Earning My Jock Card Part 2

Breaking old habits

Last month, I had the opportunity to interview Diana Nyad when she was in Austin for her SXSW movie premiere. Getting to speak one-on-one with my long-time sports hero was an amazing experience, but there was one thing from our conversation that stood out to me the most. When I asked her how she has mentally prepared herself for each of her attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida, she responded, “You’re never going to make it if you prepare yourself for not making it. So the only possibility is making it.”

Since kicking off my fitness and nutrition program two weeks ago in preparation for my race season, I have been reaffirming those words for myself—over and over.

My training program has required some sacrifices. I am now waking up at 5 a.m. on weekdays so I can swim with my Master’s team and work out with my trainer. That would be painful enough, but it also means I have to go to bed earlier—no more getting sucked into trashy late-night T.V., reading an exciting book before bedtime, or (the hardest part) working into the wee hours of the morning. I’ve also been squeezing my body into a rubber suit and plunging into freezing cold water at least twice a week (stay tuned for my next blog about cold-water swimming and the wonderful world of wetsuit fittings) to prepare myself for the conditions of the San Francisco Bay.

Lentil StewAs hard as adjusting to my training program has been, it has not compared in the slightest to the overhaul I’ve had to make with my eating habits. Things got real very quickly after committing to work with the Engine 2 team on my diet.

I immediately felt in good hands with my coaches Natala and Ami: Both have undergone amazing transformations after switching to a plant-based, whole foods diet. Ami is even the food coach for Cam F. Awesome, the plant-based boxer who recently won the USA Boxing Elite Men's Super Heavyweight National Championship, so she is familiar with the nutritional needs of athletes.

Natala and Ami sent me a rundown of the plan: no meat, dairy, oil, or processed foods but as much fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains as I wanted. After seeing my cholesterol number (211) and hearing about my family history (heart disease and early deaths run rampant), they strongly “suggested” that I up the ante by following a slightly modified version of Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn’s (father of Engine 2 author Rip Esselstyn) plan from Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease. The principles are the same as those in Engine 2, but this program also eliminates nuts (bye-bye, peanut butter) and other high-fat plant foods (nice knowing you, tofu). Natala and Ami further recommended that I limit my sugar to no more than 1 teaspoon of extracted sweetener a day (e.g., maple syrup, agave, etc.), and that I eat grains whole rather than in processed form (sprouted whole grain bread/tortillas in moderation). Finally, they asked me to take pictures of my meals and send the log to them each night.

Black Eyed Peas with Kale and Spinach Strawberry SaladI will admit it: I had a temper tantrum on Day One. I didn’t want to do Dr. Esselstyn’s plan. I had an even bigger tantrum after I expressed this to AFM Editor in Chief Leah Fisher Nyfeler (aka my boss) and she told me I had to do whatever Natala and Ami said. After kicking and screaming about it in the corner for a while, I begrudgingly agreed, because deep down I knew that Natala and Ami were right.

Not eating meat or dairy is not a challenge for me—I’ve eaten mostly vegan/vegetarian for a couple of years now. Not cooking with oil is also no issue—I find that vegetable broth or wine (or even water) can be a fine substitute for oil in my cooking, and I’ve never liked putting oil on my salad (give me flavored balsamic any day!).

The struggle for me is eating out: You know, picking up a quick dinner on the way home, grabbing a treat at the store, walking up the street for a taco. Until I started Engine 2, I didn’t realize how hooked on eating out I was. And even with “healthy” choices, you never really know what’s in your food—anything from vast amounts of oil, to processed grains, to excess sugar.

One of the main tenets of the Engine 2 plan is to eliminate junk foods so you can clean your palate and begin to taste “real” food again. This is particularly important in the beginning. Last week, after I had a setback involving a veggie burrito, a chocolate chip cookie, and a diet soda (sigh), Ami and Natala reminded me that I could “do things the easy way or the hard way”—meaning I could continue to introduce food into my body that would perpetuate the cravings, or I could muscle through it and hold the knowledge that things would get easier as the junk left my system. They recommended I read The Pleasure Trap for guidance on my food cravings, which has been eye opening.

Brown Rice and Quinoa KitchariNeedless, to say, I’ve been cooking a lot more at home these days. I’ve also been trying to plan ahead. Getting too hungry is a huge trigger, so I’m trying to create the habit of carrying around extra food with me everywhere I go: slices of sprouted whole grain bread, carrot sticks, fruit. I’ve also eaten some pretty awesome meals (modified to be Engine 2 friendly, of course): Black-Eyed Peas with Kale, Brown Rice and Quinoa Kitchari, and Lentil Stew, to name just a few. All have been quick and easy, with plenty of leftovers—which helps when I’m tempted to make a quick stop on the way home.

I’m never hungry. One of the advantages of eating this way is the lower caloric density of your food, which means you are sated with fewer calories—i.e., you can eat a whole lot of good stuff and not gain weight. That said—no, this hasn’t been easy. There have been several days when I’ve wanted to run out for a popcorn tofu sandwich or stop by my favorite vegan bakery for a cupcake. This is what I remember at those times:

  1. I will have to tell Natala and Ami at the end of the day, which makes me want to lie.

  2. I do not want to lie to Natala and Ami.

  3. In few weeks I’m going to have to get my cholesterol checked again, and I want to see better results.

  4. I want to tackle my race season in the best possible shape, which means fueling my body properly.

  5. I can do things the easy way or the hard way—satisfy the craving in the short term and perpetuate the struggle, or distract myself, get through it, and know that it will get better every day.

So I am choosing to muscle through it. And when things get hard, I remind myself of Diana Nyad’s words: “The only possibility is making it.”

It is getting easier every day.


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