I Am Not My Body

I am currently in the process of training for a competition in which I will be judged solely on what my body looks like. One might think that this means my entire focus right now is centered on my body, and how it looks. But in reality, I am learning more and more as time goes on that even though this process is technically entirely about my body, it is really nothing about my body at all.  

For the first time in my fitness career I am approaching this process from a new perspective. For the first time, I am not doing this for the sake of trying to find happiness in my body- for the belief that a certain look, or being leaner will make me happier and more satisfied. I have already learned that the “look” itself cannot bring true happiness or satisfaction. True satisfaction comes from something so much deeper than an outward appearance. For me, true satisfaction comes from who I am and what I do, not from how I look. Through this process I am getting better at maintaining discipline in tough situations, putting the work in every day, staying positive and persistent, learning how to handle obstacles, and helping others—these are the things that bring me true satisfaction. How my body looks is just an (irrelevant) side effect. 

In this sport, it is always possible to improve. And thus, most of us that compete are never actually 100% satisfied with our bodies from a bodybuilding perspective because there is always something to improve upon. There is no such thing as perfection. But that’s one of the cool things about the sport. There is always the opportunity to get better. But not being satisfied with my body from a bodybuilding perspective is NOT the same thing as not being satisfied with MYSELF. It also does NOT mean that I hate my body, or that I’m even unhappy with it. Wanting to improve can be a process of self-love, of belief in my own power. But deep down I KNOW that my body does not define who I am. I am defined by my character, my actions, my integrity and the way I treat others- none of which has anything to do with how I look.

In the process of training for a bodybuilding-style competition, I think it is extremely important that “person” and “body” remain separate. This can be a very tough thing to do. This is a sport that judges the body, and sometimes it can be very harsh. You must not allow judgement of your body to morph into judgement of who you are. I’ll say it again, YOUR BODY DOES NOT DEFINE WHO YOU ARE. When you allow judgement of your body, from yourself or from others, to influence how you feel about yourself, this is a big problem. And it can lead to the emotional and disordered eating issues that are seen in the fitness/bodybuilding industry.

So how do you avoid this?

First recognize WHY you want to compete, and be honest with yourself. This sport is not only physically grueling, but mentally and emotionally as well. Before jumping in, you must have a clear sense of who you are and have some sense of satisfaction with that person, regardless of what your body looks like. Understand why you want to compete and be realistic in your expectations.

Maintain a clear sense of who you are outside of the sport. Seek satisfaction in things that have nothing to do with your body- work, church, family, other hobbies, etc. Work to maintain the positive and important things in your life (outside of bodybuilding) and do not lose sight of them for the sake of changing your body. Stay involved in and aware of the bigger picture. This is so important because too often a competition prep can become an all-consuming black hole that can negatively affect relationships, finances, work and even your own physical and mental health. Keeping a clear sense of who you are and what is important to you in the bigger picture can help you avoid falling down this hole. Trust me, it is not a path you want to take.

Continue to help others in whatever way you can. This is one of the most satisfying things you can do.

Focus on process driven goals rather than outcome goals or physical changes. This is an extremely important key to maintaining your “person” satisfaction. Currently, my process goals focus more on my mental game and I have found this to be VERY helpful. For example, some process goals that I’ve been working on are- improving my ability to handle unexpected obstacles that used to throw me off track; staying relentless with my positive mindset and reframing negative thoughts; maintaining the “self-love” concept of discipline (as opposed to punishment/fear) and putting in the work every day, even when I don’t necessarily feel like it (and then mentally building myself up in a positive way for doing this); and replacing thoughts of self-doubt with ones of confidence and faith in my abilities. Focusing on these goals helps take the focus away from my body and allows me to feel successful even if my body does not look quite how I want it to. Process goals are always possible to achieve, outcome/results/body driven goals are not. It’s important to understand that concept.

Practice self-care and keep your focus on daily behaviors. Are you doing the things you need to do on a daily basis? If so, then give yourself credit for those accomplishments, regardless of how your body looks.  

Recognize if you are improving or if you are self-destructing. Are you getting stronger mentally or are you breaking down? If you find that things are turning negative, it may be because you are no longer separating how you judge your body from how you judge yourself. If that’s the case, take a step back and re-evaluate your approach. Remember, even in a sport where your body is being judged, YOUR BODY DOES NOT DEFINE YOU. Be proud of yourself for who you are and for what you are able to do, regardless of what your body looks like. Never lose sight of YOU the person. You are so much more than your body. 

 

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Why Compete

There have been more and more stories coming out about the negative experiences women are having in the realm of physique based competition (figure, bikini, etc).  I myself have even spoken on some of the negative side effects I had dealt with from my involvement in the fitness industry.  So why would I voluntary return? 
From a personal standpoint, I’ve learned so much about myself and gained so much insight over the past several years. And one thing that remains true is I simply love to train for things. I’ve reached a point in my life where being an athlete certainly doesn’t define me. I am comfortable in my own skin and I know who I am. But I truly and simply love to train to compete. If a person loves to sing she should sing, if a person loves to paint she should paint. I just happen to love training, especially with a goal in mind, so why shouldn’t I do it, so long as it’s done in a healthy way. 

At this point in my life, my options for performance based training are pretty limited due to previous injuries. Things like fitness, crossfit, triathlons and even half marathons or other running based events are really not healthy choices for me as they will almost certainly exacerbate old injuries.  But I CAN train for figure in a manner that allows me to keep my body healthy without further progressing those injuries. 

But what about all of those negative consequences that go along with competing in figure? Well, one thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that in order to embark on a journey towards any goal in a successful manner, especially one that deals directly with your body, you need to have a very good sense of self.  The fact is, when competing is approached with the right frame of mind, it can actually bring many benefits, none of which have anything to do with how you actually look. Discipline, persistence, work ethic, self confidence, strength, patience- just to name a few. There is nothing wrong with these characteristics. In fact, these are all pretty important attributes to possess to be successful for most things in life.  The problem arises when these things are rooted in fear. When behaviors are rooted in fear- fear of gaining weight, fear of not looking a certain way, fear of not being enough, fear of failure or disappointment, fear of not measuring up, fear of what other people think of you–that is when things become excessive and unhealthy.  Behaviors rooted in self love and a true desire to become a better person while maintaining a sense of contentness within yourself are not negative or unhealthy.  It’s ok to want to be better and to strive to reach goals- it just has to all come from the right place.  For example, discipline should come from a place of self love and self respect. It’s when discipline comes from a place of self punishment that it becomes unhealthy.  Obsession is not healthy. 

I can honestly say at this point in my life I have a very clear sense of what is healthy and what is not.  When I look in the mirror and ask myself why I want to compete, my reasons are exactly as I have written.  I love to do it. I love the process and I believe the process helps build me into a better person.  There is no hidden feeling of the desire to “get lean” because I don’t feel good enough as I am.  I love who I am. I say my goal is to match or beat my previous best physique. But the truth is, the actual outcome means nothing to me. It’s the behaviors and the process that truly matter. It’s challenging myself to overcome obstacles that used to cause me a lot of anxiety and feeling stronger because I can now push through them. It’s about learning to do the best I can, given the individual circumstances of each day, and feeling proud of myself for my efforts. I am no longer afraid. I’m not afraid of gaining weight after the show, I’m not afraid of what people will think and I’m not afraid of failing. I am choosing to do this for myself. 

From a professional standpoint, I feel it is my responsibility to lead by example.  There are way too many people in the fitness industry that are setting the wrong example. There’s way too much emphasis on the physical/vanity component with not enough emphasis on health. I want to show other competitors that they can choose to compete in a manner that emphasizes maintaining mental, physical and emotional health.  But who am I to tell people how to do it if I haven’t done it myself. I also work with athletes. Who am I to tell them that they can reach big goals in a healthy manner if I’m not doing it myself. I’m a big believer in the concept of actions speaking louder than words. And so I hope that my actions are what speak to those who look to me for help.

That’s why I choose to compete.

Protein Spiking- Not just a rip off, but a possible health risk?

There have been a few articles come up recently that talk about the dishonesty of some supplement companies using a practice referred to as “protein spiking”- essentially using single amino acids and other substances instead of whole proteins in an attempt to cut costs, thus altering (reducing) the true total protein content of the product (as compared to what is on the label).  As a consumer, I consider this a rip off.  But as a Registered Dietitian, I consider this a much bigger problem.

Before I go any further, let me first explain exactly what it means to be a Registered Dietitian.  Many people do not understand the difference between “nutritionist” and “registered dietitian (RD).”  Believe it or not, in many states, anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist.”  There really is NOT a ton of regulation for the use of that title or the training required.  On the contrary, Registered Dietitians (RD’s) are required to have a four year college degree with a specific subset of mandatory coursework.  In addition to an extensive list of nutrition courses, RD’s are required to take biology, chemistry, biochemistry, organic chemistry, and anatomy and physiology to name a few.  Upon completion of this coursework and a four year degree, RD’s complete a year long supervised practice internship within the nutrition field, a good part of which is spent in an acute care hospital setting working with doctors and pharmacists to treat patients with a broad range of medical conditons.  A HUGE part of the training to become a Registered Dietitian is learning the biochemistry behind specific disease states and the subsequent appropriate nutrition therapy.    Thus, we don’t just learn about “eating healthy” and “weight loss”- we learn a whole lot more about science and medicine. 


So with all that being said, I’m going to put on my “Clinical RD” hat for a minute and get back to the topic as to why this “protein spiking” is especially concerning to me.


In an attempt to reduce costs, some supplement companies have decided to put large amounts of free amino acids instead of whole proteins into their products.  This is done because protein in food products is often measured based on nitrogen content, and free amino acids contain nitrogen.  The difference is, single amino acids do not provide the same nutritional content as complete proteins (which contain ALL of the essential amino acids), and thus are not utilized in the body the same way. Although we typically associate protein powders with those looking to build muscle, not all protein supplement users are athletes or gym goers.  Some health conditions require an increased protein intake and often these patients will use protein supplements.  So if I have a patient that requires a specific amount of protein each day for something more significant than just a desire to build muscle, such as healing a major wound or recovering from a severe burn injury, and that patient uses one of these mislabeled protein supplements, he or she is not going to get the results we would anticipate and his/her health may be further compromised.


But aside from the mislabeling issue, are there in fact possible health risks associated with these “spiked proteins?  Well, that has a lot to do with which amino acids in particular these companies are using to spike their products.   The article that I had initially read stated that companies were using the amino acid glycine in their products.  Glycine is a relatively cheap, non-essential amino acid, which means it can be synthesized within the body (from serine) with a sweet taste, often used in flavoring.  Glycine is metabolized in three different pathways within the body.  In one of those pathways it is eventually metabolized to oxalate which is a major component in a common type of kidney stone.  


Now realistically, in an individual with healthy kidney function and a well balanced diet with adequate fluid intake, this shouldn’t pose too much of an issue.  However, in a person with compromised kidney function or in someone prone to or at higher risk for calcium oxalate stones, this could theoretically be a major concern.  Additionally, looking at the dietary intake of a person who we would typically expect to use protein supplements (athletes, fitness enthusiasts) we would most likely find that the individual is already consuming a high protein diet.  A high protein diet, especially from animal proteins, in and of itself can increase a person’s risk for kidney stones through a few different mechanisms.  One mechanism stems from the fact that the amino acid methionine, largely found in animal proteins,can increase calcium in the urine.  Combine this with a high glycine intake (from spiked protein powders) and that could potentially be cause for concern (increased calcium in the urine plus excessive glycine converting to oxalate = increased risk for calcium oxalate stones).  Furthermore, taurine was also listed as one of the amino acids used in spiking and some studies have shown that taurine has a potential diuretic effect.  This along with a high protein diet can lead to dehydration if a person is not drinking enough water and thus even further increase the risk for kidney stones.


One example of a population that this would be a huge concern for would be those people undergoing weight loss surgery, or other forms of gastric surgery (i.e. those performed to treat GI cancers).  The standard post-operative diet for sleeve gastrectomy and roux-en-Y gastric bypass patients consists largely of liquids, with a major emphasis on protein supplements.  It is typically recommended that these patients use high quality whey isolate supplements, however some patients cannot afford these products or simply do not like the taste and thus turn to other products on the market.  To make matters worse, a common post-operative complication of any GI surgery is dehydration.  I would hate to think that these patients are also now increasing their risk for kidney stones due to their clinically vulnerable post-operative state AND the use of mislabeled protein supplements. But it’s certainly feasible.


As if that weren’t enough, another major concern I have is the fact that some companies are using creatine monohydrate as a so called “spiking agent” in their protein supplements without necessarily listing it on the label.  The most recent studies have shown that as a supplement creatine is generally safe to use in recommended dosages in healthy individuals.  However it is recommended that creatine supplements NOT be used by people with compromised kidney function.  Patients that have End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) requiring dialysis have increased protein needs due to the depleting nature of regular dialysis.  Some of these patients may decide on their own to use protein supplements to help support their body’s increased protein needs.  If such an individual were to unknowingly use a product that was spiked with creatine monohydrate, they may be putting themselves at risk for further compromise.  


Creatine supplements are also commonly used by both athletes and gym goers for their potential benefit in assisting with overall strength and performance.  As mentioned above, when used accordingly this is a generally safe practice.  However, if a person is already taking the recommended (or larger) dosage of creatine and unknowingly using a protein supplement that may have been spiked with creatine monohydrate, this could lead to a person significantly surpassing the recommended dosages and possibly increase the risk for health consequences.


When all is said and done, we as consumers have a right to know what is in the products we are buying.  Although the potential health risks associated with this “protein spiking” may be more pronounced in certain populations, I would still advise using great caution when it comes to choosing supplements.  It’s unfortunate that companies are getting away with both deceiving consumers and possibly putting consumers at risk, however you the consumer can do something about it.  Look for products that have undergone thorough third party testing, preferably by a reputable organization such as NSF or Informed Choice.  Choose brands that are known for having high quality standards.  Look at pricing schemes.  If a particular type of product generally falls within a relative pricing range among most brands and then there is an outlier that’s claiming to be the same type of product but it is being sold for much less, question it.  Check the labels of the products you are buying.  Read the ingredients.  If things don’t add up, question it.  Just because your favorite social media personality is promoting a specific brand or product does not necessarily mean its high quality.  Do your research.  Stay informed.  Because in the end it can make a big difference, and not just for your wallet, but for your health.

That little thing called “genetics”

I recently read an article that talked about how people respond differently to different types/amounts of cardio based on genetic factors.  To me this seemed pretty obvious, but I don’t know if the majority of people out there see it that way.  Let me preface all this by saying, the majority of what I’m going to bring up is based mostly on personal experience, discussion with others and observation.  My college degree is in Nutritional Science (which was in fact a “pre-med” major because I used to think I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon), but in pursuing that degree, I took one class in genetics which covered nothing about training/exercise/diet.  So that is the extent of my formal scientific training in genetics. 


Regardless, I’m going to speak my mind on own my understanding of the topic as it may or may not relate to training/nutrition based on MY experience.


Genetics is something a lot of people bring up when it comes to having a certain “look.”  Typically in physique sports the top competitors have “good” genetics, or even what we may consider “exceptional” genetics based on their natural shape/structure.  For women, this may mean naturally wide/capped shoulders, tiny waist, round glutes, etc.   The fact is everyone has a different genetic structure to work with.   Unfortunately, in the physique sports, genetic structure plays a major role.  It’s not to say we have no influence on how we look.  Proper training and nutrition can certainly help to alter one’s physique in dramatic ways.  However, we are ultimately limited by our natural structure.  I think it’s very important to accept this when it comes to developing physique based goals.  Be honest with yourself and be realistic with your own physical capabilities.  We would all love to have “perfect” structure, but it’s really not worth using unhealthy/unsafe practices in an attempt to alter your own genetic structure (i.e. wearing a squeem for hours a day in an attempt to reduce your waist size) for a placing at bodybuilding show.


Another concept involving genetics that I think is often overlooked is how it may impact our nutrition and training.  This is why there is no such thing as a one size fits all training or diet protocol.  I’m going to use my own personal experience here to explain the points I’m trying to make.  I feel like I can use myself as a valid example because I’ve been an athlete for a very long time, I’ve been training for many years, I’ve worked with many different coaches and I have employed many different training and nutrition styles over the years.  In doing so, I’ve really learned exactly how my body will respond to certain things—in essence, I’ve learned my own “genetics” when it comes to training/nutrition.  


I’ve learned that genetically speaking, I build muscle very well.  Additionally, I hold onto muscle very well.  I used to joke that I could eat nothing but iceberg lettuce and my body would still find a way to utilize it.  But what does that mean in terms of training and nutrition.  Well, in terms of getting ready for a fitness competition, it meant I could afford to do a decent amount of cardio without a huge fear of burning muscle.  It also meant that I could be a little stricter with my carb intake and still maintain size.  (And as a quick note, it doesn’t mean that it was ok or ideal for me to be doing zero carbs and 2 hours of cardio for weeks on end- it just meant that I probably could do more than some others and still maintain muscle mass).  There are others out there that lose muscle with just the thought of extra cardio, and thus their training/nutrition should be tailored accordingly


On the topic of cardio (and I’d like to do a full blog one day on this topic as it seems to be one of great debate), I did a contest prep one time which included little to no cardio (at least, it was a significant amount less than my body was used to doing), and I really didn’t have great results with that approach.  In addition to my personal genetic response to cardio I also attribute this to the fact that growing up and through college, I was spending anywhere from 4-8 hours in the gym everyday training for gymnastics.  My theory is- maybe my body just needs a little more because of this (training adaptation).  There are plenty of others out there who can do an entire contest prep and get stage-ready lean with hardly any cardio at all– and honestly, if you can do it that way you should!  But that wasn’t me (and it still isn’t- to this day my body responds very well to certain types/amounts of cardio)


Another example would be my response to strength training.  Like I said, I build muscle very easily.  I know there are some competitors that typically include crossfit workouts (and/or a lot of heavy barbell stuff) while getting ready for a show.  In fact, I know of a fellow fitness competitor that trained for her last show using exclusively crossfit training (in addition to routine work)-and her physique is AMAZING.  However, personally, that approach would never have worked for me.  I did a lot of heavy training and metabolic stuff back in my day, which would have been similar to crossfit as this was before crossfit became mainstream (you can still see the youtube videos of my crazy training here https://www.youtube.com/user/Ergis1999/videos, but the fact is, that type of training was actually detrimental to MY “stage” physique.  It was awesome, I loved it, I got super strong and I had a blast, so I certainly don’t regret any of it, but it definitely did not help me out in terms of my physique round placings.  So why can some people train like that and look amazing, and others maybe not so much- well, for me, I build muscle quickly, I have a very wide and thick back, my traps insert high on my neck (they used to call me Marcus Ruhl when I trained with the guys) and I naturally have a wider waistline with very thick core muscles.  That type of training enhances all of those features– which is the opposite of what I wanted for the physique rounds.  But on a side note, my fitness routine kicked ass when I was training like that because it was the strongest I have ever been (you can see here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPRtGeDue2Y if you don’t believe me).


The last show I did back in 2013 was my ultimate physique to date.  The reason why is because I understood my body and I trained very specifically with that understanding in mind.  I used lighter/moderate weights with a VERY (let me repeat VEEEEERRY) strong emphasis on the mind muscle connection and focused VERY hard on feeling exactly what muscle I wanted to be targeting.  I also did a good mix of high intensity cardio, moderate intensity cardio- not a ton of steady state stuff- and metabolic workouts.  My cardio was geared towards preparing me for my fitness routine– I felt like none of it was “wasted” or “mindless” – each cardio workout had a specific purpose.  My nutrition consisted of a moderate amount of healthy carbs, fats and proteins- a very balanced approach- but I ate mostly fresh foods (fruits, vegetables, eggs, sweet potatoes, lean meats, greek yogurt) because these were the foods I responded best to, from both a performance and physique perspective.   I also limited gluten because I generally feel much better when I keep it relatively low in my diet (side bar here, I do not have Celiacs disease and I do not advocate a gluten free diet.  There is nothing inherently wrong with gluten, and I CANand do eat a modest amount of food containing gluten, I just personally feel a million times better when I keep it low—again, learn your body).  


I can honestly say I did NOTHING excessive or extreme for that contest prep.  It was really a matter of using all of the knowledge I had gained along the way, knowing how my body would respond to specific training and nutrition techniques and being smart about what I was doing.  And I was able to present my best physique.  It doesn’t mean that the way I trained is the ONLY way, and it doesn’t mean that the way I prepped will work for everyone.  


The point I’m trying to make here is learn your own “genetics.”  Avoid falling into the trap of following certain protocols just because other people are using them.  Learn what YOU need to do to improve YOURSELF, whether it be performance or physique based, and tailor your approach with that specific goal in mind.  If you work with a coach, make sure you are both on the same page when it comes to your goals and your genetic response (and make sure your program is tailored to YOU).  


Furthermore, be honest with yourself about your own structural and genetic limitations.  We can’t all look like Ms. Figure/Physique/Bikini (or Mr.) Olympia, just like we can’t all perform like Rich Froning or Camille Leblanc-Bazinet (crossfit superstars if you’re not familiar with the names).  I’m not saying don’t try.  It’s not the point I’m trying to make at all.  We truly have the power to accomplish great things when we work hard, believe in ourselves and go after our goals.  However, I AM saying be realistic.  Focus on self improvement in a way that’s healthy and productive, not self destructive.  Not everyone’s “end-all/be-all” is to be a Pro in the physique sports or a crossfit games competitor, and that’s OK.  Try to be the best YOU that you can be.  Learn to listen to your body.  Learn to work WITH your body, not against it. And always keep your health as top priority. Learning your “genetics” is a process, but the outcomes will be well worth it.

They say “Love your body.” But what if you don’t (yet)?

Despite an overly vain fitness industry, we are starting to see a small subset of voices like my own spreading the positive message of “love your body” no matter your shape or size.  It’s a great message with great intentions.  But what if you don’t (love your body)? Unfortunately for people with body image issues (which is many of us), it’s not something we can just “do.”  If it were that easy, we wouldn’t have these issues to begin with.  So the question is, how do you go about learning to love your body for what it is?

Some of you might be thinking “well, it’s pretty easy for someone with six pack abs, perfectly sculpted shoulders, arms, legs and glutes- features which most “fitness icons” portray- to be promoting this message, of course they love their bodies!” Perhaps, but believe it or not even those “perfect bodies” have many of the same insecurities we all experience. But regardless, what about the rest of us?  

Let me first tell you where I’m coming from so you can understand why I’m using the phrase “the rest of us” (because yes, I’m including myself).

I am a “pro fitness competitor” (albeit retired– for now) but realistically, I have been single digit body fat percentage lean.  I’ve been one of those “fitness icons” (so to speak). 

But right now I’m about 150lbs at 5’5 (I don’t actually weigh myself so I’m not sure of the exact number, but it’s around there).  My contest weight was about 130lbs (plus or minus water)- so I’m a good 20lbs heavier. My waist is probably about 28-29 inches.  I have far from what would be considered the ideal female hour glass shape.  In fact, I think my hips and waist are about the same, measured straight across.  I naturally carry my fat in my midsection, contributing to my “larger (by fitness industry standards) waistline,” and I’ll only ever have abs if I’m in contest shape.  I am FAR from “fitness icon perfect.” But you know what, that’s OK.  I’m not trying to be perfect. Because I’m happy with myself.  And regardless of any changes to my body in the future- leaner, heavier, whatever- I’ll still feel the same way.

 It hasn’t always been that way and in fact, it took me a very long time to get here.  But I believe it’s possible for everyone to come to a sense of peace with the body they are blessed with.

So how did I get here? What do you do if you know you want to get healthy and you know it’s time to start treating your body right, but you still struggle with body image? Can you improve your health and even your overall body composition (if you wanted to) all while still learning to fully embrace and love the body you have?

The answer is yes.

But it’s not as easy as so many people make it sound.  It’s a process. It takes a lot of hard work and consistency to CHANGE YOUR THINKING. But the end result is more powerful than any diet or workout you’ll ever do.

Here are some strategies that can help.

First things first, come to grips with the fact that NO ONE IS “PERFECT.”  You are not perfect, you will never be perfect, because we are not meant to be perfect.  In fact there’s no such thing as “perfect.”  That’s what makes each of us beautiful and unique.  Focus your mind on learning to love yourself for the person you are and what you can do.  Your worth DOES NOT come from what your body looks like. Period. End of story.  

Ok so now that we got that cleared up, here are a few more tips to keep in mind-

1.  When it comes to workouts, focus on function rather than a specific look.  It’s an unfortunate fact that, no matter how much work we put in, many of us just don’t have the genetics for that “ideal” physique.  So stop killing yourself trying to attain it, and stop beating yourself up for not looking like someone whose entire livelihood is devoted to his/her physique. 

Instead, focus on the amazing things your body is capable of.  Set performance and strength goals rather than “looks” goals.  Embrace how awesome it is to be able to lift more weight, or run faster, or master a new yoga pose.  And give yourself credit for making progress in these areas, regardless of what the scale or tape measure says.

2.  As I alluded to above, stop comparing yourself to the fitness icons.  Understand that for the majority of these people, their body is their livelihood.  Many are personal trainers or fitness models and their businesses are built based on their bodies.  Not to mention, they are able to spend a lot more time in the gym than most of us with jobs outside of the fitness industry.  I know I can speak for myself when I say competing got a whole lot harder after I finished school and jumped into a job that had nothing to do with fitness.  And this is not to say there is anything wrong with the fitness icons working in the business.  All I’m saying is FOCUS ON YOU, and what’s realistic for YOU to accomplish, within the realm of your own time constraints and personal responsibilities. 

3.  When it comes to nutrition, focus on health, not weight loss.  Shift your mindset toward eating healthy foods for the benefits they bring to your body, not for the amount of fat they may or may not help you lose.  Work on eating a variety of fresh foods and a balance of all the nutrients.  Treat your body well by fueling it with as much good stuff as you can.

4.  Try using positive affirmations to reinforce your belief in yourself.  Positive affirmations are simple phrases you can repeat over and over to yourself, that help you to “convince” your mind of what you want it to believe.  Try not to use any negative words.  For example, instead of saying “I will NOT say negative things about myself,” try saying “I WILL only speak of myself in a positive manner.” By using positive affirmations everyday you can help increase positive self image, even if you didn’t believe it at first (“fake it til you make it”). And you can google “positive affirmations” and find tons of examples.

5. Believe in your ability to make positive changes, even if they are small, and give yourself credit for any step in the right direction, no matter how large or small.  Focus on behavioral changes, not measured “number” outcomes (ie your weight).  The more capable and successful you feel in your ability to make positive changes, the better you will begin to feel about your own body.

6. Focus on other fulfilling aspects of your life that have nothing to do with how you look.  Friends, family, church, work, other hobbies, volunteering, teaching– find the bigger purpose in your life.  Because the truth is there is SO MUCH MORE to life than what your body looks like. And if your biggest focus in life is how your body looks, you’re truly missing out on all the joys life has to offer.

This totally sounds cliche, but remember, this is the only body you get.  You are unique.  You cannot have anyone else’s body, and no one else can have yours.  Do your best to treat your body with kindness and respect.  Be grateful for the body you have and what it can do .  Believe in yourself, stay positive and consistent, and follow the tips above, and you will be on your way to a better body image and a happier outlook, no matter your size or shape.

The solution is NOT another diet

So its been awhile since I’ve written, I’ve had a million and a half things going on, including an exciting move and job change, amongst other things. But with the New Year upon us and resolutions in full effect, I’m feeling it very necessary to write this post.

Your solution for happiness is NOT another diet. It’s not another fad, or cleanse, or diet pill, or Dr. Oz miracle product or any other promise of rapid weight loss and a “new you.”

In my experience, this is one of the hardest concepts to truly internalize. We all want the quick fix, because we believe that weight loss will be the key to our happiness. The paradox is, in order to truly be happy and healthy we must already accept ourselves. If you are unhappy, weight loss in and of itself will NOT bring happiness.

In other words, if you’re dieting or exercising to lose weight because you hate your body and you believe that when you finally lose weight THEN you will be happy, you will not get the outcomes you’re looking for. It does NOT work that way. In order to become healthy you need to focus on being happy NOW.

You must learn to disassociate weight and food from your self esteem and happiness. Find worth within yourself regardless of your weight and regardless of what food you choose to eat and believe in that worth with all your heart.

So how do we go about doing that? I think one of the first steps is to let go of the dieting mentality. The fact is: Diets fail. And in turn they have this way of making people feel like they’ve failed. People do not fail, diets fail.

One of the inherent flaws in the concept of diets is the “on or off” mentality. We’re either “on” the diet or we’re “off.” When we’re on, we’re severely restrictive with food choices, to a point where it becomes impossible to maintain. Many of us start out with good intentions and strong wills but we have the unrealistic expectation that this level of restrictive eating is maintainable. And then we quickly find out, it is not. And then we go “off” the diet, and boy do we go off. Typically we go “off” out diets and head straight for the opposite extreme, binge eating and consuming large amounts of foods we would not even normally consume, just because we’re “off” the diet and we can. And then any weight loss achieved with the initial restrictive period is usually gained back and then some. And then the cycle starts over.

I myself am guilty of planning shows (fitness competition) in an effort to force myself to diet to get back into what I considered acceptable shape for the fitness industry. I was one of those competitors that dieted 100% strictly for weeks and months on end, only to rebound pretty significantly in a short amount of time following my competition season. This would lead to very poor self image and of course, the inevitable plan to start dieting again. And unfortunately, I was very competitive, and would end up taking it to the extreme again to get in shape for the next show. And the cycle would continue.

Its only more recently that I’ve realized how destructive this behavior is. And the mentality is really no different than the yo-yo dieter.

So no dieting. But then you may ask, so how do I lose weight/get in shape/get healthy? First of all, let me start by saying weight loss does not equate to health (nor happiness, as I’ve mentioned above) but I’ll save that for another post.

If you’re doing a contest prep, of course that requires some form of structured eating. But my advice is to maintain a healthy, well balanced approach, as much as possible. Continue to include all food groups throughout the entirety of the prep and give yourself plenty of time to achieve the level of leanness you’re aiming for. And most importantly, approach a competition prep with the right mindset. Always keep the perspective that “competition lean” is not necessarily “healthy, real life lean.” Be prepared for a normal amount of healthy weight gain after your show and be prepared for the emotional rebound that can occur in the post-show period. Understand what’s realistic and what’s not, and always keep your health as top priority.

And before even starting a competition prep take the time to really evaluate whether or not you are physically and emotionally ready to take on all that the competition prep and the post competition period can entail. And if you’re not sure you can handle it, then DON’T do it. There is absolutely no shame in deciding NOT to compete.

As for the rest of us that will not be getting ready for any physique type competitions in the near future, here’s some additional advice.

✓ Try to avoid classifying foods as good or bad. All food has a purpose. Some foods serve our health and some foods serve as enjoyment/fun. And realistically, its healthy to include a certain amount of both in our everyday lives.
✓ Try making small changes to your everyday habits. In order to be successful, you must approach health as a lifelong commitment, not a quick destination. Slow, manageable changes will produce longer lasting results than extreme restrictions. The key is to accept this truth and stop seeking the quick fix, it doesn’t exist.
✓ Focus on something other than food. Obsessing about what you eat and what you think you “should” be eating will only lead to unnecessary stress and often stress eating. Its counterintuitive, but often we relieve our food related stress by eating more food. So stop worrying so much about it and focus your attention on other, more fulfilling things.
✓ When it comes to nutrition, aim to consume more fresh, wholesome, natural foods as opposed to processed/packaged stuff. Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store- fruits, vegetables, lean meats, dairy and whole grains. It doesn’t mean packaged stuff can’t be healthy too, but generally speaking the fewer ingredients the better. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t incorporate some of the more fun, processed foods into your daily eating.
✓ Try to consume SATISFYING meals and snacks. If you’re forcing yourself to eat foods because you think you “should,” or because you think they’re “healthy” but you don’t necessarily like them, you’re not going to get very far. Choose foods that you enjoy. There is always a “healthier” version of all your favorite foods. Look for recipes and experiment!
✓ Create balance- use all 3 macronutrients at meals- carbs, proteins and fats. Do NOT eliminate whole food groups for the sake of weight loss.
✓ And most importantly, work on your own body image and outlook. Let go of the diet mentality. Break the cycle. Learn to love and accept your body for what it is and what it can do. Your self worth is NOT tied to how you look or what you eat. You deserve better than that, so treat yourself accordingly.

How to Build a Basic Meal Plan (in 8 somewhat simple steps)

Many of you may be wanting to develop a more structured eating plan, but perhaps for whatever reason, are not ready to hire someone else to do it. If that’s the case, follow these 8 steps to put together your own plan!

Step 1-
Determine your goal. Is your goal for muscle gain? Is your goal for fat loss? Is your goal for maintenance/healthy nutrition? Whatever it may be, your nutrition plan needs to start with a goal in mind.

Step 2-
Determine a calorie level appropriate for your goal. There are a lot of websites that will calculate an estimated BMR (basal metabolic rate) to which you can adjust based on your activity level and goal (most of the website tools can do this as well). If you don’t want to use one of those tools, the simplest way to begin is to multiply your body weight by a factor of 10-15.
Typically, I would start with calories of ~12x body weight for fat loss and ~ 15 x body weights for muscle gain. These numbers can then be adjusted based on your progress.
For example, for a 150lb female looking for fat loss, I would start at about 1800 calories per day (150lbs x 12). This is not an exact science, and as mentioned, you can make adjustments as you go along.
**If you are much heavier than your target weight (50+ pounds), you may need to use a weight closer to your target weight for these calculations

Step 3-
Make a list of healthy foods you enjoy, group them into categories based on their main macronutrient composition.
For example, I like chicken, turkey, steak, sweet potato, rice, oatmeal, peanut butter and avocados. So I would list:
Proteins: Chicken, turkey, etc.
Carbs: sweet potato, brown rice, etc.
Fats: avocado, peanut butter, etc.
Now many of these foods will, of course, contain more than one macronutrient, but most foods can be categorized by the macronutrient they are mainly composed of.

Step 4-
Determine how many meals you would like to eat per day (that’s an easy step, no further explanation needed).

Step 5-
Determine the proportion of calories you would like to come from each macronutrient group. I feel the best place to start is around 1g of protein per pound of body weight (*again, use a weight closer to your target weight if you are 50+ lbs overweight).
Multiple the protein grams by 4 (4 calories per gram of protein) to get the calories you will be consuming from protein. This will roughly give you 25-35% of your calories from protein. The rest will come from carbohydrates and fats. Typically fats can comprise ~25-35% of your total calories. And then carbs would make up the rest.

OK, so that was a little confusing, but take a look at the example here and it should help to clarify:
150 lb female looking for fat loss.
Total calories = 12x bodyweight (150lbs)= 1800 kcals
Total protein= 1x body weight = 150 grams
150grams of protein x 4 calories per gram= 600 calories from protein
1800 total calories x .25 (25%) = 450 calories from fats
450 calories divided by 9 (9 calories per gram of fat) = 50 grams per day
1800 total calories – 600 calories from protein – 450 calories from fat = 750 calories left (these will then come from carbohydrates)
750 calories from carbs divided by 4 (4 calories per gram of carbohydrate) = 188g carb
So, our meal plan for a 150 lb female looking for fat loss would have
~1800 calories, 150g Protein, 188g Carbs, 50g Fat
I promise you, if you just work through the numbers, its not as complicated as it looks!

Step 6-
Distribute the calories/macros amongst your meals. Try to evenly distribute protein amongst each meal (i.e. each meal should have an equivalent amount of protein). Typically, I like to include my carbs in breakfast, lunch and post-workout meals, but in theory, you could evenly spread them throughout all of your meals or even eat them in just the pre and post workout meals if you prefer. Similarly, fats can be divided into your non-carb meals, or evenly spaced throughout the day- however you prefer.

Step 7-
Start plugging foods from your list into the meal plan. Again, there are many websites available to give nutrition facts for most foods. Although this may seem tedious at first, if you eat similar things most days, it would not be too difficult to get a handle on the composition of those foods. I typically like to allow 1-3 options per meal—for example- 3.5oz of chicken or 1 scoop whey protein or 6 egg whites all have roughly the same amount of protein. You can use the same concept with carbs and fats.

Step 8
Monitor your progress and adjust accordingly. Whatever your goal is, you should give yourself a solid 2-4 weeks on any given meal plan and keep measure of your progress. Avoid adjusting things too soon just because, for example, you didn’t lose 2 lbs. the first week. Allow your body to settle in to the new meal plan and then make adjustments as needed. Usually this will lead to results with just a few small tweaks instead of a complete overhaul.

As you’re progressing, you can begin to manipulate both calorie levels and macronutrient levels depending on your goals. You can also make adjustments based on if/what you are training on any particular day.

As a side note- this is not an IIFYM plan, as I do not believe all calories are created equal, and thus I would encourage your food list to consist mostly of quality, nutritious, single (or very few) ingredient foods.

Survival of the Fittest: The Last Few Weeks of A Contest Prep

You’re tired. You’re hungry. You’re cranky. You’re not sure how you will make it through your next workout, and then cardio, and then four more weeks of the same. You question whether or not you’ll be ready. You’re checking the roster to see who else is competing, sizing yourself up against them. You check your abs a few times per day to see if hat last bit of fat has finally gone away. And all you can think about is pizza and donuts.

No, you’re not crazy. You’re 4 weeks out.

Even the most well planned, well thought out, sanely executed contest preps can be extremely grueling. Competing in a physique contest is NOT easy. You are pushing your body to a state its not likely comfortable maintaining and this can prove mentally and physically challenging for even the toughest of athletes.

So how do you handle the mental aspect of those last few weeks before a show, without finding yourself elbow deep in a gallon of ice cream?

It’s easy.

Just suck it up buttercup, you’re almost there…

But for real, here are a few pointers that have helped me through those last few tough weeks before a show.

1. Do not allow yourself to become overwhelmed. This is one of the only times I would suggest NOT looking at the big picture. If you overwhelm your thought process with “oh my god, how am I going to do this for another 4 weeks” you will never survive. So break it down into pieces. Take one workout, one cardio, one meal at a time. After all, it really is only one workout, or one cardio, or one meal that you have to get through. It’s nothing more or nothing less. You’ve done it before and you can do it again.

2. Trust the process. Your body will be ready if you just trust the process. You can only do what you can do. Stressing out about how you look or not being ready will only increase cortisol levels, causing you to hold more water and fat. Relax. Take a deep breath. And have faith that your body will do what it needs to do.

3. Stop worrying about what everyone else is doing. Do what YOU are supposed to do. Just because Johnny is cutting sodium and Mary is doing two hours of cardio does not mean that YOU need to be doing that. Do what is best for YOU.

4. On a similar note, stop worrying about who else is going to be at your show. You can only control what YOU bring to the stage. It doesn’t matter if Jay Cutler is going to be in your class. It should not change what YOU put into how you look. So stop worrying about it!

5. Keep your mind busy with things other than contest prep. I know that all you feel like doing is sleeping until it’s the next time to eat again. But staying busy can help distract you from the overwhelming thoughts of “will I be ready in time” and “how will I look.” Find things to do- movies, hang out with friends, read, clean, etc. Time is going to pass regardless, but it’s better spent doing things that help keep you calm, rather than stressing you out.

6. Surround yourself with people that support you. Having a solid support system is key during those last few weeks. The last thing you need is negativity. Stay near people that boost you up and give you the confidence to keep going.

7. And finally, believe that no matter what, it will be worth it. And trust me, it will be. No matter how you look or where you place, you will be so happy that you didn’t give up. You want to be able to say, I gave it my all, I could not have done anything more. It is an experience you will never forget.

So there you have it. I hope you find these tips helpful. Please feel free to comment and share your own “survival of the fittest” tips below!

How To Recover from a Bad Day

As a registered dietitian, I don’t believe in ‘good’ foods or ‘bad’ foods, I believe all foods can serve a purpose. I try to encourage my patients and clients that are looking to achieve a healthy lifestyle to choose fresh, unprocessed, natural foods ‘most of the time.’ On the other hand, as a pro fitness athlete I understand that there are foods that will help reach you goals and there are foods that will not. And I encourage those athletes with a deadline (competition, photoshoot, show, etc) to choose the right foods ‘all of the time’ – especially if that deadline is within the next six weeks (off season athletes refer to the first recommendation).

Regardless of which category you fall into, there may come a time when you have a ‘bad’ meal or even a ‘bad’ day, whether by choice or by life circumstances. It happens to all of us. And in all honesty, a single bad meal or even an entire day should not be enough to completely derail your efforts. How you recover from such a day though, can make the difference between continuing to move forward toward your goal or taking several steps backwards.
So here are some strategies for recovering from those ‘bad days’-

1. Don’t delay getting back on track. Often one cookie turns into 10, one meal turns into a whole day, and one day turns into a week. Don’t let that happen. Make a conscious decision to stop. Turn it around, and get back on track. No procrastinating!

2. Avoid compensation cardio, cleanses, crazy diets, etc. There is no need to punish yourself for overindulging. All this will really do is mess up your metabolism and water balance even more, and it will create a negative mindset. So don’t do it. Get back to your normal meal plan and your normal workout schedule.

3. Drink lots and lots of water!! This will help get rid of any sodium or carbohydrate bloat. Additionally, if you had a drink (or 10), you’re likely dehydrated, so make sure to get that water in.

4. Try to avoid processed carbs and high sodium foods. Typically I’m not one to recommend a sodium restricted diet for athletes however if you’re sodium sensitive and already retaining water from yesterday’s food fest, you may benefit from just cutting back a little bit. And if nothing else, just stay away from the processed stuff.
– as an addition to #4, if you do tend to retain a lot of water you can try to include some foods with natural diuretic properties such as grapefruit, asparagus, cucumber or fresh squeezed lemon in your water.

5. Try adding a probiotic and a good multivitamin. Probiotics can help aid with digestion and healthy bowel function which may be necessary after eating foods your system is not used to. Furthermore, most metabolic processes rely on vitamins and minerals as cofactors so a good multivitamin can help boost your body’s ability to handle/metabolize the excess food. Antioxidants can also help rid the body of oxidative stress brought on by poor food choices.

6. And finally, and most importantly, let it go. Move on. Do not dwell on yesterday’s decisions. Do not waste time beating yourself up about what you did or did not eat. Don’t get on the scale for a few days because odds are you’ll have gained some water weight (and that number may be enough to freak some people out) Focus on what you are going to do now. You have the choice to keep moving forward toward your goal or to let it hold you back. Choose to move forward!!

7 Tips for Preventing Post-Competition Rebounds

It’s that time of year, competition season is in full swing and you’re in full contest prep mode. Here are some tips to help you keep that hard earned body well beyond your actual competition.

1. Maintain a reasonable/balanced diet throughout the entirety of you contest prep. Your contest prep diet should mimic your “real life” diet with some tweaks for portion size and macronutrient composition. If you’re eliminating entire food groups or eating nothing but proteins and vegetables for weeks on end, you may be setting yourself up for a post-competition rebound.

2. Include regular “off-plan” meals throughout your contest prep. Notice I say “off-plan” and not “cheat” meals. “Cheat” implies you’re doing something wrong and promotes the wrong mindset. “Off-plan” meals are reasonably sized meals that may or may not include treat foods. One of my favorites is steak with sautéed mushrooms and onions, baked potato with real butter and a salad with real dressing. Ideally, try to save off plan meals/treats for your hardest training days. Allowing yourself to occasionally indulge in some off-plan foods/treats throughout your dieting experience will help you maintain balance AFTER the show is done. If you’re 3 weeks out and all you can think about is what you’re going to eat after your show, you may be setting yourself up for a post-competition rebound.

3. Be mindful of the length of time you’re spending in a calorie deficit. Many competitors do multiple shows throughout the year, but this doesn’t mean you need to spend the entire time between shows in a calorie deficit. If you have 4-6 weeks or more between shows and you’re already lean, give your body a few weeks at a maintenance level. You should not gain body fat during a maintenance phase (and if you do, you may need to re-evaluate your contest prep practices to avoid metabolic damage), and your body will respond even better when you return to a calorie deficit. If you’re spending more than about 16 weeks at a time in a calorie deficit, you may be setting yourself up for a post-competition rebound.

4. Be reasonable with cardio during your prep. Cardio should be used as a tool for fat loss and it should be used wisely. Always start on the low end and gradually increase your cardio sessions as needed. Try utilizing different forms of cardio including metabolic workouts, sprints, and HIIT (high intensity intervals) instead of just increasing the time spent doing steady state cardio. Your body adapts to cardio within 8 weeks. If you’re doing 2 hours of cardio per day at 12 weeks out (or at any point during your prep for that matter), you may be setting yourself up for a post-competition rebound.

5. Develop post-competition goals and have a plan! It is very helpful to have a structured eating/training plan in place for after your show. If you’ve followed tip #1, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Having post competition goals is also very helpful. Many competitors feel “lost” after a competition because they no longer have that driving force (the competition) right in front of them. Evaluate your physique before you even step on stage and determine areas you’d like to improve on—use this to help develop some post competition goals and a plan for reaching those goals. If you don’t have a plan in place for after your competition, you may be setting yourself up for a post-competition rebound.

6. Avoid drastic “peak week” strategies. If you are not ready one week out, no amount of water/sodium/carbohydrate manipulations will get you ready in one week, and you may end up doing more harm than good. Keep it simple, stick to the diet that has been working all along, and skip the crazy electrolyte manipulations and diuretics. If you are using these dangerous techniques during peak week, you may be setting yourself up for a post-competition rebound (and putting yourself at risk for a host of other health issues as well).

7. And finally, be realistic! It is nearly impossible to stay competition lean all year round, not to mention for many it is downright unhealthy. It’s likely you will gain a few pounds back after your show, and that’s ok! Be prepared for this and focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. For women, it’s reasonable to stay within 5-15lbs of your competition weight (for men it’s a little more) depending on your division- bikini, figure, physique, etc-, how lean you get for the stage and what your off-season goals are. Avoid “punishment” cardio and dieting after your show (i.e. extra cardio or cutting carbs after an indulgence) as this promotes an unhealthy mindset and can lead to metabolic damage. Keeping the right mindset after your competition will help prevent a post-competition rebound.

Remember, fitness is not a competition, it is a lifestyle. Use the strategies above to keep your body and mind healthy and maintain a fit lifestyle even after your competition is over.
If you have any more tips or suggestions, please feel free to comment below!