Don’t confuse ambition with ability.

Don’t confuse ambition with ability. This is a standard Mark Watson quote on Radio Sport that he regularly pulls out when describing athletes who mistakenly assume they are more skilled, fitter or more able than they actually are. This confidence is a necessary part of being an athlete and, indeed, I’d be a far better athlete if I backed myself a bit more.* However there are times and situations where your physical and mental skills are not enough to overcome the challenge at hand. This time of year is a perfect example of where many people have the best of intentions of eating well (ambition), yet put themselves in the position where they are without the physiological components necessary to do it (ability).  They struggle to make good food choices as their job necessitates nights out with clients, lunch meetings that involve alcohol, and one function after another. On top of that, every body feels the need to catch up before Christmas – almost like the 25th December is D-day and it’s an absolute impossibility for any of these catch-ups to take place after the presents have been opened. The additional commitments are on an already tight schedule can lead to people relying on increased amounts of caffeine, cortisol and too little sleep in an effort to fit everything in before the Christmas break. When this is combined with fruit cake, mince tarts and an endless supply of Miami wine cooler, it’s no wonder numbers such as ‘5kg’ are bandied about as the expected weight gain.

One common strategy to navigate the Christmas cheer is to drastically cut calories consumed at meals and ramp up energy burnt through exercise to offset the increased intake of Christmas treats. Hunger usually prevails though and, come that afternoon Christmas tea shout, the one fruit mince pie that has been ‘earned’ by not eating breakfast quickly turns into four, along with crackers, Christmas nuts and three chocolate Santas to round off what has turned into an afternoon sugar binge. Throw in a healthy amount of self-admonishment that they’ve been weak in the face of temptation, people often arrive at my clinic already defeated by the prospect of December, and the calendar has barely ticked over to the new month.

The first mistake is that people see themselves as the Master of their Own Destiny – like they are in complete control of their food choices and should be strong (or will be weak) according to their willpower. If people believe they don’t have enough willpower to withstand the temptation around them, it’s more likely they’ll decide to forgo any plans to eat well until New Years, when they draw a line in the sand and ‘start again.’ It’s true that your ability to have just two bites of the Christmas cake (and not two pieces) is down to willpower – however, many people don’t know that self-control (or willpower) is a limited resource. If you’ve exerted self-control in one situation (food related or not), your ability to exert yourself similarly later on in the day is compromised. This research also points to fatigue being a contributor to loss of control later on, and the factors mentioned above can certainly leave you more tired than usual. Unsurprisingly, willpower is related to blood sugar levels. Not only does willpower use up glucose in the body, once our blood sugar levels dip below normal, it’s our natural evolutionary response to seek out foods that will bring our sugar levels up – thus making those mince tarts even more appealing as a way to boost blood sugar (and energy) levels. This makes sense when you consider that the obligate fuel of the brain is glucose – and when you are running on empty in an effort to conserve calories, your limited supply of energy is quickly used up. So don’t beat yourself up about it – blame evolution!


It’s your fault, buddy.

Obviously this does nothing to solve the actual problem. The above scenario certainly is beyond your physiological control; where you can step in and make some difference is that one step before. Some level of personal responsibility will go a long way to help you avoid having to worry about self-control in the first place. And this is where you can back yourself – you have the ability to offset much of fatigue-related diet downfalls that often prevail at this time of year. What you eat really counts. Ten points I’m sure are nothing you haven’t heard before – but it’s always good to remember them:

  1. Eat a good amount of fat and protein in your meals. Not only will this help reduce your hunger and appetite later in the day, it will also reduce your brain’s food-reward response – especially if the carbohydrate component of your meals is comprised of low glycaemic index options. Read: step away from the box of Special K you’ve chosen for breakfast just because it boasts only 112 Calories per serve.
  2. Eat a good volume of food at each meal – include plenty of non-starchy vegetables as these will contribute to making you feel fuller and give plenty of vitamins and minerals to help keep you feeling nourished and (for want of a better word) healthy. People eat a similar amount of food regardless of where the energy comes from so (for those who look to maintain or lose a bit of weight as many clients of mine do) ensure plenty of bulk.
  3. Don’t confuse paleo-like treats with real food. These are still treats, despite being made with ‘clean’ ingredients. There are definitely a time and a place for them – but not every time you eat, or in place of every meal.
  4. Drink enough water so you don’t feel thirsty – especially before hitting after-work drinks. Too many people neck their first beer or wine because they are thirsty. Have a drink of water before ordering your first alcoholic drink. I would also advise you to drink sparkling water in between each drink – but if you are like almost anyone else I’ve ever told to do that, you’ll ignore me. So I won’t.
  5. Have something with a good amount of protein in it before turning up to a meal, particularly if you suspect there are going to be a lot of foods on offer that don’t align with how you normally eat. This will help you be a bit choosier than what you would otherwise, as you’re not driven by hunger.
  6. Choose 2-3 things to fill your plate at a gathering, rather than 5 or 6. It won’t be the last time you’ll see these foods (I promise you. In fact, you will likely be offered that same sausage roll again next week. If you so desire you can have it then).
  7. Step away from the buffet table. This will offset a lot of mindless picking that occurs when you’re close to a table of food.
  8. Have a tablespoon of raw apple cider vinegar before meal times to help support digestion and promote good gut health – essential for overall immune function, particularly if you’re running low of sleep and high on stress.
  9. Get enough sleep. Really try to. This will help you offset fatigue caused by lack of sleep, thus helping maintain your ability to make decisions and regulate self-control and willpower.
  10. Exercise. Don’t forgo your normal exercise pattern because you’re running low on time. Make it a priority. Equally, though, don’t offset those 4 glasses of champagne by an additional 60 minutes on the cross trainer. That’ll only work to drain any ability to withstand the call of the vending machine in the afternoon. Be sensible. Move more during the day where you can in everyday life, and work a bit harder in the time you already spend exercising instead of being mental about it.

Most importantly – think about why you want to eat healthy in the first instance. Often times instant gratification wins out over long term goals for health and wellbeing. And that’s fine – but if that happens then own it, accept it, and move on. Don’t beat yourself up about it, as treats are just that – to be enjoyed. Otherwise, what’s the point? You will though feel so much better if you mindfully choose times where you let you hair down, rather than feel you’ve got no willpower. Take steps necessary to ensure you’ve not confused ambition with ability – that in fact you have the ability to eat well, feel good over the holiday period and really enjoy it.

* Possibly more training and probably more natural talent would also make me a better athlete.

Is Paleo ‘pathetic’? My opinion on Dave’s opinion.

Are you a Nickelback fan? I didn’t think so. The chances are slim as I think there are six of us, including his mum and April Levine. It’s not something I tell a lot of people as it leaves me wide open to be mercilessly mocked. As you will know, music is a really personal thing and when somebody attacks it, it feels like an attack on your character. This week those same emotions were evoked when I read an opinion piece in the Herald about the paleo diet, written in response to a press release advertising a new paleo lifestyle book (Clean Living) by Luke and Scott from My Kitchen Rules (my favourite show). As is standard media, it is far more likely to spark some interest if the subsequent article took an angle that is in opposition to promoting paleo. Regardless of why it was written, I took it personally – an endearing (?) yet flawed character trait that I’m completely aware of. I viewed it as an attack on my personal and professional integrity. That someone would label paleo as ‘pathetic’ is calling into question the foundation of what I believe (and advocate) to be healthy, and I felt the piece was perpetuating misconceptions of what it means to eat paleo. I shared this with Dave (the author) on Twitter.

Ego aside, the other (more important) reason it didn’t sit well with me is that it sends the wrong messages to anyone reading it who is unfamiliar with the paleo approach to eating. For people who eat a paleo diet, an article that bashes it wasn’t going to make or break their dietary habits –they’re likely to have read a lot about it themselves to have begun following paleo anyway, and inevitably be more informed about the topic. However there are a lot of people who might be struggling with their health, their weight, their energy levels and are mildly curious as to what this ‘paleo’ is that they are hearing more about lately. They look to an authoritative voice such as a dietitian for some solid, evidence-based information. Reading an article like this might effectively quash their desire learn more, which could have lead to them adopting the principles and experiencing real health benefits experienced by many who follow a paleo approach to eating.

What were my main issues with the article? Pretty much the reasons that were put forth to NOT follow a paleo diet:

Caveman didn’t eat meat everyday. Most advocating a paleo-approach to diet would advocate a broad range of available animal proteins including eggs, meat, poultry, seafood to enable people to get important vitamins and minerals that are essential co-factors for bone and skeletal muscle metabolism and repair, and help with blood sugar regulation. Eating some form of animal protein at most meals is actually just good health for those choosing to include it in their diet. People preferring to follow a plant-based diet are clearly not in this camp. Yes, 500g rump steak in one sitting is unhealthy. Not many health professionals advocating paleo would advocate that.

Cavemen didn’t eat modern day paleo foods such as bacon and sausages. Can’t argue with that. But that implies that advocates treat bacon as a separate food group. Not so. Most of us view bacon as a condiment, not an obligate part of the diet. And sausages? You can get great sausages of real meat from the butcher. Perhaps not from the Mad Butcher though. Those $10 bags of 20 sausages are barely food, let alone paleo.

Cavemen ate everything available. Yes. Paleo advocates who have done reading around the topic don’t think we evolved to eat one diet. That said, there are certainly commonalities within a lot of ancestral diets. Meat, seafood, seeds, nuts, tubers, milk (for some), fruit, vegetables featured in ancestral diets that have been studied in varying amounts depending on the environment.

Caveman weren’t afraid of fruits. Neither are paleo advocates. Except for nashi pears. (and large amounts of fruit for people who have trouble regulating their blood sugar (and subsequent insulin) levels.)

Caveman ate carbohydrates. Of course they did. Unless someone is metabolically disregulated (as above), a moderate amount of whole food sources of carbohydrate such as potato, kumara, bananas, taro is part of a paleo diet. Paleo isn’t necessarily low carbohydrate but certainly, compared to our standard westernised diet, it will be lower in carbohydrate. As a side note, the dietary contribution of carbohydrate varied quite substantially from one region to the next.

Caveman weren’t training for specific sports. And? This point against paleo confused me, but anyway; nutritionists and dietitians consulting on diet for athletes note that people can really benefit when moving from a standard athlete diet to a paleo approach. The change in diet to a lower carbohydrate, higher fat, nutrient and fibre-rich diet results in marked improvements in appetite, blood sugar regulation, and the ability to burn fat during training and recover after hard sessions. This could be due to less oxidative stress in the body that would typically be caused by sugar being dumped in the system. As a whole, for these athletes, they are able to train consistently – a key factor to improve performance. While we do have a few studies either up and running at AUT or about to begin in the new year investigating these factors in different cohorts of athletes, those experiencing the benefits of paleo don’t need a peer-reviewed paper to prove to them the real effects of eating a whole food diet.

Caveman lived shorter lives. Despite the obvious technological, societal, medicinal advances that are now present in modern society which enable us to live longer, the evidence doesn’t support this, once you examine the data without children and mothers dying in childbirth. In addition, public health experts now believe parents of today could outlive their children due to the pandemic of chronic disease the western world is experiencing.

Caveman ate organic and free range. Yes they did. Those who can afford to do that today also do. However I think overall that as much as possible, people who would like to follow a paleo diet can do so much by swapping out processed food for fresh fruit, vegetables, canned meat etc without breaking their bank accounts.

There are certainly better critiques that examine arguments against the paleo diet (think Chris Kresser, Paul Jaminet, Jamie Scott and Robb Wolf to name a few). I think, overall, Dave has missed the point about my opposition to his opinion piece. A paleo approach to diet is not about emulating all things caveman like. It’s about taking an evolutionary approach to diet and health and applying the lessons learned to modern day living. Dave advocates a whole food diet (as I do), and pointed out that any educated reader would see this. Not the point. To advocate this in one breath and bash paleo in another implies to anyone reading the article that paleo is not that whole food approach to diet. Any reader, educated or otherwise, would see this.

Reflecting on running (and a fudge recipe)

After running my first half marathon since July this weekend, I thought I would take the opportunity to reflect on running, my other passion. (Don’t worry foodies, the last couple of paragraphs are about a couple of ‘paleo’ finds including a fudge recipe 🙂 ) Runners will understand this; non-runners probably won’t, but I don’t think I can put into words how much I LOVE running. Other activities are just not the same. There’s nothing worse than being injured, and  the option to run is taken away. Unfortunately as a runner, it seems the older you get, the more you accept that you’re either on the brink of being injured, managing an injury, or just getting over an injury. We don’t tend to call it that though. It’s more of a ‘niggle’, or a ‘hot spot’; it’s hard to admit to an injury because then you might have to take the time off let it heal. Weird how, as I write that down I am thinking of how obsessive that is, yet it never feels that way if you’re in that situation. These days though, I’m far more aware of the impact that running every day can have. As much as I love it, I have to integrate other activities to ensure that I’m able to keep running consistently. Where once I would do speed or tempo sessions three times a week in amongst other, slower runs, now I run between 3-5 times a week. My main goal is to be able to be healthy enough to run when I’m 80. So I like to think I have a more balanced approach to my running.

The Keri Keri half marathon was my first since July and the Gold Coast half, which I did on the back of an injury. My time of 1.48 reflected three months of recuperating from an injury, no speed work and my apprehension of running 21km. I don’t toe the start line as often as I used to – and even when I ran more frequently and put more energy into it, I didn’t race that often. I suffer a lot from race anxiety. Some runners enter races because if they didn’t, they would never train. That has never been me. I enjoy the training way more than the thought of racing.  And, when I’m in a race situation I enjoy the challenge of running against the clock. But that is easily forgotten in the lead up to an event. Despite the low key nature of them, I was paralysed with fear in two women’s only triathlons I completed two years ago, literally unable to move for a good 10 minutes before the event. I couldn’t understand how these people could participate in the warm up aerobics when my feet were suddenly glued to the ground below me.

I believe that I could probably have been a better runner had I put into place psychological skills to help me deal with this, but wasn’t ever in a position where it was necessary. I just tend to deal with it by not racing much. When you train properly for an event you are essentially putting it on the line come race day. As an athlete you’re at your most vulnerable; there is no hiding from the clock. Worse than others’ expectations of your finish time are the expectations you place on yourself. You know you’ve trained hard, you’ve (willingly) made sacrifices, you’ve spent a decent amount of money on shoes, gear, massage (it’s a fallacy that running is a cheap sport – this quickly adds up). Race day is where you prove to yourself and others the type of athlete you are, and this is true regardless of your ability. I’ve always thought the term ‘recreational’ athlete was a misnomer.  Ninety percent of people starting a race have put their heart and soul into living their life as an athlete, however that might look in real life. This is no different to an elite athlete. Despite assurances from well-meaning people that ‘it doesn’t matter what other people think’ I don’t know of many athletes who actually believe it. You hear it on the start line all the time: “oh I’ve had a calf niggle… I’ve had this cough… I’ve hardly trained at all” (and then proceed to whip your butt).  People make excuses for a potential sub-par performance before the gun goes off, just in case they don’t run the time that is expected of them. The real fear (for me) is that I’ve given it all during training, had a near perfect race, yet you’ve not performed like the runner I am expected to be.

The last time I did this race I did 1.21.34, my personal best. This time? I ran a good, solid race and crossed the line at 1.30.06. Nine minutes slower which I would have been devastated with in a previous life. However I was pleased to realise that I’m actually pretty happy with it. This isn’t to do with lowering my expectations; it’s more a realistic reflection of the amount of mental and physical energy I have to devote to running outside of other things in my life. I really think that I’m a sub 80 minute half marathoner, and that I’ve got a 2.52 marathon in me, but have yet had the opportunity to actually unleash those times.  (Never say never though, right? 🙂 )

Despite the stress of racing it was worth taking on and conquering the anxiety demons, and the feeling of giving it your all is a satisfying one. The pain and fear of the process is quickly forgotten as you cross the finish line, and it reinforces the reasons why you do the training in the first place. The same principles apply in life as well. When I started this blog I wasn’t sure what the reception would be like with regards to my shift in nutrition philosophy. Having an opinion is one thing, but putting it out there in the public sphere takes it to the next level which I’m not always comfortable with – but it’s a confidence thing. Therefore (much like racing), the more I do it, the easier it becomes. Ultimately (like racing) the process has been a rewarding one and I’m so glad I spend the time doing it.

Speaking of rewards, at the end of Keri Keri I came across Emma from 180Nutrition – an Australian company producing ‘paleo’ protein powder and bars. I sampled a shake made with the powder, a truffle ball with the powder, and a protein bar. Real food it’s not, but let me tell you all three are delicious. Another example of ‘not real food’… I made fudge for Caryn’s birthday, all with ‘paleo’ ingredients! I came across a link from Michelle’s Primal Journey blog and, with a few adjustments, created a slightly different version you can find in the recipe section. Caryn’s verdict? “If you didn’t tell me it was fudge it would taste great.” Success.

Not really fudge

Not really fudge

National Heart Foundation: new take on the food pyramid

It’s been a long time coming but finally the National Heart Foundation (NHF) has released their new version of the Healthy Food Pyramid. And, unsurprisingly, it’s a big improvement on previous models. Unlike our food based guidelines, which haven’t been updated for 10 years and therefore still promote a grain-based diet, the NHF model (based on a healthy heart) has gone some way to recognising the impact a high intake of these foods can have on health outcomes, and has also undergone market research to determine what messages may be best understood by the general population.

Poster as jpeg

National Heart Foundation Healthy Heart Visual Dietary Tool

What I really like about this new model is that it’s colourful, bright and it doesn’t try to dictate portion amounts which most people read as a ‘one-size fits all’ approach. It instead focuses on the proportion of the plate that each food group should contribute – a volumetric-based approach. I like that vegetables and fruit are given priority over everything else (the type of diet that most people promoting whole-food advocate also), where previously breads, cereals and grains featured in the ‘eat most’ category (that’s what you get when the US Department of Agriculture has a hand in developing food guidance systems). I also really like that they’ve removed potatoes and other starchy vegetables from the ‘eat most’ category. They are the type of carbohydrate (CHO) foods that I advocate people eat, and if everyone was metabolically healthy and had no problems in regulating their appetite, their presence with non-starchy vegetables wouldn’t be a problem because people might naturally consume appropriate amounts. However, with two-thirds of New Zealanders overweight or obese, it’s not a good idea to promote these in the same vein as you would, say, broccoli. You could argue the same for fruit but from a practical perspective (and what I see a lot in my clinic) I think we are more inclined to half fill our plate with potatoes (i.e ‘vegetables’). This shift is also in line with the WHO, who have (for a few years) deemed potatoes (and bananas) as ‘starch’ and not vegetables.

However, the next food group prioritised is the wholegrain and cereals group – and that’s where I would instead advocate  animal protein sources. These have a higher nutrient content and (in my opinion) more health benefits than breads and cereals with regards to nutrients (when the diet also contains substantive amounts of vegetables and some fruit). The importance of protein was highlighted in mainstream media this week actually, with this study reporting the role that protein has in helping regulate appetite and food consumption. Most of you reading this are probably aware that protein has a satisfying effect on appetite – you only need to have eggs for breakfast one morning and cereal the next to recognise the difference in your subsequent appetite (and mood, concentration, blood sugar, energy levels etc). The review investigated the evidence for the protein leverage theory, a concept which was suggests the changes in the percentage of protein in a diet can dictate our overall energy intake. If you consume a diet that is reduced in protein, you are more likely to increase your energy intake until your protein requirement is met – leading to an overall increase in energy intake and subsequent body weight. The paper reviewed studies looking at this relationship and, on balance, the evidence supported that a low protein intake relative to carbohydrate and fat in the diet promoted appetite and a higher energy intake. When energy intake from protein decreased from 20% to 10%, overall dietary energy intake increased markedly. This dropped off when protein in the diet was reduced to 20% from a greater percentage (i.e. from 30% to 20%). What was interesting here was that, regardless of whether energy from fat or carbohydrate was higher, the body will increase the drive for food to ensure that adequate amounts of protein are consumed. This might mean advocating protein-rich whole foods that by default contain good fats could go someway to reducing overall intake of foods that are high in refined sugar and processed carbohydrates. Something to consider for a population that is predominantly overweight.

However, it’s not just protein that’s important in the diet – it’s good quality protein. I’ve banged on about this before, but in New Zealand our main problem is not absolute protein intake – it’s where it comes from and how it’s spread across the day. The way we typically consume food is to be quite light on protein at the start of the day and more heavy come the end of the day. On average, men have an intake of 102g of protein per day, and women around 71g per day. With around 16.4% and 16.5% of our dietary energy coming from protein. With a range of 15-25% being recommended, while it might be deemed adequate, this is definitely on the lower side. The major contributor of protein in our diet comes from the bread group (encompassing all types of breads, rolls, buns, crumpets and bagels) – all foods that could potentially drive an increase in appetite. As protein from animal sources not only contain all essential amino acids (the building blocks in our body) and are a good source of natural fats (contributing to their nutrient density), increasing our dietary protein from these foods is far preferable to relying on plant-based sources. As a side issue (yet related point), as an island nation surrounded by water where one of our major industries is dairy farming, it’s criminal that people in our population don’t have access to the quality protein sources necessary for a nutrient dense diet and overall health. Bagels and crumpets don’t cut it. Hence why I’d move the eggs, animal sources of protein up one level and promote their importance in the diet.

I also want to add that a diet high in fruit and vegetables is more beneficial when there is enough fat in the diet to be able to absorb the fat soluble vitamins and important phytochemicals etc that are present. Complete ‘nutrition’ isn’t just about just eating the food – you have to be able to absorb the nutrients it contains. This isn’t promoting a ‘high fat’ diet, but higher fat? Certainly. When the general population has carbohydrate-based diet that, if combined with fat, is the main driver of metabolic disorder and subsequent chronic disease, promoting a high fat diet can be problematic. This is certainly true with a dietary guidance system that lists wholegrain cereals high up in the list of dietary priority, and in a food environment where children’s cereals can claim to be ‘74% wholegrain’ yet in reality deliver little more than rampant hunger by 10am.

So what would my pyramid look like?


(ok, so I’m limited by the emoticons on my phone, but you get the drift).

The good thing with the NHF Healthy Heart (and message) is that, for the most part, it is indicating a minimally processed food diet – which most of us agree is the way to go. It’s definitely better than the Food and Nutrition Guidelines which state we should aim for at least six serves of breads and cereals, and at least one serve of food from ‘meat, poultry or meat alternatives.’ While I’m not on board with all the NHF messages, I definitely think it’s a marked improvement on the last one, and one step further in promoting the adoption of a whole food diet.


Hmm.. I know which one I would choose for breakfast.

Snapshot of an athlete’s diet: from high to low(er) carbohydrate

A friend of mine sent a link to a debate between Alan Aragon and Jeff Volek on the use of a low carbohydrate (CHO) diet for athletic performance. For those who have a spare hour, I recommend watching it. If you have done a bit of reading around this, you will already know the general premise behind recommending a low CHO diet for athletes, but it is interesting nonetheless. When you watch it you’ll note both Aragon and Volek bring in population health data related to CHO intake. If there’s one way to increase confusion in the low CHO debate, it’s mixing general population and athlete-related information. Comparing the two does little else than muddy the waters. I don’t know that there was a ‘winner’ at the end of the debate, however the one thing both parties agreed upon was that athletes could meet their performance goals over a spectrum of CHO intake. This got me thinking about a friend of mine Dave who sought some advice over his diet and whether he would benefit from eating fewer carbohydrates.

Generally speaking, a ‘low CHO’ diet is a CHO intake of between 50g-150g per day. To give you an idea of what people generally eat, the median usual intake for CHO in New Zealand adults at the last Nutrition Survey in 2008/09 was 207g for females and 273g for males., with a general recommendation of anywhere between 45-65% total energy coming from CHO. Athletes are recommended to consume between 5-10g per kilogram body weight depending on their level of activity.  Dave weighs 68 kg and with the amount of activity he undertakes, (75 min – 150 min 5 days a week across two sessions a day, with a couple of longer sessions in the weekend), that would equate to 7-8g per kg bodyweight, or 476-544g  per day. The equivalent to 35-40 slices of bread. In the past I’ve only recommended the most active of clients (male) a CHO intake within that range – not only is it really difficult to eat that much CHO, but most athletes I know would also struggle to achieve a lean body composition.

Equally though, are those athletes who struggle to maintain their weight under a hefty training schedule, and Dave falls into that category. An avid multisporter who, like many of us ‘enduros’, competes in events fairly often throughout the year, Dave’s training intensity has increased, and the 68kg he’s weighing now is around 3kg lighter than three months ago, despite eating regularly to try and satisfy his ever-present hunger. This would be around race weight – which is great when you are 1-2 weeks out from your goal race – not good when you’ve got around 10 weeks until you toe the start line of the event that matters most. Athletes are in a better position to maintain strength, recover from sessions and be resilient against illness with a 1-2kg buffer of weight that naturally drops off as training gets more race specific. However, Dave has increased the number of group training sessions that (like many guys) end up giving both the body and the ego a workout – being harder and faster than normal. When I was chatting to Dave he said he was heading away for a couple of weeks for work and that he would use the time to train a bit less and ‘relax’ on the healthy eating front to regain some weight. Hmm…. A perfect formula for a bit of extra cushioning around the middle – not quite the weight gain he would like. This could prove more difficult to lose down the line and lead to under-eating in an effort to lean up.  Cue: illness, injury, grumpiness and poor recovery from training – not exactly an optimal training environment. I thought it would be interesting to show you what he was eating, and what I might suggest – (apologies for the ugly table):

Time Original diet Quantity MW suggestions Quantity
 5.15 am Bagel,white,toasted 1 bagel Berry Fruits 1 cup
Peanut butter 2 tsp Coconut cream, 0.5 cup
Banana,fresh 1 med Black Coffee 1 cup
Black Coffee 1 cup
 7 am Banana 1 med
 8.30 am Natural muesli 1.5 cups Avocado,raw 0.5
Banana,fresh 1 small Tomato,grilled 1 med
Trim Milk 200 ml Fresh fruit salad 1 cup
Poached eggs 3 large
10 am Latte, skim milk 300ml
 Blueberry muffin 1 large
11 am Apple 1 med Coffee 1 cup
with cream  2T
Raw almonds 0.3 cup
 1 pm Sushi 8 pieces Sushi  6 pieces
Sashimi 100g
 3 pm Choc wheaten biscuits 3 biscuits Greek  yoghurt 200g
Orange,flesh 1 med Seeds,pumpkin 2 T
Apple  1 med
Coconut  2T
7.30 pm Couscous, cooked 1 cup Pan-fried chicken breast 0.5 med
Chicken,breast,grilled 0.5 med Seeds,mixed 2 T
Stir-fried vegetables  2 cups Fresh salad 100g
Chopped raw vege 100g
Kumara,baked 150g
8.30 pm Chocolate 30g Dark chocolate 30g
 Tea with milk 1 cup  Tea with milk 1 cup

Outlined below is the different macronutrient profiles of each diet.

Nutrient Original diet MW suggestions
Energy (kJ) 11604.03 1190.37
Protein (g) 131.34 (19%) 142.73 (22%)
Total fat (g) 80.41  (30%) 172.46 (56%)
Saturated fat (g) 21.61 69.67
Polyunsaturated fat (g) 22.45 27.20
Monounsaturated fat (g) 30.21 54.32
Carbohydrate (g) 357.69 (51%) 159.43 (22%)
Sugars (g) 147.96 110.76

As you can see, the original diet is a quintessential athlete’s diet that Nancy Clark (and Runner’s World in the 90s) would be proud of. However, it wasn’t doing Dave any favours. While he enjoys vegetables and fruit, his meals are based around CHO choices. You’ll also note that it’s less than the recommended CHO guidelines for  ‘best practice’ sports nutrition. At 357g CHO, he’s consuming 120g less than the minimum recommended for his activity level.

Obviously, in order to maintain and potentially gain weight, it would be ideal to increase energy in the diet from good food sources. Going the traditional high CHO route I could tell Dave to include two 750 ml sports drinks during his sessions – that would equate to an additional 110g CHO per day. However that wouldn’t do much to satisfy his hunger and I’m not down with all of that simple sugar; endurance athletes place their body under so much oxidative stress due to the byproducts of training, the additional sugar load does not sit well with me. My advice is to up the dietary energy from fat, and include quality sources of protein – that way he will feel fuller, he won’t be burning muscle mass during his training, and he’ll gain a little bit of weight. The caloric intake isn’t too different between the two plans as for the next two weeks Dave’s training load is reduced. This makes it a perfect time to undergo a dietary change, making adapting to a higher fat diet easier in this instance. As I’ve discussed before, shifting from a high CHO diet to a higher fat diet requires metabolic adaptation that doesn’t happen overnight; the power output takes a hit, therefore it’s best not to do during a heavy training (and higher intensity) phase.

The CHO has decreased, but is at the higher end of the CHO intake of a ‘low CHO’ athlete – and is nowhere near the 50g or less required for nutritional ketosis. Most of the CHO is around his training times and, in addition, his protein sources are of higher quality with the addition of eggs and sashimi at lunchtime. These previously there was a high proportion of protein coming from cereal-based products. When Dave resumes a higher training load, increasing the amount of protein and/or fat at lunch and dinner would help support the increased load. These changes will help Dave become more ‘fat adapted’ while maintaining his weight. An athlete who would like to lose weight would have a lower CHO intake.

Most importantly, these choices were discussed with Dave and he felt confident that he could make these changes. This is one of a number of ways to change the macronutrient profile of the diet to support the training goals of an athlete and this is just one example, designed to give you an idea of how a lower CHO diet can be achieved.

(PS Grain-free, dairy-free, flour-free pumpkin loaf in the recipe section)