I regularly see nutrition advice about how to get to race weight, how to stop being hungry and what to snack on. Generally it revolves around grazing, eating complex carbohydrates and, of course, calories in verses calories out.
Before I go on we must address calories in verses calories out. It seems to be touted as some profound explanation of hunger and weight management but it’s just a self-evident truth. It must be the case that you ate more than you needed if you put on weight (the first law of thermodynamics). In the same way if your sink is overflowing with water it means more water is entering via the taps than leaving via the plughole. It offers no explanation as to why this is the case, perhaps a blocked pipe or leaking tap. Calories in verses calories out explains the what causes weight gain or loss not the why. It’s the why we’re interested in.
So why is calories in verses calories out a bad explanation for weight gain or why you’re hungry? Because it’s more complicated than that. What you eat influences how your body reacts.
Take someone that is eating the right amount of calories for what they are burning but this is based around the typical low fat high carbohydrate diet. The carbs make their body switch to fat storage. This means their body takes sugar out of the blood and stores it. So imagine they eat 2,000 calories and it matches their energy requirements. Since their body is in fat storage mode some of those calories are removed to store as fat (say 500), which means they’re not available as energy. This means they’re 500 calories short and will feel hungry. Now they either resist the hunger (they can probably manage this a few days) or they overeat.
Now consider the same person eating based on a low carb (hence high fat) diet. Their body goes in to fat burning mode due to the lack of carbohydrates. So now, using the figures above but NOT calorie counting, they just eat based on hunger and their body releases some of the calories required for fuel from fat stores. Say their body is releasing 500 calories from fat stores and they need 2,000 calories. Since they’ve got 500 already they only need an extra 1500. Once they’ve had those they’ll not feel hungry. Thus they eat less than they need, they loose weight but they’re not hungry.
This works. I don’t know anyone who has followed this approach who has not seen results pretty quickly. No need to take my word for it. Just a week out of your life following a strict low carbohydrate diet and you will see the difference. You have to be strict though, no cheating.
I apply this logic and it allows me to generally not be hungry, maintain a stable weight and not have to count calories. Broadly the rules I follow are:
- Don’t eat unless hungry. This means I won’t eat breakfast until I am hungry. Sometimes this can be immediately on waking other times breakfast may end up being lunch. I find a low carb breakfast holds off hunger far longer than the typical high carb one. I’ve come to the conclusion that the message of eat breakfast to kick-start your metabolism must be a marketing campaign.
- Learn the difference between genuine hunger, which builds slowly and hunger, that is merely a response to a trigger, which tends to come on rapidly. When I used to walk to work I’d regularly buy a coffee. Occasionally I’d buy a donut us well. Without fail, if I did this, the next day as I approached this coffee shop I would feel incredible hungry. I learnt this was not hunger just a trigger; if I walked by the hunger disappeared within minutes.
- Snacking is based around zero or very low carbohydrate foods that by definition are zero or very low GI. This means things like macadamia nuts, almonds, and cooked meats even pork scratchings.
- Fitting this in with your triathlon training requires experimentation and observation of yourself. I find that I can do my long rides and runs without any need to adjust the above (i.e. no need to eat loads of carbs). You may find for more intense sessions some carbs before or during are required. The great thing is that you learn how you respond. All it takes is a little conscious observation of yourself, how you react and how you feel.
- Getting to a slightly lower weight for racing requires a period of being very strict with carbohydrate restriction. During this period I will count carbs and aim for as low as I can whilst maintaining my training. Again this is something to experiment with to find what works for you.