Disembarking from the Gains Train

 

My main form of physical activity these days is CrossFit, the self-proclaimed “sport of fitness.” (Feel free to roll your eyes at this cheesy tag line.) I practice yoga regularly, and indulge occasional bouts of running, but most of my active hours are spent at the box.

Though CrossFit has a reputation for being intensely stupid and stupidly intense (think: obnoxious half-naked bro culture, joint injuries from idiotic levels of over-use, and rhabdomyolysis), I’ve found time and again that the benefits of the sport, practiced in a safe environment with well trained coaches, far outweigh the drawbacks.

Over the last two years, I’ve made great friends, built up my confidence and mental toughness, and gotten much stronger physically. Most importantly, I’ve learned that people are capable of a lot more than they think, inside and outside the gym.

When I first got sucked into the sport, I worked to develop CrossFit-centric skills: kipping pull ups, handstand push ups, double unders, etc. After my first injury (elbow tendinitis from doing too many push ups – I’m the first person to admit that sounds stupid), I also worked on building up muscle and connective tissue around my joints for safety. This first stage of improvement built on my existing skills: I’m small and light, with good core strength from yoga, so gymnastic movements came naturally to me.

Moving forward, I want to build pure muscular strength through power lifts (squat, deadlift, and press) so I can consistently lift the Rx weights in WODs. These are challenging but doable standards for a proficient female athlete that weighs 130-150lbs – much more than I weigh. This is a lot harder for me and requires more planning.

I switched from my gym’s general physical preparedness program to a personalized power lifting program. I started learning more formally about anatomy, mobility, and recovery. And, most importantly, I started learning about nutrition – the role of diet in building and maintaining muscle mass.

Over the last month or so, this has led to a radical shift in how I think about food. Much to my surprise and confusion, I found myself counting calories. 

Specifically, I’m counting my macronutrients (grams of carbohydrates, fat, and protein) to make sure that my diet is energy balanced: enough carbs for distance running over the summer and enough protein to build and repair muscle after lifting sessions. Bodybuilders have been doing this for decades (think: Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime), but “counting macros” (aka “flexible dieting”) has gained wider popularity among (Instagrammable) athletes in the last couple of years.

If this sets off all kinds of alarm bells in your brain, you are not alone. Just the idea of counting calories makes me deeply uncomfortable. My whole life, people have suspected I had an eating disorder because I was thin. I’ve always felt susceptible to restrictive dieting because “smallness” became such a defining factor in my identity.

I’ve fought against that self-image by embracing a love of food, cooking, and, more recently, food photography and writing. CrossFit helped me shift my self-image away from fascination with size and allowed me to focus on performance. Buddhist mindfulness practice helped make my relationship with food more ethical and environmentally aware.

edits-1

Zen and the art of buttermilk pancakes

I’ve always firmly rejected the pop culture image of a woman who spends her entire life worrying about what she eats, following one diet after another, never at peace. Fuck everything about that. And fuck all the products sold to exploit people’s fears and negative body image.

Yet, here I am, logging all of my meals on an app that charges a monthly subscription. Here I am, weighing my food down to the gram of chicken breast, pouring skim milk into a measuring cup before it goes into the glass. Here I am, internalizing the pop-up notifications that tell me in happy green text ,”You’ve hit your protein goal for today!” Or, alternatively, warn me in angry red text that I’m perilously close to exceeding my allowance of fats or carbs.

Worst of all, I’ve reversed course when it comes to eating mindfully, with respect to the environment, animal welfare, and my long-term well being. Before, I was weaning myself off animal products, opting for meat that was hunted responsibly or sourced from ethical farms. My goal was to get the bulk of my calories from whole, plant-based sources. (Plant-based diets have been shown in numerous scientific studies to be better for human health.) I planned to eat animal products sparingly, in recipes that teach particular culinary skills, carry cultural significance, or both.

pie

Wild turkey pot pie, with meat from a turkey I shot and dressed on my first hunting trip.

Now, I eat pounds of meat every week: chicken, turkey, beef, pork, lamb, all of it. I worry more about hitting my protein macros. I worry less – or not at all – about where my food came from. This approach is devoid of respect for the animal and its natural ecosystem. It’s just a number on a spreadsheet: grams per meal, percentage per day.

I get 20-30% of my calories every day from animal protein. That’s 1.2 grams of protein for every pound I weigh, far in excess of the recommended daily allowance of 0.4 grams per pound. This kind of protein-centered diet (at the population level) leads to increased rates of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. In contrast, it’s difficult to eat such a large fraction of your daily calories in protein while on a plant-based diet because plant protein comes naturally packaged in complex carbs.

I’m not suggesting that counting macros is generically “bad for you.” It’s not like weightlifters who count macros drop dead at a young age because they ate one chicken breast too many. (Arnie seems to be doing just fine.) I have friends – amazing, inspiring athletes – who love the flexible diet. They feel good, eat things they enjoy, and make consistent gains at the gym.

It is an awesome way to eat for performance.

But I’m not a competitive athlete. I’m not going to make my mark on the world with a sub-two-minute Fran score. If I’m lucky, I’ll make my mark on the world by leaving it a slightly more equitable place than I found it. Though my athletic goals are incredibly important to me – running, yoga, and CrossFit have given me a much needed sense of self-efficacy through the shit-show of grad school – athletic endeavors cannot be more important than my values as a person.

As far as I can tell, this style of eating is not consistent with my values. It is not a sustainable option for the majority of people in the world over the course of decades. This diet embodies a cringe-worthy level of first-world privilege: I go to a supermarket with a seemingly endless supply of packaged meat to load up on protein so I can lift weights for fun. I’ve never had to do physical labor for work, to pay for food and shelter.

If everyone in the world tried to eat this way, it would destroy the planet. Actually, it already is destroying the planet. As global populations increase, people in developing countries are becoming wealthier and they show off that wealth by eating animals.

burger and fries

Delicious but rare opportunity to cook with wild elk. I’m still years away from being able to hunt all my own meat. 

I’m not really sure where I go from here. Do I stop lifting regularly? Do I scale back on the number of WODs I do per week? Back out of fall races? How much protein can I actually get from plant-based sources and ethically produced meat? Am I going to go vegetarian (again…sort of)? Do I stop tracking entirely or change my macros but keep logging?

If anything, I have more questions now then when I started counting macros two months ago. I just know I can’t keep eating this way. I can’t be part of what I see as a larger problem (both in society’s approach to food and the environmental impacts of animal consumption). I can’t do this just so I can selfishly meet some arbitrary fitness goal, so I can feel like I fit in with my CrossFit friends.

Here’s to hoping they’ll still talk to me after I disembark from the Gains Train to Macro City!

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