"A question I keep getting is, "when can we talk about specific foods?"
With all the "super foods" for health/weight loss/etc, everyone wants a magic bullet.
But, it's not that simple. There are other things we need to consider before we can think about how turmeric and kale are going to change your life.
I came up with the "hierarchy of nutrition needs" to explain what is most important for you to be working on right now. Start at the top of this upside-down pyramid and see where you are at.
1) Enough food. The most important piece is simply to make sure you are eating enough food/calories to support your body. Low calorie diets, famine, food insecurity, these need to be conquered before we can move on to the following steps (Consult a Registered Dietitian for your unique calorie needs - please don't use a book/article/formula to make up your own).
2) Balance of Macronutrients. Carbohydrates, fats, and proteins are our macronutrients, and we need all of them in proportion to have a healthy diet. In general carbs should make up 45-65% of your calories, fat should make up 20-35%, and protein 10-35%. Where on the range you fall depends on many factors including growth, type of activity, and medical issues like diabetes.
3) Spacing food out over the day. Once you have figured out how much to eat, it will really behoove you to space it out over your waking hours. I don't care how popular intermittent fasting has become, your body likes a continuous trickle of nutrients coming in to keep it running at its best. Our body actually stores more fat when we eat too much food in a short period of time. If you had the same [foods/calories/everything exactly the same] on 2 different days, and one day you spaced it out with meals and snacks, and the other day you ate it all in a short time frame (2-4 hours), you would store more of that food as fat on he day you ate it all in a shorter period of time, and your body wouldn't be able to use all of the nutrients. When in doubt- space it out!
4) Micronutrients. Micronutrients are vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals in our foods that are a necessary part of our body function. These are nutrients like calcium, iron, and zinc. I'll spare you the long boring lecture, but once you have the above mastered the next step is making sure you get the correct balance of micronutrients. In general, this is not something you need to calculate or be overly concerned about if you eat a wide variety and colors of foods.
5) Specific Foods. Only after figuring out the other steps should you think about what specific foods you are eating for health. As stated before, there are no "super foods" or "miracle foods." That being said, it never hurts to try out different fruits/veggies and dishes. Just don't take it to extremes. Even kale or carrots in excess can cause problems. As it is said, "the dose makes the poison" (-Paracelsus). Try to create balance in your diet and eat a rainbow of foods.
You'll feel better.
Picture this: you’re a NCAA Division I student-athlete who spends over 25 hours a week at practice… and you’re struggling with an eating disorder (ED). You have practice every morning at 7am, and you run anywhere from 4-14 miles… you eat as little as possible afterward. You go to class and then back to your second practice of the day and run some more… and you think about what food will be most beneficial to eat so that your legs don’t get too shaky during weight room. Then you finally go to dinner at the dining hall… and you spend all your time online looking up the nutrition information for every item at the buffet. You repeat that day for weeks or even months, and ask yourself why you never have time for other things and why you’re so tired and unhappy.
That was my life in college. A horrible cycle of falling in and out of that pattern for years. I spent a long, long time being torn in half by my sport and my eating disorder.
At the time, the cycle felt impossible to break.
Gradually, I learned how to be happy again. Once I started seeing a psychologist, I was able to get help and express the pain I’d been feeling. Slowly but surely, I saw the return of the “old” me. It didn’t happen overnight, in a week, or even a month. It’s still ongoing, but I began noticing the smallest things as victories. My college coach used to preach, “it’s the little things that make big things happen.”
So I got tools from a psychologist and my support from friends and family, and I started to mend everything on the inside—piece by piece—that had felt broken for so long. At first, a victory was something as minimal as “I ate a full breakfast with my team after practice,” or “my hands didn’t shake at all during weight room today.” But they build on each other. Small accomplishments like that transition into “I didn’t look at a single nutrition facts label all week,” to “I don’t know how much I weigh because I stopped using my scale.” It was all about knowing that there was a win in each of these steps. The greatest feeling in recovery came when I finally reached all these steps and I was no longer just checking things off a list that the dietitian gave me, but I was actually OKAY with taking these steps—both on an emotional and mental level.
Then came one of the most momentous steps in my own personal recovery. I was able to go for a run and not think about the calories I was burning according to pace and mileage. I wasn’t basing my run on which foods I had eaten that day, the calories would be “canceling out.” I was just running—for fun, for me. With lots of time spent working on my recovery process, and myself, I was able to mend the horribly fractured chain that linked me to my ED on one side and my sport on the other.
Since that day and the moment I realized what an accomplishment that run was, things haven’t always been perfect or smooth. Anyone who has been through a similar relationship with food knows that recovery is a messy, ongoing battle. Some days or weeks I’m lured back into calorie counting and I think a little too often about food and its ingredients/labels. Other weeks I’m pulled in the opposite direction by running and I waste energy trying to make the perfect workout schedule and do everything according to pace. BUT, I know exactly what to do or who to reach out to when either of these things happen, and I find ways to re-center myself. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, and I don’t have to be stuck in the middle of two equally difficult problems. Both my sport and my ED will always be a central part of making me into the person I am today, but I am no longer being torn apart by either. I’m in control of how I spend my time, what I think about, and what deserves my attention—on any given day.
And, wow, regaining control over my life feels so damn good.
Author: Jessica Cushing-Murray is a graduate student at University of Hawaii Manoa pursuing a Master's degree in Nutrition. She was a member of the UCLA Cross Country and Track teams during her undergraduate career and is using her last season of eligibility as a grad student now on Oahu. As a competitive long distance runner, Jessica understands the difficulties of trying to balance proper nutrition with college athletics, and hopes that she can make a career out of educating and counseling student-athletes as her future career.
Libby is a non-diet Registered Dietitian focusing on eating disorder treatment and prevention. She approaches health from the inclusive standpoint that any "body" can focus on health regardless of size. She is a ally in diversity.
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