In January 2013, I started exploring lean eating. Coupled with a solid exercise regimen, my efforts were not in vain. People noticed. They were curious about my workout routine. But they also asked me questions like: “What do you eat?” and “How ‘clean’ is your diet?”
These are great questions. But they only deal with what. I believe that knowing what, while important, isn’t enough. It’s too easy to mess up, get discouraged and fail. I will also share why and how I made changes to the way I eat, since having that understanding will greatly increase your chance of success!
Let's Start with "What"
Quick profile on me: I’m a 39-year-old mom of four kids (ages 9, 7, 5 and 2-years-old). I’m training for track & field. I’ve been called a hurdle geek more than once and I’m proud of that! I workout 5 to 6 days a week incorporating strength, cardio and flexibility into my training. As an athlete, I target to eat 50% carbohydrates, 25% fat and 25% protein. (I don’t hold with the paleo dogma of low carbs. I say yes to carbs if you keep them healthy. Your body needs them!)
But this article is not just for hurdle geeks and athletic die-hards. Regardless of your age, gender or athletic profile, it’s possible to make positive and lasting changes in your eating habits by applying the ideas presented here.
Depending on your unique situation, your percent targets for carbs, fat and protein may be different. If you’re not sure what’s the right mix for you, talk to someone who knows nutrition.
Here’s the “usual suspects for me”:
- Veggies - Often raw (since they are faster to prepare) and arranged as a salad that goes with a lean protein. My favorites: cucumbers, bell peppers, baby spinach, kale, broccoli, purple onion, snap peas, carrots, and green string beans!
- Fruit - Apples, bananas, berries, whatever fruit is in season.
- Alternative to Things Made with Wheat Flour - like Quinoa and Lentils (which are protein rich too).
- Boiled & Mashed Sweet Potatoes - Great with a sprinkle of ground cloves and cinnamon. No butter. You don’t need it. And not baked because they double their score on the glycemic index when baked.
- Ezekial 4:9 Cereal - I love this stuff and buy it in bulk. My husband calls it my “bag of feed.” If they’d have me, I would totally do a commercial for them.
Carbs I have sometimes (1 to 2 servings every day or two):
- Spaghetti / Pasta - Whole wheat or high fiber is better, but I don’t always have it.
- Rice - White or brown... Brown is better for you.
- Whole Grain Bread
Carbs I eat VERY infrequently (e.g. once every several weeks):
- Refined Sugars - e.g. cookies, cake, donuts, candy, ice cream.
- White Bread
- Crackers, Chips or Other “Junk Food”
- Pizza - I know that’s not just a carb.
- Fruit Juice
My usual suspects include lean proteins like:
- Grilled Chicken Breast - I eat a LOT of this.
- Canned White Tuna Fish - In water, not oil.
- Egg Whites - Sometimes with the yolk too because even though it has a lot of fat and cholesterol, the yolk is loaded with nutrients. I have these as an egg white omelette loaded with steamed veggies. Then I add a healthy complex carb to complete the meal.
- Peanut Butter - I know, this has fat too.
- Lean Red Meat
- White Fish
- Pork - With fat trimmed.
Things I avoid (but I do have them sometimes):
- Very Fatty Red Meat or Fish - Though I do have it sometimes. Just infrequently.
- Dark Bird Meat - I eat it sometimes, but I go for the white meat 98% of the time.
- Yogurt - I consider this a treat. Sure it has protein and other good stuff. But it’s also loaded with sugar.
- Cheese - I really don’t eat a lot of cheese anymore. I HAD to ditch dairy while nursing my fourth child because it was irritating his digestive system. I guess I got used to avoiding it.
Fat is important and your body needs it. But there’s good choices for fat and bad choices. Here’s the typical fats I have:
- Peanut butter
- Avocado - I have these every so often.
- Fat from Meat - There’s some fat content in any meat product I eat.
- Olive Oil - There’s some in the homemade salad dressing I make, I cook with a moderate amount of it sometimes.
Fats I avoid (and have only every so often or in small portions):
- Milk Fat - I drink skim milk.
- Junk Food Fat - That lovely stuff that shows up in chips, crackers, etc.
All that said, I do have meals that have more flavorful fat content (like a cream sauce or something like that) a couple times a week. I just watch the portion size. And I don’t eat them all the time.
Why Am I Doing This?
To understand why I changed my eating habits, let’s begin with when the latest “version of me” (in terms of fitness) started.
Throughout my life, I’ve always exercised, competed in sports (cross-country running and track & field). Other favorites? Mountain biking, roller blading, swimming, downhill skiing! But, on May 6, 2011, fitness-wise I was at ground zero... Again. That’s when I gave birth to my fourth child.
Now, it’s lovely for a new mommy to be all soft and round and squishy. What infant wouldn’t want to cuddle up with that? But by 3 weeks postpartum, I was chomping at the bit to get my body back (and maybe a little more).
Initially, I focused mainly on exercise and less on diet. Why? The truth is, I couldn’t handle tackling it all at once. I made sure I got my protein and veggies, but I didn’t limit the simple carbs, sugars, snacks and treats too much. Sometimes I’d try to limit the fats and calories, but then I would notice a drop in my milk supply (I was nursing). I didn’t want to mess with that. For a while, this was the right mix for me. I was slowly slimming down.
But in January 2013, I was ready to tackle nutrition.
My “baby” was now 18-months-old. I’d been working out for many months and had decent strength, muscle and stamina. Being within 5 pounds of my pre-pregnancy weight, I was getting toned, but not what you’d call ripped. I also had some good post-holiday motivation!
Plus, this is when I decided to start training for track and field again. My target competition was a meet where I’d be running against 18 to 20 year olds. Did I mention I’m 39? Yeah. Time to get serious.
So, the two biggest why’s for me were:
[1.] Fear! - I laugh as I type this, but it’s true! (Ironically, I’m not afraid to admit that I was afraid.) I knew I was going to be going up against athletes who were half my age! In a 400 meter hurdle race! Which I hadn’t done for 18 years! I was motivated to do everything in my power to give myself every advantage I could.
As an aside, now that I’ve completed my track season, fear isn’t my motivator to stick with lean eating. Winning is my motivator now! I got a taste of racing and loved it! It’s still about giving myself every advantage I can for next year’s season.
[2.] Curiosity was my other big motivator.
- How much muscle definition could I get? Long ago, I’d accepted my body as being the type that could get slim and toned, but never really cut or ripped. But what would happen if I were more mindful about what I ate?
- How fast and strong could I get? It’s hard enough to carve out time to go to the gym. Was there a way I could get there and not be totally exhausted? Then I would feel better and get more out of my workout.
- What else would I learn along the way? What can I say? I’m a geek. I geek out on business, web design, fitness, hurdles, parenting. I can totally geek out on nutrition.
It’s important for YOU to know the whys for yourself, because changing ANY habit is hard. Changing eating habits can be especially hard, because it involves doing something hard (changing a habit) when you’re hungry (when willpower to resist and patience to prepare something healthier is lower).
My advice? Take the time to think about the why’s for yourself. Make sure they are things that you can be 100% committed to. Then you WILL succeed.
Knowing your why’s and being committed to them will help you overcome the times when you get tempted to quit. It’ll help you get back on course when you slip in your nutritional plan. We’re human. That happens. You gotta forgive yourself. And then get back to it. No excuses!
How Did I Do It?
I didn’t try to do a full food reformation overnight. (Do NOT read this as permission to slack!). I just tackled as much as I could. I got good at that part. Then I added more discipline as I continued. I kept doing this. There were forward steps and backwards steps. There were good meals and bad. Good days and bad. But I remembered my why’s and kept the course.
My Fitness Pal
I started using MyFitnessPal.com right away. For those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s a free website that lets you track food intake. It’s fast and easy to get started. Plus, it makes the process of tallying carbs, protein, fat, sugar, etc. totally manageable because of their huge database of foods. You can add in your own foods and recipes, or just tap into their database where you can find pretty much anything (whether it’s potstickers from Trader Joes or a McDonald’s cheeseburger). Hopefully you’re not eating too much of latter since I believe one cheeseburger has something like 37 ingredients. Gross!
With MyFitnessPal, my initial goal was to raise awareness of what foods I was eating. I also know that it’s easy to get obsessive (read: crazy) about tracking food intake, and that can have a negative effect. So I gave myself permission chillax and just use this tool to:
- Observe my eating habits without judgement
- Raise awareness to the content of carbs, protein and fat in foods I was eating
- Notice how I felt energy-wise and mood-wise after eating whatever I ate
Here’s some examples of things I learned:
- Pretty quickly, I realized that Simplait Yogurt was not the healthy snack I thought it was! So much for eating five of those in a day. It’s tasty stuff. But it’s LOADED with sugar (which saps my energy) and there’s a bit of fat in there. Yes. There are non-fat yogurts out there. But they are still high in sugar.
- I found that grilled chicken breast is GREAT to have with some complex carbs (raw veggies for instance) two to three hours before a hard workout. And often, I’ll have a complex carb (like 1/2 banana or 5 or so baby carrots) about 1 hour before the workout. Then when I get there, I am READY to rock it. I’ve got energy and I don’t feel lethargic.
- Hydration. It’s key.
These are just a few examples. But there were tons of little aha’s like this.
Also, simply by committing to tracking my food intake (even when I ate some not so healthy stuff, which I did do), I found I was making better choices overall. I didn’t LIKE having to log when I ate a bunch of crap. But I committed to logging it (most of the time). And that definitely encouraged me to avoid it the next time because I didn’t want to have to plug it into my food journal.
Toss the Junk Food and Don’t Buy It Anymore
Also, right away, I ditched things like chips, crackers, nachos, etc. from my menu except on very rare occasions and in small portion sizes. It didn’t take me long to lose the desire to eat that stuff, since I was getting way better energy and enjoyment from other healthier food options.
Shop Smart: Buy “Good” Ingredients
I made sure to have a good supply of healthy food options in the house at all times: Lean protein like tuna fish, chicken breast, tilapia (you can buy individually packaged fillets frozen), fruits, veggies, quinoa, etc.
Eat Smaller Meals Every 1.5 to 2 Hours
If you eat this frequently, two things happen:
- By eating when you’re starting to get hungry (but not starving) you will avoid sugar lows. You will avoid situations when your judgement gets compromised by the blind and stupid hunger that comes if you wait too long to eat. Plus you will lower your temptation to reach for whatever garbage with questionable nutritional content is in front of you.
- Eating every 1.5 to 2 hours prevents your body from producing the enzyme that stores body fat! I learned this little fun fact from a UMass athletics article that was shared by John Glynn, owner / head trainer at Fitness Fusion. (I joined this gym when I needed something “more” than p90x. As an added bonus, I got a great community of people to workout with, plus a top notch fitness expert to get after me!)
Prepare Healthy Food Ahead of Time
When we’re hungry, it’s hard to be patient to prepare a healthy option. We often reach for “refined junk” because it’s immediately ready and seems like it’ll taste good. We’re not thinking about how awful it makes us feel. Or about the fact that it gives us no energy whatsoever.
You can head off these temptations by bulk-preparing healthier stuff in advance.
- I grill 8 to 12 chicken breasts on Sunday and then I have them for the week. They are tasty, nutritious, low-fat, high-protein, and just waiting to be chopped up cold and tossed on a salad.
- Hard boiled eggs - I boil dozen at a time. Then I can grab them for the egg white for a quick shot of protein. Lately I’ve been avoiding the yolks most of the time. But not always.
- Every few days you can chop some veggies so they are still reasonably fresh and they make salad making faster. OK. I will admit, I don’t actually “pre-chop” very much. I like my salad veggies freshly chopped. That’s just me. But it certainly could be done.
- Make my own hummus - it’s so easy! I have a great recipe.
- Make larger meals whenever cooking so I have easy and quick leftovers. All right. I don’t do this a lot. But my husband does. And I ever-so-kindly leech off of his hard work.
- And of course, have lots of veggies and fruits on hand at all times. When I’m in the mood to crunch on something just for the sake of crunching, I’ll reach for some baby carrots or cucumber slices.
For the first 4 weeks, I tried a modest calorie deficit too. After four weeks or so, I didn’t feel like I needed to do this anymore so I stopped this part. The theory... If the calories I’m putting in my body are actually going to give me more energy and “power” then I ought to be able to handle a reasonable deficit.
Even though I started this right away, I didn’t want to put this point earlier, because I thought people dismiss the rest of the article and conclude:
A.) “Sure, anyone can slim down if they just starve themselves.” ... It ain’t about starving yourselves, people.
Or they might think:
B.) “Hey. Good idea. I think I’ll go out and try starving myself.” ... It ain’t about starving yourselves, people.
Twenty Chews Before You Swallow that Food
It doesn’t have to be twenty. But it should be plenty. The point is, eat slowly. And prepare your food for your digestive system by, ya know, chewing it. If you eat too fast or swallow things whole (like ducks, snakes and other wildlife), then your body doesn’t realize it’s got enough food until you’ve put too much food in.
Forgive Yourself, But Don’t Let Yourself Off the Hook!
I’m not perfect. And I think you’ll find that nobody is. We slip up or lose traction on the plan. What do you do? Admit it. Learn from it. Forgive yourself for it... And get back to it!
Minimize Eating Out
For three reasons:
- Restaurant food is almost always fattier and higher in calories.
- It’s a pain in the rear to track this in your MyFitnessPal diary, unless you’re eating at a fast food joint that’s in their database, which you should avoid anyway.
- It’s easier on your pocketbook!
Stop. Think. Don’t Just Grab that Junk!
You’ve been eating healthy and making great progress. But this evening you’re at a party and there’s a hell of a spread on the buffet table. Before you pile up your plate, just stop and think. Look for the healthier options and let that be where your larger portion sizes are. It’s OK to treat yourself to some of the other stuff, but keep the portions under control. And remember, twenty chews!
Pack Your Lunch AND Your Snacks
I’ve almost always packed a lunch to take with me to work. But I used to never pack anything else in addition to my lunch (no healthy snacks). I’d inevitably get hungry in between meals and reach for some not-so-healthy snack that we have kicking around the office.
But the NOW, I pack a full set of “healthy” with me. My typical array of food on any work day is:
- Grilled chicken or canned tuna fish
- Salad with greens, cucumber, bell peppers
- A spare bell pepper (because who doesn’t need a spare one of these?)
- Baby carrots
- An apple
- I keep a jar of peanut butter at the office
- Ezekial cereal or quinoa or some other “good carb”
Treat Yourself, in Moderation
We need to enjoy life. And part of that might mean a yummy treat to eat. We all know what our special vice it is. For me, it’s sugar. I love baked goods and I love to bake them. For others it’s beer or wine. For other’s it’s chips and salty snacks. Have some. Just don’t go crazy with it, eh? And have your healthy stuff first so you don’t come at your “vice” when you’re at your hungriest.
Keep Up the Exercise
Back in January, I wrote down why I exercise. Here’s what I came up with:
- Feels good (endorphins; strength; flexibility; self-esteem-wise too)
- Fun! (love the challenge, sweat, working hard; love friendly competition with self & others)
- To be faster / stronger - like to have goals within activities; reach ‘em, beat ‘em, set new ones!
- Makes me crave good food (creates upward spiral of health & wellbeing)
- Keeps me healthier and less prone to injury
- Helps me cope with stress
- Makes me a nicer person :-)
- Even when I’m working out with a group, it’s personal time, meditative, time for me, taking care of myself. It feels like good quality “me-time”
- Keeps me in shape for my next track & field season. (Hurdles!)
Those are my reasons. What are yours? Feel free to copy any of the above for yourself, if you like them (including the one about hurdles). The point is, exercise! It will support healthier eating.
A Word About Late Evening Eating
The older you get, the more your body and metabolism need some fasting time between your last meal of the day and breakfast the next morning. Everyone’s body is different, so you’ll have to figure out what your metabolism’s “tolerance” is to evening snacking.
For me, I need to hit only raw fruits and veggies and small servings of very lean protein (e.g. chunk white tuna fish, egg whites, or light spread of peanut butter on apple) after 7:30 / 8 pm. That’s if I eat anything at all in that time. If I do something heavier, I tend to feel “bloated” the next morning. My body at my age, just needs some time to do that digestion.
Find Your Willpower
Let’s face it. American culture is riddled with terrible food options, poor eating habits and junky nutritional choices. Our senses are slammed with temptations for “crap” all the time.
This might sound like a bit of a downer. But, I hope it actually will have the opposite effect.
Articulating this helps us be more aware. Now we can really pay attention and be more intentional about what we eat. And we can be more ready to deflect those negative messages and replace them with our own positive power!
Learn from Your Successes and Mistakes
Pause more often to notice how you’re feeling energy wise. And then reflect on what food you ate. Build up positive associations with how you feel after eating good lean protein, healthy complex carbs and good fats. Figure out what works for you at different times of day. Before exercise and after.
Similarly, start to build up negative associations with “bad” food. This took me awhile to do because I love sugar. It’s an awful temptation for me. I have trouble stopping once I start. So yeah, I’d cave in and I’d pound some m&m’s or the like. Then I’d feel weak, shaky and low energy. And my workouts would suffer that day, the next day and sometimes a third day too.
After this happened a few times, I decided I’d better wallow in that awful feeling for a spell. I forced myself to notice why that feeling happened. “Oh yeah. It was 800 billion m&m’s I had 15 minutes ago.” Now, when I see the m&m’s in the bowl in the kitchenette at the office, my first physical reaction is, “Those make me feel awful.” Makes it much easier to pass them by.
My advice? Don’t beat yourself up too much. But DO “feel the pain” so you can learn from it. It’ll help you resist the temptation of going overboard the next time.
It might take several times to get it right. But keep at it! You will get there.