My diet has changed too many times to count. I have cut out dairy, meat, eggs, wheat, and even entire food groups – high fat low carb, low fat high carb, you name it, all in the quest to find the “healthiest” diet. What does “healthy” even mean? If I think back to my teens and early 20s, I’d have probably said healthy meant slim. I had no clue about macro or micronutrients. I thought it was all calories in vs calories out. It is almost a taboo to talk about the common (but not OK) struggles with food many of us face. This is an honest and open post to reflect on my personal journey to understand food and my body.
I spent 10 years, from age 16 to 26, as a vegetarian. The majority of the time I had no dairy, convincing myself I was lactose intolerant, and for some of it I turned completely vegan. I am still unsure whether the dairy thing was real or not. It felt very real at the time, but in hindsight, it was a great control mechanism to stop me gorging on pizza, ice cream or cheese. Vegetarianism, to a lesser degree, also offered that element of control.
I have used MyFitnessPal on and off for years. Out of curiosity, I looked through the database to see what I was eating when I started logging in 2011. I was shocked! I thought I had a pretty healthy diet then. I knew I drank too much (I was 23 and living in a large and sociable house with friends) but I thought everything else was healthy.
Below are a couple of completed days so you get a feel of my 23-year-old-self’s diet. Back then I would have classed the first day as a “healthy” day, however I see a very different story now. The table shows that I ate 500 calories throughout the day until dinner – which was probably around 7pm. I was also commuting to work via bike (4 miles each way) and cycling to and from the gym (another 2 miles) at lunch for a 45-minute circuit or spin class. There are vegetables in the evening and nothing too processed, but my body was starving throughout much of the day.
The second day is even more painful to read. Even fewer calories throughout the day until the evening then BOOM! An entire bottle of wine (!) and a gin & tonic, along with the smallest of dinners. The hilarious thing is I looked up the day of the week, and it was a MONDAY! Who on earth drinks that much at the beginning of the week? My 23-year-old self, it seems. My food calories were less than 1000. My poor liver.
The next entry I can trace in MyFitnessPal was in 2015. I was slowly beginning to incorporate fish back into my diet and was still exercising. However, I was in a job with a 35 mile commute each way and LOTS of travel around England and Wales. I almost entirely stopped cycling and mainly ran with a swim session and some weights throughout the week.
I was beginning to educate myself about nutrition, especially about the importance of protein when you exercise as much as I do. However, my calories were still incredibly low and flicking through the other days they were all fairly similar.
I do have to say, in the past I did not log my weekends, often because I’d be eating out more and would struggle to keep track, but also I wouldn’t want to know how many calories I ate (or drank more like). So, this is a typical week day.
At the end of 2016 I tried the most stupid diet ever – the ketogenic diet. For those of you who don’t know it, it is a very low carb, high fat and moderate protein diet. All processed carbs (wheat, oats, pasta, sugar etc), starchy veg (potatoes, carrots, squash etc) fruit and alcohol is banned and you replace it with coconut oil, MCT, butter etc. with some fatty meats and greens. As you can see, meat has also been added back into my diet at this point.
Now, I know some people feel very strongly about the ketogenic diet. If you have epilepsy or similar conditions, it can really help reduce seizures. If you’re also trying to get shredded for a physique competition, it also has its place. However for me, who is very active and likes to have a little treat every now and then, it was miserable. I was lethargic, my concentration was poor and I had no drive to exercise. It also negatively impacted my relationship with loved ones, as I was a terrible person to be around.
And before you keto lovers get on the bandwagon and start saying I didn’t do it for long enough, MyFitnessPal shows I did it for a couple of months, and I was pretty strict. Yes I lost (water) weight but piled it back on after a whiff of carbs. It is unsustainable and not one I will do again.
For info: BP coffee is black coffee with a pure form of coconut oil (MCT) mixed in. Some people also mix butter in too.
Ok, so we are now up to 2017. This year I completed a half ironman distance triathlon, which is a 1.2 mile/ 1.9km open water swim (in a weedy lake), a 60 mile/ 98km hilly bike ride and a 13.1 mile/ 21km hilly half marathon run on the hottest day of the year. I therefore really had to switch my nutrition up a gear. Gone were the days of near-starvation, hello a balance of carbs, protein and fats which were dependent on my training that day.
I will go into greater detail on my nutrition to fuel my sport in a later post. It is still work-in-progress, but at the moment my typical WEEK day’s eating looks like as below.
Just so you get an idea of what a typical weekend looks like, I am trying to log EVERY DAY now and not just the weekdays when I know I can eat healthiest (and therefore I see biased data). The below table shows last Saturday’s food. I usually relax my stringent eating and training routine at the weekends so I didn’t exercise, enjoyed a large homemade curry with rice and naan and yes, there is still alcohol. I am not attempting to be as lean as possible so I do indulge in weekend treats. After all, I am a human and not a robot.
There are a number of very obvious changes I have made in 2017. Firstly, meat is now a part of my diet. Independent Kitchen began when I was vegetarian and therefore many of the recipes are just that. I may get a backlash from some readers by posting non-vegetarian content, but I feel healthier and happier since relinquishing that controlling aspect of my life.
Secondly, I am eating 6 smaller meals a day. I love this way of eating as I never feel hungry, and if I do there is always a snack around the corner. Also, look at all that food!!!! Only a little higher in calories but much higher in volume, satiation, and micronutrients from all the vegetables. More on this in a future post. If you use MyFitnessPal, you can change the names and numbers of meals on the web version.
Thirdly, I am eating a steady amount of protein throughout the day. I am pretty active and exercise almost every day, so this steady influx of protein aids my recovery and helps me retain muscle.
Finally, my carbs are really front-loaded at the beginning of my day. This is because I usually exercise first thing. Having my carbs before and immediately after exercise also helps with recovery as I’m quickly restoring my depleted glycogen stores in my muscles so they are ready to work the next day. More on this in a future post.
As a side note, there has been about a half a stone difference in my weight between 2011 and 2017. This does not bother me as I feel faster, stronger and far fitter than I ever did in my early to mid 20s. My perspective on “what is healthy” is completely different. I have grown up and learned to respect what my body is able to do.
I hope that this honest post will hit home with some of you, as I know chronic undereating is common. This post has mainly been a reflection for myself to see how far I have come and to help solidify my focus on keeping my body fit, strong and well fuelled. This is the new focus of Independent Kitchen.