Most of us who lead active lives also lead healthy lives. That includes striving to get enough sleep, have balance, be physically fit and eat well. At times, some or all of these can be a challenge and we have to adapt and be willing to try new approaches to stay successful.
Nutrition is always a toughie. Growing up, my parents practiced and encouraged very healthy eating patterns. We ate breakfast and dinner every day as a family, and while most kids were given money to buy school lunch, my brother's and I toted around our lunch boxes filled with vegetables, homemade soups and fruit.
Even though I grew up with a strong foundation for healthy eating, once I graduated from college and moved into the working world I fell into some unhealthy eating patterns—as so many of us do. I never ate breakfast. My first meal of the day was often at 1 or 2 pm, when I would hop down to the deli and have a burger and fries, pizza, or some pre-made sandwich. I'd snack on M&M's or cupcakes mid-afternoon, and then dinner was take-out of some kind at some odd hour—some days at 5 pm, other days at 9 pm.
It wasn't until I started competing in triathlons that I first started gaining an awareness of what I was putting in my body and how that needed to change. Now I am dedicated to eating as clean as I possibly can and providing my body with the best possible energy sources to fuel every training session and race. But getting to that point, while also maintaining balance, some semblance of sanity, and the opportunity for indulgence required a big learning curve and personal growth.
Here are 10 tips that helped me a lot in improving my nutrition one step at a time:
1. Recognize and be honest about your relationship with food and what you need.
That sounds a bit nuts-o, but it is what allowed me to move from constantly feeling like I was failing in my nutritional goals to feeling empowered and successful. Just like a training plan, what works for one person will not work for someone else. Some people can maintain very strict and limited nutritional plans, while others—like me—cannot.
I'm more geared towards emotional eating, and I like to reward myself for a job well done with things like ice cream, burgers and beers. Once I was able to recognize that, we built opportunities for these occasions into my nutritional plan. For example, after a half-Ironman or Ironman race I have 1-3 no-guilt days of eating exactly as I please. I don't worry about maintaining any structure and I enjoy the rewards of the hard effort I put in. Making that "ok" helps me easily fall back into my healthy eating patterns quickly.
I NEED that reward, so given that, we have figured out a way to make it happen, leaving me feeling more balanced and not deprived of the things I love.
2. Always eat breakfast, and eat first thing in the morning.
Skipping breakfast is common among many people. However eating as soon as you wake up in the morning helps kick-start your metabolism and starts your day right. I train very early in the morning, so my early AM meal is a rice cake with almond butter. After my first training session I have a recovery shake or bar, and then immediately have breakfast. For me that is oats with fruit, nuts and seeds and almond milk.
Pro tip: Try to avoid high-sugar and processed foods. Eating lower-glycemic foods with some fat and protein will help manage both energy levels and how your body uses its energy stores throughout the day.
3. Focus on the purpose of each meal vs calorie intake.
I eat anywhere from 7 or 9 "meals" per day. Some of them are larger, such as breakfast, lunch and dinner, and others are smaller snacks. Rather than focusing on what and how much I eat, I consider the purpose of each meal. My rice cake and almond butter (sometimes with a sliced banana) first thing in the morning is a sugar/fat/protein combo simply used to get my metabolism started. My mid-afternoon snack is an energy hit. I could eat vegetables and hummus, a protein bar, a Clif mojo bar, or fruit and almond butter—for this meal I worry less about the S/F/P combo and more about just getting calories in to manage my energy levels. My evening meal is all about protein and vegetables.
When I understand what the purpose of each meal is, I'm able to have flexibility in my choices while not feeling like I am restricting or limiting myself in any way.
4. Try to eat with consistency.
I often hear people say that they didn't eat between 7 am and 4 pm on a given day because they were "too busy". They skipped breakfast. They skipped dinner. Here is a tip: Find time to eat. It is absolutely critical to try to eat as consistently as possible throughout each and every day. If not, the body can go into starvation mode and that is when you have muscle breakdown, your body's glycogen levels get depleted and massive sugar cravings can rear their ugly heads at odd times, and the immune system can become compromised.
Eating consistently helps not only with energy management, but will result in your body becoming leaner and more productive!
5. Allow yourself to indulge at least once per week.
We all have them—meals or snacks that are super unhealthy, but we love and crave them. I'm of the belief that complete deprivation creates such a psychological barrier that makes it even more likely that you'll breakdown and eat the things you are trying to avoid.
With that, my coach and I have built opportunities to indulge once or twice a week into my nutrition plan. I don't have a specific day or meal or time to do this, but I've mentally allowed myself these treats in a no-guilt and unrestricted way. The end result is feeling balanced and craving those things less.
6. Eat around your training sessions
When I first started doing triathlon, one of my common mistakes was that I would never eat immediately following training sessions. I felt like I had just burned all these calories and was feeling really good, and I didn't want to eat—only to find myself starving and craving unhealthy foods an hour or two later.
Now I put a huge emphasis on eating around training. I always eat a small snack or meal immediately before training and then eat another snack immediately after training, typically followed by a full meal. Eating properly is critical to helping your body recover properly and promoting efficient energy use in your body. And the difference in energy levels, craving, and recovery are definitely noticeable.
7. Take out the processed and replace with whole foods.
This is something we hear time and time again, but it could not be more true. Processed foods simply lack the nutritional value that whole foods do. That and they are extremely difficult for your body to process and breakdown. It is as simple as that. But you love processed foods, right? Save them for your weekly indulgences and then enjoy guilt free!
8. Eating more of the right foods is way better than not eating enough.
One of the things I really struggled to get my head around was this concept that MORE was BETTER. So many serious athletes feel like they need to eat less, but the thing I have learned is that I need to eat MORE—more of the right foods. More vegetables, more fruits, more salads, more healthy proteins. Less processed foods. Trust me. It works.
9. Drink. Drink. Drink.
Drinking water is perhaps one of my least favorite things to do and is something I honestly struggle with on a daily basis. Yet I do it because water is also critical to helping our bodies function properly. I strive to drink 4 liters of water or fluid a day. When I do it, I notice a big difference in how my body feels versus when I don't.
Hate water, too? I've learned adding a slice of lemon or other natural flavoring makes a big difference!
10. Don't "diet"; just try to be healthy and balanced.
Take out the stigma dieting and just focus on eating clean, healthy and most importantly—balanced. So much of our success or failure in maintaining healthy eating practices is around whether we feel like we are succeeding or failing. Just try to make changes one step at a time and the results will come!
Happy eating and until next time. Don't Dream it. Be it!
Little Red Racing-
Sarah Piampiano (pictured above at the 2014 US Pro Championship in St. George, Utah) is a Maine-born kid who breathed sports from an early age. Following a 3-season collegiate career in ski racing and cross country running, she worked as an investment banker before competing in her first triathlon in 2009 after a bet with a friend. Since then she's made the journey from newbie triathlete to Ironman 70.3 Champion and one of the top athletes in the sport. You can follow her journey on Twitter @SarahPiampiano or via her website www.sarahpiampiano.com