I am seriously running out of steam. Since competing in the Provincial Championships in June, I have had a rough time staying on track with nutrition. Although I know that consistency is key, part of me wants to take an extra week off from working out and sneak in some extra treats. My first off-season is proving to be much rougher than I thought.
Today while sitting at my desk at work I got hit with a hankering for something sweet and fatty with a chocolate/nut flavour; no cake, no cookies, just chocolate and nuts. I knew very well that my mind was trying to comfort myself with food (it’s been a stressful work week), but no matter how much willpower and knowledge I have, the need to self-soothe outweighed my logic. I stood in the health-food section at the grocery store by my office with 4 different treats (cashew-coconut bites, almond butter granola bars, chocolate covered peanuts and a chocolate protein bar) in my hand, seriously contemplating getting all of them. These seemingly “healthy” and “natural” items might appear to be a good alternative to conventional snacks, but they are loaded sugar (even naturally occurring like in dates or raisins, or natural sweeteners like brown rice syrup and agave) and fat from nuts. In small portions these are super beneficial, but as with everything else, it can easily morph into too much of a good thing that can lead to gaining body fat, indigestion and bloating. So as I stood there imaging eating these delicious snacks with a hot cup of coffee at my desk, I made the conscious decision to choose just one and to enjoy every bite of it. No guilt, no binge eating, just enjoyment. I chose the protein bar because I knew that it was the most balanced item that would satisfy my craving without leaving me with this heavy feeling in my belly. 15g protein, 8g fat, 26g carbs (9g from sugar – brown rice syrup). Now you might be thinking “What’s the big deal?” and “What’s so bad about that?”. Well the reality is that as a bodybuilder whose diet comprises of whole foods, with lots of fiber and no sweeteners, and who is very regimented with meals and nutrition, that bar is not in line with my diet. Will I gain body fat from that bar? No, but the psychological impact of that additional off-plan snack is enough to send anyone into a tailspin. That’s the reality of bodybuilding and the reality of being lean and muscular with lots of definition all the time; you can get a nutritional burnout. In my case, this burnout has impacted my psychological well-being and I think this is where a lot of bodybuilders can get into the space of disordered eating patterns. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories from athletes, many of whom are recently retired, confessing that they developed some pretty nasty habits whether in contest prep or not and felt super guilty about eating foods that weren’t “perfect” or whole.
A lot of fitness and diet gurus would tell you that everything in moderation is key. They might say to eat slower and put your fork down in between bites. They might say do something healthy like drink a glass of water or go for a walk to try to distract yourself. I have tried all of those concepts and they are a big load of crap that just don’t work for me or for most people either. It’s like telling a heavy drinker to put their glass of scotch down in between sips or to only have half of a beer; it’s not going to work. Most people can’t handle just one cookie or a few fries. If you’ve ever had a problem overeating or binging or overdoing it on your weekly treat meal and turning it into an entire day instead (as I have and still do), then those concepts of moderation just won’t do.
Not all hope is lost though. The way that I see it is that these slip ups are not as intense as they used to be and since I am far more advanced in my training, my body handles it a lot better than it would have even just a year ago. After a few days of working out and eating nourishing foods, the bloat goes away and the definition finds its way back. It’s not about looking a certain way, and a definitely don’t have any distorted view of how my body looks, in fact it’s actually the opposite. The way that I feel physically sometimes doesn’t line up with how I actually look. I’m always amazed with my leanness and definition, but I don’t always feel it. Many times after a treat meal or an extra little something, I get that heavy bloaty feeling, but when I look in the mirror I’m still pretty close to stage ready, which is the goal of every bodybuilder even in off-season.
What I’ve come to realize is that unless I am in a contest prep my willpower is not enough on its own. Contest prep creates such clarity for my goal that nothing tempts me and slip ups just don’t happen. I’ve always been able to get super focused and completely block out even the thought of going off-plan. I’m not bragging here at all; it actually amazes me that this is the case. I know that it’s because the goal is so clear and the structure and path is laid out in front of me by my coach so there’s no guesswork, I have all of the answers already so I don’t even think about it. Since this is my first time in about a year and a half of not being in a prep, this is foreign territory for me, and old/unhealthy habits are popping up again.
My post-contest recovery phase from my coach included 2 weekly off-plan treat meals and at first I was excited, but then I realized that it was hard to control myself with that second meal; it always snowballed into an entire day. I never felt physically good after, who does after overeating? But in the last couple of weeks I’ve come to see that it is helpful and gives me a bit of leeway if my husband and I decide to order in Chinese food or if I decide to partake in my office’s weekly Friday brunch or for when I have my monthly book club meet-up. Letting go of guilt is helping to alleviate the potential of the “ah screw it” moments that we all go through when we decide to plow through a bag of chips or bucket of pasta.
The best thing that works for me time and again is to mix up my meals throughout the week. As much as I love meal prepping and appreciate that it simplifies my life, I also know that eating the same thing every single day gets boring. Even if you love these meals and flavours, it gets old really fast. So my goal going forward is to change up at least one thing I eat each day. That doesn’t mean entirely new meals each day because that would be super time consuming, but more so along the lines of swapping sources of macros to keep it interesting. Instead of white rice, I’ll opt for baked potato or rice pasta with tomato sauce. Instead of oats, I’ll try sweet potato fries or sprouted grain toast. Instead of grilled tofu, I’ll go for tempeh meatloaf or a veggie burger patty. And every few days I’ll swap my rice and beans for sweet potato – black bean brownies or chickpea-oat flour muffins. These simple swaps are super easy to prep in advance and massively impact how I feel; it’s a healthy alternative treat to keep me feeling good without feeling deprived or restricted. I think that’s the key when trying to be healthy, you have to find what you can do for the rest of your life without feeling restricted.
I’m certainly not perfect and I’m still dealing with trying to find the right healthy mix for me, as I think most of us are, but I’m definitely getting closer and making progress each day. Each of us is completely different, so this might not work for you. You might be better off including a small treat each day (like a couple squares of dark chocolate or a small bowl of Pop Chips) or maybe you just can’t handle any treat meals at all without overdoing it each time, that’s ok too. Just pay attention to what you need and what comes naturally with ease to you. It might take some time and tweaking to figure it out (as it has with me), but once you get there and gain that self-awareness, you’ll never fear overeating again.
Start Strong, Finish Strong