My partner, Robyn, and I just finished a thirty day nutrition challenge that we set ourselves. We’ve been lucky enough to participate in several of these
types of challenges in the past, all organised by Deb, my sister, who is co-founder of Nuco, a nutrition coaching company
based in Twickenham. We generally eat well but we felt that we had let things slip a little and that a structured challenge would help to steer our
eating habits back in the right direction. Since seeing Mat Fraser eat a bagel in a documentary, I had gone a bit nuts for these savory doughnuts,
eating as many as five per day, and claiming that I was on the "gains train". I don’t want to demonise or glorify any particular types of food. There
are already millions of bloggers out there talking about why grains, or sugar, or red meat, or (insert any food here) are bad or good for you. These
posts usually provide heaps of “evidence”, some scientific, some not so scientific, to back up their claims. These types of posts are simply toxic
information because they feed the false belief that there is a holy grail of “diets”, a perfect way of eating, that you can discover through science
or on the internet that will make all your hopes and dreams become reality. I see the same problem in different guises everywhere I look: people looking
for a quick fix and seeking to find it in some new, as yet unknown, piece of information or protocol (aka the holy grail). There’s another way though,
the way of the practitioner, the craftsman, the one who learns from his experiences by trial and error. Before I tell you about our challenge I’ll
sum up my approach to nutrition by sharing my Four Golden Rules for Nutrition (a previous post)
- Eat slowly (take at least 15 minutes) and focus your attention exclusively on the meal and the friends who are eating with you.
- Eat whole foods. If it grows or comes from something that grows it’s a whole food. Something that’s got a long list of ingredients is not a whole food.
- Eat food you love preparing, eating, & sharing with friends and family.
- Eat when hungry. Drink when thirsty.
I’m not making a claim that my rules are right for everyone. They are simply the product of my experiences and my assessment of what I need to keep in mind in the current environment.
- No Sugar - not even natural sugars like honey.
- No Dairy - except for milk and cream in coffee / tea.
- No Grains for Robyn.
- No Grains except porridge oats and rice for Rob.
- No processed foods (even fruit juice), additives, preservatives, E-numbers etc.
Why these rules?
Because they eliminate the most palatable foods available to us and what’s left over is a diet consisting of mainly whole foods. I wanted to eat a diet consisting mainly of whole foods because, in my experience, it gives me the highest and most consistent levels of energy, the best digestion, and the best sleep. It’s also important to note that apart from ditching bagels, bread, milk, and orange juice these rules did not represent a massive shift for either of us. Most of the time we were already eating quite close to how we planned to eat on the challenge. The challenge was simply going to tighten things up so we did our meal prep for each day, and ate more of the good meals we were already eating and less convenience food purchased as a result of poor planning or lazyness. When planning your own challenge keep in mind how you eat currently and think about how you can improve on that. Aim for progress not perfection! Adopting something that is completely alien and so far away from what you are doing currently is often too big of a change and often results in complete relapse and no long-term progress.
What about dairy?
Milk is a whole food because it comes from something that grows (a cow). I love milk and yogurt but they are both highly palatable convenience foods - always there in the fridge & requiring no preparation. I knew if I tried to kick my bagel habit while these options were on the table I would constantly be filling up on dairy and not cooking as many of the hearty whole food meals that make me feel my best.
30 days is long enough to allow time for the changes in behavior to bed in as new habits but short enough that the end is always insight. We recorded each day with a simple tally marked on the whiteboard in our kitchen. For something so simple we found it surprisingly satisfying to mark down each tally and watch them build up. The rules for this challenge are way too restrictive to be sustainable in the long term so it’s important to have a set duration.
Were we perfect?
No, and you don’t have to be either. We’ve learned from Deb that it’s not a big deal if you slip up. What’s important is getting back in the game as quickly as possible. Quitting completely because you made one mistake or had a moment of weakness doesn’t get you anywhere. You can always do your best, in fact it’s all you can do, so don’t beat yourself up for breaking the rules. The Six Nations Rugby was on during our challenge and I made a conscious decision to go to the pub and have a couple of pints with a load of CM2ers for the England-Scotland match. Alcohol is out because it is a type of sugar but I chose the experience over the challenge in this instance and that’s okay. After the match I went home and made a delicious challenge approved meal instead of going out for pizza with the guys.
After the Challenge?
Having done these kinds of challenges before we knew what to expect. We knew this way of eating would leave us feeling great and wanting to keep up our new habits after the thirty days. We also like to enjoy life and to let our hair down and celebrate with family and friends. These occasions mean meals out and of course alcohol and sweet treats! We even planned the end of our challenge to coincide with our daughters 1st birthday party. The end of week two is the perfect time to have the “What-to-do-after-day-thirty” discussion. We decided that going forwards we’ll stick to our rules the majority of the time but allow exceptions for planned events and special occasions. We agreed it’s easier to stick to the rules knowing that there will be times when we’ll be able to eat whatever we want. We’re hosting friends from Scotland next weekend and although we’ll cook lots of whole foods for them we’ll also raise a glass or two and finish with dessert!!
What we learned. (aka What we learned again)
As I’ve already said, we’ve done this kind of thing before and we know what to eat to feel our best. But just like all the knowledge on the internet, the knowledge in our heads is useless if we fail to apply it. Knowing is not doing. Doing is doing. The gap between the effective simple way of eating, outlined in my four rules and how we actually eat grows as the highly palatable convenience foods slowly creep into our diets. It makes sense that this happens as our bodies are designed to store fat in times of plenty to help us survive times of famine. This is why foods high in fat and sugar taste so damn good. Our bodies evolved this mechanism as a result of the environment. In the current environment we are always in times of plenty and never starving or even on rations so we need a challenge like this every once in a while to remind us that we feel best cooking for ourselves and eating whole foods.
It’s easier and more fun with a partner (or in a group). We supported each other and cooked together. It was also great to have someone to discuss the challenge with and decide how to eat after it finished.
I found that about a week into the challenge all my cravings had gone. I define a craving as something like hunger but stronger to the point of being nearly uncontrollable. For example, I usually crave coffee or some sort of caffeinated beverage first thing in the morning but I no longer felt I needed it, to the point that I actually stopped having any caffeine for the rest of the challenge. Don't get me wrong, I love every detail of the coffee experience; from my overly pedantic method of preparing coffee (ask Robyn, she's been trained) to the delicious consumption and intriguing conversations that seem to sprout from the ritual of sharing a hot beverage. But, I have suspected for sometime that making coffee a daily routine, something I need to feel normal, desensitises me to the experience. In short it's no longer a treat. I've decided to make coffee a luxury good again; by pretending that it's the year 1900 and it's something I can't afford or get my hands on everyday.
Before the challenge if I went for three or more hours without eating I would feel ravenous to the point of being irrational and just eating the first thing I could get my hands on. After week one of the challenge I would come home having not eaten for four plus hours and spend half an hour making a hearty meal without experiencing the cravings I had before. I suspect that the meals I ate on the challenge kept my blood-sugar more level (with less pronounced peaks and troughs) than when I was consuming sugar and other processed foods. The logic being that the peaks and troughs in blood-sugar levels are directly related to my energy levels and the intensity of my hunger.
Robyn says that even after thirty days that she still craves sweet treats but she's learned that if she stays disciplined and eats a decent meal the cravings go away. She also says that planning to enjoy sweet foods on special occasions makes choosing the whole food options easier on normal days.
My appetite seems to have increased tremendously. Plates of food that previously would have filled me up seem not even to touch the sides. Perhaps this is because I feel more energised and am training more as a result. Or perhaps I feel like my appetite has grown because I am naturally leaving longer meal gaps so when I do sit down to eat I have a really good feed.
We have a one year old daughter so any gains here are greatly appreciated. I feel like I fall asleep more quickly and wake up feeling more refreshed than I did before the challenge. Ditching daily caffeine could also be a contributing factor here.
Losing body fat wasn't one of my goals, so I didn't measure it in anyway other than looking in the mirror while I brushed my teeth, but I think I probably got slightly leaner over the 30 days. Hopefully weekly indulgences will keep this trend from continuing. Below is an image of me hitting 19.5 on day thirty of the challenge.
Image: Author & CM2 Head Coach Rob Manlove
Now you can take our process and develop your own challenge. Or if you feel you’ll benefit from a bit more guidance then get involved in The CM2 Beach Body Nutrition Challenge which starts on April 22nd. This is a six week group challenge and is available free of charge to all CM2 members. We’ll be hosting a presentation followed by Q&A to go over the rules and format for the challenge on April 20th at 14:00 at CM2. The presentation will also be available on catch-up via Facebook for those that can’t attend. For the duration of the challenge we will have a private Facebook group for participants to share and support each other and so you can ask us any questions you like. If you’re keen to participate please register here: CM2 Beach Body Nutrition Challenge.