“Macros” is the big nutrition buzzword lately. It seems like suddenly everyone has a food scale and measuring cups in hand plus a new set of Tupperware (#mealprep) and wants to have their protein/fat/carbs calculated. As I scroll through my Instagram account this morning, hashtags like #iifym and #flexibledieting (along with pictures of donuts or abs) take up a lot of my Instagram feed...and it’s not even #transformationtuesday. I’m not knocking that way of eating - or any way of eating, actually - because I know it produces great results if followed correctly. People see these transformation photos along with a picture of the Oreo cookie/vanilla ice cream dessert someone had the night before, and it’s no surprise they want to be on that same diet plan.
I think my biggest issue with this way of thinking is - most of the time - people are looking for a quick and easy fix to achieve this goal of an “ideal” body. They assume something will work for them based on the results of another person, who most likely has a completely different body type, hormone profile, stress level, family life, job responsibilities, training volume, and the list goes on. Nutrition is a complicated and extremely individualized piece of the puzzle and is something that takes a certain amount of experimentation and trial and error to determine what works best for you. Setting goals is certainly an important part of the process, but I think a far more overlooked aspect - and one that has a huge impact on your success - is the relationship you develop with food. Let’s look at a few scenarios…
Person A "eats clean" every day during the week. Lean protein, starchy carbs, and lots of vegetables make up the majority of his meals. He follows his diet plan to the letter, only to end up eating anything he wants on Sundays.
Person B counts every calorie and weighs herself every morning...her weight is something she pays attention to so much so that she actually brought a Tupperware of food to her best friend’s wedding.
Based on the information above, would you say these people have a good relationship with food? Is it a healthy or sustainable relationship? I think we can all agree certain disordered eating behaviors indicate a negative relationship with food, but the above scenarios fall into some kind of grey area. Now what if I gave you this additional information...
Person A is a professional athlete with certain weight and body composition requirements. He follows a calorie-restricted diet however, Sundays are his re-feed days.
Person B is an Olympic hopeful and needs to make weight for the trials in her sport the following day.
Does that change your opinion on whether any of them have a healthy relationship with food? In a performance and competitive athletic setting, athletes need to view food as something as important as training - it is a means to fuel the body for optimum performance. Meal composition, timing, as well as supplementation are all important factors to consider. There will probably be times when they will need to eat when they do not want to or when they are not hungry. If this athlete is already at a high professional level and has the resources available, the stress of meal planning can be passed on to someone else - a meal prep service or an at-home chef - whereas a young, aspiring athlete will need to take on most of this responsibility. The physique athlete needs to follow an extremely strict process that does not allow for any “cheats” in order to attain an aesthetic goal. There most likely will be the need to sacrifice enjoyable things like alcohol, cookies, or pizza in pursuit of an aesthetic. One can argue that any of the above athletes has to have a very self-absorbed view of their food relationship; it’s primary purpose is to benefit THEM and no one else.
What prompted me to want to write this post was my own personal reflection of my relationship with food. I’m nowhere near elite athlete status, and the funds for any meal planning service go directly into my kids’ college accounts. I’ve tried everything from a vegetarian diet in college (didn’t we all do that at some point??) to low-fat to Zone to Paleo, and everything in between. I’ve had to feed myself as a collegiate athlete, as a pregnant woman, and as a mom to one and - now - two children. Throughout the years, my relationship with food has evolved as my life and goals and knowledge have grown and changed. Within the last six months, I got serious about my diet. I wanted to lose the baby weight and work towards leaning out. I don't have a goal weight in mind, and while I could tell you I don't really care what the scale says, that would be a tiny fib. When it's all said and done, I'm really proud of my progress over that time, but lately, as is usually the case, other things in my life make it difficult to stick to the plan. Moving to Georgia, starting this new job, finding a balance between work and family have been my focus for the last few months. On top of that, as any parent with young children can relate, I'm constantly operating in a sleep deficit, which is combined with the stress of keeping two tiny humans from crying, screaming or hitting each other all day. Usually any hope of an early bedtime is dashed by my one-year-old, who has just started walking and wants to explore everything, especially in the hours after his brother goes to sleep. This is becoming routine with these blog posts, but once again, I am typing some of this on my phone while my youngest plays with the toilet flusher handle. It was past MY bedtime an hour ago....
I'm a stress-eater and am forever reminding myself of what I want my relationship with food to be - fuel for my performance and body composition NOT comfort or stress release. Some nights - like tonight - I lose that willpower battle and eat one too many Cheez-Its. But I guarantee the next day will be back to business and attempting to stay on track despite life getting in the way. Is my relationship with food healthy? What about you? What is your relationship with food?
It’s up to you to determine your personal relationship. It’s certainly important to take your goals into consideration, but as I said above, that’s just one piece. Are you a full-time athlete with sponsorships and available funds to contribute to a meal preparing service, or are you a full-time student working two jobs to pay for your tuition? Do you need to prepare meals for your entire family - who are all picky eaters - or do you live alone? How much pleasure do you take from preparing and eating meals? Are you focusing solely on body composition and aesthetics, or do you have performance specific goals? Answers to these questions will help to form your relationship with your diet and also may give insight as to whether your goals are realistic or if something needs to change. Rather than blindly following a plan and focusing solely on the outcome (am I 18% bodyfat?, did I lose 20 pounds?), taking the time to examine your relationship - thoughts and feelings - will help define your why and how.
There’s no one “right” way to approach a nutrition plan. The best advice I can give is to step back and take time to explore WHY you want to do it. In my opinion, that is much more important than the HOW. Define your ideal relationship with food and what contributes to that definition and follow the path that supports it. Is food comfort? Is food fuel? Do you need it to be as convenient as possible? Do you enjoy going out to restaurants to eat or drink with friends? Just because you “eat clean” or count every last gram doesn’t mean your relationship with food is healthy, sustainable or even suitable towards achieving your goals. If any diet you follow becomes so all-consuming, restrictive and actually adds more stress to your life, what kind of relationship is that and how will it affect your long term goals? It may be that your ideal relationship and your goals do not match up. What if you hate taking time to meal prep but want to achieve a certain body composition? Or you want to go out to a bar with friends next weekend, but you know beer is most definitely not on your plan? How you handle these situations in the context of your relationship with food will hopefully allow you to see the grey areas in your nutrition approach rather than attempting to fit yourself into the rules of Diet XYZ. Just as you value relationships with your friends and loved ones, you need to value your relationship with food as one that is beneficial and fits with how you want to live your life.