Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Purposeful Eating

by Brady DeHoust

Over the past 10 years, the eating habits I’ve adopted have come in very small pieces. If I think about how I ate 10 years ago versus how I eat now, the major difference would be the purpose of the food I’m putting in my mouth. Ten years ago, the purpose was to get the flavor -- usually very quickly -- and fill the stomach -- usually too full -- then repeat the process four hours later. It didn’t really matter what I was putting in my mouth, it just mattered that it tasted good and filled me up. I don’t want to be misleading with the thinking I was overweight or eating total junk, I’ve always been health conscious by virtue of my upbringing (thanks Mom!). However, with the years of progressively becoming a better athlete, I’ve profited greatly with little-by-little adaptations to what I eat (or don’t eat), and more importantly, why I eat the foods in my diet.

When considering diet changes for ultimate health, I’ll outline my personal view on:

  • How to make changes
  • Purpose in relation to our life and training
  • Challenges of a healthy diet lifestyle
  • Use of supplements

Note: I am not a registered dietitian or medical doctor. My thoughts and recommendations are driven by years of trial, error and my overall feel (good and bad) from different food and diet selections.

The How - Positive Change Comes Slowly
If you say “never” with your diet choices, you’re likely lying to yourself and setting up the chance of failure. Maybe you consume too much sugar-saturated soda. Don’t start off by saying, “I’m cutting out all soda from my diet.” This may be attainable for a condensed period, but likely won’t be a lifestyle diet change and when you have that soda after days, weeks or months of sticking to your plan, you’ve ultimately failed your diet and are likely to revert back to old habits. Better would be a plan to limit your intake and replace a normal daily soda with something nutritious, still allowing yourself the occasional sugary drink that your body is accustomed to from years of “too much.” The positive feelings you’ll gain from less of what isn’t healthy will “teach” the body to desire less of the unhealthy food, and more of the healthy food. It’s a process and it cannot be taught with one fad diet or a two-week “detox.” One soda per day becomes one soda per week, and then becomes one soda as a treat (such as after long or hard training). Understand the “feel” of the changes you want to incorporate rather than just assuming it’ll be never-again-and-last-forever, and possibly result in failure and a relapse back to what was normal (which is too much!). This is the problem today with fad diets and the all or nothing mentality to eating for health.

While I’ve tried the “all-in” diet changes, I never do so thinking that it will become the way I eat for a lifetime. I’ll often implement a certain style of diet for a defined trial period to better understand its promoted benefits. In 2010, I adopted gluten-free for 60 days leading up to an “A” race. In 2013, I ate a modified raw food diet for eight days (I did allow some cooked protein at night from fish or chicken). I adopt these diets to get a sense of whether there is positive change in how it makes me feel, and it’s not always the case that these super-nutritious-this-is-the-only-way-to-eat diets make me feel good, and that’s what’s important in the long run because the feeling of “good” is what teaches the body to want more of the good (or less of the bad).

With gluten-free eating, I felt a positive change in my overall digestion and a less uncomfortably full feeling after eating. Wheat is naturally inflammatory, and the elimination of wheat resulted in reduction over the overall inflammatory response in the body, leading to a positive adaptation and feeling.

The raw diet was easy in some ways and difficult in others. I tackled this without a lot of research, or any books driving the “how.” One weekend, between visits to Whole Foods Market and the local farmer’s market, I spent $88 and never left the produce section. Preparing a meal was simple; slice up some fruits and veggies, figure out a way to make it taste good (often in a salad), and have at it. Being diverse became a challenge and I felt like all I ate was asparagus, cucumbers, and peeled and sliced raw sweet potatoes. After a few adjustment days, I again -- similar to the gluten-free trial -- felt positive changes in the digestion process. Things felt cleaner and less clogged with discomfort. However, I also experienced some of my worst feelings with triathlon training. I was low on energy and -- without any conscious effort to do so -- got down to a weight eight pounds under my “sweet spot” weight (I was losing a pound per day). That part wasn’t a positive feeling and I noted that and quickly adjusted back to my normal diet. But the eight-day trial exemplified the positive feelings that unprocessed and raw foods can have on the body, which means I now eat more (not all) whole and unprocessed or cooked foods. I took a small slice of that diet and implemented it to what works for me in my own diet and lifestyle.

Purposeful Eating - For training… for performance… for life
What drives the desire to eat healthy? It feels better is the simplest answer. Unfortunately, most folks who eat for no other purpose than the time of day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and intermittent non-nutrient rich snacks) won’t ever allow the body to get that positive sense of feel that nutritious, whole foods (that we prepare and don’t take out of the box) give you.

I began the journey to being more health conscious and selective with what and when I ate to complement a dedicated training regimen driven by the goal of optimum performance on race day. If I was going to train the body, consistently and sometimes hard, it made sense to feed the body well when I wasn’t training to get the highest return on the training investment. I had a purpose to adjust the foods I ate and get a sense of the positive adaptations in training recovery, racing performance, and ultimately, lifestyle adoptions that became the norm.

Challenges of Healthy Eating
Food marketing and labels are tricking us into believing that what we put in our shopping carts is healthy. The buzz words ring loud as you stroll down the grocery store aisle: “All Natural,” “Gluten-Free,” “Whole Grain,” “Omega-3 Fortified,” even “Organic.”

The “All Natural” food label means nothing. Take a look at the ingredient list (or paragraph!) on a bag of All Natural Tostitos. Sure, it’s better than grabbing a bag of Tostitos laced with food processing chemicals, but it’s still a bag of highly processed chips and does not provide the amount of nutrients we should look for any time we eat.

While the Gluten-Free label will save you from the inflammatory response of the protein wheat-gluten, there should be caution in relying on gluten-free being nothing but healthy and nutritious. Many gluten-free products are highly processed and contain a lot of corn starch and contain ingredients just as hard to pronounce as the gluten-loaded product on the next shelf.

The American diet is too focused on the claim that whole grains make the box of whatever you’re buying healthy. In retrospect, it can be the converse in that too much whole grain, although providing a greater amount of fiber in the diet than the non-whole grain counterpart, can result in an overall increase in the body’s inflammatory response.

Most people are aware of the importance of EFA’s (Essential Fatty Acids) and that Omega-3 is the healthy fat we all need and comes mainly from cold water fish and other sea life such as krill. So, when you see a dozen eggs that are fortified with omega-3s, how do you think that omega-3 got into that egg? It’s doubtful that the hen was fed a diet rich in North Atlantic wild salmon. It really just means that the “All Natural, Omega-3” eggs were processed to be fortified with the label-enhancing omega-3 EFA.

It may be surprising to see the “Organic” label make the list, but how nutritious and healthy do you think an Organic Pop-Tart is? It’s not, and justifying the purchase of foods in your diet based on these labels only puts non-nutrient dense -- and expensive -- food substances in your shopping cart.

Keys to a healthy food shopping trip:

  • Spend the most time in the produce section (or at the farmer’s market) and fill most of your cart there. If a food product doesn’t have a label, and isn’t enclosed in a box, it’s probably very healthy and has never been through any type of food processing. Buy whatever you want, and eat it as often as you’d like.

  • Be cautious of the labels, and check the ingredients. If the ingredients list is in paragraph format, put it back. If you cannot pronounce the ingredients, put it back. Look for labels with real food ingredients, and not things that – when all formulated together – make up a food substance.

  • Look for the “Local” label. Choosing locally produced food is sometimes better than the USDA Organic label. Local food is fresher, probably higher in nutrient content, and often not treated with any chemicals, but the process to stamp produce or food products “USDA Organic” is too expensive for farms or companies that do not have a wide distribution channel for their product(s). Look into your local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to get fresh and local produce, meats, and dairy and also support the local farmers who may not have the mass distribution to supermarkets to sustain their farming business.

  • Look for “Grass Fed” if you’re buying beef. While we should always steer clear of meats and/or dairy coming from sources that were treated with hormones or antibiotics, it’s important as well to look for grass fed and not meats from cows that are fed lots of corn to quickly “beef” up.

Supplements - Should be supplemented
The mass marketing of supplements to keep you “energized, clean, healthy, and full of vitality” is just as big as the food labeling in the industry. You could literally walk down the supplements aisle at your local health food store and fill your cart with every type of food and nutrient requirement your body needs, and not have one piece of whole, real food in the cart -- you’ll also likely have a mega shopping bill at checkout. This is not to say that supplements aren’t healthy, or that they don’t result in whatever it is they claim to “enhance, restore, or maintain.” However, whole food supplements: minerals, vitamins, EFAs, phytonutrients (such from sea plants like seaweed and algae) should be supplemented and not sucked down on a daily dose regimen. I’d also look at the individual needs for anyone looking to take “this” or “that.” It certainly makes sense for a slightly anemic female who engages in endurance training to look into iron supplementation to ensure adequate needs are met. But just because iron is essential for the body’s ability to carry oxygen in the blood, it isn’t a reason for every athlete to go out and start popping iron pills. For one, it can cause problems in the gut, and two, the body just may not need (or want) it. It’s also wise to understand and monitor your serum blood levels when supplementing certain vitamins and minerals; to both understand the “need” and to know if the supplements are really working (raising or lowering levels as they should).

I write all this with the caveat that I have fallen victim to exactly what I’m suggesting we don’t do. My cabinets have been filled with supplements I’ve read about on holistic health sites and I’ve gone down the road of having a supplement-rich daily diet. Based on the recommendation of a friend and athlete I highly respect, I recently read a health food book written by David Wolfe called, “Superfoods”. What was most astounding to me was the culture behind the superfoods Wolfe claims to be the top 10: from the honeybee’s process to produce honey, royal jelly, or bee pollen to the bottom-of-the-food-chain-and-packed-with-everything make-up of phytoplankton.

During one of my visits to the local Mom’s Organic Market, I had the book in hand and found myself filling my cart with spirullina, chlorella, raw honey, hemp seeds, cocoa and macca powder… basically anything the book told me would make me feel more energized, vibrant, recovery quicker, have a higher capacity for endurance sport went into the cart. Now, this is all fine and good, until I started eating all of these things… every single day. That’s not the point of eating a superfood-rich diet. The point is to include these foods in your diet and replace less nutrient-dense foods slowly while the body adapts (and learns) to like the good stuff. So rather than making sure I take a spoonful of raw honey daily in a morning smoothie, I occasionally use it to sweeten a cup of green tea, or occasionally put it into the morning super-green-smoothie-blend -- the key word here: occasionally.

To wrap all this up …

  • Make diet changes small and over time and changes that fit you and your lifestyle
  • Don’t become a victim to fad-diet-hopping. Take the pieces of these health-promoting diets that work for you and result in positive feelings and adaptations.
  • Buy locally produced and local farm fresh foods as often as you can.
  • Exercise caution with buzz word product labeling.
  • Supplement your (necessary) supplements (and put the unnecessary ones into the toilet!).
  • Don’t say “never” and enjoy your vices… on occasion!

Enjoy the process of defining the diet that is right for you.


Brady lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and two sons where he works as an IT software systems consultant. His biggest success is finding the ability to train and race at the top of the age group while balancing family, work, and everything else in life.
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