Disclaimer – I’m not a professional dietitian. In fact, I’m not even a nutritionist. That said, I firmly believe that following the guidelines in this article will make you perform better in martial arts (and yes, look good naked) as it has given awesome results for myself and they are general enough to benefit most people.
When I got to a point in my training where I wanted to prepare myself for the upcoming black belt grading, I took a hard look at my lifestyle and found that the main area with room for improvement was my diet. Turns out that ‘room for improvement’ was a gross understatement – in hindsight, I was appallingly ignorant. After a few months of getting my dietary act together, I am now fitter that I have been in ages and feel better knowing that I am in less danger of suffering from health hazards such as crazy cholesterol, cancers and what have you. Considering what I know now, I can’t go back to the idiot ways of my past.
Simply put, what you’re about to read is a recommendation to ramp up your protein and fat intake, and cut down on carbs except for when they are needed. Most likely this is not news to you, and you heard it all before, yada yada but I’m still writing this in the hope that maybe this time you will actually listen. Us martial artists should not make a habit of expecting others to do the hard work for us – rather, we are the ones that empowers ourselves through dedication in order to better ourselves. This applies to your nutrition as well as your training. You won’t see any ads or links to weightloss programs here. Instead, arm yourself with knowledge and skills in order to help yourself help yourself.
Now, I’m aware how this sounds like your usual ‘Lose weight and instantly become happy!!’ kind of article. Myself, I consider this eating plan more focused on health rather than fixating on weight only. Apart from the general health benefits (e.g. avoiding prostate cancer), consider the benefits from a martial arts perspective:
- An abundance of protein gives you energy as well as material for your body to rebuild muscle after training
- Having more greens boosts your immune system, so that you don’t miss out on training due to illness or infections
- Healthy fats help your body heal and provides energy
- Drinking more water keeps you hydrated at all times, improving performance during training
- Shedding unnecessary weight allows you to move faster and be more explosive in your techniques
- Less unnecessary ‘dead weight’ helps stamina, letting you fight for longer
- A healthy body puts less stress on your mind, making it easier for you to put full focus on your training
For the TLDR crowd – well done reading this far, I’m very proud of you. As you don’t have the attention span to read the whole thing, just keep the below in mind and you should see some positive change:
- Avoid processed foods
- Be mindful of what you eat
- Keep your metabolism running
- Make it as convenient as possible
This article is purely based on my own approach – everyone is different and will have different needs depending on their purpose (a weekend warrior’s lifestyle and goals are vastly different from a full time instructor’s needs, for example), so don’t adopt it straight up without considering your own situation. Choose how you want to go about it – myself, I set about changing things around pretty much in one go in order to draw a line in the sand, but someone else might have more success by doing it one step at a time. And don’t see it as ‘going on a diet’, as it implies that this is just a short term change. See it more as you are investing in your now and future self through better eating and drinking.
I do recommend the ‘project approach’ though, as it will help raise your awareness and gives you an overview of your progress. Setting a goal of sticking to the guidelines for a couple of months will cement the change of habits and get you into a routine. Keeping a detailed food log and setting milestones will help you stay focused.
In a physical sense, your body can generate energy from carbohydrates, fat and/or protein. Whereas carbs is your body’s preferred option, fat works just as well and it also makes it easier for your body to process certain vitamins. Protein is used for building muscle but can also be used for generating energy, however this takes more effort (=calories) from your body to process. Carbs provide quick energy which can be useful before and after workouts, but too much can lead to your body releasing insulin which causes your body to store fat rather than use it for energy.
So eating habits that focus on a high intake of protein and allows for healthy fats, along with an abundance of greens, enables you to maintain and build muscle and keep a steady supply of energy. The accompanying greens and fruits provide you with nutrients and plenty of fibre. When spread out over a number of meals and snacks, altogether this kind of eating habits gives you a high rate of metabolism and helps you become stronger, more energetic and healthier.
You need to take control of what you take in, and the best way of doing this is to buy and cook your own food. So you need to gear up! Check out part 2 of this article for ideas on what to get. Or just get married and get it all for free.
In addition to the kitchen gear, there are a few other general things to keep in mind:
- Drink water. All the time. Rule is, if you’re thirsty – you’re doing it wrong. Drink water.
- Eat slowly. It allows you to enjoy your food more, helps your body make the most of what you eat and keeps you from overeating. If you still crave something more after your meal, wait 20 minutes first. Your body can take that long to realise that you’re sated.
- Focus on your meal .Try not to watch anything else like TV or your computer while eating, instead enjoy your food.
- Cut down on the rice and pasta, and ramp up the meat and vegetables.
- Stop eating when you’re full. Save the leftovers, or if eating out get the restaurant to put it in a doggy bag for you.
- Cooking and using recipes can be hard at first. Go for easy recipes and do it one at a time to ease yourself into it.
- Try to go for cooking methods that doesn’t require you to add fat – grilling, poaching, oven bake, steaming… and if you do need to add fat, use a spray can of olive or canola oil.
- Replace your biscuits, crackers and chocolates with more natural snacks such as nuts, seeds and fruit (both fresh and dried).
- Listen to your body – if it’s roaring for something to eat, then have a snack. Just make sure it’s a healthy one. If you’re exhausted, rest up and have some extra food. Your body will most of the time tell you what it needs.
- Aim for a good night’s sleep. It’s when your mind gets to process what’s been happening and your body repairs and rebuilds the damage sustained. Lack of sleep will sabotage you through increased stress, mood swings and exhaustion – all factors that will make it harder for you to choose the healthy option.
Just like your own martial arts training will undoubtedly tell you, your level of awareness is crucial to your progress and this applies to your food intake as well. Set up a food journal to get an idea of what you take in every day – this simple change could make a massive change to your eating habits from just informing yourself of what you’re actually chowing down on (use my own log from part 2 of this article if you want). Keep an eye on your weight or body measurements so that you’re aware of any changes.
Next, take your intention of doing better in terms of nutrition a step closer to reality by educating yourself on the topic. There are plenty of magazines and books written on food and drink, and it’s knowledge that will do you nothing but good. They normally also contain recipes that you can base your menu planning on.
Make your metabolism a raging fire
An hour long hardcore session on the treadmill will burn up a lot of energy and help you get fitter, no doubt. But in terms of the bigger picture, that workout is only one out of a day’s 24 hours – what if you could keep improving for the remaining 23 hours? If you want to get shed some unnecessary weight and/or pack on some muscle, your eating habits are your primary weapons. Feed your body a steady supply of protein, healthy fats and nutrients throughout the day by spreading out the grub on 6-8 feeding times. Basically, eat every 2.5 hours. Sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that a snack can be just a protein bar or a handful of almonds and a piece fruit.
Apart from short intervals between snacks and meals, keep the following in mind:
- Carbs are not the enemy – in fact they are vital for fuelling and re-fuelling. That said, consider when you need carbs; basically an hour before and right after a workout to replenish energy spent. Use complex carbs (brown rice, wholegrain bread, sweet potato) and limit your serving to about the size of a golf ball.
- Fat can be your friend – just get it from natural sources such as avocado, nuts and olives. Have fish more often.
- Avoid too much sugar, as it makes your insulin levels spike. When that happens your body becomes more inclined to take the fat you’ve eaten and store it, rather than use it for fuel.
Cleanliness – purify your body
Picture your body and mind as a complex piece of machinery, where you have several different parts interconnected by wires, pipes and hoses. Now cover it in rust, and pour some sewer water down the hoses – that is basically how your body works if you live off processed foods, takeaway and fizzy drinks. Not to mention what smoking and binge drinking will do to you! Basically, processed foods is the devil’s work and takeaway is about as trustworthy as a beautiful woman in a bar that randomly comes up to you saying how you’re the sexiest man on the planet (happens to me all the time, bloody gold-diggers).
To turn this around, try to get closer to a natural state of being by buying and cooking your food yourself. Use the specialists where possible – get your meat from the butcher, fish from the fishmonger, and so on (drop by these shops straight after work as they tend to close earlier than the supermarket).
In the supermarket, avoid the stuff in jars and ready-made concoctions. Basically avoid the shortcuts and do it yourself. Use your peripherals – shop from the outer edge of the store as this is where you normally find the unprocessed, wholesome foods.
Wash all fruits and vegetables. Many vegetables are healthier in their raw state, as cooking can lower their nutritional value. It also takes longer for your body to break down, keeping you fuller for longer. If you have the budget for it, get the organic stuff.
As mentioned before, drink heaps of water. It keeps you hydrated, makes you feel fuller, helps your body recover from training and so on. Having plenty of water makes it easier for your body to convert fat to energy, avoids muscle breakdown and prevents dehydration (which causes your body to release stress hormones). There are only advantages to drinking more water, so aim for at least 2.5 litre every day spread out between breakfast and bedtime.
If you do get the urge for some alcohol, have red wine – it’s quite savoury so you can make it last by sipping, and contains antioxidants that’s actually healthy to you (up to the second glass, anyway). Also gives less of a hangover.
Choosing what’s healthy can be taxing on the mind – if you’ve been eating healthy, then give yourself a break by having a Reward Meal every week or two.
- Even if it is a Reward Meal, you might still want to cook it yourself – that way it’s still clean compared to takeaway. It also allows you to tailor it to your preferences (such as, extra meat or cheese). A homemade pizza can easily surpass what you get from the store.
- See if you can make it a breakfeast or a succulent lunch – that way your metabolism can start burning through it during the rest of the day.
- Some refer to this as the ‘Guilt Meal’, ‘Cheat Meal’ or such. Bah! If you’ve been good all week, you’ve bloody well earned a reward. Here’s to you buddy, well done.
- Don’t deny yourself the occasional treat – just try to make it healthier, such as Greek yoghurt and strawberries (or a protein shake with berries) are great options.
In conclusion, this rather lengthy article sums up the guidelines I try to live by. But so far it’s all talk – check out part 2 of this article to get more concrete examples and tips on how to actually go about it.