During a post-climb pub trip with some of the guys from The Arch last week I found myself engaged in a conversation about the perennially interesting and almost invariably controversial topic of diet. It was fascinating to have an insight into the male perspective on diet and to hear their thoughts on body proportions and body image. Our conversation started me thinking about what really makes a good diet and how concerns about weight, health and nutrition are not just the preserve of women.
For climbing, weight and by extension diet, play an important role in performance. You are constantly holding, pushing or pulling your body weight as you move and, as such, you have to balance the proportional benefits of muscle mass and strength against overall weight. Once you are climbing at a high grade, every gram of excess fat can make a difference and therefore it is perhaps unsurprising how hyperaware each of my climbing friends were about what they ate and the impact it had on their performance.
From Atkins, to Paleo and from vegetarian to gluten free, it seemed that opinion varied over which diet was the most efficacious and the most healthy. What we all agreed on, however, was that losing weight does not always equate to a healthy diet and that diet needs to be sustainable and fuel activity and recovery.
This, I think, is the first principle of a healthy attitude towards diet: that it’s an ongoing, sustainable lifestyle choice, not a temporary fix to shed weight in an unsustainable, potentially unhealthy way.
Being a vegan my diet is something that plays an integral role in who I am. It reflects my ethics, my attitude towards my environment and concerns about sustainable production and animal exploitation, my respect for animals and an appreciation of where my food comes from and how it is farmed. Being interested in sport and nutrition, my diet also reflects my desire to fuel my body in the cleanest, healthiest possible way for me. While I respect other people’s decisions to eat animal products, I personally choose not to. I think this is the second tenet of a successful, healthy diet: finding what works for you.
While I know the leanest of beans who can easily put away a loaf of bread and a big plate of pasta, I know that refined carbs aren’t great for me and will lead to me gaining weight. They also hinder my performance, making me feel stodgy and sluggish. I know I can use vegetables to get all the carbohydrates I need to fuel my training and that if I need to boost my calorie intake I can take on foods high in good fats, such as avocados and nuts. I can get the proteins I need from plant products, and supplement my b vitamins (specifically b12 and b6) as I know I cannot get these from the foods I eat.
This necessity to get the full spectrum of nutrients and food groups in the correct proportions and from the most natural sources – fats from nuts, proteins from beans and pulses and carbohydrates from vegetables – is the third axiom in successful diet. As they say, variety is the spice of life and a diet without variety with not only lead to you missing out on vital nutrients, but will become monotonous and more likely to see you falling off the bandwagon as you crave what you’re missing out on.
I go through phases with my own diet and I know sometime I let my Brazil nut cravings get the better of me, or conversely, go through periods of forgetting to eat. I know in the past I have let concerns about body image and my knowledge that I do easily pick up weight outweigh a healthy attitude to food and have let my weight drop to a very low level, to the detriment of my health. While I will alway be aware of what I eat, I think now my awareness is with a regard to food as fuel, not only for exercise but also for general health and well-being.