Yes, and no.
Comments like these – I didn’t realize it at the time, but they really stuck with me! After graduating, and deciding to let my aches and pains heal with a little time off from running, I started to believe that I was going to need to make serious changes to my diet in order to be healthy and to maintain a weight that felt good (as a non-collegiate athlete). Those thoughts mostly just caused a lot of anxiety, which actually resulted in me feeling less healthy and making less healthy choices. After a few months of wandering, I finally found my way out of the confusion that is our “health-minded” (*cough* diet-minded) culture. Back to normal, thank you God!
The truthful answer to this question is – yes, I am eating less now than I was as an athlete. But it doesn’t feel like some kind of punishment – we still get to attend to hunger and fullness in the same way. When I was averaging over 20,000 steps a day, I was way more hungry. Now, I don’t need multiple saga plates to be full. Today, my eating follows a similar pattern to back then (wow, 8 months ago) – and it feels about the same. I still have to be smart and think about what I eat to get the results I want – loads of energy, a positive mood, and a healthy, happy body – but I did then too. I’ve also found many ways to stay active besides running (though I may try to start again this week!). If you’re making a life transition, I want you to know that it’s not necessary to try to replicate the calorie burn or workload of whatever you used to do just to stay fit. I’m sure you know that, but sometimes there are some subconscious thoughts that hang out in the back of our minds attempting to undermine what you are doing now. I didn’t attempt to maintain my previous weekly mileage on the elliptical or anything like that, but I did have a strange feeling that no workout I did was really good enough. Now that I’ve pinpointed where these thoughts came from, they don’t have any more power. This is so important to remember: You get to hold all of your past accomplishments as treasures – that was you who did that! – and achieve new goals, too. Never be jealous of your former self.
We all know that energy balance (calories eaten = calories expended) is important if you want to avoid putting an extra weight burden on your body. However, this can be managed by normal people who are simply active for fun and health. Walking for transportation, playing tag in the yard, cleaning the house – all of these expend calories. And when you do structured exercise, you don’t have to push it to the limit every single time. Runners take easy days, too. Approach the body with love and respect, and respect the amount of energy or strength you have on a given day. As far as calorie intake, our body’s hunger and fullness cues are designed to maintain a healthy weight, especially when our diets are full of natural foods and promote satiety – meaning they contain plenty of fiber-rich carbs, healthy fats in modest portions, and an adequate amount of lean protein. There were times when this came naturally – think of when you were a little kid. Children tend to self-regulate their intake depending upon their needs, with some exceptions and until cultural factors begin to interfere. Re-learning to use hunger and fullness as your guide for eating can be one of the most freeing things we ever do! This is generally referred to as developing “mindful” or “intuitive” eating skills, and is correlated with positive mental and physical health outcomes, as well as lower BMI and increased desire to be physically active. (Check out this ancient blog post I did on the topic… I’ve learned a lot more since then!) And, though this is a big contradiction to intuitive eating, I also believe that using a food tracking app like MyFitnessPal can be very helpful for many people who want to take charge of their nutrition (always in combination with listening to the body’s cues). This can help you assure that you are consuming all the nutrients you need, while also helping you to learn about portion sizes and to understand which eating habits are serving you well, and which aren’t. Research has proven these effective for some purposes as well, though you should be consider whether it’s right for you or not based on your personal history (e.g., issues with restrictive eating may mean it could set you back, while a sound mind and a general out-of-touch-ness with your daily eating habits may mean it could help you). It’s not a perfect system, but it can be a good tool to help you meal plan for your week, and a good way to rediscover healthy habits that feel good after the holiday season. Both of these work because they put you in control of your own choices. It’s completely up to you to decide how to best fuel yourself, enjoy food, and respect your body’s needs. There’s no force – and that feels good.
Speaking of programmed “diets” not actually being necessary (if you’ve turned on your TV, I can think of a couple of commercials that might come to your mind) did you know that when caloric restriction is too severe, many strange psychological and physiological changes can occur? These include lethargy, preoccupation with food, increased food cravings, an increased occurrence of binge eating, loss of lean muscle mass, slowed hair and nail growth, and of course, the slowing of the metabolism to support life at this lower food intake (so you burn less calories a day). All of these have been observed in scientific studies, and occur because the body assumes starvation! My point is – we want to feed ourselves enough, because too little can be counter-productive. So much of the current health culture, believe it or not, focuses on bringing the body into submission – “destroying” it in the gym, eating “squeaky clean…” but if we stop and think about that mindset away from all the adrenaline, we realize that a ridiculously balanced approach is best. We have to come from a place of self-care, or all hope is lost. Self-compassion is crucial to your mental health! If you aren’t showing kindness to yourself… life is going to be harder. However, I really believe in discipline as well – through personal experience (especially in school and in athletics) I’ve learned that without discipline, I feel a bit lost, and pretty unhappy. Discipline in the things that matter to you – for me, everything from prayer, to diet, to school, to making time for family, to lifting weights, cardio fitness, and even stretching – is what keeps you going when motivation wanes. And, it will. However, discipline should always come from a place of love – if you love yourself, you want the best for yourself in the future, and often that requires doing the hard things now. Just smart, good things – not unreasonable things.
The best thing I’ve been doing lately that has helped me to develop more discipline is planning. The main 3 areas I’ve been focusing on are 1) planning a general template of what meals and snacks I’ll eat for the week (and from that it’s so easy to construct a grocery list), 2) scribbling down a tentative workout schedule for the week, and 3) loosely scheduling my day/week to see when I need to get certain things done. I do it all in one notebook, and I can scribble and change things at any time because I don’t care what it looks like. I’m so excited to approach this semester with some semblance of organization!
The mindset change for me in 2018, if I had to sum it up, is taking charge again because I believe in myself. What will really take you places is your “why-power,” rather than “will-power” – having a “why,” or a purpose behind what you are doing. If you’re like me, and you’ve got goals and dreams of helping others in big ways, taking charge of things in your own life (even just in small ways) will prepare you to be strong enough to help them when the time comes. Even now – when you feel good about your choices, you are less defensive in conversation with others, and are able to give more to them. If you are in Christ, He has already paid to break any stronghold you might have or any issue that’s holding you back. I encourage you to ask in prayer for whatever area you need help developing. Man plans his course, but the Lord establishes his steps (Proverbs 16:9). And remember not to worry about what others are doing or how their lives appear. A way that works for them may not be right for you, and a plan God has for you may not be for them. We each have our own struggles and strengths – so the lives of two strong people could appear very different from the outside.
Never let others’ comments sneak in and influence your thoughts without considering whether or not they have merit. Use your brain, and get expert advice if you are concerned about any area of your life. One day, maybe your registered dietitian (*cough* – me) can certifiably help you separate the truth from the lies! Until then, I’ll be continuing to share my experiences figuring it all out.
Psst – Keep your eyes out for a yummy, seasonal recipe from me soon!
Much love for each of you 😍