Friday, December 18, 2015

Why my gym diet worked so well at first...then failed me.

Before I dive into this post, let me make it clear that this is my personal experience and opinion with the lean/clean diet and not necessarily true for everyone. One thing I have learned is that everyone is different and we all handle diets and foods differently. So what follows is just my account and my own thoughts, which I am sharing because it may just help you if you have felt similarly to me. I believe that all of our experiences are valid and that sharing them may help someone else, which is always the reason why I share my little story.

The question that has been on my mind lately is this: why, if I am now Banting, and think Banting is great, did the gym diet work so well for me? Because clearly the gym diet did work (for a while).

So let me take you back in time four years ago. I started gym training with a personal trainer and following what I call a "gym diet" - very lean and clean. Before this, I had "dieted"by eating smaller portions, but never really followed a strict diet of any real sort.

So when I was prepping for my first competition, the diet I followed was roughly what those USN 12 week challenges would advise - "clean" eating and very low fat. So no processed foods, no sugar, and no saturated fats, and in fact, very little fat. Olive oil and avos and a few nuts were really the only fats allowed. Milk was skim. Yoghurt was fat-free and mixed with whey. Protein at every meal. Carbs were allowed, but only complex carbs - sweet potatoe, brown rice and oats. Fuit was limited to an apple a day, or a 100g of strawberries. It all seemed very healthy and, at first, I really thrived on this. I was told to eat five to six smaller meals a day.
  Here is an example of what I ate:

Breakfast: 50g oats with whey protein powder mixed in (USN, Supashape, Evox...that sort of thing)

Post-training: Either a shake and an apple or a fat-free yoghurt with whey mixed in

Lunch: 100g brown rice with steamed veggies or salad and a chicken breast

Afternoon: Rice cakes with a quarter avo and 2 slices ham or protein shake and 10 almonds

Supper: Lean 120g steak with steamed veg.

If I was still hungry after that I could have more protein like a USN protein dessert or a Supashape protein pudding.

I was allowed to drink tea and coffee with sweetener and skim milk. (I often couldn't stand the skim and would "cheat" with 2% milk.)

Now, at first, I did really well on this diet and I dropped weight easily. In fact, looking back, at one point (just before my first comp) I got too lean. It was easy to drop the weight, although I did feel hungry often. But I wasn't struggling much on this diet and felt healthy at first. So of course, back then, I thought if this diet works so well then it must be good, right?
I was too lean here. But it happened very easily. I felt pretty good at this time though. This was after dieting for my very first competition. My arms look super scrawny - not healthy.

But fours years down the line, now, I find that I CANNOT sustain that way of eating any more. I just can't do it. The question is, why? I was finding, more and more, that I wanted to "cheat eat", which is really not sticking to the diet much, and I was craving cake and chocolate WAY too much. Let's face it, it's just not normal to be thinking of cake or chocolate every single day! Don't get me wrong, even before this clean eating, I loved sweet treats, but not to the extent that I did after I started dieting. When I followed a strict gym diet, I would constantly be thinking of food, and looking at the clock to see when my next meal was supposed to be. Again, that is just not normal or healthy, is it? (Contrast that to now, when I hardly think of food at all. And sometimes I don't even want to eat.)

Eventually I got to a point, two to three years down the line where I just couldn't stick to clean eating and even if I tried, I never ever got very lean again.
A shoot from last year, before I was Banting. I tried really hard to lean down for this photo shoot but just couldn't get to where I wanted to be. But I probably look healthier here than my first ever shoot.

Here is what I think now:
In hindsight, I believe the gym diet worked so well at first because:
1) I was completely cutting out processed foods. Which is the good part of clean eating. Clean eating means eating whole foods. Nothing processed - no sugar, no white flour, no pasta, etc. However, it also means no natural, saturated animal fats, and at the time, I didn't realise how important they are for my hormonal and bodily health. In fact, back then, I had no idea how good fat was for health overall. So at first, no wonder I felt good: I wasn't eating any more junk food. And it's easy to eat clean for a short period of time like 6-12 weeks. With a strong mindset, and a goal of entering a competition, I didn't really want to deviate from the diet as I was leaning out so nicely. Which is to say, the rewards of eating that way outweighed the hunger and, at first, also dampened any cravings.

2) Clean eating meant I was actually reducing my carbs...(this is something that the science writer, Gary Taubes points out in this video) because when you calorie restrict and cut out processed carbs, your total carb load in your food will go down. Think of it like this: I was eating bread, pasta and potatoes before, not to mention the odd cakes or biscuits, so by switching to clean and calorie-controlled eating, even though I was still taking in carbs, they were less in total, and they were full of fibre. So my total caloric and therefore carb intake went down. So my insulin levels must have reduced, and my total blood sugar must have been less, which would explain the easy initial weight loss and feeling better overall.

Short-term improvement, not long term health
However, over time, and by cutting back so severely on fat, I think I was slowly doing my hormones a disservice. I believe that there were negative changes going on in my body (I am studying at the moment to find out what things could go wrong when we go too low fat) and that is why I was finding it harder and harder to stick to such clean/lean eating. I also believe that the cravings for fat and sugar in chocolate and cake were my body's way of signalling to me that it needed more fat, and more calories, because often I would be calorie counting (I didn't want to "ruin" a whole gym workout by overeating, now, did I?). I should have realised that obsessively thinking about eating these sweet, fatty "cheat" foods was a call for help from my body. But only now that I no longer have such cravings do I see that. At the time, I thought it natural to crave yummy treats.

So whilst I can see now, with the wisdom of a bit more knowledge, why the diet worked so well in the short term (total carb load was down, plus a total limit on refined foods), I can also see now why it just wasn't sustainable. At least not for me.The body needs fat. And I think I was having way too much protein for my weight.

I got to a point where I just couldn't face another protein shake. After having them every day for around three years, enough was enough. Plus the bloating. Oddly enough, when I first started eating clean, I didn't bloat much. Then I started to. I don't know if it's to with stomache enzymes, or probiotics, or lack of healthy fats, but I started to bloat more often after around two years of eating clean, and I am not really one prone to bloating. I also could not face another chicken breast, or bowl of oats. Eating clean is fairly limited and repetitive. I hadn't eaten liver, or any chops or animal fat or stew or much cheese or anything different in years. Most likely, I was lacking nutrients, and just didn't realise it. I began to get moody (and I am not a very moody person.) I found afternoons were really difficult to get through. I would feel extremely tired after my workouts, even though I would have a "repairing" post workout shake. I started to perform worse at the gym, and even dreaded going to the gym. I felt tired A LOT. I was constantly thinking about food, and then would often eat bad stuff, then feel guilty and either try to starve myself or work it off during my next workout.
My body now - Dec 2015 - not super lean, but I don't think that was healthy. This is a good healthy looking weight to me.

We are all different
Having said that, I know a lot of gym-goers who do seem to manage well on eating clean long-term, but I suspect they do include a lot more fat and variety. They are liberal with their clean-eating. They also include a lot more. One guy I know eats very clean but includes a lot of coconut oil in his diet, which I now believe is what helps keep him on track. (Basically he doesn't go too low with the fat.)

I have, obviously, been around gym people a lot, and one thing I notice they all do (me included) is talk about food non-stop. If you had to eavesdrop backstage at a competition, all you would hear is about what cheat foods they have in their bags, what big meal they are going to eat afterwards and how hard their current diets are. It's obsessive and crazy, and ultimately, for me, it wasn't healthy. You see, for me, I would try to eat way too clean even after my competitions because I thought that was the right way, but now I think the body just can't sustain it.

And then I discovered Banting...
Hence I am Banting now. I really wanted a diet (I hate that word, let's call it an eating approach) that would work to give me true health (not just to get lean) and not drive me insane. And I believe that I have found it. I haven't Banted long term, but I am going to give it a good shot because I enjoy eating this way and I enjoy the freedom from cravings it gives me. I have no idea what it will do to my body after a few years, but I am willing to experiment and find out and I reckon that it has to be better than the cycle of deprivation and craving that I was on.At least now I am free from calorie counting, and free from "having" to work off my food if I ate something not on my plan. At least now I am getting in a wide variety of nutrients and enjoying stews, liver, salmon and cheeses and butter. I don't weigh or measure my food, and I have learned to actually listen to my body - when it's hungry, I eat. So simple. So intuitive. Basically, I get to ENJOY my food and not feel deprived.

So, in summary, the "gym diet" (lean protein, complex carbs) does work - but I believe only in the short term. Thereafter, I believe the lack of fat plays havoc with our hormones and emotions and wrecks our essential levels of fats and nutrients. I say that because, now, I feel so much more at ease inside. It may seem strange to say but I feel more balanced. Sure, I am not as lean as I was at my very leanest, but I don't think that was healthy for me, and it was basically semi-starvation.

I don't have all the answers yet, but my intuition and my gut feeling tells me that with Banting, I am on to something sustainable.

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