Does dieting affect how we feel about food? You bet it does! Anyone who knows me understands that I’m a superclean eater and really enjoy my food. My weight is always consistent, and I put this down to never ‘dieting’ as such. Simply being aware of good nutrition and supplying your body with the building blocks it needs, when it needs them, is all it takes to be in great shape.
But my early experience with dieting for competitions changed the way I approached my food. After my first two body sculpting competitions, in which I won first and second at the Nationals, I didn’t compete again for two years! This was because the low-calorie, low-fat, low-everything diet I was on, plus having to weigh all my food for the duration of the competition preparation, had affected my relationship with food in such a negative way.
For the first time in my life, I felt like I had no control over my hunger. There was no cut-off valve to indicate whether I was full or still hungry. I ate the food I was instructed to eat. Food occupied such a great space in my thoughts that I used to dream of eating bacon! And I wasn’t the only one with bizarre thoughts and behaviour. I saw another team member eating cake that she had found leftover from a previous customer in a coffee shop when we went for our black coffee. We laughed over that when we looked back — but it’s really not so funny!
American physiologist Dr Ancel Keys conducted a now-famous study on starvation (the Minnesota Starvation Experiment) in November 1944 in which the 36 male participants had their calories cut to 1570 per day over a period of 12 weeks. The only foods they ate were potatoes, turnips, bread, and macaroni — there were no other choices; only carbs were allowed. As a consequence of this diet, the participants’ overwhelming priority — or obsession — became food. Reading cookbooks, staring at pictures of food, mood swings, irritability, anxiety, and depression were all reported.
My experience reflected this, as when I cut back on calories and restricted fat in my meals, I never felt satiated and food was always on my mind, whereas before the comp diet I definitely wasn’t overweight and had never had an eating disorder.
Weighing my food portions also affected me mentally, as did calorie counting. It’s fair to say that being on basically a boiled chicken breast, broccoli, and egg white diet made me leaner for competing, but something in my attitude to food changed.
This took me by surprise. But I’m not blaming anyone else here, as this was the common comp diet regime a few years back.
As soon as I was told I couldn’t have something that I wanted to eat, or if I had to weigh food portions, I was thrown into being obsessed and craving the forbidden food more. So the suggestion of fillet steak made me want lamb with fat, or if I was told to have a steamed chicken breast, I wanted roast chicken. What would have been wrong with me eating sauerkraut for variety, and sardines, or apricots instead of an apple if I felt like them, anyhow? Answer: nothing! In fact, this would have been beneficial in more ways than one, such as adding probiotics from the sauerkraut.
I say we must always listen to our body — if you feel your blood sugar level dropping, then eat something before it gets too low. I would suggest fats, including saturated fats, protein, and greens as a base; then you can always ‘time’ your carbs for when you need them. Every food plays a different role.
Once I nourished my body with the nutrients it desired, adding fats especially, and allowed choice back into my diet, it all became easy again. The next thing was to throw away the kitchen and bathroom scales, as all that weighing was causing me a great deal of stress.
This raises the question of whether the general population is poorly nourished through eating processed, nutrient-deficient food, as many current weight-loss diets are simply based on calories in versus calories out. I have always suggested ‘spending’ our calories on nourishing food. For instance, you can spend a couple of hundred calories on sweet biscuits or spend your calories on organic eggs, avocado, and salad. Both options have the same calorie count, but the second is far more beneficial for your body and mind.
And I still achieved the results I wanted — winning more than 20 competitions — by eating my own diet, which is high in fat and lower in carbs. Fats keep me satiated with a more powerful form of energy and steady my blood sugar levels. The low-fat, low-calorie style of eating would have made it impossible for me to continue competing and maintain great shape afterward.
My body feels weaker without fats, so every day I eat them, including saturated fats. Saturated fats are better for cooking and help repair and renew every cell in our body, including our brain and bones.
Some days I feel I need more calories than others, so I listen to my body and eat more. I think it’s good to have a high-calorie day every now and again. And I always choose high-quality, organic, grass-fed meats and fats such as wild salmon, organic eggs, and a square or two of dark chocolate. Cheese is also a favourite of mine — I love the organic range of cheeses available from Camembert to tasty.
My three tips for staying on track with your eating are to make sure you’re having enough protein and fats in your meals, add variety to your meals, and eat before becoming too hungry to prevent yourself feeling out of control. Organisation is the key.
I love the way competing has taught me so many things about how our bodies respond to different foods, and I love the way I have discovered how eating clean and healthy foods, including fats, makes me feel — and, most of all, I love sharing my experiences