It’s that time of the year again – the holidays are approaching and soon we will hibernate like bears in our homes through the coldest days of winter. And one of our biggest challenges will not be the biting wind or the freezing cold. Instead, it will be the threat of three icy, chilly, dirty words – winter weight gain.
Rather than give in to all of the temptations (and trust me – they are out there and out there in force already), it pays to take this time of year to focus in on proper nutrition and even drop a few pounds. Admittedly, this is always easier said than done. By now, I’ve enjoyed a little off season, enjoyed a plentitude of post-Ironman delights, and given in to more than a few pumpkin this or that’s. But it’s time to get back on track, to get back on the wagon, to get off the sugar and recommit to healthy ways.
Back in 2005, I made the commitment to pay closer attention to proper daily nutrition. I had gotten into some bad habits; skipping meals, eating too many snacks, riding the sugar wave throughout the day. Naturally, I was starting to sense that I was not properly fueled for my workouts and probably not recovering as well as I could have been. Plus, I felt like I passing the day with a thousand mini-meals of corn chips and fruit.
I decided to contact a dietician at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Indianapolis. Not only did she come highly recommended, but she was also a very successful athlete in everything from sprint distance to Ironman that I had raced against in previous years.
The initial meeting was simple – we talked a little on the phone and she asked me to keep a food log for a few days. In all honesty, that was all it really took to admit and acknowledge that changes needed to be made. So, I challenge you to do that for a few days. Write down everything – and I mean everything – that enters your mouth for three days. Most likely, it won’t take too long to see some patterns, good or bad, emerging in your daily diet. In my case, when I realized I was recording cookies on my log more than anything green or wholesome, it was proof that there was reason for concern and a need for change.
I submitted my logs to the dietician along with a record of my daily workouts. From there, she calculated how many calories I needed each day as well as the composition of those calories (fats, carbohydrates, and protein). And to my surprise, or even disappointment, what I needed really wasn’t that much. Though I was exercising sometimes over 12 hours a week at that time, I still only needed about 2200 calories a day. Think about it – that is not that much. Heck, give me enough time at a holiday meal or restaurant and I’ll show you how to put down 2200 calories in one meal.
The key, though, wasn’t to worry about calories or even count them at every meal. Instead, the key was to develop a better plan for eating right throughout the day and to revise those bad habits, turning them into healthy habits and a way of eating for life.
The dietician created a few sample meal plans, including what to eat, how much to eat, and when. For each day, she suggested a breakfast, lunch, a pre-workout snack (I workout after work), and dinner. That was it. No snacks, no mini-meals. Just three wholesome square meals a day, plus pre-workout snack and, of course, the food I ate during workouts.
You’ll hear about a lot of athlete that graze throughout the day or eat 5 – 6 mini-meals. And if you can eat 5 – 6 mini-meals without overeating, or overstepping the total number of calories you need each day then by all means eat the mini-meals. But if you’re getting stuck or finding that you overeat or snack too often, then perhaps it’s time to reign in mini-meals and focus more on three solid meals that satisfy you longer.
The dietician gave me guidelines for how to eat these meals, too. At each meal, I had to aim for 3 food groups with 1 being protein. Protein need not be meat; it might include beans (there so many delicious beans out there!), tempeh, lentils, seeds, nuts, tofu, chicken, fish, turkey, and egg. When you put together meals, knowing that you only need to represent 3 food groups is a good way to keep your intake under control and prevent overeating. 3 food groups might look something like this; spinach salad with tuna and strawberries; chicken with couscous and vegables; pasta with beans and vegetables.
Selecting 3 food groups was much easier than I thought it would be as long as I kept the house stocked with a variety of foods. Honestly, I found it was much easier to rely on canned and frozen foods because they are readily available, cheaper, and last longer. Of course I am not speaking of canned vegetables – yuck – and you do have to be careful that what’s in the can is just what you want and not extra sodium, syrups, or preservatives. But canned beans, canned oranges, frozen vegetables – these are all things that make healthy food choices much easier and convenient. No need to worry about the nutritional value of these items as I was reading that frozen vegetables may be considered more nutritious than fresh vegetables because they are frozen at their peak and all of the good nutrients are preserved (as opposed to fresh where nutrient value decreases as it loses freshness).
The dietician also reintroduced me to the Food Guide Pyramid. Ironically, I have a Masters degree in Public Health and took many nutrition classes at the graduate level. But textbook information is much easier read than done and sometimes it just takes hearing it from another adult and being accountable to that adult to make a difference. What I learned was that for my size and activity level, I needed to eat a lot more diversely, and just a lot more than I was already eating. I needed 7 – 9 servings of grains, 4 – 5 vegetables, 3 – 4 fruits, 2 – 3 nuts, beans, or meats, and 3 – 4 milk. This varied depending on my activity level for the day.
There is also a group on the Food Guide Pyramid called oils, solids, added fats, and discretionary calories, or simply ‘extras’. The dietician reminded me that I needed to be cognizant about the number of extras I consumed each day. Remember, they are extras and even if you workout they are calories that still count and will add up. The dietician suggested I moderate my extra intake based on my activity level for the day. As a general rule, my diet permitted 3 – 6 extras per day. But here’s the catch – extras are not just candy; they also include salad dressings, syrups, cakes, muffins, scones, sugar, ice cream, candies, margarine, cream in your coffee, all of those little pleasures that we so enjoy or decorate our food with throughout the day. If you are already getting enough of your other requirements, then food items like olives, peanut butter, and even avocadoes become extras as they have higher fat contents that other foods. Of course they are good fats, but still it pays to consider them as extras and to moderate your intake in other areas if you consume them during the day.
No matter what you are eating, when you take a closer look at your diet you start to see how it all adds up and where it all fits in. An easy way to see these it to take your food log and for each day plug in what you actually eat in terms of food groups. A good website to visit is www.mypyramid.gov. At this website, you can plug in your age, gender, and daily activity level and it will generate an estimate of how many servings you should be eating in eat group. It also gives suggestions on how to meet those serving needs, a meal tracking worksheet, and a colorful printout of your daily requirements as they fit into the pyramid.
As important as knowing what you need is knowing how much you need by developing a realistic and visual understanding of serving sizes. When I was scrutinizing my own diet, I actually sat at home and measured out the appropriate serving size for my favorite foods. Not surprisingly, I found that I was eating twice the recommended serving size of most foods – and this is very easy to do. Listed below, you’ll find some serving size basics for foods that equal one serving in their respective group:
1 slice bread
1 cup yogurt
½ cup dry, uncooked cereal
1 cup milk
1 cup vegetables
½ cup fruit
½ cup rice
2 cups cottage cheese
5 – 7 crackers
1 tbsp butter/margarine
3 ounces or ½ cup chicken
1 cup juice
½ cup beans
¼ cup dried fruit
2 tablespoons peanut butter
1 ounce of nuts (3 teaspoons or 12 almonds; 7 walnuts)
Taking a look at this, it is easy to see why most Americans are overfed. When was the last time you ate ½ bagel for breakfast? Typically, you eat the whole bagel. Not only that, but the bagel is probably twice as big as it needs to be and there is where is adds up – you have now consumed 4 servings of bread at breakfast alone.
Aside from toting around measuring cups and teaspoons, there are a few simple tricks for remembering serving sizes:
Size of your hand fanned out is the amount of vegetables you can eat at a meal
Size of your palm is the amount of grains you can eat at a meal
Size of your first is the amount of protein to eat at a meal
What I like about this, is that it is based on you – your size, your body. There are other good tricks, too. One serving of cheese is similar to the size of 3 dice or 3 dominoes. Two servings of pasta/rice/couscous is the size of a tennis ball. One serving of bread is the size of an audio cassette tape. A serving of meat is the size of a deck of cards. One cup of salad is baseball-sized. A standard piece of fruit is the size of a tennis ball. One serving of butter is the size of a stamp. Take the time to focus on food serving sizes and know what you nee.
And now a word about eating out. You may have noticed that serving sizes in restaurants, and even in the store, are growing bigger and bigger. It is no surprise that we are, too. Recently, my co-worker (who loves to eat out, does it 3 times a weekend) and I were talking about eating out. She loves to eat out whereas I’m not such a big fan. Her argument – you’ve got to eat anyways and it doesn’t matter where it’s prepared. My argument – yes it does. Here’s why – when you prepare your own foods at home, you control what goes in them and how much is put on your plate. Clearly, eating out is easier, convenient, and an enjoyable indulgence. For your own diet, be sure to stay mindful of serving sizes and always ask how food is prepared.
There’s a lot of talk about pre-race meals, race day nutrition, and post-workout recovery wonder foods. But often times it’s what we eat throughout the week, throughout each day that will influence the quality of our workouts, races, and recovery. This winter, as you feast your eyes on the cornucopia of holiday delights, take the time to think through your diet and where you’d like to be in a few months and how you’d like to feel. It’s easy to get caught up in the smorgasboard of holiday treaties and easy to find yourself a few pounds heavier at winter’s end. Now is the time to take control of your diet again and make a commitment to a healthier way of eating and living. So what are you waiting for?