Calories Burned is Not a Training Measure

After finishing their work with me on an off-season strength training program, three of my kids decided to try out the various cardio machines at the gym.  For them, it was big fun propelling themselves quickly through space on an elliptical and discovering that they could play solitaire on the screen of the treadmill while walking or running … or skipping.  They were having a blast and were asking to come back again the next day.

After a few minutes, they excitedly reported back to me about their progress on the machines: “Mom!  I’ve burned 50 calories!”  Little internal groan and a feeling of deflation on my part.  I knew they were proud of their efforts and I wanted them to be, but seriously?  12 year old kids talking calories burned?  “OK, … ” I said, nodding, “but I don’t care about the calories.  How fast are you going?  How much distance have you covered?  How much fun are you having?”

I talk to my kids about moving more weight and doing more reps and sets, about gaining strength.  I talk to them about moving more quickly, setting a faster pace, and going a further distance.  I talk to them about giving a solid effort and becoming a little more capable each time they work.  I talk to them about training.

But that’s not what a big piece of our exercise culture is teaching them.  The most easily accessible feedback for them from the machines was a calorie measure, a measure of what they had lost through exercise, not what they had gained through training.  Yes, weight management and creating a calorie deficit is an important piece for many people, but it should not be the centerpiece.  By establishing a focus on training gains, rather than calorie losses, we recalibrate the exercise experience and our relationship with food.  Doing so encourages long-term participation in a process and fosters a greater sense of confidence, accomplishment, and joy.  We owe it to our kids to help them reframe exercise as training and to think of nutritious food as more than just calories that need burning.  We owe it to ourselves too.

Cheat Day

As we waited for our lunch order to arrive on the first day of our beach vacation, I watched a woman walk past in a t-shirt that read “Cheat Day”.  I wondered what that phrase meant to her.  I wondered if she would classify my order, bacon cheeseburger and a glass of wine, as a “cheat”.  The concept of a “cheat day” is prevalent in our culture, but something about it feels wrong to me.  Whatever the original intent of the notion of “cheat day”, at its heart, this concept reinforces what for many is an unhealthy relationship with food.Cheat-Day-Funny-Diet

Ideally, we would be making our daily food choices strictly from the real, whole foods that have been in existence for centuries.  One of Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules” which I often consider is, “Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”  Surely our great-grandmothers would have eaten sugary or greasy foods, foods that would be considered by many as “cheat day” foods.  The difference is in the availability and attitude toward those foods.

The foods that we often consider to be “cheat” foods are the ones that usually take extra time to prepare; they would be available to our predecessors only on special occasions.  If you’ve ever made homemade ice cream before, even with an electric churner, you know that this process takes several hours.  A hundred years ago and even today, people generally don’t have that kind of spare time, and so as a matter of necessity, many foods that we now view as special treats in a once a day kind of way would have been special treats in a once a season or once a year kind of way.  If you don’t have a great-grandmother to talk to about this difference, Laura Ingalls Wilder provides some great descriptions of these types of foods and the traditions of celebration and community that surround them in her “Little House” books.laura Ingalls Wilder  Even the foods that inhabit this space are different.  For our great grandmothers, foods that were out of season or not local were considered special.  Asparagus brought in an iced box car from California to Connecticut was an indulgence.  One of the exceptional treats Laura Ingalls Wilder describes most vividly from her home in Minnesota (at least in the TV version) is a Florida orange.

Today we outsource a lot of our food production, and as a culture we do that quite well.  Instead those special occasion foods, the production of which often brought families and communities together, get mass produced in factories, often with artificial, chemical ingredients that our bodies don’t even recognize.  These items exist in such great supply that even if we choose real foods over them 100 times to 1, we’d barely made it through the day.  Their abundance erodes their status as celebratory treats, and the community aspect often gets lost entirely.  Instead these foods are relegated to temptations we try to avoid or sometimes secretly, guiltily, indulge in.  This emotional and moral dimension that gets ascribed to food contributes to the unease I feel about the concept of “cheat day”.  While our predecessors could savor specialty foods, knowing that it might be months of remembering before they could enjoy them again, we have replaced this kind of joy with guilt.  We try to avoid foods we view as temptations, as our downfall, and when we do eat them we view ourselves as “cheaters”.  We use food as a way to judge our own and others choices.  Food has become a moral barometer, a way to identify some as wholesome and others as something less.

It is a struggle for most of us to find a reasonable balance between occasional treat foods and the real foods our bodies need in this culture of abundantly available “cheat day foods”.  This is a struggle our great grandmothers didn’t necessarily face.   We would be better served to recognize that, despite outward appearances, we all struggle in some way to find a balance between the food our bodies require to thrive and the food that allows marketers to thrive.  Understanding, not judgement, will get us closer to a healthy relationship with food, ourselves, and those around us.

Eating for Strength

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.