Fuel for Life: Food & Fitness for Health
With every new fad diet and exercise craze comes the promise that THIS way of eating or THIS form of exercise is THE answer for anyone wanting to have a fit body. Judging from the overall results of this short-term, one-size-fits-all thinking, many people are caught in the cycle of yo-yo weight loss and gain, and the accompanying stress, both physically and emotionally. What can someone do who is seeking to improve fitness, lose weight, and have a healthier life over the long term?
Introducing Cristin O’Neal
In July of 2005, Cristin O’Neal, 36, of Rosendale, decided that she was ready to look and feel better. “I was just tired of living in the body I was in – an unhealthy body. I had gained weight over the course of 10 years, and wanted to lose it fast.” The first step she made was to hire a personal trainer, Fred Borzumato, of Breathe Fitness in Stone Ridge. “I started lifting weights and doing cardio workouts. I didn’t change my eating very much at first. Then, gradually, I started changing my diet and incorporating more healthful foods. I started to pay more attention to what I ate.”
A Trainer’s Viewpoint
As a Certified Personal Trainer and award-winning Natural Amateur Bodybuilder, Fred Borzumato has a lot of knowledge about nutrition and exercise. “Eating is as important as exercise. It goes hand-in-hand with your whole program. It’s almost more important,” says Borzumato. Key information for people starting or continuing to exercise, especially those using weights, is that “protein is for muscle and carbohydrates are for energy. Without enough protein you cannot support muscle growth and development. Without the right carbs at the right time, you won’t have enough energy to have successful workouts or recover effectively.”
Borzumato encourages his trainees to eat “small meals every 2-3 hours throughout the day that are balanced with protein, carbs, and healthy fats.” He cautions that people often eat too many carbs in the evening, when they don’t really need them, and suggests that meals taper off in size as the day goes on, but stay balanced. Otherwise, those extra carbs are stored as fat. “When you eat more often, your metabolism is raised because your body burns calories when you digest food. You are giving steady fuel to your body’s engine.”
But the “two most important meals of the day” are the meals right before and right after a workout. “Beforehand, you need complex carbohydrates and protein, like oatmeal and eggs, a tuna sandwich on a complex carb bread, or chicken with sweet potato,” says Borzumato. These food sources will give energy to the body for a long period of time, maybe hours, as opposed to simple carbohydrates, like pasta or white bread. “Then, at the end of your workout, within a half-hour, the body wants to heal its muscle tissue and replace what it’s lost, both protein and carbs.” What’s the answer? “This is the one meal of the day when eating a simple carbohydrate like a baked potato or bagel, with some protein, is a good idea. The simple carb goes right to the muscle.”
Why is weight training such a boon to those seeking to lose weight? Borzumato explains that “when you lift weights, you break down muscle tissue and your body needs to repair that. If you do one session of weight training, your body will spend the next 24 hours working, so your metabolism is higher.” According to Borzumato, cardio workouts have other benefits, like increased blood circulation and improved heart and lung functions that are really important. But in terms of overall metabolism, “when you do a half hour of cardio, your body burns calories and you have a higher metabolism during the workout. As soon as you stop, your body stops working in that way.” He says that more and more studies are showing that weight training is more effective for weight loss.
O’Neal worked out for 5-6 days a week, but for the first three months saw no obvious results. “I felt better because I was moving my body and doing something positive, but I didn’t see any change in weight, body fat, or inches. Fred said to be patient because it would take a little longer due to muscle I was building doing weight training. Once I started seeing measurable results, that’s when I really started to want to explore nutrition more and see it as an experiment using my body to see what worked and what didn’t.” For the first time, O’Neal started to have patience around the whole process. “I was in it for the long haul now.”
Around this time, O’Neal connected with Holly Shelowitz, a Certified Nutrition Counselor and Whole Foods Educator, whose Nourishing Wisdom Nutrition counseling practice is based in Stone Ridge. “Holly helped me to learn how to focus on what healthful choices were and how to listen to my body. I began to understand more fully the interconnectedness of my emotional, spiritual, and physical lives.”
A Nutritionist’s Viewpoint
Holly Shelowitz has worked with many different people who are making real shifts in their approach to food and life and are seeking support. “The first thing I do is get an overview of what they are eating now, from the first bite to last bite of the day. What are their eating patterns? What is their energy level like? What are their sleep patterns? If they have an intention to lose weight, what do they know about themselves in terms of their metabolism? Based on what I can see about their energy level, diet, sleep patterns, and body type, I’d make some suggestions about how to proceed.”
“Often they are staying up late, they wake up groggy and need coffee right away, and they either skip breakfast or have a bagel. By the time lunch arrives they are falling over, relying on caffeine and sugar to get through the day instead of real high energy foods,” says Shelowitz. Sound familiar? There are lots of different strategies available.
“Physical activity is so important and goes hand-in-hand with eating nourishing foods in ways that support your health,” says Shelowitz. “Regular physical activity that you love” is Shelowitz’s definition of a good exercise regime. She also encourages clients to find a steady supply of self-care, like spending time in nature, getting massages, taking baths, and having quality time with friends and family.
In terms of her dietary guidance, “although everyone is different and for some people it’s 3 meals a day, for some it’s 6, across the board most people do really well with eating protein throughout the day, along with vegetables, fruit, good quality fats, and whole grains. Those are the primary things.” Having a varied diet is important and it’s good to experiment with new foods. “I encourage clients to experiment by increasing protein, vegetables, and healthy fats while reducing sugar and refined carbohydrates liked baked goods and pasta,” says Shelowitz. In place of those refined carbohydrates, Shelowitz encourages her clients to eat real whole grains, like quinoa, brown rice, and barley, instead of bread.
Some other things to try would be to drink plenty of water and be mindful of portion sizes. “Practice putting less on your plate and seeing how you feel. If you are truly hungry, have more. Often, we can be satisfied with much less on our plates,” says Shelowitz.
What are healthy fats? “High quality butter or ghee, which is organic or from Europe, avocadoes, raw (not roasted) nuts and seeds in moderation, coconut milk and oil, olive oil in moderation, and organic dairy products for some. Coconut oil gives your body a steady source of energy by supporting the thyroid gland and helping to keep blood sugar balanced.
When it comes to sweets, Shelowitz says “let’s create healthy versions of sweets so that we can still enjoy them.” Some great natural sweeteners she recommends to use in place of refined sugar are maple syrup, honey, rapidura or sucanat (granulated evaporated cane juice). And a word to the wise: “Most protein bars are candy bars in disguise and muffins are cupcakes in disguise,” Shelowitz notes.
“Ultimately you are in charge of your body,” says Shelowitz. “You’re going to know the most about how foods affect you. No book will tell you that.” While advocating tuning in to our bodies, Shelowitz also urges clients to explore their emotional side, to “acknowledge that we have feelings and do our best to understand them.” She notes that “often excess weight is an indication of emotional issues that are really important to address” in order to break free from the yo-yo weight loss and gain that is so familiar. “Finding a way of eating that is your lifestyle, not just a quick fix approach, is so excellent.”
After completing her program with Nutrition Counselor Shelowitz, O’Neal “started reading more and learning more about nutrition and exercise.” She started to eat six small balanced meals throughout the day and to keep track of her calories and macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats). “For about six months I was very strict with what I would and wouldn’t eat, allowing myself only one or two meals a week to eat whatever I wanted, maybe out at a restaurant. During that time I was lifting a lot of heavy weights to my maximum ability 3-4 times a week at the gym.” O’Neal started to see the things she was putting into her body as a way to improve her workouts. “It was a real philosophical shift to be eating to maximize my performance at the gym.”
One thing that O’Neal found really motivating was another major focus in her life: being a nursing student. “I didn’t want to be in a healthcare setting and be an out-of-shape person trying to educate someone on how to take care of themselves. I wanted to be the person that I was asking others to be.” Now that she’s a Registered Nurse, O’Neal often works with patients who are diabetic or struggling to lose weight. “Now, I can approach them with the compassion from my experience as someone who’s been there and help them to see that there are possibilities for them. A year from now they don’t have to be in the same place that they are today.”
Through her work with Fred and Holly, and her own research and experience, O’Neal synthesized many strategies and avoided some pitfalls. “Holly taught me so many ways to support myself in this whole process and I don’t think I’d be anywhere without Fred. I can’t even imagine money better spent.” Here is an overview of her findings.
– Treat your body like a wood-burning stove. Start with a good breakfast (stoking the fire) and eat regularly throughout the day.
– Don’t under-eat. The beauty of weight lifting and exercise is that you can eat more overall.
– Slow and steady wins the race. Make changes that you can live with for the long term and expect gradual progress, with some plateaus.
– Eat whole foods / Avoid empty calories. Get the most nutrition out of the food you eat. Vegetables, lean protein, and whole grain carbohydrates all are relatively low in calories.
– Plan ahead. Always have cooked chicken or ground turkey and tuna fish prepared. If vegetarian, have equivalent protein options on hand. Either way, it’s great to also have cooked rice, fresh vegetables, eggs, and oatmeal ready to go. That way you know that you have good choices.
– Take food with you. If you know you’re going to be out all day, pack food – it doesn’t matter if you look weird.
– Find one or more activities that you love. If not the gym, do something else. Liking what you’re doing is very motivating.
– Gather support. If you need motivation to exercise, hire a trainer, or find a friend to partner up with for workouts. If you need help relating to food and other health issues, hire a nutritionist or take a healthy cooking class.
– Measure progress correctly. Focus on loss of inches and body fat, the way your clothes feel. Muscle is denser than fat. You may gain weight or stay even when you first start exercising.
– Set mini-goals along the way. This is the best way not to be overwhelmed. Think about something small you can do now.
What Didn’t Work:
– Under-eating as “diet.” Escape the cycle of “dieting” in which under-eating for the short term creates a yo-yo effect in the long term, because you can’t sustain it. Once you lose the weight, there’s nowhere to go, so you have to increase your calories and you gain the weight back.
– Missing meals before and after you work out. Remember what Fred said.
– Being overly focused on the scale. It’s the inches and fat that count.
– Lack of planning. When you don’t have good choices and you’re hungry, you’re stuck.
Cristin O’Neal Today
O’Neal continues to exercise and eat healthy today. She has lost 65 lbs, 40 inches (over 5 size measurements: hips, waist, thighs, biceps, and chest), and 13% of her body fat. “I’m more relaxed now and am maintaining my balance. I feel like I have a healthy lifestyle now. I go for hikes and bike rides. I’d like to try boxing workouts. Being active doesn’t feel like a chore.” When Cristin is too busy to make it to the gym, she doesn’t feel pressure. “It’s now part of who I am. I don’t worry about it. I’m not gaining any weight back.” O’Neal has even registered with the national weight control registry, which tracks people who have lost weight and kept it off, in efforts to share what’s worked. “I want to live a long, quality life.”