Sex, glorious victory, skin-splitting arm pumps, and a perfectly pulled shot of espresso aside, for a tried and true meathead, there are few things more satisfying in life's most heated, passionate moments than digging into a hard-earned, well-deserved "cheat" or "free" meal. The gluttonous euphoria that sets in with that first bite of a stacked cheeseburger with all the fixings, that delicious handful of crisp, salty fries, and chased with its sweet counterpart, the milkshake. The sensual satisfaction that comes when the first spoonful of frozen yogurt topped with fresh berries and chunks of chocolate chip cookie slides down your throat. The I-know-this-is-overkill-but-damn-are-they-delicious train of thought that runs through your mind as you crack open the lid on the box of half-dozen doughnuts that somehow ended up in your lap. The feeling of raw accomplishment that comes with polishing off enough plates of sushi that the chefs come out to double-check your order.
I've been there. I've done it all, and I understand the appeal.
But after the mental and emotional struggle that ensued over the four days following my contest this year, I’m beginning to have a change of heart, and am seeing this mentality in a new light, with a fresh perspective. Yes, I recognize the value in celebrating an accomplishment, strategically spiking carbs within the context of your nutrition plan, or the need for a psychological break from the humdrum monotony of dieting — not to mention that celebrating with food is an integral part of human nature and comes with a deeply ingrained social aspect that I’d be remiss to overlook.
But it's also within our nature to want more, even if we don't truly need more — money, sex, cars, and yes, food as well. This, I believe, is where the problem begins. The perpetual cycle of diet, diet, diet, diet, binge, is not serving anyone. Nor is it indicative of a sustainable lifestyle.
Here's the thing: After my show back in July, I feasted. In the span of six hours or so I put down:
- Four delicious tacos
- One fried chicken sandwich
- One piece of fried chicken
- Potato salad and coleslaw
- A massive hunk of cornbread (still thinking about this one)
- Two oatmeal chocolate chip cookies
- Half a cupcake
- Salted caramel gelato
- Lemon gelato
- Two bowls of cinnamon toast crunch
- A few rice cakes with peanut butter and jam
Honestly, I haven't feasted like so in roughly four years, back when I was living in the Dominican Republic. Not after either of my shows last year, not at any point during my improvement season, and rarely did the notion of doing so cross my mind during prep. Needless to say, I didn't go to bed feeling all that great. The tacos, fried chicken sandwich, and cornbread were incredible, and about all I actually needed and wanted. The rest? It served as an imposing reminder why I don't eat cookies, ice cream, or multiple bowls of cereal all that often.
The more I reflect on this, where my head was at, and how shitty I felt afterwards, the more I see that this "celebratory" mindset of eating well past the point of satisfaction is incredibly damaging — not just on a physical level, but a psychological one as well. For many, once the floodgates are open, so to speak, not only is it hard to stop, but it also becomes challenging to flip the switch the next day and get things back on track.
Then there's the hormonal and metabolic impact that such a sheer amount of food has, especially if you've been riding in a deep calorie deficit for a while. It’s this exact series of events that, if gone unchecked, results in people experiencing a brutal post-contest rebound of fat gain, which hinders their improvement season and can jeopardize their health. Contest prep or not, whenever you're coming out of a lengthy calorie deficit, it's important to take the time and care to properly reverse out and focus on restoring metabolic and hormonal function. This does not happen if you lose your mind, eating anything and everything in sight.
Personally, I was more than happy to jump back to regular meals after a day of abnormal eating. But, I'm rather robotic and emotionally-detached for the most part when it comes to food, and I know that exercising control is easier said than done for many. Despite being ready to jump back to my usual meals, I still struggled with the amount. Coming out of a tough, lengthy diet like contest prep, hunger levels for many will remain sky-high for a few weeks afterward because you need to properly reverse out of your diet.
In a complete break in character, it became all too easy to add an extra scoop of rice, throw in an extra bagel, or add a plate of rice cakes and jam to the end of the day. I can only attribute this to being a direct result of keeping things so strict for five months that as soon as a chink in the armor was presented (the post-show feast from above), it was all too easy to keep chipping away, so to speak. With this experience fresh in my mind, I believe there's a better way, a wiser approach, and a way of celebrating with food that doesn't derail or set you back.
I'm still hashing this thought process out, but I do know that it stems from the relationship you have with food as a whole. While I haven't gone "full pop-tart" with the whole flexible dieting thing, I do believe that the "answer" to making progress, enjoying foods you love, and developing a healthy relationship with food lies somewhere in the middle of being nutritionally flexible and having a rigid sense of structure.
This is why I preach having strong nutritional principles that overarch your decisions on a day-to-day basis. This is why the clients I work with are generally encouraged to have one to two "free" meals per week. A free meal will typically replace one or two normal meals for that day, and in terms of size, is along the lines of the fried chicken sandwich, cornbread, and potato salad meal from above. Think appetizer, entrée, and dessert.
The danger lies in pushing yourself to the brink with restrictions, snapping, and then being unable to pull it back together. That, my friends, is the post-contest reality of food.
Image courtesy of Maitree Laipitaksin © 123RF.com