Q: I am a 27-year-old woman struggling to lean out. I do CrossFit five times a week and eat very clean. For example, in a typical day, I might have a banana for breakfast, a baby spinach salad with an apple and almond butter for lunch, a handful of nuts as a snack if I need it, and a 4-ounce chicken breast with half a sweet potato and steamed broccoli for dinner after my WOD. Please help.
A: Eating clean is great, so long as you are eating enough. This appears to be a typical case of under-fueling. Many of us, especially women, underestimate the amount of food our bodies need, and this becomes especially problematic for active women hellbent on leaning out.
The hormone leptin tells your body how much fat/energy it has stored at a given time. Therefore, in the evening after a day of eating adequate meals, leptin should be high and you should not be hungry. On the flip side, you should wake up feeling hungry, an indication that leptin is low. However, in people who skip meals and inadequately fuel, leptin can signal to the brain to slow down metabolism and conserve energy — a survival tactic. This is believed to explain the paradox observed in people who gain weight by eating too little. As with most things in life, the goal is to find an appropriate balance.
My recommendations are the following:
1. Force yourself to eat more than a banana for breakfast every day for two weeks and see how you feel. Beginning the day with sugar/carbohydrates in the absence of healthy fats and protein wakes up insulin and is not ideal. If time is the issue, whip up something well-balanced (e.g., eggs and spinach) the night before for a convenient grab-and-go on your way to work. Or combine the banana with a source of healthy fat like coconut milk and/or avocado. These healthy fats tend to mitigate sugar’s effects on insulin and will leave you feeling full longer.
2. If you’re not hungry for breakfast but habitually begin the day with coffee, change your routine. Coffee can suppress hunger, so hold off until after you’ve chowed down on some solid nutrition. If you’re really struggling to get a sufficient meal, try blending grass-fed butter/ghee and coconut oil/medium-chain triglyceride oil into your cup of Joe for added healthy fats.
3. Make protein the focus of your lunch to stay energized going into your workout. A salad is fine, but make sure you add some chicken or salmon to the mix. And don’t forget that healthy fat! Drizzle on some extra-virgin olive oil for increased nutrient absorption and longer-lasting satiety.
4. Limit the amount of sugar consumed earlier in the day. This should help you avoid hunger cravings and afternoon crashes and to better access your body’s fat stores during your workout. Fat and protein — like hard-boiled eggs, macadamia nuts and celery with guacamole — make good snacks. After your workout, indulge in healthy carbohydrates to aid recovery, feed your gut flora, curb stress and improve sleep. Sweet potatoes, bananas, squash and even white rice are all solid fuel choices. Don’t forget to get your protein fix, too. High-quality powdered beef, egg white and whey protein (for those who can tolerate dairy) supplements are quick, convenient and good for some athletes. Nevertheless, whole food (fish, grass-fed beef, bison, chicken, turkey) is always best and should still be a part of your recovery dinner meal.
5. Rest, rest and more rest. A body that doesn’t sleep well and rest adequately will not perform well or lean out. Aim for eight hours of sleep per night and don’t accept anything short of six. If stubborn belly fat is an issue, that’s one strong indication that stress (and the hormone cortisol) is the culprit. Whether you’re stressed from lack of sleep, overdosing on CrossFit or back-to-back deadlines at work, swap your trip to the box with a visit to the yoga studio — or meditate. Mobilize, stretch, walk, stress-reduce. Sometimes less is more, really.