How to not lose your mind over your diet

Back when I trained in college, I had no idea what a good diet was.  Now that I do know, however, it’s become an extremely stressful endeavor: I feel like everything is bad for me except for the smallest subset of food that I prepare myself.  So, how do you maintain a healthy diet (being healthy is a necessary precursor to growing muscle and losing fat) without losing your mind?  Let’s go back and examine two of the major issues with working out and food…

In college, I ate whatever I wanted and figured a protein shake after my workout was sufficient.  This thinking could not be more flawed.  Not only does working out *not* give you free license to eat whatever you want, but your results can be extremely detrimentally affected by what you consume.  In other words, working out will never be able to “make up” for the junk food you eat; additionally, that junk food you do consume will also negatively affect your ability to perform strenuous exercise.  Elaboration after the jump.

The main problem, as I’ve experienced it, is that some uninformed folks who work out believe that doing so gives them license to consume whatever they want because they “burned a ton of calories.”  First of all, in addition to the calories-in-calories-out methodology being flawed, the number of calories burned by a workout is inconsequential compared to how much humans can consume.  Put another way: you will always be able to eat more calories than you can expel.

On the flip side, eating whatever you want will also not bode well for athletic performance.  Processed food, for example, won’t do much for growing muscle.  In addition to the gratuitous sugar and sodium, there are all kinds of offensive chemicals in processed foods which aren’t worth messing with (in my opinion, at least).

Personally, when I first started learning about nutrition, I felt extremely constricted in my diet, especially by the two issues I discussed above.  I felt like everything was either going to make me fat or kill me.  I was alienating myself from friends at social gatherings because I was refusing pizza and beer, two things I used to regularly consume, and in large quantities when free.  If you are in a similar situation, please allow me to help save you a ton of stress.

The first thing to remember is that if you’re following your diet most of the time, you shouldn’t worry.  Sure, not drinking that beer might save you a few carbs (if that’s even your goal, but that’s another issue altogether), but if you sit there worrying over your macronutrient ratios at social gatherings, you’ll likely be dealing yourself a healthy dose of cortisol from the stress.  Just calm down.  One or even two beers isn’t going to ruin all of your hard work.

In fact, the best way that I’ve found to deal with these issues is to plan “cheat” meals so that you can indulge relatively guilt-free.  Much has been written on this concept by others so I won’t go too in depth here, but the basic gist is that you can eat a meal of whatever you want that isn’t on your diet.  Personally, I think the psychological release more than makes up for the potential body decomposition effects.

One final parting thought: in the grand scheme of things, is a slice of pizza so bad?  I tend to avoid it almost all of the time, but is it going to kill me?  I don’t think so.  Perspective is king, and if you don’t maintain some semblance of the real world, you might lose sight of what really matters.

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