The other night my husband and I were able to go out to dinner at a nice restaurant. That doesn’t happen often with four kids; thank you overnight summer camp! We shared seared tuna, strip steak, crab cakes, asparagus, and potatoes. At some point our server came by to check in: “Can I get anything else for you this evening?” I looked up and said, “Actually … I’m gonna need some more food.” His eyes got huge; his jaw dropped, and he looked at me like I was crazy. He quickly recovered, and my husband asked him to please bring the menu again. Totally hilarious! In fairness to the server it probably looked like I had eaten more than I had; I don’t really like seared tuna – too raw for me.
Several years ago, this kind of exchange would never have happened. I used to be the “cheap date” in the jokes ordering salads or appetizers as my main meal, and sort of saw that as a point of pride. I used to believe that 1200 calories was the target to aim for and that adding cardio on top of restricting my calories would get me thinner faster. I knew nothing about bodies going into “starvation mode”, slowing metabolisms and the self-preservation response of storing up any future calories as fat. The way I understood my experience with running in relation to food reinforced my belief in calorie restriction and lead me to the notion that fueling up before and during exercise was overrated. I often ran first thing in the morning and attributed any tiredness I felt to the early hour or to lack of coffee. When I ran in the afternoon after work, I figured any energy deficit was purely the result of a tough day teaching middle school. I was always able to run on an empty stomach. It might not have been my best run, and maybe I felt like crap, but I didn’t see a connection to food. Even when I trained for marathons, I only ever played around with the gooey refueling gels that my friends consumed. Mostly I just started running, drank water on the way, and 20+ miles later I stopped. My focus was on completion of the task, and I loved running so much that I rarely felt bad while I was on the road; I ran on adrenaline, on a runner’s high. The fact that I was lethargic and lost focus fairly easily at other points during the day didn’t seem related. And in truth the connection is a little more complicated than a one to one correlation between food and energy levels once you factor in sleep deficits, stress, irregular schedules, and overtraining.
My attitudes towards food have changed pretty substantially since I started training strength, largely because my environment has changed. Instead of reading articles about how few calories I should eat and the “benefits of fasted cardio”, I hear strength coaches tell me to eat more. Diego’s words: “If you want to build strength, you may have to eat more than you are comfortable with.” Instead of stories of calorie restriction, I hear Emily tell me stories about restaurant servers routinely collecting the menus to leave after she orders, thinking that she has also ordered for Diego. The two major differences in my eating now are in the amount of protein I consume on a regular basis throughout the day and the number of times I eat throughout the day. I aim for a protein and a produce at every snack or meal, and I aim to eat about every three hours, since that’s how long it takes your stomach to empty. Most of the time if I’ve been eating properly, I am hungry at that point. In my experience, a properly fed body provides appropriate cues to eat, whereas, a 1200 calorie starved body often gave up on hunger cues, seeming to understand that I wasn’t listening.
I’ve made these changes in my approach toward food because I trust my coaches and mentors, but I’ve also experienced a difference in what I am able to do and how I feel throughout the day. An underfueled run and an underfueled lift are two totally different experiences. While I habitually ran on low fuel, the first day that I lifted after not having eaten properly was the last day I did that. The experience I had that day of struggling with one of my heavier warmup sets and knowing that I hadn’t eaten in five hours was undeniable, and I have done my best to avoid repeating that mistake. I have had the privilege of witnessing the same kind of “ah-ha” moment for female clients when I help them drill down through their food intake for the day to shed light on why a previously manageable weight feels unmoveable on a different day. And even more rewarding is watching them make the same sort of healthful changes in their own eating patterns, focusing on protein, moving away from concerns about the number of calories consumed, moving towards adequate intake of healthful food at regular intervals.
While the effects of being underfueled under the bar can be profound, so too are the effects throughout the day. Whereas fatigue and lethargy are the nearly constant companions of 1200 calories a day, consistent levels of energy are the compliment of eating for strength. Add to that an emphasis on protein, the main nutrient that women routinely get in short supply, and you’ve got a recipe for a healthier self. But at an even more basic level, it feels good to eat with the goal of making myself stronger rather than not eating to try to make myself smaller. Working towards being more will always feel better than working towards being less.