I get a lot of questions about diet and nutrition. I feel a little uncomfortable offering advice about nutrition for a number of reasons, the biggest of which is that I don’t think that much about my own diet. My food choices are good and I eat very healthfully, but I don’t count out the ratio of protein to fat to carbs and I do a random calorie count every now and then to make sure I’m getting enough calories in a really general sense, but that’s it. Secondly, living in Thailand is a very different food-choice situation than in the US. I don’t shop for groceries and I don’t cook, but unlike eating in restaurants in the US the food here is incredibly simple, local and fresh.
I like healthful food – when presented with the option of a doughnut or spinach sauteed with garlic I’m going for the spinach 9 times out of 10. I enjoy doughnuts, I love chocolate cake and cookies, but I don’t ever get more than a few bites in before losing interest. You don’t have to be a teetotaler to decide against slamming a few cocktails before going on a run because it’s going to make you feel like crap and that’s pretty much the same response I have to certain foods: I know how they’ll make me feel and I’d rather just skip it.
But I do lean toward the “Paleo” or “Primal” way of eating in that I have learned to eschew wheat and most grains, as well as processed foods which are basically all sugar. I tried it after reading about it and I stick to it after noticing that when I eat wheat I feel tired and moody afterward, which isn’t my favorite way to feel. It’s pretty easy to do avoid wheat in Thailand. Bakeries are growing in popularity, but there’s no bread at 99% of restaurants and no sandwich shops within walking distance. I don’t like noodles, so I don’t eat them. Basically everything is a little meat and vegetables over white rice, day in and day out, every day. It’s delicious and I can see the whole pig out of which parts were purchased for my meals when I walk up the street past the butcher stand. It’s a little weird to stare your lunch right in the face, but somehow it feels better than pieces of ham-steak wrapped in cellophane.
Happily, a number of resources exist to better explain, guide and advise those who seek information pertaining to losing weight, getting strong or simply feeling better. One such resource is a recent article on Muay Thai is Life by James Gregory of Cool Hearts Gym in Philly. What caught my eye was his specification for fighters, demonstrating thoughtfulness toward the particular energy needs of those of us training in a pretty non-caveman way:
Are there any special food exceptions for fighters?
Yes, a couple in particular that typically aren’t “paleo” for most: white rice and white potatoes. Now I know, we are conditioned to think that any white carb is bad, but we have to evaluate them on their merits, and take into account fighters needs. White rice removes the husk present in brown rice, where most of the “antinutrients” are. So the toxicity problem is mostly solved. We’re left with concentrated carbs. If we had to lose weight, or when we’re cutting weight, this would be a no-no, but we need energy to train, so white rice is in. Again, best after your training, say with Thai food or sushi. White potatoes follow almost exactly the same logic: if they don’t bother you (some notice a bit of joint inflammation from them, so experiment) they present a good (and cheap) energy source, also with tons of potassium. Again, after your training is best: as paleo expert Robb Wolf noted, there is something to meat and potatoes making you strong after all. These are two things you want to look for quality for when buying. Go organic as both conventional rice and white potatoes can be tainted with pesticides and other chemicals. For more info, check: “Meat & Potatoes: Back on the Menu.” I still wouldn’t pick either white rice or white potatoes as a main energy source, but as one of many, on balance, they can be a part of our diet.
He also gives a breakdown of how to cut weight on a Paleo diet, which is very helpful for any and all who cut weight for fights. There’s lots of good introductory information, as well as links to other sources in the main article, including James Gregory’s own recipe site FastPaleo.com
About a year and a half ago I wrote a “thank you” letter to Mark Sisson who runs a website called Mark’s Daily Apple: Primal Living in a Modern World. He wrote back to me and asked me to write up my “success story” for his website, which I did and he paired it with another female fighter (boxer) who had turned her life around using the Primal diet, which is pretty similar to Paleo. Our success stories can be read in full here and I recommend following the link over to Erica’s blog as she has some good links to science articles on when athletes should eat high carbs and specifically how that impacts female bodies.
I’d found Mark’s website after reading Gary Taubes’ book “Good Calories, Bad Calories, “ on the recommendation of one of my brothers. I like reading about food more than I like thinking about food, so I bought a copy and read it through over the next few days. Taubes’ approach is through the voice of an historian and he recounts the long held understanding of medicine and science that grain carbohydrates make one overweight (and is in fact how we make livestock overweight) and the relatively recent vilification of dietary fat, rather than a “return to caveman life”, which I find a little silly. I was pretty impressed by his research and decided to cut wheat and most grains out of my diet. After only a week I felt changes, which increased as I started adding more fats into my meals. I had more energy between workouts (usually I was sacked during the long commute to and from my sessions, but the new way of eating had me feeling alert and even-tempered) and happily noticed that I was gaining a little weight on the scale. Most “success stories” are about people losing weight, seemingly without much effort and many times illnesses disappeared along with the body weight (like diabetes, heart problems, migraines, high blood pressure, etc), and while I think that’s where most people will be finding themselves drawn toward the Paleo or Primal way of eating, I think it’s worth noting that moving in the opposite direction is also sometimes a sign of improved health.
I think what I like most about the idea of the Primal website and Mark’s approach is that it’s intuitive. It’s not a “low carb” diet in any purposeful way, but if you get your carbohydrates from things that grew directly out of the ground and not processed wheat products, it’s going to be hard to get more than 100 grams per day. Eat when you’re hungry, skip meals when you’re not. I’ve always hated trying to add meals or suck down protein shakes when I’m not hungry just to get more calories. I do, on occasion, have to add high-calorie foods to my meals in order to make up for what I’m burning off in training, but it’s a few hundred here and there and not much of an effort.
Nothing tastes better than easy and if a diet advocates bacon it’s a winner in my book.