One of the first topics I cover with a nutrition client in our initial consultation really doesn't have anything to do with nutrition; not directly, at least. You see, when talking nutrition, we’re actually talking stress management. And when talking stress management, we’re actually talking behavior change. Your daily nutrition is more a habit than you think. And habit-guided behavior works well...until it doesn’t. So how do you break habits? It starts with being mindful. But what exactly is mindfulness, and how can it help you in your quest to attain the nutritional habits you need to fuel your fire and empower your performance?
Do you mind?
By definition, mindfulness is the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete realization of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. Simply put, it’s a state of awareness. Think of everything you have to be aware of while you are driving: who is in the lane(s) next to you, what the cars in front of and behind you are doing, how fast you are going, how soon you’ll have to apply the brakes to make a turn. Now, imagine going 10x faster than that. This is the world the drivers were living in this past weekend in Montmeló, at the Spanish Grand Prix. Safe to say, those drivers were likely more aware of their surroundings for that 190-mile-long race than you are in your entire day of driving. That would require a greater degree of mindfulness. Their turns, accelerations, and decelerations are all intentional movements. No cruise control.
So how does this apply to diet and nutrition? Mindfulness, or the lack of, can show up in a couple different components of our feeding habits. We could look at how we eat; the behaviors we have at the table (or wherever you’re eating), for example. And before we get there, we could look at how we prepare our food. What tools and methods are we using to get our food to the table in the first place? But, before all of that, we first have to decide on the foods we’re going to eat.
The Choice Is Yours
The first step to establishing a new nutrition routine is picking out what to eat. If your current routine doesn’t include pre-planning your menu (not necessarily each meal), then this is where you start. If you’re thinking, “I don’t like being tied down”, I’d say your nutrition isn’t a real priority, since you aren’t willing to take 20 minutes on the weekend to plan out a weekly menu. Because that’s all it has to be. You could go all the way down the rabbit hole and create individual menus for each day of the week, but that’s not necessary to get the ball rolling. Start simple, because you want to create behaviors that aren’t going to present hurdles you’ll have to clear when you’re feeling stressed. If you’ve never created a menu before, this can seem like an insurmountable task. To help you get started, here are three simple rules to keep in mind:
1. Choose revolving weekly protein sources and ROYGBIV veggies.
Don’t worry about the exact recipes, just think of foods you enjoy. Two to three proteins and a handful of ROYGBIVs will be fine. Ground beef and ribeye are both great proteins, but they are both beef from cows. Try to vary the animal sources. Plants are pretty easy to differentiate in terms of nutrients simply by color, hence the ROYGBIV. Awareness to these choices will ensure you get a broad and inclusive micronutrient profile each week.
2. Don’t worry about organic but try to buy local.
The best way to go about this is to head to a farmer’s market. Typically, this will also bring organic foods, but what this does is ensure that the foods are fresh and in season. Fresher meats and naturally ripened plants will reap more nutrients than those that need to be shipped from across the country. Taking this approach typically WILL bring about many organic options as well, if you are worried about that. By actually interacting with those who did the cultivating and farming, you will begin to build a relationship with your food, and it will influence your future food choices (1).
Remove as many processing steps as possible.
This is especially true for foods you can’t snag from the local markets. For instance, in Indiana I will never be able to buy local avocados. But, does this mean I should just go straight to the pre-made guacamole? Negative, hombre. Not only can processing of foods reduce the nutrient bioavailability, but it removes steps in the cooking process. While this might sound like a good thing, it’s not. Like training, the process and getting reps are necessary for you to grow. By removing the process, you actually gain freedom in how your food is prepped. If you want to get real jiggy, you can do things like grind your own meat (an easy way to hide a little organ meat in your burgers). But, very little jigginess is required to make your own guacamole, cut your own “baby” carrots, or create your own spinach salad mix.
Cooking up a Storm
So, you’ve got the foods...now what? Bringing our mindfulness from the market into the kitchen starts with what we use to cook with. Being aware of the influence our cooking utensils can have on our foods, we want to avoid all non-stick and plastic cooking utensils. When heated, these materials may actually release chemical compounds into our foods creating a long-term health hazard (2,3,4). Not to worry; a well-seasoned cast iron or well-oiled stainless-steel pan will be just as non-stick as the any Teflon pan. From there, let’s bring our awareness to time spent in the kitchen. Again, we want to create behaviors that will take away from our stress. We can do this simply two ways.
First, figure out the quantities of your proteins and veggies each meal for the week. If you have specific recipes, this is where they come into play, but if you’re just having meat with veggies, you can simply portion out the uncooked meals for the week. Create uncooked patties of ground beef, portion out your salads, etc. Or, our other method of bringing awareness to time spent in the kitchen would be to batch cook the items. This is a big time saver! Batch cooking, for those who are new to this nutrition game, is cooking a large amount of a stable food that you’ll need for the week. For instance, I know I need four and half ounces of cooked beef and a cup of rice each lunch. This means I cook up 30oz of beef (to allow for loss of water while cooking) and 2.5cup of dry rice (~2:1 ratio of cooked to dry rice). Now all I have to do is drop it in a skillet with a little bone broth and some chopped veggies and reheat, much easier than cooking the entire meal.
It’s Chow Time!
So, you’ve mindfully whipped up some tasty treats, congratulations! You’ve taken some big steps towards building a better relationship with your food and establishing mindful behaviors that will result in a more successful nutrition plan. But that’s no excuse to check out, because the most important part is coming up: actually EATING the food. Mindfulness shows up during our eating as simply being aware of what we’re doing, meaning the behaviors we exhibit while eating. And this starts the moment the food hits your mouth. Once you’ve taken a bite, set down your silverware. If you have to pick up your fork or spoon each bite, you are more apt to not overeat because your body registers each bite as an individual act.
In combination with that, chew each mouthful twenty-five times. Longer chewing time ensures both smaller, more manageable bites as well as proper digestion, which starts with enzymes secreted by the salivary glands during chewing. This is doubly important if you're taking in a #SaladSmash. Not chewing your #SaladSmash complete will not only make for a tough swallow, but you'll be missing out on being able to absorb many of the nutrients to due to the food being delivered to the gut in a non-broken down state.
Lastly, ditch the drinks. Drinking while eating will allow you to take bites that are too big to swallow on their own, literally washing them down your throat. These methods of slowed eating have been shown to increase satiety (fullness) at lower caloric loads (5,6). Does this mean each meal is going to take a long time to eat? Maybe, but doubtful. Following this “slowed” eating, you can still get your meals in about 20 minutes, meaning you’re only spending about an hour of your day eating...the same amount of time you spend in the gym.
Making changes in your nutrition and fueling approach requires more than just knowing your caloric need or macro ratios. How you choose, prepare, and actually eat your meals, have just as big of an impact on your nutrition as anything else. And, in terms of changing behaviors, being mindful of these practices will ensure long-term adaptations that will allow you avoid common pitfalls, such as overeating or eating foods with a lower-nutrient density. But, like everything nutrition related, these things will not come quickly, and likely will cause frustration along the way. Finding a source of accountability will help ensure success. Lean on your spouse, significant other, teammate, or find yourself a professional such as one of our nutrition coaches, who will check in with you regularly and help you move the needle towards success.
- Organ, K., Koenig-Lewis, N., Palmer, A., & Probert, J. (2015). Festivals as agents for behaviour change: A study of food festival engagement and subsequent food choices. Tourism Management, 48, 84-99.
- Jensen, Tina Kold, et al. "Association between perfluorinated compound exposure and miscarriage in Danish pregnant women." PloS one 10.4 (2015): e0123496.
- Domingo, José L. "Health risks of dietary exposure to perfluorinated compounds." Environment international 40 (2012): 187-195.
- Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) Factsheet, CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/pfoa_factsheet.html
- Andrade, Ana M., Geoffrey W. Greene, and Kathleen J. Melanson. "Eating slowly led to decreases in energy intake within meals in healthy women." Journal of the American Dietetic Association 108.7 (2008): 1186-1191.
- Andrade, Ana M., et al. "Does eating slowly influence appetite and energy intake when water intake is controlled?." International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 9.1 (2012): 135.
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Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.