As a coach, I’ve always enjoyed that first practice after the Thanksgiving break. Our swimmers are eager to talk about their experiences with family, friends, and old teammates. They also love to compare notes. “What does your family serve? How much did you eat?” Inevitably, many openly admit to packing on some unwanted pounds and to feeling a little sluggish after the holiday.
I get it. Indulgence is a tough thing to avoid when you’re surrounded by loved ones in a warm, familiar, comfortable setting. But is weight gain truly inevitable? Shouldn’t the break in regular action be exactly that – a break, one in which our bodies are able to heal? If we’re going to overindulge, why not load up on foods that won’t leave us feeling sluggish, glued to the throne, and heavier? Why not enjoy the foods our bodies have the capacity to process with greater ease and efficiency?
We don’t have to look too far for these items; they’re in the bowls that surround the dead bird on the table. Starches like sweet potatoes, corn, beans, and mashed potatoes, along with non-starchy vegetables are all part of a traditional Thanksgiving experience with none of the fat, cholesterol, and dietary acid (assuming these items aren’t bathing in butter). With just a little creativity, these plant-based whole foods can easily outshine the bird. My wife put together some fantastic dishes (check out Jaime’s Thanksgiving entry for more details) with enough for seconds, thirds, dessert, and leftovers. And because it doesn’t come with any of the bird baggage, overindulgence doesn’t facilitate significant weight gain or that familiar holiday hangover.
Our traditional diet is inhibiting recovery, not promoting it.
Every successful season begins with a healthy, fit, and uninjured athlete (stole that from Rich Roll’s podcast with Chris Hauth, http://www.richroll.com/podcast/chris-hauth-2/). As the season progresses, a coach will increase the athlete’s work load by manipulating the training volume, density, and intensity. Experience teaches a coach not only when to push by upping the work load, but more importantly, we learn when to back off. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, which is part of the reason many coaches strive to create balanced periodization, a plan that incorporates central endurance, peripheral endurance, and specificity work (aerobic utilization, anaerobic utilization, and fine-motor skills). However, many coaches also understand that athletes aren’t always in a position to make the best decisions away from athletic environments. Coaches have always had to find a way to address the detraining effects of downtime and poor nutrition. Historically, we’ve favored volume because 1) we understand the positive training effects of capacity work, 2) it’s the easiest variable to control, and 3) no matter what an athlete puts in his or her body, he or she will most likely appear to be in good shape after 6-8 weeks of workouts, although we now understand that even a seemingly fit person can be “metabolically obese” (Dr. Michael Greger, http://nutritionfacts.org/2016/11/22/how-a-low-carb-diet-is-metabolically-like-being-obese).
This puts us right in the middle of a “chicken or the egg” scenario. Do coaches sometimes rely on higher training volumes because athletes make poor nutritional decisions, or do athletes not worry about nutrition because they know the coach is going to whip them into shape?
The quality vs. quantity debate will rage on forever in this sport and that’s fine, it’s a fun debate to have with colleagues and it’s part of what makes this sport so enjoyable. But if you look closely at what successful programs actually are doing, you’ll see that it’s not always an “either/or” scenario, rather a carefully designed balancing act with an emphasis on recovery.
An athlete’s ability to recover will largely determine his or her success. Simply put, recovery occurs when healing outpaces injury. If we know every successful season starts with a healthy and uninjured athlete, and if understand that part of what makes a coach successful is knowing when to back off, why don’t we talk more about backing off the very foods that slow us down, inhibit recovery, and facilitate weigh gain? Yes, beverage choices play a significant role, but let’s stop pretending beer’s the only factor.
Carl Lewis, a decorated Olympian who set a world record on a vegan diet, once said, “Athletes have the worst diets in the world.” But how do we know that’s true? Are athletes really achieving all of this success despite poor nutrition? We know it’s true because we observe what happens to an athlete as soon as the work-load is reduced. If the food choices are truly appropriate, then there’s no reason for a little downtime to turn into five, ten, fifteen pounds.
Perhaps the biggest piece of misinformation floating around out there is that starches will lead to weight gain. Some of that is based on de novo lipogenesis, a process in which pigs and cows convert the carbohydrates they eat, grains and grasses, into fats. Human beings, however, aren’t efficient when it comes to converting carbohydrate into fat. In fact, the cost of such a process is about 30% of calories consumed. Even when we consume too many carbs, we’ll invisibly store up to two pounds of it as glycogen in the muscles and liver before burning it off through typical daily activities and/or body heat (Dr. John McDougall, https://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2009nl/mar/passionate.htm).
So if the evil carbohydrate isn’t responsible for our body fat, what is?
The answer is…fat.
Compared to de novo lipogenesis, fat is effortlessly stored in a human being’s adipose (fat cells) which leads to increased body fat. These cells don’t multiply, they simply stretch until fat spills back into the blood in a process known as the spillover effect. The surplus is stored in the liver, heart, and muscles which facilitates insulin resistance, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and even stimulates cancer growth.
It turns out that all of that fat floating around in a human being’s blood directly inhibits glucose transport and utilization. If we keep encouraging our athletes to chase protein, the “holiest” of macronutrients, they’ll continue to overindulge in the choices they associate with protein, meat, dairy, fish, and eggs, without truly understanding that there are plant-based sources of energy that offer more bang for the buck (protein included) and none of the baggage.
As if our burgers and hoagies don’t contain enough fat, pizza is ubiquitous in college towns. The typical American eats 33 pounds of cheese each year (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, http://www.pcrm.org/health/health-topics/cheese-makes-you-chubby). On average, cheese is about 70% fat. High fat and protein proponents can argue their cases until their adipose spillover, but the facts remain the same. When we reduce the amount of meat, dairy, fish, and eggs in our diets, we introduce fewer toxins into our bodies making us less susceptible to chronic diseases and better able to recover between workouts, competitions, and injuries.
It’s finally safe to say that moderation doesn’t work in this country. Repackaged and recycled, low-carb diets are money machines. They promise and often deliver quick results, but they’re not sustainable and they’re not appropriate for human beings. We’re counting calories, counting steps, practicing portion control, chasing macronutrients, eating protein bars, detoxing with juices, eating more meals, eating fewer meals, removing buns from burgers, allowing our smart watches to spy on us while we sleep, fueling with synthetic gels, and putting butter in our bulletproof coffees. And what do we have to show for it? Over two-thirds of the country is overweight, over a third obese, heart disease is still our number-one killer, and prescription medications kill more each year than automobile accidents. Yet we make adjustments to our diets by chasing more protein and by eating more chicken. Americans eat over one million chickens per hour. How’s that working out for us?
So if we suck at this whole moderation thing, why don’t we eat more of the foods that allow our bodies to thrive? Why don’t we eat a diet rich in the foods that will protect us from illness and promote recovery?
Student-athletes are in the unique position to begin practicing healthy nutrition early in life when the stakes are relatively low. I often hear that the biggest fear in moving towards a plant-based diet is that athletes won’t get enough calories. Have you ever met an athlete not up to the challenge of eating more food? If you’re an athlete on a plant-based diet, the good news is that you will have to eat more food (and you can do so rather inexpensively). If you’re an adult looking to shed some weight with a plant-based diet, you too may be encouraged to eat more food. It sounds counterintuitive, but it works.
In my next entry, I’ll talk specifically about how a little food can go a long way in a plant-based diet. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this. One of my distance swimmers, an honors student named Kimmi Szajnuk, assisted me in leading a campus tour with a recruit a few weeks ago. She was giving the recruit all of the time-management advice you’d expect to hear from a straight-A student, but I’ll never forget one thing she said.
“If you’re up past 9:30 PM doing homework, you’re doing it wrong.”
What she was saying is that if you manage your time and you make good decisions, you should be able to get a good-night’s sleep regardless of how much work you have to get done. It’s no wonder she’s one of the most consistent workers we have on the team.
Nutrition works the same way. If I go on a seven-day cruise and I gain eight pounds (what the average cruise vacationer gains), I’m doing it wrong. If I’m constantly fatigued, hungry, or struggling with my weight, I’m doing t wrong. If I’m reducing my carbohydrate intake in an effort to stay fit and I’m eating more meat, eggs, fish, and dairy to fuel my recovery, I’m doing it wrong.
Let’s start doing it right. Let’s eat more food.