by Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD
As I write this column, the date is April 10th, 2020, three weeks into the coronavirus shut-down here in Boston. I continue to counsel clients from my virtual office. I am talking with runners and other athletes who are stuck at home, hating what they see when staring at themselves during Zoom meet-ups, and are spending too much time fighting with food (Do I eat? Don’t I eat? Am I hungry—or just bored?). They are feeling anxious and self-critical.
When life feels out of control, runners commonly end up trying to control other things, such as food, exercise, and weight. Some may be striving to chisel themselves into a perfect body (no excess body fat) and eat a perfect diet (no fun foods). Unfortunately, the same dedication and discipline that help them be good runners are the same traits that foster eating disorders. For example, perfectionism is common to both elite runners and people with anorexia. How else could they rise to the elite level without demanding perfection from themselves?
Yes, discipline, dedication, and perfectionism are driving forces that help good athletes become great. But genetics is fundamental, as is adequate – but not necessarily perfect – fueling. That is, eating a cookie will not contaminate a runner’s health nor ruin his or her ability to perform well.
If you are relentlessly pushing yourself hard right now out of fear of getting fat and losing fitness, please consider being gentler on yourself. This is a difficult time for many folks. Little is wrong with a bit of comfort food in the midst of chaos and crisis. Perhaps you can allow yourself to be “bad” and do something out of character, like bake cookies and enjoy some for an afternoon snack. Giving yourself permission to enjoy some fun food is a part of normal eating, assuming you also have other coping skills such as writing in a journal and relaxing yourself with yoga.
When food has power over you
If you are spending too much time trying not to eat (Fill in the blank) ____ (cookies, cheese, ice cream, chips?) because you can’t eat just one serving, think again. Depriving yourself of your favorite foods makes them even more enticing. They can needlessly become too powerful. To take the power away from a “binge food,” you need to eat it more often. (Trust me!) Here’s the analogy:
Pretend you are caring for a four-year-old boy. You take him into a room filled with toys and tell him he can play with all of the toys except for the green truck. You leave the room and then look through the two-way mirror. What is he playing with? The green truck, of course! The same analogy holds true with food.
If you give yourself permission to eat, let’s say, some Oreos every day, after a few days, you’ll either have little interest in yet-another Oreo (because other foods actually make you feel better) or you will be able to eat just one Oreo; it will no longer have power over you. Yes, to gain control over foods that have power over you, you have to allow the food back into your life and eat it more often. Be curious; give it a try?
When the mirror makes you feel sad
Are you spending too much time these days critically evaluating your body in the mirror? Or hating what you see in the Zoom meet-up? Please, just, stop the body-hatred talk. Few humans have a perfect body. The imperfections you see are perfectly beautiful and acceptable.
Instead of being self-critical, be grateful that you are healthy. Grateful that you have two strong legs that help you be a good runner. Grateful that you have a body that produced healthy babies that are now your beloved children. Grateful for your muscular thighs that help you surge up hills. You could even apologize to your body for having tortured it with skimpy diets and excessive exercise in your efforts to control how it looks.
Rather than focus on how your body looks, turn your attention to how your body feels throughout the day, particularly before, during and after you exercise. Does your body feel hungry? tired? sore? Respond appropriately to that feeling by nourishing it with food, rest, a warm bath. Daily killer workouts that feel like punishment for having excess body fat inevitably end up with the athlete being injured and depressed.
Now is a good time to practice looking in the mirror (or the Zoom screen) and saying nice things about your body, such as, “I have pretty blue eyes.” “I like my silky hair.” “I have strong legs.” You can intentionally pay less attention to the crooked teeth, pointy ears, and “too big” tummy. Do you really think others care about that stuff?
Note: For more information on making peace with your body, visit RealFoodWholeLife.com, JessieHaggerty.com, and Julie Duffy Dilllon’s podcast Love, Food.
When mindless eating gets out of control
If you find yourself grazing on snacks incessantly throughout the day and have fears about getting fat, try scheduling regular meals and snacks. Also give yourself permission to eat enough breakfast and lunch, so that you are fully satiated. Don’t stop eating those meals just because you think you should but rather because you actually have had enough to eat. Runners who graze all day rarely feel fully fed.
Hunger is a physiological request for fuel. Hunger does not mean “Oh no, I’m going to eat and get fat. Rather, hunger is your body’s way of saying it has burned off what you fed it and now needs more fuel. Yes, food is fuel, not the fattening enemy. Honor hunger.
Another way to bring control to your eating is to eat only when 1) you are sitting in a specific place (kitchen table?), 2) the food is on a plate, and 3) you are tasting it mindfully. (I.e. you are not standing in front of the open cupboard, wolfing down handfuls of chocolate chips.)
Once upon a time (before WW-II), daily life revolved around structured meals: enjoying a hearty breakfast, a dinner (at noon), and supper (at night). When women entered the workforce, eating patterns changed – lighter breakfasts and lunches, with bigger family-focused dinners. Fast forward to pre-COVID 2020, youth sports and life’s busy-ness totally disrupted dinner-times; structured meals got lost in the shuffle.
Today (week #8 of COVID shut-down), our stay-at-home lifestyle has gifted many of us with time to cook breakfast, enjoy lunch, and have family dinners. Yet, many runners are feeling confused and/or uneasy about how they are eating:
“I’m sleeping until 11:00 a.m. Should I eat breakfast—or lunch—when I get up?”
“I now have easy access to food given I’m working at home. I spend too much time grazing. Seems like I am hungry all the time.”
“My eating is all over the place.. How should I be eating—what is “normal” eating?”
Sound familiar? To add a supportive framework, joy to meals, and answer the question What is normal eating? I turn to eating authority Ellyn Satter, author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family (a book every parent should read; EllynSatter-Institute.org). Here is her definition of “normal eating”:
• Normal eating is going to the table hungry and eating until you are satisfied. It is being able to choose food you like and eat it and truly get enough of it—not stopping eating just because you think you should.
That is, did you stop eating breakfast today because the oatmeal in your bowl was all gone? Or were you truly satiated? At the end of lunch, did you stop at your one-sandwich allotment, even though you wanted more? If you are “feeling hungry all the time,” you likely ARE hungry; your body is requesting more fuel. Trust it. You’ll end up eating more sooner or later, so please honor that hunger and eat more now.
• Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection, so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food.
That is, have you put yourself in food jail and banned “fun foods” like cookies, cupcakes, and chips, out of fear of over-eating them? Ideally, your meal plan includes 85-90% quality foods, with 10-15% fun foods. You need not eat a perfect diet to have an excellent diet. Some “fun food” in the midst of a pandemic can be, well, fun!
• Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad, or bored, or just because it feels good.
Yes, food is a way we celebrate, mourn, and entertain ourselves. Sometimes we even need a hug from food, despite being not hungry. One bowl of ice cream will not ruin your waistline nor your health forever. That said, routinely overindulging in ice cream as a means to distract yourself from life’s pain will not solve any problem. If you are using food as a drug, to not start eating can be easier than stopping once you have started.
• Normal eating is mostly three meals a day, or four or five, or it can be choosing to munch along the way.
Most runners require fuel at least every 3 to 4 hours. Those who “graze all day” commonly under-eat at meals. If you stop eating because you think you should, not because you are satiated, you will feel the urge to graze. Solutions: eat the rest of your breakfast-calories for a mid-morning snack, eat an earlier lunch, or better yet, give yourself permission to eat enough satiating food at breakfast. Living hungry all the time puts a damper on your quality of life, to say nothing of impairs athletic performance.
•Normal eating is leaving cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful.
If you are banning fun foods from your house because you can’t eat just one cookie, think again. Denying yourself permission to enjoy a few cookies boosts the urge to eat the whole plateful. I call that “last chance eating.” You know, “last chance to have cookies, because tomorrow I am back on my cookie-free diet.” Depriving yourself of cookies leads to binge-eating. Try planning in forbidden foods every day. They will soon lose their power.
•Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Yes, even normal eaters overeat. It’s normal to have too much birthday cake, too much Sunday Brunch, too much ice cream. When competent eaters overeat, they listen to their body’s signals – and notice they take longer to get hungry again. That is, if you have a hearty brunch, you will be less hungry that evening. Trust me. Rather, trust your body. Hunger is your body’s way of telling you it has burned off what you gave it, and now it is ready for more fuel. You want to honor hunger and eat intuitively, like kids eat. Kids eat matter-of-factly; they stop eating when they are content. Many adults (including weight-conscious runners), don’t eat when they are hungry, then don’t stop when content. Rather, they “cheat” and guiltily stuff themselves with forbidden foods —last chance before the diet starts again!
• Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.
If you are spending 90% of your time thinking about food, you are likely hungry 90% of the time. (If humans didn’t think about food, they would never think to eat.) If you eat until you are satisfied, you will stop incessantly thinking about food. That said, food-thoughts can be a way to distract yourself from stuff you really don’t want to think about. In that case, talking with a counsellor might be helpful. Smothering your feelings with chocolate will not solve any of your problems.
• In short, normal eating is flexible. It varies in response to your hunger, your schedule, your proximity to food, and your feelings.
Many runners very rigidly eat the same foods every single day. A sports nutritionist can help add variety (more nutrients), flexibility, and more joy to eating. Food can and should be one of life’s pleasures, both when training and in the midst of a pandemic.
My hope is the above tips will help you find peace with food and your body. Enjoy food for nourishment and survive the coronavirus shut down with sanity. The day will soon come when you can run free again.
Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes at her private practice in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook answers most nutrition questions and can help you eat to win. Visit www.NancyClarkRD.com for more information.
"Helping active people win with good nutrition."
Her book is available on Amazon.