There is a popular saying that abs are made in the kitchen. You know what? It’s true! No matter how hard you work in the gym, unless you are a genetic freak, it is almost impossible to out train a poor diet. I’m a perfect case study. I either did Crossfit or weight trained three to four days per week, coached hockey two nights a week, and did Pilates or yoga at least once a week and still couldn’t shed the unwanted pounds or achieve the toned look I wanted. Once I dialed in my nutrition, those things(and more benefits like greater energy, better sleep quality, and better performance in the gym) came quickly. What changes did I make to jump start my progress?
First, I increased my protein intake significantly. Many American women don’t eat enough protein, and I was the perfect example. I ate no protein at breakfast, little at lunch, and some at dinner. I’d throw in a protein shake if I worked out, but it was nowhere near enough to fuel my body properly, particularly in light of the demands I put on it at the gym. I generally encourage people to eat .8 grams of protein times their body weight per day of they are sedentary, and 1 gram of protein times their body weight per day if they are active; I probably ate two thirds of that if I was lucky. Since protein is the foundation for building muscle, there was no way I was going to accomplish what I wanted without increasing my protein intake!
Second, I started eating healthier carbs. I LOVE sugary treats and wine, and always managed to sneak in a cookie and a glass or two of wine a day even on relatively few calories! What did that mean? Well, I was getting virtually no benefit for the largest portion of calories in my diet. I changed out the sugary treats for fruit and whole grains, limited the wine to a couple of days a week (none initially), and saw incredible results in a very short period of time.
Third, I took a hard look at portions. While it’s not realistic for most people to weigh and measure their food precisely on a day in and day out basis, it is a good idea to check in every so often to get a reality check on just how much you really are eating. Unless you actually measure, the peanut butter you put on your toast is probably closer to two servings rather than one, that chicken breast is probably eight ounces rather than six, and that scoop of ice cream is a half cup rather than a quarter cup. If you pull out the measuring cups and spoons for a few days, you will start to readjust your perception of serving size, which will allow you to get a better sense of whether you are eating appropriately for your size and activity level.
For most people, implementing these three changes is a great start toward meeting your dietary, physique and performance goals.
I get a lot of questions from people about how they can stop themselves from straying from their diets. My answer? Unless your life or your livelihood depend on perfection, you should strive for progress, not perfection. Life gets in the way for all of us at times, and we need to learn that perfection isn’t going to give us the scale weight, physique, or performance that we want. What will? Consistency! If we keep our goals in mind and stick to what we need to achieve them, we will reach them. If we fall off the rails briefly but get right back to what we need to do, one less than ideal decision out of many won’t impede progress. So when you have had that crazy weekend or one more than you had planned, remind yourself of how far you have come, where you want to be, and what you are prepared to do to get there.
Many people know that they need to eat proper amounts of protein, carbohydrates, fats and vegetables for optimum nutrition and performance, but have loads of questions about whether or not they need vitamins and other supplements on top of a healthy, balanced diet. The short answer is that most people who eat a healthy, balanced diet should be getting most of the vitamins and minerals, which are called micronutrients, that they need from the food that they eat. However, if you do NOT eat a healthy, balanced diet, you may want to consider a multi-vitamin.
Athletes, especially those who are restricting their caloric intake, should be particularly careful to make sure that they are eating a healthy and balanced diet because exercise creates greater demand for several essential micronutrients. These include calcium, Vitamins A, C, D, and E, many of the B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium, selenium, and beta-carotene. Therefore, regular consumption of a multi-vitamin may be even more beneficial to athletes.
Should athletes be supplementing in addition to multi-vitamins? To date, the research doesn’t seem to indicate that routine supplementation of most vitamins and minerals provides much in the way of benefits to well-nourished athletes consuming a balanced diet. However, endurance athletes in particular may wish to have their physician conduct bloodwork to determine if they have any micronutrient deficiencies, and if any such deficiencies cannot be fixed through diet, they can work with their physician to determine an appropriate level of supplementation.
Sugar. It’s everywhere, and in everything. Most of us eat far more than we realize, and in consequence a large number of the calories that we consume each day have little or no nutritional value to them. Many people want to reduce the amount of sugar in their diets, but few have any real idea where to start. Here are some tips to help you get started:
• Stay away from boxes, jars, cans, and bags. If a food is pre-packaged, there is a nearly seventy percent chance that it has added sugar in it. Yes, you read that right. Nearly seventy percent of the items in packages on grocery store shelves have added sugar! Conversely, items that are not pre-packaged like meats, fruits, and vegetables usually don’t have added sugars (watch for marinades and pre-cut fruits, as sugar sometimes sneaks in there).
• If you do pick up anything in a box, jar, can or bag, read the label. Carefully. Anything with a –ose suffix or with syrup in it almost definitely has added sugar in it. Look for labels that have fewer than four ingredients, all of which you should recognize immediately, to minimize your risk of picking up something with hidden sugar in it.
• Do a pantry clean-out applying the same concepts as you would in the grocery store. The less you are around foods with added sugars, the less likely you will be to consume them.
• Keep a close eye on what goes into your beverages. Many restaurants and chain food providers automatically include syrups and sugars in their beverages, so if you want to avoid them, you need to ask. Avoid non-diet sodas, energy drinks, and sports drinks as well.
• Ensure you have an adequate supply of fresh or frozen fruit on hand. Fruits are high in naturally occurring sugars and eating a piece of fruit when you have a sugar craving is a great way to combat it. While fruit will satisfy that desire for sweetness, the fiber, vitamins and minerals in the fruit will provide you with valuable nutritional benefits that you simply cannot get from cookies, candy and cake.
It’s nearly impossible to eliminate sugar entirely from your diet, but taking the steps above will allow you to control when and how you consume it, allowing you to eat healthy and love life.
Amy Mariani is the owner of Fit & Fabulous LLC in Winchester, Massachusetts. She is also the nutrition coach at www.mountainstrength.com. Her mission is to help people eat healthy and love life.
Please note that you should consult with your physician prior to embarking on any major changes with regard to your nutrition. Unfortunately, absent authorization from a medical professional, we are unable to provide individualized nutrition coaching to anyone under the age of eighteen, or to persons with certain medical conditions. We are always happy to work with authorized medical professionals under these circumstances.