I Don’t Believe in “Cheat” Meals…

My contest prep started about 11 weeks ago and to be perfectly honest it kind of started out on a whim–I literally decided out of nowhere around 15 weeks out from the NY Pro that I wanted to compete, so I took about a week to come up with a plan and started my prep the following week. Prior to that I had spent the better part of the last two years learning, practicing and fully embracing an intuitive style of eating. My own personal experiences and subsequently a position as an eating disorder nutritionist had prompted me to learn as much as I could about eating disorders, disordered eating, food issues, body image, and everything that goes along with it. Learning the concepts of intuitive eating and listening and being kind to my body was my “recovery.” Teaching and helping others has served to reinforce everything I have learned and experienced. It is something I whole heartedly believe in. Prior to starting this prep I was in a place where I literally ate whatever it was I felt like, exercised how and when I felt like it, and still maintained my body weight within about a 2-3lb range ALL THE TIME. I ate a lot of nutritious foods but not always. And I was perfectly ok with that. I was content with myself. I no longer focused on my body or sought after the next diet or worried about my weight. I no longer battled with food. I no longer binged on food. Food and my body no longer consumed my thoughts. And it was truly a beautiful thing.
I believe that every person has the ability to maintain his/her normal/healthy body weight through a nutritiously intuitive eating style. And that is exactly what I was doing. And it was amazing. But in my heart I am an athlete. The process of training for a competition or event really brings me true joy and I really missed it. But my options for competitive sports are somewhat limited at this point in my life. So with already being an IFBB Pro, competing in the IFBB figure division seemed like the most logical option. The only problem was, the style of eating required to achieve a stage ready figure body seemingly contradicted everything I had come to believe in with regards to food. But the more I thought about it, the more I believed I could apply and maintain everything I had learned, even in a contest prep situation. It was (and is) my belief that I could approach a contest prep in a completely different way than I previously had done (and in a way that is different than what is generally considered “acceptable”) and I could succeed at both competing and maintaining a healthy relationship with food. And then I could help show others how to do it.

My goal at the start of this prep was to prove to myself (and others) that it could in fact be done without diving into the unhealthy depths of disordered eating and food obsession and body dysmorphia and ruined body image. The truth is, I was coming from such a great, healthy place that the idea of messing with it by artificially controlling my food intake (i.e. not always listening to hunger and fullness cues and not always listening to what my body was telling me it wanted to eat) for the sake of achieving an athletic goal was actually quite a bit scary- but I knew it was going to be temporary. To me, contest prep is a temporary way of eating to achieve a temporary goal. This may be a rare opinion in the fitness world, but I don’t eat on a meal plan year round, and I don’t walk around within 3lbs of my stage weight year round (nor do I have any desire to do either. To each his own).

Having a healthy relationship with food and my body and preserving that relationship at all costs (even if it meant not being as “lean” or “ripped” or “hardcore” as everyone else) was my first priority when designing my approach to this contest prep. Because in 100% honesty, having a healthy relationship with food and my body– no longer having constant anxiety around food, no longer constantly worrying about what others think of how I look, no longer feeling the need to keep foods out of the house for fear of bingeing, no longer obsessing about what I eat—has led to a significantly greater amount of happiness and peace in my life than any amount of leanness ever has or ever will. And I intend to maintain that perspective at all times.

Along with viewing the contest prep style of eating as a temporary means to a temporary ends, I’ve also implemented some other strategies along the way to help me maintain my perspective. I have approached the entire process with a perspective of “I have permission to eat whatever I choose at any time and whatever my choice is, I trust that it is what is best for me in that moment.” I trust my ability to choose the actions that will move me closer to my goal. If I choose an action that is not consistent with this, I trust it is for a good reason, and that’s good enough for me. I do not analyze or beat myself up over any choice. I own it and I keep moving forward.

I don’t believe in “cheat” meals (or days). I hate the word “cheat.” To me the word cheat has a morally negative connotation attached to it. And so if I say I’m having a “cheat” meal, it makes it seem as though there is something inherently bad about it, like I’m doing something I’m not supposed to be doing, when in fact, all I’m doing is eating food. There is nothing moral or right or wrong about it- it’s just food. So there is no reason to feel any type of way about it. I also think the “cheat” concept makes me feel like I have to go and eat certain types of food and eat as much of it as I can because after this I can’t have any of it again until my next “cheat.” And this promotes a last supper, “stuff my face” mentality rather than listening to my body’s cues.  

The most effective tool that I’ve been utilizing throughout this prep (aside from reading and journaling) is something I’ve termed an “intuitive eating day.” This is not a binge day, a “refeed” day, an “all you can eat” day or a “cheat” day. My intuitive eating day is a day where I let my body decide what it wants to eat and how much. It is just a day of “normal” eating for me (how I would eat if I weren’t prepping). I listen to my body, I trust my body, I don’t measure anything, I eat generally nutritious foods (for the most part but not always), and I eat when I’m hungry and stop eating when I’m satisfied. There is no bingeing, no stuffing my face, no “last supper” meals, no “cheating.” I eat intuitively. For those of you wondering what that might look like, here is an example:
​Breakfast: Oatmeal/egg white pancake topped with peanut butter and sugar free syrup or honey

​Lunch: Chicken, sweet potato, large salad with lots of veggies and whatever else I feel like
​Snack: No Cow protein bar, trail mix (nuts/dark chocolate mix), fruit
​Dinner: Banza chick pea pasta with ground beef, broccoli, tomato sauce and cheese (this meal always varied- sometimes sushi, sometimes pizza, sometimes just steak and veggies- whatever ​I was in the mood for)
​Dessert: Dark chocolate with natural peanut butter (a couple of times I had ice cream because I really felt like it- Ben and Jerry’s “The Tonight Dough” is the BEST ice cream ever invented!)

So you can see, its mostly nutritious foods that I genuinely like to eat, not measured, not over eaten, but eaten in amounts that satisfy me. This is how I “normally” eat. And I’d like to stay as close to that as possible. Do I believe eating like this once per week has hindered my progress in any way? Nope. And even if it has from a physical/leanness standpoint, I don’t care. It’s important to me to maintain my ability to eat this way and I believe it has actually helped me stay on my game mentally- which is really the most important thing during a contest prep. I’ve also incorporated a bit of intuitive eating throughout my prep nutrition plan, but that’s a bit harder to explain and I’m not going to get into the details.

The key is, I listen to my body.

Dan asked me the other day what I wanted to eat after my show. And I looked at him like he was crazy. I have no idea what I’m going to feel like eating 3 weeks from now. And I’m not in such a deprived state that food is constantly on my mind and all I can think about is eating (fill in the blank). Sure I get hungry and sometimes I’d like to eat more or something different, but like I originally mentioned, my perspective is “I have permission to eat anything I choose at any time.” And I trust myself to consistently make the choices that will help me to reach my goal. But if I want something badly enough I can just have it (I can count on one hand and still have fingers left over the number of times this has actually occurred but just having that self permission with no fear of judgement is key for me).  I’m not obsessed with food and what I can and cant eat.

Now please don’t mistake this approach as a “lazy” approach to nutrition for contest prep. I can assure you I have worked extremely hard on my nutrition for this prep—probably even harder than I have worked in the past and definitely harder than I had initially anticipated I would need to. But that’s all the more reason for me to keep the right perspective. When the nutrition gets really tough towards the end, having the right perspective is crucial (for me at least). My emotional well-being always takes precedent over my desire to be hardcore or shredded, but that certainly does not mean I’m not busting my butt to be my best.

I’m going to take a guess and say there’s probably not a “prep coach” out there that would advise clients to do what I’ve been doing. But I’m also going to go out on a limb and say there’s probably not many (if any) prep coaches out there that have significant experience working with people with eating disorders. I do. And the way I see it, a contest prep is a self-imposed disordered way of eating, and it can lead to many of the physical and psychological effects seen in actual eating disorders. To complicate that, many people that gravitate toward the bodybuilding sports tend to already have some type of disordered eating behaviors, and food and/or body image issues to begin with, tendencies which can certainly be exacerbated by the contest prep. So why not try to develop an approach that addresses this head on.

Many people will disagree with everything I’ve said. And that’s ok. That’s why I do my own prep. And it works for me. I’ve worked with enough eating disorder clients to understand the tendencies and the mindset. I also know my own personal experience, I know what I’ve learned from it, I know what is important to me, and I know what I want and don’t want. Is this approach necessary for everyone? No, of course not. But it would probably be very beneficial for some.  This approach works for me because I took the time to understand my own eating behaviors and to truly embrace and practice an intuitive way of eating. And I’m confident in my methods. 

I started this prep with a complete and genuine trust in my body and my ability to handle myself when it comes to food. I would strongly encourage anyone embarking on this type of journey to do the same. Unfortunately, not everyone that competes will start from a place of a healthy relationship with food and their body, and even worse many athletes (and prep coaches) do not necessarily feel this is important (or maybe they simply do not understand HOW important it is). And this is a HUGE mistake. If you’re starting from a place that involves disordered eating tendencies, and food and/or body image issues, I can almost guarantee you that a restrictive contest prep will make things much worse. My suggestion would be to take the time that you need to address these issues first and foremost. Read books, seek counselling, ask for help- do what you need to do to get yourself to a place where you have a healthy relationship with food and your body. That’s usually going to mean putting off competing. But it’s necessary and worth it. Trust me when I say, a contest prep will not solve your eating and body image issues. It will not make anything better. There is no way to implement a safe and healthy contest prep if you’re not starting from an emotionally healthy place. Let’s face it, you can’t successfully navigate an intuitive eating day if you don’t know how to eat intuitively. Then all you’re left with is the restrictive eating/cheat meal cycle. And personally I don’t believe in that approach. 

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