What exactly should you eat to be lean (part II)

In my last post I covered macros and why all three need to be included in your meal plan. This post will get more specific with calories and carb cycling.

There is again an on-going debate about which is more important: what you eat or how much you eat. There are some who argue that a calorie is a calorie. Your body can’t tell the difference between 100 calories of broccoli or the same amount of chocolate. It’s all considered energy, which is used or stored, accordingly.

The second camp claims that the body does use respond to different foods. Some say fats are burned while carbs are stored. Some think certain foods slow down your metabolism or for whatever reasons wreak havoc on your insides.

And again: I don’t have the scientific knowledge to say which side has more merit, but I can provide some practical advice.

On the calorie is a calorie point: one thing that is true is that you need a base amount of calories to get you through the day. If your stomach is growling, you can barely sleep, much less concentrate at work or get through your exercises. That said, an excess of calories will be stored as fat. So you need to choose foods that provide value for the calories.

A chicken breast may be higher in calories that broccoli but it will keep you full and provide energy for hours. Broccoli may not taste as good as chocolate, but if you fill half your plate with broccoli you won’t go to bed hungry.

No matter what you eat, weight loss will come down to one simple equation: did you use more fuel than you added today? The only way to lose fat is to gradually reduce the amount of calories you ingest, by about 100 calories or so less than you would need to maintain your weight. Cut by too much and you’ll lose muscle mass and be just miserable in general. Don’t cut enough and you won’t see any changes at all.

The assertion that is doesn’t matter how much you eat it’s what you eat, really doesn’t hold up in facts. Despite the Paleo fad, using bacon as a pizza crust will NOT help you get lean. Cavemen certainly did not do this, and you’re probably not running around hunting saber tooth tigers all day to burn off that fat.

The one part of this theory that has merit comes down to timing. I always start my day with a protein and carb to refuel from sleep and get me through the morning. Mid-day snacks are typically lighter, with protein and some vegetables. Post-workout meals should always contain protein and carbs to help your muscles recover and grow.

Furthermore, your balance of calories and macros should coordinate with your workout schedule. Right now, I have high-carb meals on days when I’m doing bootcamp or leg day, medium-carb days when I’m doing upper body, and very low calorie and low carbs on my rest days.

This is a very effective weight loss strategy known as carb cycling. My friend and Registered Dietician Aly explains it thoroughly in her blog posts and I highly recommend taking the time to learn the science behind it.

My next post will give some examples of what I eat and typical meals for each day of my carb-cycling week.

What exactly should you eat to be lean? (Part I)

This is the number 1 question I’ve heard since I first started training for a fitness competition, early in 2016. It came up so often I felt a bit like my own pet iguana (what do you feed it, exactly?)

I still get asked this question a lot and have noticed there are many mis-conceptions about a competitor’s diet. (Yes, I do eat carbs!) So I thought I would write a few posts that go into more detail about my diet, and for anyone looking to tighten up their shape, I hope this will be helpful.

A few years ago I tried losing weight on my own in advance of my wedding. I opted for the super low-carb strategy that had worked for me years ago, but that time, the results were frustratingly low. I remember being so stressed about it I had a nightmare where there was tons of food in front of me and I was yelling at it. Yeah, that is not healthy behaviour!

Now I understand much more about how food works in relation to fueling and weight loss, but as you might have guessed, it’s a bit too complicated to sum up in one post. So, this will be an overview and I will go into more details later on.

Macro-nutrients: The real food groups

We’re taught in school that there are four food groups: Grains, vegetables, meats (and alternatives) and dairy. This sounds simple but it’s a very bizarre way to group foods. You probably know someone who gives up an entire food group and gets along just fine, so how can this be?

We should really be look at foods in macro-nutrients. These are the food groups you really need; whether you’re trying to lose weight, build muscle or maintain, you have to have these in the right balance. They are:

Carbs

Carbs are present almost everywhere. If someone says they don’t eat carbs, than they literally would only eat grass fed meat and probably buy toilet paper once a year. In other words, it’s not possible (or at least very healthy). Carbs are highest in starchy foods like potatos, but are also found in vegetables, dairy and some meat.

Protein

This is another macro that is present in most foods but in different ratios. Animal sources such as meat, fish, eggs, all have high protein ratios. Vegetarian protein sources such as beans, nuts and seeds usually contain higher amounts of either carbs or fats. People focusing on weight loss often try to eat as much protein as possible, but it’s still important to make sure you’re eating the right amount to meet your goals. (I.e. it still has calories so too much will be stored.)

Fat

Yes we all know now that you need fat to lose weight, but I feel like this message has been exaggerated somewhat by fans of the Ketogenic and Paleo diets. Fat should still be the smallest portion of your macros because of its calorie density.

Speaking of diets and diet fads, so many popular trends will completely eliminate or over-exaggerate the benefits of certain macro-nutrients. This should be a red-flag that you are dealing with a quack. A healthy diet should include all three groups, but the controversy usually comes up when you talk about exact foods or ratios. If you spend five minutes on Google you will find “experts” with strong opinions on eating vastly different diets. So who’s right?

Obviously I’m not qualified to say, but I will leave you with two points: listen to your body, and if that doesn’t work, see a dietician. Your lifestyle and/or body type may impact how well a certain diet works for you, but the knowlege of a dietitian can give you important guidance as well; particularly if you have any allergies or conditions that impact how you digest food.

My next post will discuss the gold standard of the bodybuilder’s diet: carb cycling.

PS: I don’t actually have a pet iguana, but my cat Beansy’s former owner did. Its name was Jezibel and they got along great. I assume it ate bugs.

Street meat that I can eat

One of the biggest challenges of a competition prep is trying to find food on the go. Even seemingly innocuous choices can wreak your diet plan thanks to added sauces and cooking methods that add way too much sugar, salt and fat. To complicate matters, keeping an eye on your macros is essential, so even if you can spare the calories, you can’t log what you didn’t measure yourself. That said, there are a few options to keep you from staying home throughout your entire prep or dealing with hunger when you’re out.

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A rare indulgence in street meat!

I was super lucky today. While at Kensington Market getting my groceries, stores were having sidewalk barbeques as part of the Pedestrian Sunday festivities. My favourite fish store was grilling shrimp, lobster tails and calamari outside and it all smelled amazing. I was on my way home from the gym and hungry as always, so I decided to brave the line up.

First, I asked the fellah barbequing if he would make me something un-sauced, which he was happy to do. I went for the calamari since there is absolutely nothing better than fresh calamari off the grill. A second staff member was slathering each plate with a seasoned olive oil before serving the portions to customers. While that was tempting, and technically olive oil is ok for me, I chose to go without since it would be hard to know exactly how much oil was added. Olive oil is very healthy but ridiculously high in calories so I always make sure to measure it carefully. I did indulge in a little lime juice and hot sauce (I was fortunately able to read the ingredients first) and the result was delicious. Maybe it would have been better with the grilling sauce and oil, but I’ll never know!

My usual plan for eating on the go is to pack my own food. This can be challenging, but its doable. I’ve been known to carry a small cooler in my purse with seasoned meatballs and veggies that don’t taste too bad cold. I do feel like a dick sitting in a cafe subtly trying to hide the fact that I’m eating out of my purse while my husband eats like a normal person. I haven’t been chased out of a dining establishment yet.

My emergency go-to food is normally a Quest bar. Luckily they’re getting easier to find, although at $4 a pop (roughly) it’s not something I’d want to rely on too often. They are only about 200 calories and high in protein, but still not what I could consider a “clean” food so I try not to fall back on this too often. Ideally, I like to eat right before I leave the house and pack something clean, but that doesn’t always happen.

Another good takeout choice is the chicken salad from Aroma. I skip the carrots and just enjoy the grilled chicken, lettuce and onions. I’ve grown accustomed to eating salad without dressing and this is a pretty filling and healthy meal.

If you do have to eat in a restaurant, your best bet it to keep things as simple as possible, i.e., meat, vegetable, starch, no sauce. Make sure you ask the server to cook everything “dry” so there aren’t any unseen surprises. Sadly, if something tastes too good, you should be suspicious. Portion sizes are an other issue with eating in restaurants. If you’ve been measuring and weighing your food diligently, you should be able to eyeball the right portion size but it can be hard to stop eating when there is food on your plate.

Ultimately, if you’re prepping for a competition or just trying to lose a few pounds, plan to stay home for your meals as often as possible. It’s only temporary and won’t wreck your social life. The bonus is: whether you’re going on stage or just getting healthy, the fit life is very expensive so bowing out of the restaurant scene for a few weeks will be a welcome relief for your bank account.

Pumpkin Puke Smoothy

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Yes it’s officially fall so time to jump on the all-things-pumpkin wagon. Oddly enough, I had a really hard time finding canned pumpkin that wasn’t pie filling, e.g. full of sugar. Read the labels people!

If I may rant for a minute: if there’s one thing that drives me nuts is the added sugar in absolutely everything, when there is no need for it. Like almond milk: come on! If you want something sweeter it’s not difficult to add it yourself, and the amount you want, but you can’t take it out!

Bottom line, when ever you buy anything, from sauces to canned vegetables, always check the labels for additives. You would be surprised how fast little things can add up.

Now, back to the smoothy: yes it looks disgusting, as most of my smoothies do. That’s because I almost always add spinach. There is literally no reason not too as it has zero taste but adds to your daily vegetable requirements and helps keep you full with very little calories. The trick is to not look at it too long or pretend that you enjoy drinking frothy swamp water.

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This actually tastes pretty good and is a change from my usual sweet smoothies. It’s a spicy, savory blend that is a bit like pie but also like a liquefied meal. Again, ew, but still good. It’s makes a great after workout shake thanks to the added carbs from the pumpkin, but it’s also low-calorie enough to work as a between meals snack.

Ingredients

  • 1 tbsp pumpkin (make sure it is ONLY pumpkin in there!)
  • .5 cup of spinach (or as much as you can cram in your blender. You’ll thank me later!)
  • I scoop of protein powder
  • Half a table spoon of cinnamon
  • 1 tsp each of ground ginger, cloves, allspice
  • Sweetener to taste

Add ice and top up blender with either unsweetened almond milk or water

Directions: Close your eyes and enjoy or watch your husband be grossed out as he watches you drink it. The latter is more entertaining.

Hellooooo high-carb day! (aka low fat day)

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Yep…today is the day I enjoy a whole lotta extra carbs. And I’ve been relying too much on sweet potatos lately so I’m looking forward to enjoying the wild and brown rice in this dish. On higher carb days the fat allowance goes way down, so I tend to stick with lower-fat proteins like chicken, fish and shrimp. This recipe goes well with all the above, and beef too. If it’s a low carb, higher fat day I’ll omit the rice and have a side of asparagus.

Ingredients:

  • .5 cups of wild and brown rice mix
  • 6 ounces of cooked shrimp
  • 1 cup of chopped vegetables of your choice. (I go with whatever’s on hand. Today it’s zuccini and green onions)
  • 1 tbsp of garlic chili sauce. Look for one with no sugar added.
  • 1 clove of garlic, chopped
  • 1 tsp of ginger powder
  • 1 tbsp cider vinegar
  • 1 packet of stevia

Cook rice according to directions.

Heat all other ingredients together in a sauce pan for about 5 minutes. Layer on top of rice in a bowl. If you’re not prepping for a competition and are feeling really frisky, go ahead and all some low-sodium soy sauce to this bad boy!

Eat once, measure twice

I’ve just passed week two of my competition prep and so far so good. But not perfect. The workouts are definitely going well. At this point they are relatively short: about 45 minutes in the gym. Every workout ends with 100 lunges, with 10 extra added on this week. The bikini contest is all about the glutes so my coach may have noticed I’m lacking in this area. When I first started losing weight, my butt looked a bit like an Easter Egg, very wide and oval shaped. When I started prepping for my first show it completely flattened out. I was not unhappy about this at all but Ana reminded me this is a problem. So now every single workout ends with lunges. It’s actually the best part of the workout because it’s without weights so I take it outside and lunch along the lake shore, which is a nice way to finish the workout.

The part I really need to work on is my diet. Not that I’ve strayed from my allowed foods but I have slacked a bit on logging. It’s not just enough to eat the right things, my macros need to be dead on and the only way to make sure they are is by tracking in a fitness app like My Fitness Pal or Build My Body Beautiful’s fitness app. This morning I made a recipe I found online that I thought I could easily adapt to fit in with my food list. (I’ll post the full recipe below.) The original dish is a layered casserole with sausage, vegetables, cheese and an egg. My adaptation was sweet potato, mushroom, green onion, ground beef and egg. I didn’t add any extra fat and measured my portions. It all seemed so innocent, but when I recorded it in my tracking app…whoops! Ended up being waaay to many calories and far too much fat for one meal.

Lesson learned: log your food, THEN eat it. Ideally, logging your whole day’s food in advance would make sure you are dead on, but that’s not always so easy since you can’t always plan every little thing ahead of time. What I’m going to try to do in the future is log half way through the day, and if the macros look off I have the rest of the day to make up for it. Repeating meals makes this a lot easier since you can check in advance and also saves the time of logging every little ingredient.

Sound incredibly dull and repetitive? Yup. But that goes with the territory of competing. You have to look at food as fuel rather than a source of enjoyment. I would not recommend living your life like this (how effn’ dreary amiright?). However, to lose weight it helps to shift this perspective for a limited amount of time.

If you read weight loss advice, you often hear about the benefits of keeping a food journal to keep you accountable. This can help but it’s much better to use a program that records your calories and macros, so if you’re not seeing results, you can go back and see exactly what the problem is. The is especially important when you’re carb cycling since your day-to-day macros need to be varied.

So since my breakfast indulgence, I’ll need to be extremely careful for the rest of the day to make sure I stay within my macro ranges. I think for the rest of the week I’ll stick to white fish and chicken for my meats as well.

I’ve also added creatine to my supplements, which will partially explain why the scale has not budged this week. Creatine helps build muscle but also can cause weight retention when you first start taking it. My husband went on it a few weeks ago and gained five pounds right away, but that dropped about a week after starting. For me I just haven’t lost anything so I’m expecting to see some movement on the scale when my body gets used to the supplement.

Speaking of husband, this week I’m preppin’ solo because Andy’s gone to Scotland for two weeks to visit his parents. Training can be a difficult and lonely sport at the best of times, so it’s that much harder when you come home to an empty condo. He’s also my chief photographer so I don’t have any progress photos to show at the moment. I’m very bad at selfies! I tried yesterday but no matter what angle I took I kept seeing a messy background. Once he gets back I will definitely start adding some photos. The best part about prepping is seeing the changes in your body. It’s really exciting to see how fast you can transform! Progress photos also remind me of the saying “what you eat in private you wear in public.” You can pretend you didn’t eat a 600 calorie breakfast but the photo of a bloated stomach will tell the truth.

My food today:

  1. Breakfast casserole (recipe below) (P+FC+SC)
  2. Proteine shake with 1.5 cup of blueberries (P+SC)
  3. Chicken and steamed broccoli (P+FC)
  4. chicken with chopped salad and mayo
  5. Shrimp with cabbage, mushroom, green onion
  6. 1 cup Cottage cheese, tablespoon almond butter, bell pepper

Improved version of breakfast casserole

  • 2.5 ounce of baked sweet potato cubes
  • 2.5 ounces of cooked ground chicken or turkey, seasoned with chilli powder and cayenne pepper
  • Half a cup of king oyster mushrooms
  • One green onion
  • One egg

Layer potatos, vegetables and chicken or turkey in an oven-proof dish, crack egg on top. Back at 450 for 10 minutes. This would be also nice topped with cilantro or watercress, and/or some Frank’s Red Hot sauce.

Workout:

Shoulders, back, biceps, triceps, lunges

Now where did I put my stripper shoes?

This is not a question I thought I would ever ask myself, but yes, those clear high heels fitness competitors wear are in fact bone fide “dancing” shoes. Mine came from seduction on Yonge Street. Actually, I didn’t think I would ever wear them twice, so they were soon relegated to a forgotten corner of my storage locker. I only intended to do one fitness competition. Just to see if I could do it. Plus the glamour of it all was alluring.

It was less than a year ago I had the conversation about competing with my coach Ana. I had just completed her eight-week weight loss program through Build My Body Beautiful and was buoyed by my accomplishment. I had been struggling with my weight for most of my adult life and finally felt like this goal was more than a pipe dream.

Posing like a champ after my first show on May 14, 2016. Cheesy perhaps, but everyone does it I swear!

Ana gave me an honest low-down of what prepping for a bikini competition was like. I was looking at at least four months of grueling workouts, five to six times a week. A strict diet that nixed wheat, sugar, dairy. And wine. That one was the hardest to accept. She asked me if I thought I could do it and I replied, there’s only one way to find out. I really didn’t know if I could, but unless you commit to a goal, you never really know what you can do. I was 38 and a half-year-old so I figured it was now or never.

I only planned to step on stage once. I didn’t even care if I placed, I just wanted to look like one of those impossibly lean, sculpted and confident fitness competitors, decked out in glittering costume jewelry and crystal encrusted bikinis. I was a bit embarrassed about how much I wanted to wear the get up.

Long story short: I did it and I won first place in the masters bikini division. So, mission accomplished right? Well, after months of dreaming about the food I couldn’t have and the relaxing weekends I had to forgo, I started to miss the discipline of a strict training regime. I also started to think that maybe working in fitness was my calling. Not to mention, I missed how my abs looked. So no sooner had I put my stripper shoes somewhere in my storage locker I decided I would do it again. And soon.

Partly the reason was financial: competing is expensive, but being able to wear the same posing suit, and shoes, and using my Ontario Physique Association membership, which is required to enter, I would be saving almost $1000. Not to mention the unused supplements in my pantry (no one’s ever died from expired fish oil, amiright?).

Last time I competed I didn’t tell many people. At first it was simply because I wasn’t sure I would go through with it and didn’t want to look like a flake. Secondly, I was looking forward to the day I could post a bikini-clad picture of myself to Facebook and have maximum impact. This time is quite the opposite. I was surprised how interested people were in the whole competing thing. I have never had so many people ask me about my diet, my exercise routines and whether or not I drank wine (sorry ladies I did not!).

So this time I’m going to blog every step of the way. I hope this blog will be useful to anyone who is either thinking of competing, maybe not in fitness but anything that takes a lot of discipline, or for anyone who just wants to make a change in their life. There may be a few who just want to witness me suffering and that’s ok too!

As of September 5 my stats so far are: 142 pounds. 14.5% body fat. Twelve weeks to go (my show is on November 26 by the way).

My trainer this time around is Ivan, Ana’s partner, so it will be interesting to see a different perspective on the preparation. They have also just developed a new training app, through which he will be delivering the program. After completing the first week of super low carb meals, I’m now on a pretty standard carb-cycling plan, along with two days a week of bootcamp, three days of weights and two days of rest. So far pretty do-able but I know it will get tougher as we get closer to the big day. Twelve weeks is actually pretty short window for a competition so the intensity will increase pretty quickly.

I will be posting lots of progress photos, meals and workouts so follow along if you dare! If you have any questions at all about the process please drop me a line. I’d love to hear your questions, thoughts and comments!