3 March 2007
Recover Week Musings: Why can’t I eat whatever I want?
If any of you have been wondering why I haven’t been as active posting and blogging this week, it’s because I’ve been taking full advantage of my recovery week to work on work… and that means I did a good job of pivoting my center of focus from “training” to other things. Since my fitness blog is mostly now about my training and what I think of and about related to that training, it means the blog hasn’t been front and center.
But I have kept in touch with some forums out there and reading email, and I actually found myself in an in interesting discussion about whether or not very active people can eat whatever they want whenever they want. This is a fascinating subject to me… because, well… I like to eat, and I’m a pretty active guy, and so, I’m eager to find the magic spell that let’s me eat whatever and whenever I feel like it. But sadly in my life so far, I haven’t discovered that thing… even training for and completing an Ironman triathlon wasn’t some magical get out of the glutton jail for free card.
I think there is an unspoken myth that overweight people are lazy gluttons, and that fit people are eating a normal amount of food and balancing it with lots of activity. And if we’d all go back to that balance of activity, then we’d all be able to eat whatever we want, and none of us would have to diet, and none of us would ever be overweight.
I’ve heard people suggest that if we go back to a simpler lifestyle of 100 years ago, before computers, when we all worked in factories or farms, we’d wouldn’t have a weight problem because we’d all be active enough. I am very much convinced that our bodies are not well adapted to our current lifestyles… but I think you have to go back further than 100 years to see when our lifestyles were more in balance with our environment…
Namely I believe you have to go back to the hunter gatherers. I posted about Dr. Art DeVany and his “evolutionary fitness” theory in the past. And although I don’t agree with all of his thoughts, I do agree that it seems very likely that we are more well adapted for the caveman lifestyle than the lifestyle of today.
They would go for several days even weeks without food, during that time being relatively inactive for most of the day save an hour or two where they would walk around looking for fruits and nuts to eat… then every once in a rare while, they’d have a chance to chase down a wild animal (expending ridiculous amounts of energy doing so), and if they prevailed, they would gorge themselves on massive quantities of nutrient rich food that would have to hold them over for days and weeks.
My thinking on this subject is probably not very typical. I’ll admit, I’m in an unusual place in my fitness. I’ve lived as being stereotyped as “the obese person” and I’ve lived as being stereotyped as “that fit guy”.
I was that fat kid… the guy that grew up assuming I’d always be fat. Everyone in my family is overweight and we’ve all been obese at some point in our lives. We were that classic example of a family that knew we had to work really hard at watching what we ate and trying to “be active” and we’d still always be overweight. For 34 years of my life I just always assumed there was nothing I could do about it.
As I was growing up, I knew most people assumed I was lazy and that was why I was fat. I was “the smart kid”… and so I believed the stereotypes that if you are smart you probably aren’t going to be athletic. I always assumed that my body was the way it was, and that there simply was nothing I could ever do about it.
I gave up, I surrendered to it, I was happy (enough) with believing that there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Hey, I had a great job, a relatively happy family who made great food and knew how to throw a party, I had a lovely wife and two great kids. I even had the small sense of superiority that although I was obese, I was “the skinny one” in my family. (Yeah, at 200lbs and 5′4″, I was the skinny one.)
But I always had this feeling that other people were judging me for being overweight. I had this feeling that other people assumed that it was my fault I was overweight, and that if I would just get off my butt and more around “a little” that I wouldn’t be so fat. Or they assumed that I must eat a huge amount of food all the time, and have no self control.
Now, I admit, I do like to eat… but I didn’t really eat a ridiculous amount of food. And so when I would diet, I’d notice that I wouldn’t lose any weight if I stuck to “a normal diet of 2000 cals a day”… I mean isn’t the US-RDA? Isn’t that what it says on all our food.
I think that people who are not overweight assume that everyone who is overweight must eat 2 or 3 times as much as normal person should… That would be a lot of food, and so these overweight people have no one to blame but themselves. Ok, it’s not fair for me to stereotype skinny people (heck some of you would say that I am one of these people now), so I’m not saying that all “fit people” think this way, I’m simply saying, this is what I used to think that people were thinking about me when I was overweight.
Now I’ve lived the last 3+ years as a not overweight guy. And it took a lot of hard work to get there… my basic weight loss plan was 1250 cals a day and 5-6 days a week x 45min-90min of hard cardio workouts. This was an extreme diet… I lost 50lbs in 3 months. By the way, I was always hungry… at least that’s what my brain was saying… but even working out 6-8 hours a week, I couldn’t just eat anything.
Now, I live a very different lifestyle… I am always working out. I am an Ironman triathlete. That means I am always training. I just got home from a 2 hour bike ride and it’s 11:30pm here in Seattle. Tomorrow I’ll go for a 9.5 mile run, and later lift weights with a friend. Next week, I’ll do over 12.5 hours of serious training.
I know now that people assume I can eat anything I want to and not gain weight… but it simply isn’t true.
For whatever reason, with my genes, if I eat more calories than I need in that day, my body will store it as fat… I guess because my body is ready to do that 50mile trek across the frozen plains to find that herd of buffalo and then sprint all out for 2 minutes as we chase them over a cliff… and my body will be just as ready to eat as much of that kill as possible to make it for 2 weeks with nothing but berries and roots to eat.
With respect to active people eating whatever they want, of course we can all point to many examples of active people who eat junk all the time and never gain weight… but, my point is, I can point to many active people (very active people) who still have to pay attention to what they eat to stay at the body fat levels they want. The point is, that some people have genes that promote burning lots of calories, and other people have genes that promote storage of those calories. I’m not making excuses, I’m just stating something that has been observed by many many scientists over many different studies.
I can also speak from personal experience… that I have some of those later genes… namely ones that are very economical in their use of calories. It turns out, I’m not actually complaining about this, because… for me, right now in my life… this is a good thing. I think it’s one thing that makes me good at being a long distance endurance athlete.
In my Ironman race I was actively working with an average heart rate of 155pbm for 12 hours!!! I didn’t take a break… no lunch break, no dinner (till after the race). Of course I ate on the race, but only what I could carry with me, and eat while attempting to ride a bike at 20mph and while running a marathon (I didn’t attempt to eat on the swim. ).
The point is, for me, most of my fuel was being carried in my body as body fat. And my genes (fortunately in the case of this race and preparing for this race) did an excellent job of keeping around as much body fat as possible despite my training regiment.
Sure, I’m just an average Joe… but this is consistent with many quotes I’ve seen from some of the greatest elite endurance athletes. Peter Reid, for example, 3 time Ironman World Champion, watches what he eats very meticulously… because if he takes on too many calories during training, he will gain weight very quickly. Lance Armstrong has been quoted with similar comments…. He believes one reason he was always so much stronger was that he never “slipped” on his diet during the off season like so many other professional cyclists do.
I just want to remind people that exercise alone or diet alone is never enough… you have to pay attention to both exercise and diet and find the balance that works for your body. If all of this sounds crazy to you… let me say this, 3 years ago, I would never have imagined that I could do any of this. I completely transformed my body… through hard work (exercise), discipline (diet), and a lot of will-power.
Remember to believe in yourself. Your body can do amazing things when you make up your mind to do it!