I was recently asked by one of my coaching clients if I would share what I actually ate when I was racing. He knew that dietary philosophies have evolved significantly over the past twenty years and was curious if it was anything like what is being tested by triathletes today trying to improve their performance. So here it is. Read it if you dare. It might change the way you eat forever!
Here are few things about how I ate I am pretty sure you don’t know! I don’t have any food allergies that I know of so I seem to be able to eat just about anything and maintain a fairly steady state with little fluctuation in body weight. I avoid peas and raisins like the plague, not because I have any philosophical adversity to them but simply because they both make me gag! Ice cream is a guaranteed sore throat later that night. Fried foods are pretty much a rarity for me to eat. Sugar is something left for social events, birthdays and that holiday season in late December, but on a daily basis it was again a rare addition. Processed junk food was off my list entirely because it never felt like it satisfied any hunger craving and left me feeling like an engine that had really lousy fuel put into it. I never drank sodas (even the “natural” ones) or diet anything.
What did I like to eat? I craved protein of all varieties (animal, yogurt, combining grains and legumes). I loved olive oil on anything I could think of to put it on, and would make it even better with salt! Fruit was something I ate more in the summer than in the winter. Dark greens were the opposite with more on the plate in the winter than the summer. Outside of olive oil, my daily food sources of oils came from avocados and almonds. The more the better! What was my favorite snack or quick meal? That came from heating up tortillas then slathering on hummus, sometimes walnuts and always a few slices of yes, avocados.
I didn’t eat a lot of bread except at restaurants when the ever-filling basket came out and I was starving after a long workout. I chose Mexican over Italian, salmon over chicken, and organic over every other option. Did I talk about cheese? I loved France so of course it was included, but more small amounts of the soft stuff and not a whole lot of the conventional varieties.
How much of everything did I eat? This is likely the critical piece. I certainly ate more than the average human. You cannot train thirty-hours a week and eat a salad and a chicken breast for lunch. You won’t make it more than a few days. However, I ate a lot less than all my fellow competitors. I have no scientific study to answer why that was, but my theory is that I was pretty good at figuring out exactly what my body was calling for in any given meal.
I ate based on my internal cravings and fed myself foods that targeted what I seemed to need rather than trying to follow any given structure. Eating by feel enabled me to get the mix of carbs, fats and proteins that I needed each day to service what my body required to repair and replenish itself. And part of the reason I could do that is that I wasn’t afraid of any food, so if that internal voice said load on the carbs, that is what I would do. If it was calling out for fats, it got foods with more fats. If I was really tired and knew I couldn’t handle a hard to digest form of one anything I’d search for an easy to digest source. And with all of that my body’s needs were met.
Hunger comes from a need for the big pieces we all require like protein, fat and carbohydrate. It also comes from a need for the micronutrients like vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that are the complex compounds found in natural food that are very difficult to reproduce in a lab. If I was able to provide both of these in every meal I didn’t need to eat a lot to be “full”. If something my body was calling out for was not provided in a meal, it didn’t matter how much I ate, I would never quite feel “full” and would just keep eating and eating.
How did all of this evolve? I started in the sport of triathlon in 1982 at a time when one of the most popular performance diets was saying to eat high carbs, modest amounts protein and very small amounts of fat. I tried that for about a day and could tell that my body was asking for something that seemed to be 180-degree from high carb, no fat and low protein. I craved protein. I craved good oils and foods with fats like nuts and avocado and olive oil. I craved salmon and dense healthy food that had all it’s fiber still intact. Breakfast was not a pancake. It might include a pancake but the base had to be eggs and tortillas and avocado and beans.
So I just ate my way. It served me well. I seemed to eat less, as I mentioned, than my other competitors who were restricting a lot of the main food sources that humans have eaten for millennium. I also avoided eating foods with high taste that were just empty calories. They always seemed good going in, but did nothing for me after that and I felt like they were wasting space in my stomach. That is not to say I ate food with no taste! High taste is something like a bag of chips that are covered in high taste artificial barbecue flavoring. Real taste is something with natural spices like homemade salsa or red lentils with curry powder, chopped up celery and tomatoes. You get the picture!
My eating habits refined over time, though. Here is an example. I loved chocolate chip cookies, which by the way, if you get them from Mrs. Fields are high taste food and not a real taste food! That was the one area where I could hold my own against anyone! But in 1989 I also began to see that they were taking up space in my body without doing a thing for recovery. So I cut them out, plain and simple.
It took about six weeks of not eating them before my cravings for them turned off. But that was also the point where my body’s intuition really kicked in. For the first time I could tell that the chocolate chip cookie craving was masking a whole bunch of other ones that I really needed to be tuning into. One was the craving that came from being dehydrated, so I would drink. Another was that I needed extra protein so that is what I would make the focus of the next meal. Something slightly different was telling me that the call was to load up on some dense healthy carbs.
How can you develop that same sense? Here are six steps that you can implement immediately to help you refine your personal eating strategy:
Cut the high taste processed junk – Most of you probably keep these types of foods to a minimum already. But if you don’t, you will never really develop the ability to figure out what to eat or how much because high taste processed foods mask your body’s intuitive eating voice.
Cut the sugar – This is almost the same as the high taste foods because it hits the pleasure center in your brain. It also just fills you up without nourishing you, which leads to cravings that will never lead to intuitive body listening.
Eat nutrient dense food – Even if you are looking at having a salad, go with arugula rather than plain lettuce. Go with beans, whole grain products rather than processed foods from these same core sources without their fiber and all the nutrients that go with that. Go with nuts. And make it all taste good! Bland is not the call. Dense nutrient value with really good taste is where it’s at.
Drink water – A lot of craving that feels like you want to eat something is actually a need for plain water. Drink up, and then see if you are still hungry.
Get protein – Without enough protein to repair from your workouts you will stay hungry, all the time! You can get protein from animal sources. It can come from combining a grain with a legume. It can come from dairy, with yogurt being the best in this category. I usually got plain yogurt and add my own flavors to be able to control the amount of sugars that went into it.
Get good oils – This can come from olive oil, avocado, nuts, even butter. I suggest restriction or completely eliminating the omega-6 oils like canola, safflower and soy oils. These can turn into saturated fat in your body if you are under stress, and that is not a good thing to have happen!
Okay, there you go. Those are my eating guidelines to help you develop yours. Enjoy!