Over the past few years, food has become a hot topic. It felt like everyone was reading or talking about The Omnivore's Dilemma. Many of us started questioning what we ate and realized we weren't as healthy as once thought. Then Food, Inc. came along and rocked our worlds. If you had the same reaction as I, you never saw food the same again and hopefully never ate certain things again.
Beyond exploring the origins of food, multiple theories about diet began surfacing. The Paleo Diet claims to be how we were born to eat. The China Study and upcoming film Forks Over Knives make the case for eliminating animal products entirely to combat chronic disease. More and more people are experimenting with vegetarian and even vegan lifestyles. And on the extreme end of the spectrum are the fruitarians (30 bananas a day... no joke).
How do you wade through the mountains of information and land on the right approach for you?
I've shared bits of my personal journey to better eating over the past year, often in the form of complaints or frustration. In mid-2009 I gave up all refined sugar and grains, opting for a much cleaner approach to eating. This was to increase fat metabolism and improve body composition for my first Ironman. While I desperately missed pasta, bread and chocolate, it worked. I looked and felt better than ever before and it wasn't that challenging of a change.
Following the race, I lapsed back to my old eating habits and paid the price with how I looked and felt in 2010. After struggling through two more Ironmans at sub-optimal race weight and a gluttonous offseason (see this post about a week of eating in Wisconsin, it sums it up nicely) I decided to make a change. I started with a 5-day juice cleanse to kick start a better approach to 2011 and was surprised by the results. Not only did I lose weight I have since kept off, but it drastically changed how I eat. I had to phase out sugar, alcohol, caffeine, animal protein and dairy prior to the cleanse and ease back very gradually post-cleanse. Around that time I started dating a mostly vegetarian so some foods never made it back into my diet. I had a tenfold increase in my vegetable consumption and while I've had coffee occasionally, I'm not the cracked out addict I was before.
So what does all of this mean? As an athlete I think it's incredibly hard to strike the right diet balance. We're told to eat carbs and unfortunately tend to seek highly refined sources. We're told we need protein so we overload on chicken breasts. Vegetables are lower in calories and lack "substance" so we consume far less than we should. Most of us do ok with this approach and are healthy for the most part, but I felt I could do better.
I still indulge, particularly when I go out to dinner and travel. I drink wine... a lot of wine. I eat cheese when the mood strikes even though I gave up dairy. I eat chocolate just about daily. I eat really good bread when the opportunity presents itself. I eat fish occasionally and turkey, chicken or pork even less occasionally, and since none are the mainstays of my diet, I enjoy them so much more. I feel better, I've lost 11 pounds since mid-December and am on track to reach my ideal race weight by Spring. I still haven't figured out where I live in the diet spectrum - not quite Paleo because I eat unrefined grains; not quite vegetarian because I occasionally eat meat. Since food is a passion, I'll never take it too seriously and will aim for 80-85% "good" and 15-20% "fun." Seems like a great compromise to me.