Diet Intuition (part I)
This article was originally posted in the summer of 2013 on the Gymjones members site, it has been updated since to reflect a more accurate stance.
Under The Banner Of Health
It is relatively difficult to find a pattern of "good" eating linked to performance because genuine effort is not particular about the fuel. If calorie excess and/or specific macro-nutrient distribution leads to higher output then the choice was correct. But better performance is not always healthier, and healthier is not always achievable.
Most food evangelists would have you believe they have nothing to sell, that their concepts or opinions are NOT aimed at selling a product, only that these ideas can save you. For the web-based eating-elite, such salvation is often tied to the concept of eating for "health" though their definition is difficult to pin down, and changes according to the context of a follower's questions. To start the practice of posting a picture of a salad and tagging it “health” does not make you a nutritionalist. If anything I extend the term to whatever it is that your body is deficient in, macro first, micro next. Post-workout calories period are healthy, there may be better options when given a choice but to preach from the sanctuary of a filtered camera is neither informative nor progressive. Still, the promise of improved health is an easy sell. Everyone wants it. No one knows exactly how to get it. And much like "heaven", the idea is likely better than the location and the company.
Both sellers and buyers must believe, and with "belief" comes group connection, a sort of tribalism that helps affirm faith in whatever eating habits one chooses - no matter how illogical. The more difficult or restricted the eating patterns the more tightly knit the group. Extremism is easy to justify when others are doing it too but being "extreme" rarely produces the results most extremists seek, especially extended over a long enough timeline. Consistency produces results but consistency isn't “shiny” and it doesn't command the attention the extremists want - even if all they want and need is positive reinforcement.
Most would be dietary aficionados love to bring to attention how "different" they are from the mainstream, "Look at how radical I am." They point out minute details, N-6/N-3 imbalances and the resulting hormonal disruption. They claim to know the answer to your problem whether said it was a problem or not. Their expertise insists it could be a problem and that you should … listen, buy, and obey the savior, the ambassador of health and wellness.
The best way they grab attention is to be different: to be gluten-free, dairy-free, carb-free, fat only, or animal product-free. If you live 100% on fruit, or don't eat fruit, or only "eat" regurgitated wheat grass shots you definitely get some attention, which puts you in a position of (apparent) authority: your extremism appears authentic and serious to those unwilling to go to similar extremes. Your answers are convincing to those who don't have the same experiences, who haven't tried to eat 70 bananas a day AND who also don't feel healthy. I don't have a problem with any marginal dietary concepts or those who follow them until these "authorities" start pushing the concept of "performance", which is not necessarily 100% healthy. We often sacrifice ideal health in favor of higher athletic performance.
Performance is a goal, it has objective, measurable answers. Health, much like aesthetics has no arrival, it is purely abstract. One day you have it, the next an oblong box is being fitted to you. On the other hand, performance has hard numbers and they either show improvement or not. Separating these is simple. Separating these is not easy. Daily, even hourly we are shown the importance of a lean, "sexy" look, or a healthy, new such-and-such and it influences what we do and how we eat, and it must be managed just like any other emotional distraction.
If we would use our dietary behavior to achieve an objective we must empty the cultural, psychological and behavioral nets that might have trapped us. We must reestablish the relationship between reason and food but/and use intuition as a guide. Eating schedules work for beginners, for those who CAN'T control their eating habits or if training is not intensive enough to require food as a recovery tool. Think about it: if you don't know exactly how you will train next week, and if you have not established baseline nutritional requirements according to past experience, you can't possibly adhere to an eating schedule, or a caloric plan from a web-based algorithm designed for "most users." instead of a schedule you need attention, and a good feeling for your own needs are.
That said, in periods of block training where the loads increase incrementally it is easier to estimate caloric and macronutrient demands. Experience should give you an idea of what you need, but if you don't let intuition guide intake then recovery speed and efficiency is reduced. Therefore an eating plan limiting CHO to 100g per day is dictating the training and it should be the other way around: work, and increased training stress are the act to which diet must respond. Diet supports the work - unless the diet IS the sport (or blog and sales topic).
A good, correct or clean diet can only be defined in the context of the objective. Again, as with training, we battle the one-size-fits-all paradigm. It would be easier if we were all similar and could therefore eat or behave the same but this generalization doesn't even work within the smaller circles of genotypes. Within the minor variations of Olympic-level scullers exists a wide range of eating habits. Rowers are known for consuming massive calories to support their size and their output but within there exists enormous variation - as diverse as the nations and individuals that compete in the sport itself. Pinning down then a way for rowers to eat “healthily” becomes more about the deficiency of the individual, as it should have always been.
It is often stated that, "if the engine burns hot enough, it will burn anything." Of course, improvements in nutrition may yield positive results but the people making blanket claims that they can make such improvements in others, in clients will most likely fail. We cannot ascertain individual needs without being on the ground with the subject, without seeing the emotional/psychological ties to food, and observing and recording causes and effects when we do make small changes. In the context of improved sport performance, remote dietary coaching is bullshit - except at the most basic level. To guide an athlete I need to see how small adjustments in carb totals and timing affect output and recovery. I need to understand the power of savory and sweet, of how certain foods comfort, therefore relax, which can improve recovery even if the nutrient profile is (scientifically) negative. As an example, alcohol has its uses.
When we coach an athlete, everyone involved in the process understands that, to increase performance at high levels, we must accept the risk of making it worse, because there is no blanket answer, only an individual one. And the higher the level the more precise the solution must be.
If you are experimenting with a performance diet on your own, without the guidance and accountability of a coach, you must eat according to how you feel. Sadly, this often results in answer-shopping because it is very hard to disassociate from social and emotional power of food, i.e., "I love ice cream. I work very hard. I deserve what I want and can afford to eat it." You might even justify that habit with pseudo-science and ingredients, "My trainer said that dairy and sugar spikes IGF-1 after a hard workout, which speeds recovery, and besides, the brand of ice cream I eat is all natural, etc…" This is the slippery slope of "doing what we want" justified unconsciously through confirmation bias which in it's worst form becomes conscious.
The opposite happens as well. When someone admits that, "My eating schedule says I must eat one pound of chia seeds blended with kale and mineral water," and does so, he or she is either indifferent to taste or lacks good dietary judgment or has no (force of) personality. A plan that doesn’t take palatability into account, or respect food reward scenarios is as inconsistent as making a decision to diet on the day by flipping a coin. The best eating plan on paper often lacks real world executability, most likely ignoring the human aspect, which is the most important.
I don't toe the line of the hardline healthy-elite. Being a diet robot is a trap like any other. Accurate application of any dietary rules takes sensitivity and a deep knowledge of one self. Extreme dietary control lacks emotional finesse but it does enhance psychological strength. In plain words, eat for consistent performance enhancement without disregarding nutritional optimization. Milk the fine line between getting what you need and getting in what you want because the effects are long-lasting.
We teach a difference between the Performance Diet and the Daily Diet but many sports require only a slight variation between the two concepts, i.e. eat normally but add 200g of carbs to fuel effort and speed recovery or bump total intake by 1000+ calories around competition. Is a Performance Diet not also a Daily Diet if the competitive season lasts nine months out of the year? Of course, the Performance Diet for a 24-hour no-stop effort is different than a normal Daily Diet but that's a topic for another post.
Like training itself, diet may be viewed as a big picture, which is conceptually ignored in favor of rules and special, "I'm unique," circumstances. Instead of learning the reason behind the rules we blindly follow them. We fast intermittently instead of counting calories, unwittingly reducing macronutrients because trying to understand the whole picture is too difficult. It's true weighing and measuring is difficult, and in some circumstances its cost isn't worth the outcome. The overriding rule of dietary manipulation is that knowledge allows more precise control than ignorance. Would a weightlifter progress training effectively without knowing the amount of weight he is lifting? Of course it depends on how advanced the athlete is. In any discipline, random progression works for the beginner but refining the top 5% takes incredible accuracy and precision. The bottom line is knowing is more powerful than NOT.
It's still being argued that a "calorie is not a calorie", through entropy and certain efficient macro-nutrients most deniers of calorie based eating plans are right, but they offer no more of an accurate model to practice. This discussion is usually heralded by those who find the neurotic stress of counting calories and macro-nutrient assimilation too much to bear. Instead they swear by other control methods, which are, of course, influenced by a personal bias. These methods become justifications for both action and argument: “IF is better than Zone is better than Paleo”. This is another way to form a consensus and a group, to tribalize behavior, belief, which often leads to selling something or recruiting members to reinforce your beliefs.
I assume that when I write a diet plan for an individual they will make the best food choices possible according to the objective we have agreed upon (performance and/or health). My optimism is clearly misplaced. We must all be taught how to eat at a very basic level, which is where most go wrong. On one hand they choose the miracle food they read about because it's a "cancer-fighter" while simultaneously negating that choice by combining it with something equally as bad, e.g., "I got the pasta primavera because it has tomatoes and I heard lycopene is good for my cells." This kind of nutritional rubbish may sell a periodical but it doesn't set the reader up for a lifetime of good behavior. It's a quick and delusional fix, not a long-term thesis.
Applying these ideas appears daunting because we have chained ourselves to complex ideas: we know more about the molecular make up of wheat than we know about how to prepare simple meals day in and day out. We invest in complicated eating strategies before we analyze what didn’t work for the past 20 years. Instead of trying to trigger hormonal releases by eating at 2:35am under a full moon we should first figure out how much food we eat in a day. You must know the answer to this very basic question: how many calories do you eat? How many do you need? And why?
Armed with the answer you may train intelligently and eat to support that process. Knowing allows you to eat for your personal goals, in a consistent manner, and to recover as best as possible. Observe and record behavior. Above all, be honest. If you do that then perhaps, along the way you may find Health.