Have you ever heard these stories about how actors gain and lose massive amounts of weight for a movie role? Most of us have heard of Tom Hanks losing 50 pounds during the filming of "Castaway" or Renee Zellweger gaining 30 lbs for "Bridget Jones' Diary". More extreme cases include Christian Bale losing over 60 lbs for "The Fighter" and 50 Cent losing 65 lbs in order to play a cancer patient in "Things Fall Apart". How do they do it, while the rest of us seem to struggle to just lose 5 or 10 pounds? Short answer: full time trainers and live-in chefs. Though the thought of having to lose (or for that matter, gain) a huge amount of weight in a small time still sounds horrible (not to mention unhealthy), the idea of having a full time chef sounds pretty nice! Think about how nice that would be as an athlete: someone that would shop and make delicious healthy, well-balanced meals for you with exactly enough Calories to meet your training needs, achieve and maintain your ideal race weight and help you feel healthy and full of energy. Sounds pretty sweet, right?
So why can't we do this without a full time chef cooking for us? The last blog I wrote spelled out 6 simple guidelines for how to eat better, and none of them are even hard and fast rules, they are just guidelines with quite a bit of flexibility. Shouldn't be that hard, right? And as I wrote about last winter here and here, weight loss isn't exactly very complicated either, it's just a matter of burning more Calories than you take in. So why do nearly all of us struggle with nutrition and weight management?
We all have excuses. Good, reasonable, legitimate excuses. But at the end of the day, do you want to be a slave to your excuses or do you want to empower yourself to take charge of your own life? If it's the latter, here are some tips to help you deal with some of the most common excuses.
"My mother/father/husband/wife does all the shopping and cooking and they don’t accommodate my needs as an athlete"
If you just sit back and complain that there is never any healthy food around the house, my guess is that you are unlikely to get a positive response. But if you demonstrate that you are willing to help out, you might get a different reaction. Put together some recipe ideas, go shopping once in a while and try making a meal or two yourself. If your culinary expertise is, how shall we say, lacking... start simple. "The Feed Zone Cookbook" has a lot of great simple recipes designed with the needs of cyclists in mind. No crazy ingredients or fancy cooking methods, just Cooking 101. If even that is too much, ask for some instruction from the cook in your household. Chances are, they will greatly appreciate that you want to help out and learn something. It's also a great way to spend some time together!
Even if shopping and cooking aren't an everyday thing for you, your parent or partner is going to be much more likely to take your needs into consideration if you show that you appreciate what they do and you are willing to help them out once in a while. In my house, I am the one that usually shops and cooks because I work from home and my wife get's home at 6:30 PM every night. That said, she helps me out greatly by washing the dishes as I cook and by providing meal ideas so I don't have to create the menu every night on top of preparing the food.
"I am at school/work all day and there are no healthy snacks available there. I get really hungry and end up buying candy in the vending machine/eating one of the cookies that Mildred in Accounting brought in" AND "By the time I get home from school/work I am starving and I make bad decisions about nutrition"
When I used to work at GM, I always struggled with this. Even though I packed my lunch almost every day, I would have 30 minutes for lunch but I'd go from breakfast at 6 AM until lunch at noon without a meal and then again from 12:30 until I got home at 4:30 PM without anything. When I started to increase my training volume and intensity, this was too much. I'd be starving until lunchtime and then again by the time I got home and tried to hop on the bike I would feel like crap because I hadn't had anything to eat in 4 hours. The leaner I got, the worse it was. I'd be so hungry that I wouldn't be able to resist going to the vending machine or eating some of the sweets that someone had inevitably brought to in. Donut during a meeting? Sure, maybe it will help me stay awake. Cake for Sue's birthday? Of course. Let's celebrate! Girl Scout cookies you are selling for your daughter? Why not, it's for a good cause. Bagel Friday? Go for it, it's Friday!
While resisting constant temptation may still be difficult, the answer to this predicament can be summed up in 2 words: healthy snacks. It takes a little planning but if you plan to have at least 2 snacks during the day (e.g. mid-morning and mid-afternoon) you will avoid the long periods of starvation that usually lead to big ups and downs in energy level and end up with bad nutritional choices. Bring a bunch of healthy snacks with you to work or school and eat them before your stomach starts to grumble and you are blacking out from low blood sugar. Specifically, try to bring low glycemic index snacks. Examples would be dried fruit, nuts, yogurt, grapes, apples, pears, kiwis, hummus, lentil salad, rice cakes with peanut butter or fruit smoothies.
Chances are, if you eat healthier foods throughout the day and you make sure not to go too long without eating, you are less likely to be crashing when you get home. Still, if you have to make a quick change into your cycling gear or gym clothes to start your training, you might want to add in another snack right before your workout. This time you might want to have something that will pick you up a little faster, such as some energy chews, a banana or some orange juice (maybe a shot of espresso too). If you are doing a recovery or endurance ride or if you have a long warmup, you might be able to get away with something a little more substantial but if you are doing intervals, a fast group ride or strength training you will want to make sure the glycogen stores are topped off.
"I am too busy to cook, so I just eat out all the time"
It's no secret that it's harder to eat right when you eat out. With the exception of a few cities, restaurants aren't required to provide any nutritional information about the food they prepare. Restaurants are in business to 1) make food that tastes good and 2) sell it at a price that they can make a profit. Nutrition is a distant 3rd, if that. Part of the problem is that many of us treat going out to a restaurant as a kind of vacation, where we can suspend the normal dietary rules and eat whatever we want. This isn't so bad if it's a once in a while thing, but if we eat at out more than once or twice a week, we need to alter our mindset.
Typically capitalism dictates that if there is a demand, a supply will come along. As demand has risen for healthier dining options, many restaurants have risen to meet it. Here in Philadelphia, the White Dog Café and Fare are a couple of the restaurants that demonstrate how delicious fresh, healthy, local and sustainable foods can be. If you live or travel to a major city, chances are that there will be some good options if you do a little research. But even at mainstream chain restaurants... even at Arby's, McDonalds or Outback Steak House it's possible to find healthy options if you know what to order and you have the discipline to look past the 90% of the menu items that you shouldn't be ordering except for a rare treat. Many restaurants have special menu items that are "Healthy", "Low-Fat" or "Low Calorie". Even if not, asking them to go light on the dressings and sauces can be a good way to cut out some unnecessary Calories, sugar, fat and artificial ingredients.
"I go to school and I eat at the cafeteria all the time, which doesn't exactly have many options"
Most school cafeterias have a long way to go in providing healthy options but many are moving in the right direction. Unfortunately for most people, it may seem like the options are either a) eat what they put on your plate or b) don't eat. Again though, this would be the mindset of the powerless and personally, I prefer to adopt the mindset of the empowered!
First of all, if you have the option to pack a lunch, you should always do it. Yes, it takes some planning. You have to think about lunch ideas ahead of time, do your shopping, pack your lunch the night before and finally, remember to bring it with you.
Second, if you are in school and you want some more healthy options, stand up and let your voice be heard. Movements to make school cafeteria food healthier have been successful all over the country. Because these options are often more expensive, you can probably expect some pushback but when there is enough demand, change will happen.
Third, think more about what you ask for and what you don't ask for. Tell them to go light on the gravy and heavy on the veggies. If your cafeteria has a salad bar, you can probably put together a pretty good "entrée salad" (If you are worried about protein, have a few grilled chicken strips or some beans on top). Stay away from the cakes, pies and cookies most of the time and have a piece of fruit instead for dessert.
"I don’t have enough time to go shopping and buy the foods I should be eating more of (fresh fruits and vegetables in particular)." and "I only go shopping once a week or less and by the end of the week a lot of that stuff has gone bad"
Ah, not enough time... the age old excuse for just about everything. Luckily, modern technology can really help us out. Many supermarkets now offer online ordering (for a fee of course). The idea is that you go online and order what you want and someone will pack it up and have it waiting for you at the supermarket. Some will even deliver to your house. Another option would be a co-op or a farm share. In many cities these have become a really popular (and often inexpensive) way to get fresh, local, organic vegetables, eggs, butter, milk, honey, meat and a lot more. By the way, my experience has been that they usually deliver so much food that I have to split the order with a friend!
Of course, keeping all of your fresh fruits and veggies from going bad can be a challenge. The first step would be to store them properly. There are different rules for every fruit and vegetable. Some should be refrigerated, some should be washed, some should be wrapped in paper towels, some should be bagged and some should be cut or have the leaves cut. For a good guide as to what to do in each case, check out this or this.
Then there is the matter of using all that stuff. One of the wonderful things about many farm shares is that opening the box is a fun surprise. I remember when I got my first box and opened the box to find Japanese turnips. Cool, I thought, but what the heck can I make with Japanese turnips? That was when I discovered what is now one of my favorite websites, epicurious.com. The website (also available in smartphone app form) allows you to type in any ingredient and it will generate a list of recipes. By the way, I ended up making this recipe for Japanese Turnips with miso, which turned out to be delicious!
"I don’t have enough money to shop at Whole Foods (a.k.a. Whole Paycheck) all the time"
Having a nearby Whole Foods (or another market that carries a large selection of produce, whole grains and natural foods) can be a blessing and a curse. While it is great to have one right around the corner, you can lose your money faster at Whole Foods than in Vegas. When it's possible to buy a double cheeseburger for 99 cents but a single bag of groceries from Whole Foods costs $200, it's no wonder that you can't talk about nutrition in America without talking about poverty and class issues.
Luckily, there are alternatives. For produce in particular, using a farm share service can save a lot of money, provided you use everything they send you. Another option is the Asian market. Philadelphia and many other cities have Asian markets that often have a huge selection of [sometimes obscure] foods at rock bottom prices. Back in college, I used to do $10 meal night, where my roommates and I would compete to make the best meal for under $10. Shopping at the Asian market, I was always able to make a great meal for everyone well within the price limit. There is also Trader Joes, which carries a less-extensive but still very good (and far less expensive) selection as Whole Foods. For those that live in more rural areas that may not have these options, look for local farmers markets and roadside stands for the freshest foods. Because they take out the middle-men, the prices are nearly always incredibly low as well.
"I travel a lot for work/to races and my diet falls apart when I travel because I eat out a lot or buy food from highway rest stops that don’t have many healthy options"
My first few years racing, I always remember that my training seemed to suffer once the racing season began. It took a while to realize that this was largely because I would eat much better at home than when I traveled. I never thought to pack meals or snacks; only what I needed for the race and maybe a recovery drink. Anything else I needed I'd just grab on the road. Of course, this meant that I ended up either a) going way too long without eating a meal or b) eating some crap that I bought at a gas station
Again, the answer here is planning, planning planning. If you are traveling for work, do a search on healthy restaurants where you are going. Also find out about local supermarkets and take advantage of their salad bars. You might even decide which hotel to stay at based on proximity to a certain supermarket or restaurant. If you are going to be in the car, even for a couple hours, bring a cooler full of your own food. Make sure to include healthy snacks that won't melt in the heat as well as plenty of water. On race day, packing the food you will need for before, during and after the race should be part of your regular routine. A little bit of planning can go a long way towards performing, recovering and feeling at your best.
I hope that this has helped you, but if you have other excuses that I didn't cover here, please feel free to send them in.
Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!