From about the middle of last year through to January this year, I started to slowly put on weight. It wasn’t sudden and, given the weight I was when I started my exercise journey in 2013, I was still significantly slimmer than my heaviest weigh-in. However, I was still training regularly – three runs and regular cross-training. But still my weight slowly marched upwards. What was going on?
I’ve been pretty disciplined when it comes to my eating. Although I do allow myself so “cheat” foods – I have a voracious sweet tooth – I generally eat fairly clean. But, in the latter part of the the year I stopped tracking my meals as closely I used to. Part of it was fatigue and part of it was laziness – entering meals into the Fitbit app is pretty easy but it was one more thing to do when I was busy.
The net result was, I think, I let my good eating habits slip as I wasn’t seeing what I was eating on paper (or on a screen). Recording your meals is a good way of imposing some self-imposed “guilt” when I don’t eat healthily.
However, I’ve also been giving some more thought to what I’m eating. Based on the data I’m getting from the Fitbit app about the number of calories I’m eating and the number I’m expending my weight should be falling pretty quickly back to where I want it.
My goal weight isn’t so much a question of aesthetics as one of running performance. I know I run faster when I weigh less. Makes sense doesn’t it? I can run faster because I’m carrying less stuff along the trail.
What’s in a calorie?
That’s lead me to reading about the humble calorie – that energy measure many of us rely on as the absolute measure of food intake when we’re trying to control the number on the scales.
While many doctors suggest that the best way to manage weight is to eat a balanced, calorie controlled diet it’s really important to note the science tells us not calories are the same.
A fascinating article by the BBC’s Cynthia Garber and Nicola Twiley titled “Why the calorie is broken” says
The discrepancies between the number on the label and the calories that are actually available in our food, combined with individual variations in how we metabolise that food, can add up to much more than the 200 calories a day that nutritionists often advise cutting in order to lose weight.
Their research, which includes some quite detailed analysis of how calories counts in food are calculated, and how food is metabolised, suggests there are so many variables to consider when counting calories that perhaps we need to look at differnt ways of working hard out what to eat.
Also, how we cook – down to how rare or well done we like our steak – makes a signifcant differnce. When we eat matters? Our gender matters. Our age matters. Interestingly, genetics seem to matter less than we previously thought.
What is coming out of the most recent research is that the tools used for calculating the calorific value of food is very old – in excess of 100 years – and many of our assumptions are flawed and need to be challenged.
The “right” food
I’ve also been reading “Older, Faster, Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer” and have just hit the section on nutrition. And that’s got me thinking more about what I eat. It’s important to note Webb’s book is about a journey towards becoming an elite marathon runner in her age group.
Part of the focus that author Margaret Webb brings is the need to not think about losing weight per se but to work towards exchanging fat for muscle. And, to do that, you need to eat a diet that provides the right balance of energy-giving nutrients and building blocks for the muscle.
Typically, runners focus on lots of carbs before a long run. But Webb’s nutritionist suggests cutting out pasta, wheat, cereals, rice, legumes, most dairy products (cottage cheese stays in!), all processed foods, junk foods and sugars.
What’s that leave?
Webb’s nutritionist suggests thinking about meals in thirds – one third protein, a third as healthy fats and the rest as complex carbs.
The eating plan isn’t especially complex and well worth looking at as it can be easily adapted to most people. And my gut feeling is the food will probably be slightly less expensive than many of the processed foods I’m already buying.
The plan from now on
I’m a simple person and really don;t have the time to deal with a complex meal regimen. So, I need to find a way to manage my food a little better than I have over the last few months and ensure I’m fuelling correctly for training and recovery.
That means exerting some will power over my sweet tooth. My plan there is to only eat small portions and weigh things. For example, rather than eating a nice bowl of ice cream, I’ll limit myself to just 150g and only a couple of times a week.
I know they’re not particularly useful calories but life is more than training.
I’m off breakfast cereals and have replaced breakfast with a protein shake. Breakfast cereals are usually very carb heavy and often have sweeteners added. I don’t need more of either of those things.
For the rest of my meals, I’m trying to ensure I eat more fruit and vegetables and lean meat.
I’m also back to weighing and recording what I eat. It’s a bit of a drag but unless I know what I’m putting into my body I have no way to understand what effect different foods are having on me.