programming. Yet there's simultaneously a loop of people that cycle in and out of a meal plan, boot camp diet or rapid transformation challenge. They enter the loop eager for promised results, only to inevitably fall out of the rigid routines and blame their lack of discipline for their failure to stick to the diet. The problem here? It assumes that there is a set 'diet' to stick to in the first place. A restrictive eating practice is not designed to be permanent. All diets are tools applied for a purpose at a particular time. For the rest of the time (and the majority of your life), you're in the driver's seat of the foods you eat.
Meal plans appear to be the solution, but too often they are implicated in the problem. Sometimes detailed prescription may be a useful and necessary starting point, particularly to help people that are completely confused amid the contradictory fad diet and nutrition messages transmitted across the mass media. But ultimately, a meal plan is only successful if it guides that person to listen to and learn about their body and fosters a sustainable relationship to foods.
Instead, let's aim to be capable eaters, not enabled eaters. Think of it like this. A rigid structure in the absence of any explanation or education simply enables that person to reach results by blind obedience. Delving into the reasons behind the suggested choices and building in degrees of choice, intuition and flexibility develops your capabilities so that you are equipped to eat independently. It doesn't matter how insane your 'before' and 'after' photos look. If you're just a passenger in this process but don't learn to drive things, it's just not physically nor mentally sustainable.
Step one is creating habits and routines, not memorising macros and fretting about the details of sports nutrition. Here are four tips to keep it simple.
1. Eat food!
In our current state of confusion, this is much easier said than done. Here's some handy rules of thumb that you can use to select your foods.
'Would your great great grandmother recognise that as food? If not, don't buy it.'- Michael Pollan, Author and Journalist.
'If there are health claims on the label, what's inside is probably unhealthy.' - Mark Hyman, Author and Functional Medicine Practitioner.
'If it doesn't run, fly, swim, or grow from the ground, it's not food!' - Annemarie Colbin, Founder and CEO of the Natural Gourmet Institute in NYC.
2. Eat meals.
Our eating habits are just one thing that falls into our body's busy schedule. Our bodies need a break from foods because when we're not eating, our GI tract and organs shift into cleanse and clear mode. This pattern, called the 'migrating motor complex', does the house keeping inside our GI tract - it keeps things moving and prevents a build up of bacterial populations on a 2 hour rotation. But like any professional cleaner, it puts the house keeping activities on hold if there is an unannounced guest - like another meal or snack - so that your body can handle the incoming food first. Respect your body's house keeper and steer clear of mindless snacking - your digestive system isn't designed to remain open for business 24/7.
3. Get in the kitchen and cook!
I strongly believe that if you cook your food, it makes it so much easier to learn about foods, eating and your body, and reach your health and performance goals. I also find that it's far easier to control portion sizes and feel sated if I enjoy a delicious meal that I've prepared, rather than just eat something all of a sudden that I didn't put any time into cooking.
There's really no excuse for 'not being able to cook'. Choose a basic recipe and make it 2 or 3 times. It takes time and practice if you're not used to cooking. As you build your confidence, trial some adjustments based on your preferred tastes. This could be as simple as a different herb or spice. After a while, you will naturally trust your instincts to cook meals, and you won't need to religiously follow recipes quite so often. For me, I like to cook because I can chill out, be a little creative, listen to music or a podcast, or chat to family.
Cooking remained the heart and soul of my prior competition preps. Personally, if I didn't cook my meals in a prep, I'd have really struggled to feel satisfied eating packaged meals, instant shakes and bland supplement bars. Cooking also tends to translate into a more nutrient dense and varied diet, if you're smart about your food choices.
Here is a photo of all my meals on a normal day 2 weeks’ out from the 2015 INBA National Championships. Yes, I'd had to eat in a caloric deficit. Yes, I restricted food to do that (in the later stages of this prep, I used a carbohydrate cycling protocol.) But I did not compromise on flavour, variety, satiety or socialising, even if I just ordered a coffee. And I genuinely enjoyed each meal, even as I came closer to competition.
4. If you have the space, buy a freezer.
This has been a game changer for me. I can order and store quality, pasture raised animal meats from a local farm and have all of the different cuts packaged, labelled and delivered to my door. My freezer is also home to my DIY stock that I cook in bulk and freeze for soups, casseroles and curries. Eating all of the different parts of the animal is a big plus, too. Different cuts of an animal have different amino acid profiles. The variety helps to ensure that you eat the array of amino acids that your body needs. For example, you'll find plenty of health-promoting collagen in cuts like chuck, blade and shin, and in the bones that you can simmer to create a nourishing home made broth. It's a huge time saver, makes things easier and keeps me on track. If you can shuffle your funds so that you can afford the freezer and the bulk order initially, you'll find that it will pay for itself in just a matter of months.