A few thoughts on food and nutrition

While the previous post was written on some sort of utopian late summer day, this one is coming together as the fireplace is crackling for the first time of the season and my wool sock covered feet are resting comfortably on the coffee table. Just one week apart, and the shift from late summer to fall has pronounced itself ever so clearly. We like it though. As days are getting shorter, there’s more room made for relaxing inside. The “pressure” to be constantly active, to do stuff, to live as intensely as summer and spring do is subsiding, making way for a wonderful slow-down. Living in a place with four such distinct seasons – plus very drastic changes in daylight hours – makes for a very cyclical life. Once one season is coming to end, we’re ready for the next. Fall and winter bring stillness and time for contemplation, spring and summer are celebrations of life and bursting with activity. When we’re now waving goodbye to summer and welcoming fall, it’s with plenty of excitement – hey, long days are lovely but please give us lit candles, warming food, a fireplace to gather around. Let’s bring on the most grounding time of the year, shall we?

Did I hear ‘food’ in there? Excellent. It’ll be to no one’s surprise if I go ahead and say the topic of food is widely discussed these days. Whether it’s about diets (who knew we needed so many?), about the environment, about athletic performance, about the way we look, we’re dissecting what we put on our plates – and what others put on theirs – almost to absurdity. Now, some of us might have medical reasons why they need to. Others might have medical reasons why they cannot stop. But I’d like to talk about a group that, in all honesty, mostly should worry about their plates being big enough. That’s right – the athletic population! And more specifically, the athletes that do sports where the energy output (and thereby energy demand) is very high. The general message, hitting us from left and right, tells the story of how we should restrict our eating. The juice should be greener, the sugar preferably raw, the pancakes ideally gluten-free. I find it slightly overwhelming, to be honest. Can’t we just eat and be happy? I want to eat my buns, every now and then, and not worry about them being both wonderfully sweet and full to the brim of regular flour. I want to see Michael order his ice cream with extra everything on a warm summer’s day for the rest of my life. And I want to serve my body an endless amount of colorful vegetables and all the other good stuff too, because… well, of course! We need to make sure we take care of the bodies we’ve been given or else they’ll kick us out. I just wish we could have a slightly more nuanced and slightly less black-and-white approach, don’t you? For athletes, eating enough food can be a challenge in itself already (those massive bowls of oatmeal are no joke, everyone!). I wish we could leave it at that, and not feed ourselves with the idea that we, too, need to shrink our serving sizes, watch our sodium intake and stay miles away from sugar. Because as a matter of fact – it’s often the exact opposite!

The juice should be greener, the sugar preferably raw, the pancakes ideally gluten-free. I find it slightly overwhelming, to be honest. Can’t we just eat and be happy?

Before diving into this subject, which I’m very aware of can be a complete minefield, I’d like to clarify that while an athlete myself, I’m no expert. I have two years of full time college studies in sports nutrition (which I earned my minor in), but this obviously doesn’t make me a scientist, or a nutritionist, or a dietician. I think it’s about right to label myself someone who’s quite read up on things sports nutrition related, with a pretty good idea as to what should go into our bodies and when. And maybe even someone who has found her way through the jungle of prejudgments, social stigmas and preconceived notions that surrounds women and eating. Does that sound fair? I hope so.

Michael and I are both long distance runners, which means we have a very high energy output. We use up a lot of calories, to put it simply. I generally don’t like to talk about ‘calories’ since it’s claimed an almost negative connotation over the past decades – associated with diets and weight loss, viewed as something you should stay away from. But, what other word is there to use? None! The caloric value of a certain food product or dish only tells us how much available energy there is in there – nothing else. It doesn’t tell us if we’re loved or not. It doesn’t tell us if we’re good or bad people. Heck, it doesn’t even tell us what ingredients are in there. It just tells us the amount of energy.

We eat a lot of food in our household. We don’t count our calories, but we do have a rough idea as to the size of our energy demands on any given day, and will try to balance output and intake as best as we can. Sometimes, that means a big bowl of ice cream at 9pm. Sometimes, that means an apple as an evening snack. During my years of disordered eating (more about that here), I completely killed off my sense of hunger. I often claimed that I wasn’t hungry. Time upon time upon time… upon time. Looking back, I still remember the striking absence of hunger and the panic that would hit me if someone suggested eating when I wasn’t even hungry. The idea of eating was overbearingly hard to accept to begin with, and when my body didn’t even signal hunger – I just couldn’t do it. There was no working connection between the needs of my physical body and my mind back then. Thankfully, that wire has been fixed and my sense of hunger reinstalled. As a matter of fact, both Michael and I are really good at letting our respective hungers take care of determining how much we should eat. It’s like we’ve established enough trust between mind and body that we don’t need to worry too much about eating enough. Because that’s what our thing is all about, and what it should be all about for all of those out there that run, bike, swim, ski, and in any other way move around a lot – eating enough food. In a world where we sometimes might feel as if success and happiness are measured in body fat percentage, the number of completed diets, the foods you have eliminated or the days you’ve eaten ‘clean’, it’s time to bring it back to basics, isn’t it? Eating overall nourishing food and enough of it, and only minding your own (freakin’) food business. In dissecting what others eat and don’t eat, I think we’re looking for reasons to make ourselves feel… things. Perhaps better about ourselves (‘oh, I would never eat gluten’ or ‘doesn’t that have refined sugar in it?’), or maybe the opposite (‘look at you, eating all those vegetables, and look at me and my burger’). We have ascribed food items more characteristics, qualities and social power than they actually deserve, in my opinion. Can’t we just allow food to be… just food? Responsibly sourced and produced in harmony with nature, of course, but those should really be the primary things we worry about.

Not our everyday breakfast table, but for sure the one of our dreams.

The all too present delusion that food items can be categorized as either ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ provokes me daily. Healthy for whom, really? We often get comments such as ‘oh, I didn’t think you people ate stuff like that’ (when we’re munching on a cookie) or ‘I thought you only ate healthy food’ (when hearing us praise freshly baked bread and butter) as if very surprised to see athletic people… eat? In all those instances, we see how little knowledge there is, generally, about different food needs within different groups of people. And sure, the dietary recommendations for the overall population do look different from those meant for athletes. Linda Bakkman, PhD in medical science, a recognized nutritionist and the author of the book Maten bakom resultaten (literally “The Food Behind the Results”), sums it up perfectly: every time someone questions if you, as an athlete, should really have that dessert or eat that big of a serving, the answer should quite frankly be ‘just because I’m an athlete’. In this educational food-centric read on how to properly fuel up as an athlete, Bakkman points to the fact that the athletic population sometimes needs to sway away from general food advice, which isn’t always all that easy – especially with so many people around us expressing their opinions about what’s on our plates! I appreciated this book endlessly, and highly recommend it (unfortunately only available in Swedish as of now though).

The challenge is even bigger for girls and women, I believe. Females aren’t supposed to shovel in plates worth of food. Females are supposed to be thin-framed, eat small servings and say ‘I’m so full’ after only a few bites. I cannot even begin to tell you all the times people around me have taken it upon themselves to tell me how much I eat. Yes, exactly. ‘You eat so much’. Well, thank you for telling me! In the beginning, I felt triggered. Triggered to go all in lecture-mode and explain exactly how many calories I had just burned, how eating plenty is an important (heck, crucial!) part of my sport. The desire to do that has worn off over the past few years. It’s not worth the effort, simply. And it does prove a great mental challenge to rise above comments and whatnot, and trust that I know what’s best for me. And you know what’s best for you.

When diving deeper into the field of sports nutrition, you learn that it all comes down to a few foundational – albeit simple – things. They mostly circle around timing (which is actually quite important when trying to optimize results), eating enough quantities, getting enough protein and carbohydrates (the fat intake usually takes care of itself, provided your energy balance is in place) and making sure your vitamin and mineral needs are met. Now, the beauty of it all is that a varied, overall nutrient-dense diet will leave you with very few things to be concerned about. You won’t be faced with any particular deficiencies (unless there are other underlying medical reasons for it) as long as your plate sees a steady flow of nutritious vegetables (that is, cucumber doesn’t count but cauliflower certainly does), different sources of carbohydrates (starchy vegetables/root vegetables and grains of different kinds and forms – that sort of stuff) and some solid protein (legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy products and eggs for those of us who have opted out of eating meat and seafood). Variation is key, you realize. All foods have their own nutritional profile, and work best together. If an intake of something is ‘too low’ one day, it’ll be above average the next, and over the course of a week or a month, that colorful diet of yours will have checked all the boxes naturally. Besides being a vegetarian (Michael is more or less a vegetarian at home, but won’t say no to meat/fish if at a dinner party, for example), no ingredients are banned at our house. There are bags of traditional sugar, white flour and white rice to be found in our pantry. You’ll see a chocolate bar or two when opening the middle top drawer. We would never run out of butter or bread. Peanut butter, different types of jams, cheeses, they all have their spots in our fridge. But we also have bags of whole grain flours, jars upon jars with different types of lentils and beans, rye crisp bread, a plethora of nuts and dried fruit. Vegetables in piles all around the house (mostly thanks to our successful inaugural year of mini-scale farming), fresh fruit aplenty. Point is: we eat food without any shame. Most of the time, it’s packed with all the nutrients in the world. Sometimes, it’s just decadent. And that’s okey too. 

Can’t we just allow food to be… just food?

Furthermore, an important distinction to make is that between energy needs and nutritional needs. The former refers to the caloric need in order to achieve balance between energy output and input. The latter refers to the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) needed to maintain all the essential functions of your body. Thus, if you increase your energy output by, let’s say by 30 %, your energy needs will go up just the same. However, your nutritional needs won’t see a similar increase. While this is an area where a lot of research is still needed (specifically with reference to actual numbers), we do know that that those with a high energy output are left with a sort of leeway – a certain amount of calories that can come in a less nutrient dense form without leaving you lacking any vitamins or minerals. This is highly important to remember, especially for those having a hard time getting in all the food they need to achieve energy balance. In such cases, it’s wise that you also incorporate food items that are easier to eat and won’t fill you up quite as much – maybe you’ll go for white bread and opt out of the whole grain version every now and then, and maybe you’ll snack on raisins or have a cookie instead of a just a piece of fresh fruit during heavier training blocks. Needless to say, this is another example of when the general dietary guidelines aren’t completely applicable for the athletic population.

Now, this is not me claiming that if you’re an athlete, you don’t need to worry about getting all your nutrients and that you can eat ‘empty calories’ as much as you want. Not at all. However, I do want to bring nuance to the table, and perhaps even act as a counterweight to the rapidly growing platform of (particularly) social media figures that claim a green juice is all you need after hours upon hours of exercise, or that consuming gluten will wreck complete havoc, or that eating ice cream is ‘cheating’ or… god knows what. I think you all know where I’m getting. In a filtered, tummy-tucked and terribly judgmental world, we are all being tricked into thinking we’re not enough, we’re not doing it right and we need to change – preferably into a sugar-free, grain-free, dairy-free, everything-free something. But that’s not true. We’re neither of those things in this house. We eat dessert as often as we can and spread embarrassingly thick layers of peanut butter on just about anything. And we move a lot because we love it, and thanks to those heaping servings of food, our bodies allow us to run fast and run far, run up and down and across and all places in between. That’s our balance. What’s yours?

Moreover, there is a common misconception that a stable weight means a body in energy balance. That’s not necessarily always the case, which brings us to what can happen if your body ends up in long-term energy deficiency. The human body can, and will, compensate low energy access by compromising vital systems such as your metabolism and reproduction, as well as your bone health. The body will instead prioritize all processes needed for immediate survival, and needless to say, producing sex hormones or increasing bone strength won’t make the cut. Because of the stable weight, however, this makes for a complex problem, often hard to discover and often a sensitive subject. I have personally experienced that having an irregular or absent menstruation cycle is viewed as a natural result of hard training and nothing else, and even something to be proud of. Almost as if having your period would insinuate you haven’t been pushing yourself hard enough. In reality though, it’s only shedding light on the fact that energy access is limited and not up to par with the energy output, not an indication of successful training. Been there, done that… sadly. The consequences of low energy availability are many: lost or lowered fertility, increased production of stress hormones, inhibited growth and development, slowed down metabolism, increased injury risk, increased risk of infections, weakened bones, etc. Thus, not something we should joke around about. It’s time the plate size starts to match the physical output. Remember that piece of advice an old professor of mine shared? Whatever you do a lot of, make sure you do the opposite. Training a lot? Well, then your servings better be big. Again… that strive for the ever so precious balance.

I think I’ll let this serve as an introductory piece to some more posts about the nitty-gritty stuff – the details of nutritional timing and what numbers arein fact important to keep an eye on, for example. But we’ll save that for next time. If anyone has any thoughts they would like to share – be it questions, topics you’d like me to write about or anything else – please do! 

Lastly, the aforementioned book Maten bakom resultaten actually starts out by distinguishing the important difference between “training so that you can eat” and “eating so that you can train”, and maybe this is where we should all begin. Do you eat in order to improve and perform, or do you exercise so that you can treat yourself to dessert once in a while? Michael and I put us in the first category every day of the week. That’s what our lives are about. For every week that passes, we understand and experience more and more the importance of food and rest. How training without those two components is only just a down breaking process, and how strength is ultimately achieved by allowing the three to interlace. It really is a learning process, though. I still remember this one time back in New York, maybe 3-4 years ago, when I had made us a (delicious) cabbage slaw for dinner, not thinking about the fact that we would be coming back from a 2-3 hr. long run. We chewed our raw vegetables and didn’t exactly feel well fed, and ended up hobbling to the grocery store on the corner where we bought a giant tub of ice cream that we downed in one sitting (those were the days, when we could just walk 50 steps and buy ice cream! Ah, the life before moving to the woods). Certainly not the best recovery meal, but it did the trick. A great learning experience, for sure! Anyway, I just ate a big bowl of oatmeal with homemade apple compote, and will hit the trails in a while. For dinner tonight, I think we’ll have beet patties, potatoes and some other vegetables and legumes. There will be some sort of blackberry concoction for dessert, but exactly what is yet to be decided. And we’ll savor every bite, don’t you worry.

References:

Bakkman, L. (2017). Maten bakom resultaten. Stockholm: Norstedts.

Williams, M. H., Anderson, D. E. & Rawson, E. S. (2013). Nutrition for Health, Fitness & Sport. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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