Thursday, January 27, 2011

My least favorite four letter word, and how to use it

I hate the word diet. Can't stand it. It's a word people use when they hate themselves for getting fat to describe the next gimmick to help themselves feel better. It's a word that describes a temporary set of wacky rules and restrictions. It's about eating a bunch of special cookies, or eating nothing but steak, or spending big bucks on mail-order food. It's a word that evokes failure, both the failure to keep healthy (else why would you need one) and failure to get healthy when you're not (else why do we need so many variations).

Compare that usage with how we use the word diet in connection with animals. We use the word diet to describe what animals do eat; we use diet to describe what we don't.

The major reason I started running back in early 2009 was to help with weight loss. I had ballooned up to about 250 prior to that. Most of my friends wouldn't have guessed me that heavy, but my knees sure knew it. I started off with very little knowledge about nutrition, but I spent a lot of time studying, reading books, searching the interwebs, and educated myself about how my body works. In that way, running and eating are much the same to me; they are both about learning my body and how it works.

Once I'd lost my weight, I was looking at diet not as something I did to lose the weight but as a description of what I eat (or at least should eat). Diet at that point was a set of guiding permanent principles of how I should best eat to be healthy all the time, not a method for getting pseudo-healthy by getting thin.

Over the last few months, I have lost sight of those nutritional principles. I can blame the holidays, and vacation, and travel, and a host of other things, but in the end it doesn't matter. I've put on a few pounds - this last marathon was my heaviest - and it's time for them to go. But not by going on a diet, the four letter word. By returning to my diet - my nutritional principles.

The way I actually control my weight is by calorie tracking. And that's easy enough. More calories out than in and I lose weight. Simple math. But that has nothing to do with my diet - the description of what I eat.

I could lose weight by eating nothing but Twinkies, so long as the calorie math works. And I'd be thin. But I wouldn't be healthy.

I've spent the last two years reading everything I can get my hands on about diet and running (my wife jokes that I practice law and have a family on the side). I'm not claiming to be an expert or that what I do works for everybody (that's the "see your doctor" disclaimer), but these are the nutritional principles that guide my heating habits:
  1. Refined sugars are bad. Except when exercising.
  2. Whole grain carbs are better than not whole grain carbs.
  3. Fat is good, if you get it from the right place, but should be low otherwise.
  4. Highly processed foods have a bunch of gunk in them; natural foods are better.
  5. Optimal balance is about 60% carbs, 15% fat, 15% protein.
That's about it. My daily calorie intake is carefully monitored (I'm aware of the imprecise nature of this, and trust to the law of averages to keep me in check) and my nutrition as well. The end result is that I eat a lot of things like oatmeal, whole wheat pasta, fruit and vegetables. I try to limit my meat intake to once a day (I generally think we eat way too much meat) but I am fine with most sources as long as they are relatively low fat. Buffalo, chicken, lean beef and salmon are my favorites. I don't eat anything with refined sugar (table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sucrose) at all, except for Gatorade-type sports drinks and gels when I'm doing longer runs or races. I also don't do any artificial sweeteners like aspartame or sucralose. Or caffeine, except when I race (when I take it abundantly).

I should make sure that these are the general principles I live by. They're not the things I do no matter what. I do eat guacamole and chips, or maybe a bacon cheeseburger, or indulge in a cheese plate, but only occasionally. And as a result, when I do, I make sure it's tasty. No way I'm doing a hamburger from McDonald's - it'll be Five Guys or similar.

I have a lot of reasons for this philosophy that I might detail later. Much of it is related to evolutionary nutrition and the diet of our ancestors. It certainly works well for me (when I'm true to the principles) and I always feel great.


  1. The fact that you are a fat-burning machine certainly doesn't hurt your efforts. You are amazing.

  2. I completely agree with the perception of the word "diet" I that you started your post with. It's not smoething anyone would, or could ever stay on henceforth and forever. I am so proud of you for staying on top of you eating habits. I know how hard it is.