The bodybuilding/competition lifestyle has the potential to bring on many bad habits. I see competitors obsess about food, cut calories way too low, and put way too much emphasis on the negative sides of dieting. Dieting does not make one a martyr, and acute deprivation is never healthy–even in the name of a sport.
In the weeks of preparation before a contest, we understand that we are going in with the muscle that we have already spent the year building; during this phase, we are focused on perfecting our nutrition to serve the purpose of shedding the fat that hides the muscles we’ve built.
To the untrained eye (pun not intended) we look healthy, and whether we like it or not we inadvertently appear to be in favor of extreme dieting. I hate this part of what I do. No one should be eating like I am or training so intensely unless for a very short term, and there are few good reasons why one should diet and train short term only.
I am guilty of all the mistakes that I am referring to here. I have dieted so extremely (at the hands of a really terrible coach) that I came close to a severe electrolyte imbalance. I have obsessed over all of the foods I couldn’t have. I have used terms like “food porn,” and I have publicly glorified my deprivation. I have narrowed my diet so extremely that I eliminated any shred of variety, and I have ingested more artifical sweeteners in just a few years than most people will in their lifetimes.
For another competitor’s insight regarding her struggle with these unhealthy habits, check out this blog:
During my two year break from competing, I had a lot of time to identify the things that I would never recommend to a client, the things I would be too ashamed to tell anyone I did in pursuit of a win, and the things that I never want to do again. I went into this prep with those things in mind and am so far successful at maintaining a healthy, balanced lifestyle while on a bodybuilding diet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still hungry sometimes. And I still crave foods that aren’t conducive to reaching my goals at the moment (most recently, Honey Nut Cheerios!!). But I have learned a lot about what it means to be healthy inside as well as out, and I have gained maturity in my outlook on food and competition—and those are the things I want to share here.
1. Food is ultimately for sustenance. I think too often we forget this. Food can and should be enjoyed, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how good it tasted, it matters how nutritious it was. There are two goals here: the first is to learn to enjoy foods that aren’t heavily processed, loaded with fat and sugar, and eaten in large quantities. The second is to BE OKAY with sometimes stepping outside of that for a piece of cake or a cookie from time to time.
2. Don’t trust yourself to portion your food when you’re hungry. Peanut butter is the prime example for most competitors—when we’re hungry, can we really trust ourselves to dip a spoon right into the jar and only take out a tablespoon without going back for more? Maybe, but why risk it?
3. Learn to identify your “red zone.” Most of the time I can eat one goldfish cracker, or one bite of ice cream, or one taste of something and be completely satisfied. But sometimes I can’t. For me, discipline doesn’t mean only being able to resist every time—sometimes it means being able to recognize when I can’t. I call this my “red zone,” and when I’m in it I know better than to even risk ruining my hard work over one bite.
4. Recognize that there is a time for everything—and commit to designating that time appropriately. Some people may think it’s “healthy” to never ever eat anything high in fat or high in sugar, and to the extent that one is able to do so with no cravings or feelings of deprivation, I can agree. But most people enjoy the taste of a cookie, and if told they can never eat one again will go nuts on a bag of oreos the first chance they get. So why not indulge in a controlled and purposeful manner?
5. Learn to tell the difference between being hungry and wanting food. This one can be tricky and very difficult. I run my own nutrition plan, which is not common among competitors, even the ones who coach other competitors. I believe the primary reason for this is that there can sometimes be a conflict of interest: on the one hand, I’m hungry and I want more carbs…on the other hand, I’m ____ weeks out of a show and I won’t get my desired result if I consume more carbs. I’m not really sure how, but I have learned to recognize when my mind WANTS more carbs and when my body is telling me it NEEDS more carbs in order to perform. A lot of this has to do with the red zone I talked about earlier—I NEVER assess my diet or my body while in that zone.
6. Always have a plan. The average person doesn’t have to count the calories in every meal, or obsess over macronutrients…at some point, doing so can actually become unhealthy. But have an idea of what a balanced meal looks like, what foods satisfy those balances, what portion sizes look like, and how you will give yourself those balanced meals every day. If you wake up in the morning with absolutely no plan for lunch, you’re less likely to cook something nutritious and more likely to seek a quick and unhealthy fix.