Get Fit: Bring Some Nutrition to the Table

Photography by Adam Croce

raw brussel sprout salad and basil

What the heck is healthy anyway? You’re confronted with contradicting scientific studies, sugar substitutes, gluten-free, vegan faux meats, diets diets diets. I personally spend more time reading the nutrition labels in the supermarket than I do actually eating the products. Things can get confusing!

Luckily, this is what I live for (besides spoofing The Real L Word, obvs). I’m not one to preach and push the vegan lifestyle, because I truly believe that everybody’s body has different nutritional needs and it is up to you to figure out what works for your own self. But I’ll definitely give you some basic tips that will hopefully help when you’re trying to decide how to structure your diet.

Michael Pollan has written a brilliant little book (and it comes in an illustrated version too!) called Food Rules. I suggest buying it, reading it, and sticking to the rules that resonate with you. Here are a few of my favorites:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.

Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. 

“Imagine your great-grandmother at your side as you roll down the aisles of the supermarket. You’re standing together in front of the dairy case. She picks up a package of Go-GURT Portable Yogurt tubes–and hasn’t a clue what this plastic cylinder of colored and flavored gel could possibly be. Is it a food or is it toothpaste? There are now thousands of foodish products in the supermarket that our ancestors simply wouldn’t recognize as food.”

If you are not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you are not hungry.

Simple, right? That’s how eating should be! Keep it simple.

Let’s move on to the topics of health and nutrition that spur the most heated debates! I fully expect you to scream your heart out in the comments. Just really get in there!

Foods to Avoid / Not Avoid

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CARBS

Please for Gaia’s sake STOP CUTTING OUT CARBS. Carbohydrates are essential in the process of muscle building.

“Researchers found that low glycogen (carbs / sugar) levels impaired muscle protein synthesis following weight training. They measured the activity levels of genes controlling muscle growth following weight training in legs with normal or depleted levels of glycogen….Carbs fuel high-intensity exercise and stimulate the genes that control muscle growth.”  According to the Journal Applied Physiology.

I don’t care if you’re on the Paleo Diet, Atkins, or South Beach — carbohydrates get such a bad rap, even though they’ve been around since our ancestors started eating. Brown rice, oatmeal, beans, fruits, vegetables — all these things contain carbs. It’s pretty much impossible to avoid carbs when eating. I think a better idea is to stay away from highly processed carbs, such as white bread, white flour, white anything. Actually, the only white thing in your diet should be cauliflower (and tofu or almond milk, in moderation).

shot of raw almond milk

 

PROTEIN

If one more person asks me how I get enough protein as a vegan…

Most people don’t know what “enough protein” actually is, as the meat and dairy industries have been the ones making these rules since the beginning of nutritional education. Recent studies are showing that:

“Muscle protein synthesis maxes out after a meal at 20-30 grams and anything in over will actually not help stimulate more muscle protein synthesis.” (A Moderate Serving of High-Quality Protein Maximally Stimulates Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis in Young and Elderly Subjects; Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Volume 109, Issue 9, Pages 1582-1586)

Wait, 20-30 grams!? I had a guy tell me this week that we should be eating 1 gram of protein for each pound we weigh, which is totally idiotic. I would have to eat a field of spinach a day for that many grams of protein. Luckily, I knew better. Guess what happens (especially to women) when you eat more protein than your body can synthesize: it turns to fat.

Oh, and if you’re still wondering, vegetarians and vegans get protein by eating vegetables, nuts, legumes, and grains. The aforementioned carry many of the amino acids that make up a full protein. We don’t need to eat all of the aminos that make up a full protein at every meal, we just need to eat different foods throughout the day.

Peanut butter and whole grain bread make a full protein, as do rice and beans. Hummus is also a full protein (beans and sesame seed paste). BAM.

quinoa and sweet potatoes

 

SUGAR

This is a sticky subject [laugh]. My own personal rule is: don’t eat things with added sugars. I put this rule into practice by systematically break it on the daily. However! The main goal is to keep your sugar intake to a minimum. Sugars are really problematic when it comes to derailing our health plans, and while fats aren’t great for us either, it really comes down to our sugar intake. I try to get the majority of my sugar kicks from fruits, end of story. But I can’t seem to quit the almond milk in my morning coffee, so I let that one slide.

If you’re worried about your sugar intake, keep a running tally of the grams of (non-fruit based) sugar you consume throughout the day. Then try to cut that in half for the next month. Then try to cut that in half the month after that. Ideally, women shouldn’t be eating more than 25 grams of sugar per day. Eventually you will lose your addiction to sugar, which will make naturally sweet things — like fruit, and ladies — taste like an explosion of joy in your mouth.

Also, read the labels. Sugar is hiding in a lot of the foods we consume, and keeping it out of your diet will save you, on average, over 400 calories per day. While you’re at it, cut out the artificial sweeteners, too. This will really help wean your body off of its addiction to sweets.

 

FATS

Fats are confusing. Some fats are good, while others aren’t — kinda like your ex-girlfriends.

Good fats—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—lower disease risk

Examples:  fish, oils (from vegetables), seeds, nuts, nut butters, avocados, soy foods, and olives.

Bad fats—saturated and trans fats—increase disease risk

Examples: hydrogenated oils, dried coconut, coconut oil, butter, shortening, red meat, chicken (with skin), dark chocolate, dairy products (ALL), fried food, commercially baked pastries, and candy bars. 

Essentially, if you’re eating high portions of meat and dairy in your diet,you’re eating a lot of bad fats. If you’re not in the market to go full-scale-veg, consider just scaling back on those types of foods and replacing them with vegetables and legumes.

For a Body That is Working Out

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Food Tip #1: REFUEL

Always refuel within 45 minutes of a workout. Your body needs the nutrients it’s been depleting while working out.  The best thing to refuel with is fast-digesting carbs, such as fruit and vegetables.

 

Food Tip #2: ADD COLOR TO YOUR LIFE

Eat as many colors as possible! A bowl of Lucky Charms doesn’t count, sorry. I’m talking bright yellows, reds, and greens that come from the earth. Put them on your plate and in your mouth. NOMS.

tomato salad and marinara

 

 Food Tip #3: EAT BEFORE YOUR WORKOUT

If you’re working out later in the day, make sure you’ve a meal 2-3 hours before your workout. The meal should have a mix of carbs, protein (amino acids), and fats (the good ones, duh), such as a salad with hummus and avocado.

If you only have 15 to 30 minutes before a scheduled workout, pick a snack that is simple to digest. Specifically a snack that has about 25 grams of carbs, like a tablespoon of raisins, a banana, or a small serving of applesauce.

No matter what you do, make sure you’ve eaten something before your workout. You shouldn’t be training on an empty stomach.

Now it’s your turn to share your nutrition feelings in the comments! As usual, please keep in mind that this is a safe space for discussion and ideas, so keep it kosher (LOL SEE WHAT I DID THERE).

Disclaimer: Obvs this isn’t medical advice — this is just one person talking about eating whole foods for more energy. If you have questions about your personal nutrition, please speak to a healthcare professional. 

Sarah has written 14 articles for us.

95 Comments

  1. I personally have never struggled with disordered eating, so please excuse me if I have failed to fully understand the desire to avoid “food rules”. That being said, I have a point of clarification:

    “Food Rules” by Michael Pollan is not a big scary book of rules.

    “While I call them rules, I think of them less as hard-and-fast laws than as personal policies. Policies are useful tools. Instead of prescribing highly specific behaviors, they supply us with broad guidelines that should make everyday decision making easier and swifter… Think of these food policies as little algorithms designed to simplify your eating life. Adopt whichever ones stick and work best for you.” (page 25 in the illustrated edition)

    His advice (and it is just that, advice) boils down to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It is not a list of proscribed ‘bad’ foods and vaunted ‘good’ foods. It is just a help in thinking through your own decision rules. And, as he says, you chose the ones that work for you. I highly, highly recommend it. Also, there’s a new edition illustrated by Maira Kalman, which is fabulous.

  2. I am actually offended that people consider eating vegan on par with disordered eating. My friend suggested that to me a month ago — I should include that she said this directly after I picked her up from an in-patient eating disorder treatment center; she was projecting her eating disorder/past disordered eating patterns on me. Chooseing to eat a whole foods plant based diet is not disordered eating if it is healthy for my body. Nor is it for anyone else to judge what is disordered as long as I am meeting my nutritional needs. Nor is being vegan about being on a diet, though many might suggest that. Being vegan is about living as compassionately as possible and choosing not to abuse animals. Let us recognize the way in which so many of us in the LGBT community have been abused and make that connection to the suffering of nonhuman animals. We have the option not to add to the suffering of human — or nonhuman– animals.

  3. I love when health and fitness come up on this website, first because we as a group DO seem to have some unhealthy habits…

    I do take a small issue with the fats section, though. Labeling fats as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is over-simplifying things. This doesn’t really apply to anyone who eats animal products, but vegans beware: you actually DO need a reasonable amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in your diet. I could go into real details but will suffice to say that cholesterol is necessary for digestion, vitamin D production, hormone production and several other functions. Our brains are made up of a reasonable amount of saturated fatty acids, and saturated fat helps to provide structure to cells. I’m not saying you have to go out and get a bacon cheeseburger, but a small amount of butter won’t kill you.

    Read: small amount, and aimed at vegans. Just about everyone else (myself included) could do with LESS meat, LESS cheese and butter (and sugar, don’t even get me STARTED), and more fish, beans, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and whole foods in general. I love all of Michael Pollan’s work, even though he’s trying to put dietitians out of business :P Oh well, if he succeeds I’ll just open a restaurant.

    And with that, I’ve officially commented WAY too much on a single article, so I’m getting off the fruitbox.

      • @Ami Avocados are great, but you’d have to eat a lot of avocados…I’m a supporter of cooking with coconut oil at least occasionally (or salting it and using it as a substitute for butter…so good!)

        I understand the humane aspect behind veganism, I’m an organic/free range/grass fed and finished/local-small-farm eater myself…but the fact remains it’s a bit difficult to be really healthy on a vegan diet. Iron, protein, calcium, essential fatty acids, phosphorus, and several B vitamins, most importantly B12, are all easily accessible in meat, eggs, and milk.

        I’m not saying it’s impossible to be a healthy vegan, it just takes more work and more thought. The iron, phosphorus, and calcium found in plants are not as absorbable as animal versions, so you need to eat even more.

        My main concern for vegans, though, is B12. You need to be taking a B12 supplement if you’re not eating animal products, because that’s the only food that contains it. Some people have experimented with algae and fermentation and sea vegetables…with no luck, as I understand it. B12 deficiency can cause a type of anemia and neurological damage, it’s nothing to mess with. Please take a vitamin! :)

        • YES! Absolutely 100% on the B12. It is so important! If you are becoming Vegan or thinking about it you should be researching it. It is a lifestyle choice and there is a lot to know about it. Also, there are a lot of arguments about B12 right now and some people say that methylcobalamin B12 gets absorbed into the human body better than cyanocobalamin but as far as I know there hasn’t been sufficient proof proving either side right. I would say keep your eyes out for more scientific proof and until then just keep taking B12.

        • I just had my annual physical w/ bloodwork. My Dr. actually told me that I’m not getting enough salt and fats in my current diet. I know she went on to suggest potential food solutions to rectify this. But in my head I heard “Eat more pretzels and ice cream” Hey, Doctors orders…Right?

          • Lol I dunno if any dietitian could ever say the words “Yes, eat more ice cream!” I’ve seen WAY too much coming out against added sugars, and more keeps coming out…I’d suggest more eggs, Ms. I Own Free Range Chickens ;) I mean heck, you’re getting a constant supply of them!

            Assuming that’s you holding a gun, I’d guess you’re pretty active. When people are sweating a lot (as in even your face and limbs are sweating) they need considerably more sodium (and potassium, magnesium, and calcium, but in smaller amounts) Sure, enjoy some pretzels before activity :)

            And please don’t ever point that thing at me!

  4. I know all of this, but there is nothing in the world that could make me give up cheese. Nothing. Cheese is the reason I could never, ever be a vegan.

    Look, you can take the girl out of Wisconsin, but you just can’t take the Wisconsin out of the girl.

  5. I really dig this article! My girlfriend and I are always looking for ways to eat healthier while still consuming some of the junk food we adore so very much. We run a lot so tips on recovery meals are greatly appreciated! I always feel so much better when I follow the “rules” in this situation than I do when I break them, though I’d usually rather eat a cupcake ;)

    As a side note: I struggled for years with an eating disorder and I’ve learned to accept that I just have to do my best to follow guidelines Re:Nutrition and avoid going to extremes in either direction. I definitely felt like this post was a good thing!

  6. I’m sure this is obvious but there are a lot of cool apps out there to help with this stuff, if you happen to own an iPhone type device. I have one that tells me which brands are GMO free and another one that tracks eating and exercise. Both were free, iirc.

  7. I love that someone’s paying attention to being and eating nutrionally. Great article but Protein turns into fat, never, darling. Shall we discuss deeper into amino acid synthesis to enlighten me?

  8. I get an intense pain in my jaw if I eat before I exercise, even if it’s just a snackish amount of food. Does this happen to anyone else? Do you know why that happens? I don’t like running when my belly is totally empty, but I can’t handle the jaw pain.

  9. I have struggled with disordered eating my whole life (it is also a great source of pleasure and passion for me and I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive) and I don’t think this article is problematic at all, so live and let live I guess. No one is going to be 100% satisfied by any one article but you know that? That is okay! Competing and differing opinions are awesome and they don’t have to be personal or hurt.

  10. “I truly believe that everybody’s body has different nutritional needs and it is up to you to figure out what works for your own self.”

    I so so appreciate that comment. It really made the article accessible for me. As a serious omnivore (my family is equal parts Spanish/Portuguese/Venezuelan, so vegetarian for them means you eat chicken, basically), veganism always seemed way too foreign to be relevant in my life. I love that this article proved me wrong. VEGGIES FOR EVERYONE!

    Sarah, any chance we can get the recipes for the food in those photos? Because I sort of really need to eat those things right now.

  11. The “not enough protein” thing infuriates me, and I’m not even vegetarian/vegan (I’m pescetarian, so most of the unsolicited evaluation of my diet comes down to “fish is ick”). I have endured one or two “discussions” about that where my consumption of two fish dishes a week and nothing but plants and grains the rest of the time was challenged as “not enough protein.” “Enough protein” is really not very much at all! People talk about it like your body needs you to cram a huge quantity of charred animal flesh down your throat every day to avoid looking like you’re anorexic.

  12. I went vegetarian about 6 months ago – I didn’t eat much meat to begin with because my wife is a lifelong veg, so it wasn’t too hard for me – and also cut out soda at the same time. It’s made such a difference. Losing weight was not my goal in doing either of those things, but it’s been a pleasant side effect. And I’m not doing any more exercise than I was before (i.e. still very little).

    The other thing we’ve tried to do in my house is to cook from scratch more, so we know exactly what’s in our food. It’s actually surprisingly easy to make things from scratch that a lot of us probably grew up using a store-bought mix for. Like pancakes, for instance. SO EASY. And if you make them yourself you know all that’s in them is flour, sugar, baking powder, oil, milk, and eggs. No weird preservatives or things you can’t pronounce. They are also super easy to make vegan, just use a non-dairy milk (we like almond) and ground flaxseed as an egg substitute. (They turn out fluffier when you make them with eggs, but the vegan ones I’ve made have been just as good tasting.) I also started making my own versions of sauces and seasonings that I normally would’ve bought in the store, like taco seasoning & sloppy joe sauce. (Allrecipes.com is a good place to look for things like this.) It’s a small thing, but knowing there aren’t weird chemicals in my food is worth any extra effort.

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