Today, my post is going to be about my changing perspective on food as fuel. I meant to write it last week, but I am glad that finals week forced me to wait – I’ve had several experiences I’d like to include as I reflect on this.
When I first started losing weight, exercise was a way to get more calories to eat; now, I eat food in order to perform well while exercising. At the time, eating less even though I was exercising did not seem to affect me that much (in terms of how I physically felt). I think a lot of it had to do with how heavy I was at the time. First, because I was so large, a calorie deficit for me still meant that I got to eat a lot of food. My 1000 calorie deficit back then was the same amount of food I now eat on a daily basis for maintenance (1750 net calories – and this is with me currently eating more than MFP thinks I should). Second, my intensity of exercise was affected by my size. I burnt a lot of calories doing almost nothing: my first day on MFP I burnt FOUR HUNDRED FIFTY (!!) calories walking for an hour; yesterday, I burnt a little over 180 doing the same – in fact, yesterday’s 5 mile 7 mph run burnt about the same amount of calories as that first walk, for even more perspective. Plus, I wasn’t really working out that hard, because I couldn’t yet – I remember nearly passing out the first time I tried the 30 day shred – so there was not really much to “fuel.” Hence, exercise became largely something that I did in order to have a calorie buffer for days where I didn’t do very well at staying on target and lose weight faster.
As I continued losing weight, I kept the same mindset. It took me a long, long time to up my exercise intensity and there were actually long periods of time where I focused completely on diet rather than exercise (I was busy and it was winter). I did not start seriously running until I was near maintenance (I started running almost everyday last March and stopped trying to purposefully lose weight in June). When I first started running, I was impressed with basically any performance level, so I don’t think I would have realized if improper fueling was holding me back or not. During this time, exercise was once again something I could simply use to let myself eat pizza or drink a lot at a party or something. Plus, since I was losing weight, and had lost a lot already, eating “at maintenance” for a day because of overeating wasn’t that big of a deal – I would not gain, I simply would not lose as fast.
Then came the weird beginning of maintenance period. I was absolutely terrified of eating. I’d been down to near 1200 net calories per day, so I felt like eating the 1600 that MFP was telling me to would cause me to instantly gain back all 100 pounds. I slowly upped my calories, and to my surprise, kept losing (which is why I eventually exceeded what MFP told me to eat – I was losing weight without trying – that couldn’t be right!). My relationship with food was very confused at this time – I wasn’t really eating that much but I felt like I was because it was so much more than I had been. It felt odd to be able to go out to eat and have like, sweet potato fries, grilled chicken, and a beer and not have the whole week “ruined.” I also ended up neglecting my exercise some that summer – I had been running almost every single day (and even got Kris to do couch 2 5k with me!), but a combination of moving, my wedding, and family emergencies led to me almost never work out from like July/August to October. Then came the holidays (and some more family emergencies), where I actually gained a lot of confidence in my relationship with food because I overate “a lot” (I only thought I did, I was being quite reasonable) but still maintained. I therefore did not “need” food as fuel because I either felt like I was eating way more than I should be and therefore did not realize I needed even more or I was doing nothing to fuel.
Realizing that food was fuel began early this year, especially after I started training for my half marathon about 2 months ago. I’ve hinted at this change in perspective before. I suddenly understand why exercising was soooo difficult and I made so little progress: as long as I was using workouts to fuel my eating, I could not use eating to fuel my workouts. Now, as I push further and harder into my training, the necessity to fuel my workouts is increasing: I’m just way too hungry and miserable to do otherwise. Not only would my workouts suffer – I would physically not feel at full capacity in everyday life if I did not eat enough. An example: Tuesday, I ate about 1400 calories by the time dinner was over…after my eight miles of traversing. Oops. I just didn’t have much other food around to eat. Kris and I ran to the mall, and I still felt hungry, but I knew I had eaten “a lot” so I thought it would just pass. I left it go too long and got lightheaded and developed a headache that stayed with me all evening, despite finding a way to ingest about 700 more calories (not all of it was beer and ice cream, ok?).
I’ve also noticed distinct changes in my habits. When I first started drinking protein shakes, I HATED that they took up more calories than weightlifting burned. Now, I can’t wait to drink them because they feel so refreshing and help to pick my energy back up after a workout. Additionally, I’ve found myself grabbing food to eat BEFORE a workout (like, in addition to my regular meals and snacks I would have eaten anyway) so that I am fueled during the workout. I’ve gone out a couple times for a run lately without eating first, and the whole time I just felt like my legs completely lacked energy. I know they must have, too, because both times I gave myself mild injuries, probably because my legs were too tired to move properly. This even happened once when I simply ate something that was not fueling enough: in an day where I was experimenting with eating no meat, I felt miserably hungry and weak all day from the lack of protein (mostly due to poor planning, I know you can eat veggie with plenty of protein).
When I was home, I had to do my 9 mile run on an empty stomach, because I knew my family would feed me too much for me to eat both before and after it. Instead of being happy that I would be able to indulge at the cookout they were having later, I felt annoyed that I had to sacrifice my performance for the cookout, though (I know I could not have simply controlled myself at the cookout in order to pre-fuel my run; I’m not that well-adjusted yet). I feel about the same way today. I’m going to a workshop for work that seems to revolve around food: they are serving breakfast, lunch, providing snacks throughout the day and then taking us out for (Chicago style, please help me) pizza for dinner. I know that it will be ok because I’m running 10 (!!) miles tomorrow, but I’d much rather overeat tomorrow to fuel and recover my poor body than today.
I’m still not perfect. I think from my commentary here it is evident that I still need to develop a healthier relationship with food. Plus, I need to do a little better with proper nutrition if I really want to push my performance forward. I’ll take what progress I have made for now, though.