“People ask me what my secret is, and I say, ‘Um, salami and chardonnay?’”
My sister-in-law, Dr. Jillian Teta, owner of Fix Your Digestion and I are sitting outside at our favorite brunch spot in town drinking Bloody Marys, and ironically, discussing how far we’ve come nutritionally. See, both of us competed in figure competitions, posed for magazines and were “hard core” with our eating and training for many years–rarely thinking anything except the next Tupperware’d protein + veggie meal we needed to eat. We often joke that we were, at that time, either buying food, cooking food or eating food. Truly the life of a competitor.
As Jillian and I were reminiscing, we both decided that, in hindsight, that life was exhausting.
Not that it wasn’t rewarding on many levels and absolutely incredible to see yourself in that kind of shape. It’s an unreal feeling, walking on stage knowing you’ve done something that very few people can actually follow through on. It boosts your confidence and makes you feel like you can do anything.
But, the thing about competing that is not often talked about is this … IT HAS TO BE YOUR LIFE. Prepping food, cooking food, Tupperware, scheduling meals the night/weekend before, bringing your food everywhere with you, bowing out on social events, getting up early to train, maybe hitting the gym for a second time that evening, supplements, where’s my gallon water jug and holy shit, are my abs coming in?? And this is the way it’s supposed to be. People don’t win physique shows by chance, they win because they live it, they work their asses off and automate everything else in their lives. Their focus is the show, the physique. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Except if you’re 99.9% of the population that just doesn’t want to think, sleep, breathe, worry about food and exercise 24/7. Because ultimately, for most people, the bottom line is quality of life, sustainability and where you want to focus your attention.
In 2010, I came to the realization that I didn’t want to live that life anymore. I wanted to focus on my business and instead of automating my life, I wanted to learn to automate my physique, so I could have the MENTAL SPACE AND PHYSICAL TIME to dedicate to things other than my body.
Fast forward three years and I hardly think about food. And the reason I’ve been able to make that transition and stay fairly lean (not “show shape” but certainty not nearly as bloated as I sometimes would get between shows) is precisely because I allow myself some strategic indulgences.
And back to brunch with Jillian…
We’re discussing how we manage to stay satisfied, while also not blowing up. And though we laugh about loving pepperonis, Dubliner cheese and red wine, it’s not the actual wine and meat that helps us stay lean (obviously). But it’s the idea that because we don’t ever feel deprived, we never feel the need to OVERindulge. When I was competing, I was either on a strict competition plan OR eating every sweet, treat and cheat in sight. Now I hardly ever need, want or crave epic, balls-out cheats. The way my weekly schedule is set up now, it’s honestly effortless and I could eat this way forever. Do people get super lean off this? No. But they maintain and stay sane. Which, at this stage in my life, is the ultimate success.
Here are the ways I recommend to indulge strategically, so that you can maintain your weight while also maintaining your quality of life:
1) Pinpoint your nonnegotiables and then adjust the rest of your day accordingly.
I like wine. And I drink 1-2 glasses most nights. But I also never eat bread nor sweets. And because I’ve been practicing this for so long, it’s effortless. For now, I’ve decided that enjoying a glass of wine is a quality of life issue for me and because I want to incorporate it into my eating, I need to drop other concessions, like sweets, most starches and even monitor portions more closely. Besides, you can’t have your cake and lose fat too. We have to pick and choose our “nutritional gimmes” and then make up the difference elsewhere. I don’t count cals or macros, but I’m aware that when I want to have a couple glasses of wine at dinner, I’m not getting starch or dessert or hitting the bread basket. Period. And I might even adjust food portions earlier in the day if need be.
2) RELAX into your eating.
Allow me to explain. You will not die of starvation if you don’t eat every 3 hours and you will not be losing muscle by the second if you don’t eat immediately post workout. Looking back, I realize that the period of time I was most obsessive about food was also when obsessed with “the rules.” I needed to get 6 servings of veggies or else I was going to get unhealthy and sick. I needed to eat protein at every meal or I would lose muscle. I needed to eat every 3 hours or I would end up ravenous and at the McDonalds drive-thru. I needed to drink a gal of water a day or else I would shrivel up and die Are these things “ideal?” Certainly! But doing every one of them perfectly day in and day out becomes mentally exhausting for most people. Hence, relaxing into the process and considering ditching the rules and listening to your body instead.
I know, I know: “But Jill, that’s scary! What if I end up eating everything in sight??” I get that. But this is where the self-TRUST comes in. Taking a chance on a different way and relaxing into the idea that whatever happens, you can figure it out (and you can!), but you have to actually take that trust leap and see what happens. The first time I did this, it was a few years ago when I was sick of prepping food and disgusted by the old steamed veggies and plain proteins. I decided, screw it, not prepping this week … I’ll just have to figure it out. And the idea of not being prepared was TERRIFYING. But what do you know? I didn’t blow up like a whale and I was able to maintain my weight and do just fine. I haven’t looked back since.
3) Practice “willpower challenges.”
Jade introduced me to this concept, via Kelly McGonigal, author of ‘The Willpower Instinct’ (highly recommend!). The basic tenet is that you need to train your willpower, just like a muscle and the more you practice being around indulgences without having to devour them, the stronger you get in your ability to resist. A Willpower Challenge is this: order a dessert or treat you want. And instead of blindly scarfing the whole thing, in that moment, harness mindfulness and have 3 bites of it only, and then stop.
Sounds impossible, right? I thought so too. But true to its name, the “challenge” aspect serves to prep you to get better at this. You try, try and try some more until it becomes an effortless HABIT that you’ve developed through practice. Practice makes progress, but you have to start somewhere.
4) Use Neghar’s First Bite Rule.
My girl Neghar Fonooni of Eat, Life and Be Happy uses what she calls The First Bite Rule (read the whole post here), and essentially she says, when you have a treat or a cheat, make sure every bite is just as amazing as the very FIRST bite. Because usually once we get 5 bites in, we’re barely tasting it anyway. So stay mindful, and when you get to that spot where you’re not really paying attention, it’s an indication that you’re done with that dessert. Like everything, this is a practice. But the more you do it, the easier it’ll get to simply take a few amazing bites and be done with it.
5) Ritualize, don’t habitualize.
Love this tool Jillian came up with. And this has everything to do with mindfulness. Usually we don’t get upset if a cheat is planned, right? Conversely, the thing that irks us the most is when we end up indulging in things we didn’t plan on. Like, “Crap, it’s someone’s birthday at the office and I wasn’t mentally prepared to turn down cake, so I ate it and now feel like I messed everything up.”
So this strategy speaks to consciousness around indulgences. Habits are things we do automatically and regularly, like walking by someone’s desk and swiping candy from the jar without thinking. Or coming home and snacking on cheese and crackers while preparing dinner because our willpower’s too drained to resist. If you want to be able to control your waistline while feeling satisfied, cheats really cannot fall into the HABIT role.
Instead, ritualize them. Rituals are big deals. They’re planned, prepared in advance and non-negotiable. As your indulgences should be, too. Don’t have anything you don’t absolutely frigging love. Make sure you don’t compromise on what you want. Have EXACTLY what you want and plan how it’s going to be: Saturday night at 7pm at your favorite restaurant with your #1 dessert on earth. Ritualize your indulgences, don’t habitualize them.
6) Understand the difference between an indulgence and a preemptive cheat.
I got a text from a client a couple years ago that just said this, “OMGGGGGG I just polished off an entire bag of almonds!!! I’m out of control! HELP!”
So, my question to you: Are almonds a cheat? I don’t think they are. Can they play a role in fat loss resistance if they are overdone day after day after day? Sure. But to freak out over having too many almonds or a few extra pieces of bacon or a couple squares of dark chocolate–or even fruit–is excessive. These are what I consider preemptive cheats. They don’t especially help us lose weight, but they don’t add pounds either. They serve to satisfy us enough to keep us from reaching for the really bad stuff later. Like, the actual cheats–cupcakes, cookies, ice cream, chips, pastries, etc.
If you waste all your freak-outs on your preemptive cheats, you’ll have none left for when you actually need them–for real cheats! Ha!
So this is relative right? Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Understand that some “nutritional gimmes” are necessary in order to stay the course and resist the really bad stuff. If you’re hungry, but are stressed about having a banana because “it’s too high GI” or “it’s too late at night,” honestly, have the banana. Why? Because it’s a small concession to help you stay the course.
Preemptive cheats. Use them.
The idea that you’ll never eat sugar again is absurd. Buuuut, if you take the time to strategize and stay mindful of your cheats and treats, then indulging can keep you sane and keep you slim. It’s when we deprive and then subsequently binge that we get into trouble. The best way to avoid bingeing is to not allow yourself to feel deprived in the first place. So throw yourself a bone. Indulge intelligently and then move on. Keeping your nutrition 90% clean 100% of the time will allow you to maintain your weight, and more importantly, it’ll feel effortless.