What I Eat

By: Ben Zawacki May 6

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Not long ago, this fair website published an article about the benefits of a vegan diet in relation to cycling and athletics in general. I’m not interested in discussing the ethics of meat eating here, but I would like to talk about what I eat and why. My diet, at least when I’m being healthy, is a pseudo-paleo, semi low-carb cycling, meat-heavy mix with days of indulgence and sometimes regret. I’ll go into those details later, particularly how sometimes the indulgence is preplanned and welcomed while other times it ends with me sitting in a pile of candy wrappers with tears rolling down my cheeks. This is not a scientific article, but I’m a bit obsessive and a science nerd, so the basis will be backed by my interpretation of the science of diet. I encourage everyone to read about any diet they wish to employ and take a critical look at why it is supposed to work, including everything I’m about to list.

And as a preface to the real content, I’d like to get one point out of the way, I don’t count calories. The importance of calories in diet has been blown way out of proportion. First, I encourage everyone to go look at the definition of a calorie and ponder what they learn. I’ll make it easy, a calorie measures the amount of energy required to raise one gram of water one degree Celsius. When talking about food we are referring to a kilocalorie, so the energy to raise a kilogram of water one degree Celsius.

Now it’s time to ask ourselves how those fancy scientists figure out how many calories our milkshake has. They light it on fire, scientifically of course. Using a bomb calorimeter, they burn the food and observe the change in water temperature.

And now it’s time to ask ourselves, do we really have that fire in our belly? Maybe in the metaphorical sense, but not really, your body does not truly burn food, you metabolize it. The way your body responds to one calorie of one food is not guaranteed to be the same as it responds to one calorie of a different type of food. I’ll leave it at that.

My diet has three simple periods; lose, maintain and gain. This of course refers to my weight and my goals. I like to try to lose weight in my true off-season, when I’m not physically working very hard. Sadly, this is now, the holiday season, when no one wants to thinking about dieting. It’s not ideal for psyche, but nothing is perfect. Maintain is ideally when I’m training the hardest which is the bulk of my base period and then all of the race season. Gain is of course never really a goal, but there are times when I don’t really care. Gain is sadly the shortest period but happily the easiest.

We’ll start with losing weight. This is the state I currently find myself in and also what mostly closely resembles the paleolithic diet. During this period, I look at sugar as the devil. All carbs are broken down into sugars when we digest them, so whole grain pasta and other healthy carbs are not considered an exception. The more refined the carb, the worse it is, so I try to keep the bulk of my diet as no-carb as possible, the “good” carbs minimal and the “bad” carbs as absent. If you need help on good versus bad, if the food is closer to brown rice, it’s good, if it’s closer to a peep, it’s bad.

The above tells you the essence of this phase. I try to stick to vegetables, meats, fish, nuts and similar options. These coincidentally happen to be foods that were available to our cavemen friends of the past. And drink lots of water, it’s good for you and more beneficial than we sometimes remember. Another side tip, remember what being hungry feels like, and feel that way sometimes. We all seem to forget the difference between “not full” and “hungry” sometimes. And a final side note, eating fat doesn’t add fat straight to your waistline. The higher fat nature of my overall scheme is not accidental and should not be feared.

The “lose” phase has a lot in common with the Low Glycemic Index diet as well and I try to stick as low on index as possible. I try to use these two diets as supplements to each other.

There are plenty of resources that will list out low and high GI foods, “good” carbs, paleo acceptable foods and so on. If you’re interested, those resources will be more helpful in finding which foods from each phase you like than me telling you what I eat on a day-to-day basis. I base my choices around principle of the type of food I’m consuming, which allows variety and makes life simple. The next phase is when we start to allow the index to creep up, so on we go!

As training begins, higher GI foods and drinks start to appear in the diet. It’s not a sudden shift, the transfer into the maintain phase morphs as my training increases. This is where I begin the “carb-cycling” portion of the diet as well. Simply put, you eat more carbs on certain days and less on others. As always, I try to stick to healthy carbs as much as possible, indulgence can be as simple as a big hearty piece of bread. Of course, sometimes I end up in that pile of candy wrappers blubbering about how it was justified because sometimes we need carbs. No one is perfect.

I can’t go into too much detail about every technique, but the general idea behind cycling is that you “stoke the fire” on the higher carb days, therefore keeping the metabolism high, and then on the lower carb days you switch from using glucose and go back to fat burning. Body builders use this to cut body fat before a competition while avoiding a prolonged catabolic stage. This technique is also thought to help avoid weight loss plateaus, when the body adapts to the low GI diet and slows the metabolism. I’ve heard the body does this because cavemen were more concerned with staying alive than being super cut. Not sure.

I use this strategy to ensure that my riding can stay at optimum levels, so my carb-cycling closely follows my training and racing. It’s worth noting that the body prefers to burn carbs as an energy source as opposed to fat. That doesn’t mean that you can’t train on a low carb diet, but the harder the workout, the more likely you are to be successful with more energy sources. I would also be willing to bet that the low-carb workouts go up to a higher intensity level threshold than most people think. The problem people experience when trying limit carbs is that they are also inadvertently limiting the calories, or total energy, available. I said I don’t like that metric, but this is where it can be useful. If you find that a moderate workout is too hard without carbs, you probably aren’t eating enough of the low-carb food. This is where portion size becomes important.

Without going into a day-by-day breakdown, the more strenuous a day is the more carbs I’ll have consumed before the ride. If it’s really hard ride, I’ll have increased my carb intake the day before. If it’s a fairly hard ride, I’ll increase carbs that morning. If it’s not that hard, I’ll only eat carbs just before and during the ride. If it’s a recovery day, I’ll have very few carbs.

I think this also is a much better employment of the carb-loading that endurance athletes seem to love. If you’re eating a sizeable portion of carbs every day, packing in 500 extra grams the day before a race isn’t going to do much but tell your body to make some fat. There needs to be depletion to load.

And finally, the best phase of them all, gain. In this phase, I eat what I crave. Sometimes that’s a frozen pizza, beer and jar of Speculoos. Don’t judge me, it’s a long season.

*Bacon photo courtesy of Dana Prey.



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