We all want to eat healthy, obviously, but for different people, that can mean a wide variety of things. For some, healthy implies a raw vegan diet. For others, Paleo might seem like the perfect solution. Most diets—vegan, gluten-free, etc.—can be tailored to suit your needs as an individual, especially as an active individual, but all too often, we end up in a weird cycle of following meal plans and trends that aren’t made for us. If you’ve been doing the diet-and-exercise thing, but rather than speeding up, you’re actually feeling crappier and crappier, it might be time to reconsider your diet. That doesn’t mean shifting away from an option that aligns with your ethics or your allergies, it just means tweaking your preferences to make you stronger, healthier, and possibly even faster.
Let’s talk about the frequent offenders of unhealthy-healthy-eating habits.
The potential problem: With so many tasty gluten-free treats available on the market now, it’s easy to overindulge in junky, ultra-processed snacks while convincing ourselves that because it’s GF, it’s healthy. But often, a GF baked good, like a cupcake, is packed with preservatives, sugar, and made-in-a-lab flour substitutes.
The quick fix: Unless you’ve been diagnosed with celiac or a gluten-intolerance, you’re likely better off eating quality baked goods that are made from scratch with recognizable ingredients. A fresh sourdough loaf from the oven that you made beats a box of GF crackers from the shelf at the store any day. Still, want to stay away from gluten? Just skip the substitutes, and instead opt for rice, corn tortillas, sweet potatoes, and other sources of carbohydrates instead.
The potential problem: Not enough available energy for workout fuel can lead to pretty fatigued-feeling workouts, even if you’re eating enough calories. This is especially true for high-intensity workouts like CrossFit or spinning, where our bodies are relying primarily on burning carbs for fast fuel. Now, some athletes actually do swear by a low-carb diet, but often, it’s a better diet for men. Women need more carbs for things like hormone regulation, and if we go too low, it can be disastrous for our workouts, our metabolism, and our mood. So if you’ve been dropping your carb intake but feel like crap during power yoga, it might be time to reassess.
The quick fix: You can stay low-carb, but add back in some high-quality carbs to your diet around your workouts. That might mean having a sweet potato an hour before your spin class or even adding sugar-based carbs in your sports drink or in a gel form during your workout. "Low-carb" can also vary wildly: Some low-carb diets actually still involve 100 to 150 grams of carbs in a day, and that’s what’s recommended for people working out hard. (Use a food diary app like MyFitnessPal to track a few days to get a sense of how many carbs are in different foods if you’re having trouble figuring out what a normal day should look like.)
VEGAN/ RAW VEGAN
The potential problem: Not enough protein for recovery and muscle growth. Some vegans are super on top of their protein intake, but it’s a daily struggle for even those paying close attention. Additionally, a lot of vegans struggle to take in enough iron and vitamin B12. However, those aren’t vitamins and minerals you want to start taking without consulting a health professional and getting your levels checked because, in those cases, you can have too much of a good thing.
The quick fix: If you’re working out regularly, 20 grams of protein per meal is a good place to start, and for vegans, that may mean supplementing with a pea, hemp, or soy protein. (Some raw options are available.) There are also plenty of unconventional protein sources—there’s protein in broccoli, for example—so investigate. For non-raw vegans, legumes are an easy source of protein, and for all vegans, raw almonds and other nuts can make up fat and protein deficits. And check with your doctor and ask for a blood panel to look at markers like iron and B12 levels to see if you should start supplementing.
The potential problem: Eating an ancestral diet is fine, but it can quickly get a little too meat-heavy, especially if you’re counting bacon as paleo-friendly. And like a GF diet, there are now so many "paleo-friendly" snacks on the shelves that might seem healthy at a glance but are just as packed with sugar as their more processed versions. (A great example is paleo ketchup, sweetened with raisins instead of sugar. Sure, it’s fruit, but it’s still a serious dose of fructose.)
The quick fix: Similar to the fix for GF diet issues that are leading to weight gain or bonks during your workouts, the solution is simple. Skip the processed “fun” Paleo snacks and treats in favor of real foods like salmon, sweet potatoes, and spinach. You’re better off eating whole foods 90 percent of the time and splurging on real cupcakes, not the overpriced “Paleo cupcakes” the other 10 percent of the time. A real cavewoman wouldn’t judge you for that.
The potential problem: You might want to drop a few pounds, but if you’re combining a low-calorie diet with a lot of working out, you’re getting into eating disorder territory at worst, and messing with your metabolism at best. This is how most people aiming to lose weight or tone up start plateauing. Weird, but true: If you’re not fueling your workout, your body isn’t going to be able to make those changes, recover right, or build muscle. It goes into starvation mode and hangs onto all the fat that it can.
The quick fix: Figure out what you’re burning, and what you’re eating. The maximum caloric deficit you should be hitting is 500 calories per day, factoring in what you need to take in to stay alive, plus what you need to fuel your workouts. Use a basal metabolic rate calculator to figure out what you’re burning to stay alive, and add to that how much you’re burning in your workout (use your Fitbit or just do a quick search for a rough estimate of calories burned in a spin class/four miles of walking/whatever you’re doing). Next, figure out what your normal low-cal day looks like by using an app like MyFitnessPal to actually log your food. Are you waaaaaay too low? If so, add in more whole foods—that salmon and sweet potatoes again—to get up to healthy calorie intake to match your activity level. Don’t use this as an excuse to eat cookies to add calories, though!