Fueling Your Fitness: How to eat for a healthy gut
This summer was awesome. It was hot, but not too hot. It was busy, but not so much that I couldn’t hang out with family and friends too. And, this was a summer that I didn’t get to enjoy ice cream and fruit. That’s right! No fruit or ice cream. These are two of my favorite indulgences, and I couldn’t have one drop of either for four months.
During this past summer, I was on competition prep for two bikini competitions. This means I was living on chicken, fish, and veggies, mostly broccoli, asparagus, and brussels sprouts. Most people think, “Ew!” but I rather enjoyed the way I was eating. I always knew what was coming up and eagerly looked forward to my next meal of the day. This kind of eating is designed to keep my protein consumption up and lean me out for competitions. However, it does get boring at times.
What I was missing
We built a new house a couple of years ago. Once we moved in, we quickly replaced some of the bushes along the front of the house with fruit-bearing plants. We planted orange and lime trees, a weeping mulberry tree and a plum tree. I love plums right off the tree. So delicious!
This year our plum tree produced so many juicy and delicious plums. I couldn’t eat a single one. Boo! Luckily, I have a very supportive and understanding husband, and he graciously picked all the plums off the tree, cut them, and froze an entire Ziploc bag of them for me to enjoy in September when I was all done with prep. Bless his heart for thinking of me. I know how much he enjoys fresh plums too.
My birthday also falls in the summer. Right as we turn into August, I celebrate my birthday. This is unfortunate for someone who enjoys ice cream and frozen yogurt. Of course, everywhere I turned this summer, it felt like I was seeing people eating their delicious frozen treats. If I was watching a show while on the elliptical, there was more sweet frozen deliciousness. It seemed rude that the televisions right in front of the stair climber at the gym always seem to have the food network on broadcasting a show about homemade desserts, while I’m grinding away at a cardio fat burn session.
It’s not like I wanted to eat ice cream every day of the week. The fruit was a huge miss daily with all the fresh fruit stands around town. You know the ones, where the farmers stand on the corner with their fresh strawberries picked that very morning. Not for me this year.
Why it matters
I sometimes teased that I felt like a little fat kid inside while I was prepping for competitions because truly all I was craving were the treats I could not have. It’s not really that I wanted to eat all those delicious treats every day. Or, was it?
After getting done with 13 weeks of prep (that’s almost four months of strict eating), I found myself enjoying the delicious treats daily. Uh-oh! This was not my plan. I kept grinding in the gym – cardio and weights. I mixed up my routines after prep and continued to keep the majority of the weight off for several weeks. I was happy with where I was at with my weight only slightly up and with the freedom to eat the treats.
Another ‘indulgence’, if you will, was adding dairy back into my diet, specifically cheese. I love cheese! Cheese was going on everything I was cooking from chicken quesadillas to adding a slice of cheddar to my eggs in the morning. So good! I also love ice cream and frozen yogurt. While I wasn’t indulging in ice cream every day, I did load up my refrigerator with small yogurt treats.
After eating so freely, I had to make to a decision to stop eating certain items. Sugar every day is a bad thing for anyone, but for someone who had been eating super clean for nearly four months, the additional sugar and dairy products began wreaking havoc on my digestive system. What follows here might be a little graphic, but I think it’s important that you understand why you shouldn’t indulge every day in things you know are bad for you.
There was no pain or gas present. Mostly, I was bummed that my regular ‘movements’ were softer than I thought they should be. I was used to eating good proteins and lots of green vegetables. That kind of eating keeps a person regular and in good measure, if you catch my drift. Well, the soft sort of movement became more frequent. It was getting more frustrating and quite annoying. After seven weeks of mostly soft, it became obvious that something was off. I had to make a change or go to the doctor. I was going to do anything I could to avoid going to the doctor.
I knew in my gut (pun intended) that the problem was nutritional. I was eating things that my body was not used to, and I was eating those things daily. Free eating was creating a problem in my gastrointestinal tract. I had to make a change. I had to eliminate some things from my diet immediately. What those items were going to be was fairly obvious, but was I willing to make the change? Although in the back of mind, I started to wonder if there was something else bigger and worse at work in my gut.
I brushed those thoughts off again as I thought back over the last several weeks. What I was doing different nutritionally speaking was significant. I gave up cheese and sugar for months, and now I was munching on cheese like it was my last meal. I was getting so uncomfortable that it was affecting my exercise. I wanted to go running but was afraid of what would happen 16 minutes into the run. Yep, find me a bush. If you have ever experienced GI issues as a runner, you know what I’m talking about. Runners are not shy about finding the nearest bush in cases of emergency. However, this was becoming more of an anticipated issue rather than an emergency. A friend asked me to run with her, and my response was, “Sure, if we can run somewhere where there are facilities.” Embarrassing.
I actually hesitated to book our running appointment because I was so embarrassed about the possibility of having to go in the middle of our run. We had run once before, and I had these issues. This would be the second attempt. This time was a couple of weeks after the first run together where I experienced a near-photo finish to the bathroom. Fingers crossed for the second attempt. I was really hoping to have zero issues but was fully expecting to be disappointed by my body.
This run came on the first day of making changes. I wanted to fix my body by fixing my nutrition input. I knew in my heart that what I was eating was the root of my problem. If I went to see a doctor, I had a suspicion that she would tell me to change my diet; so, before bearing the stress and anxiety of a battery of tests at the doctor’s office and lab, I wanted to change what I knew I could change first.
At this point, I should warn the reader that I might get into some details that are a little graphic. I am not a fan of reading this kind of information or even discussing it unless I feel it’s important to share. I do feel that what was going on with my body is important enough to share some of the details.
My gut was not acting like it did when I was eating super clean for competitions over the summer. Eating clean and lots of green veggies helps your gut create nice, healthy poops. I stopped having those healthy movements after a couple of weeks of eating whatever I wanted. Healthy became loose and soft. I did some research on the internet for ways to help my gut. (I know, I know. Not everything you read on the internet is credible, but it gave me a good start.) Specifically, I was looking for ways to stop soft or loose bowel movements. I figured this was my real problem and not anything more serious based on my symptoms. I only was experiencing the soft and loose movements. I had no pain, bloating or gas. That helped steer me toward fixing my problem with nutrition based on more research of the other symptoms.
Doctors recommend dietary changes first, according to my research. Imagine that! Research showed that adding more fiber into your diet could help treat loose movements. Other changes to improve gut health included medications (nope!), staying hydrated (no problem, here), adding honey (can do, I love honey), and avoiding food and drink that triggers the problem.
I could cut out dairy and sugars, add in more fiber, decrease my fat intake and increase my carbs. I was consuming more fat macronutrients than normal and not quite as many carbohydrates as before prep started, and as I mentioned, dairy (cheese, mostly) and processed sugar were making way too many appearances in my daily nutrition. Did I mention that I love cheese?! Research also showed that sugar alcohols could trigger the problem. I am an avid gum chewer, and even if the gum is sugar-free, there could be traces of sugar alcohols in the product. I was consuming lots of good fiber through my vegetables prior to these issues and had recently been eating more salads with spinach and romaine lettuce. I knew I needed to add back vegetables like asparagus, Brussels Sprouts, and zucchini squash. Fruit also has lots of good fiber.
On this Wednesday of the run with my friend, I decided to cut dairy as much as I could. I also had made a switch to real fruit a few days prior, and lots of it. I stopped chewing gum regularly, too. I gave myself permission to eat as much fruit as I wanted to within reason to add healthy fiber back in. Back in my long-distance running days, bananas were frequently in my diet. You see bananas at finish line refeed tents, along with bagels and other high fiber, high carb foods.
The right carbs at the right time can be good for you. However, what I was doing to my body was not the right thing. I was eating carbs all day long and eating lots of high glycemic carbs, like processed sugar. Without going into long detail about high glycemic carbs versus low glycemic carbs, I will add here that ingesting too many high glycemic foods can cause increase in fat and can be hard on the digestive system. In other words, digestive distress and increased fat cells.
I changed my diet to include bananas, apples, grapes, and high fiber whole grain breads and pasta. I took out dairy, as much as I could, and still try to avoid red meats whenever possible. Over this past weekend, I sampled some sugary foods and some red meat, but laid off the dairy. I also added in probiotics, fiber supplements, and plenty of water, which is fairly easy for me. I try to drink between a gallon and gallon and a half of water every day. (Yes, I pee a lot.) Staying away from the sweets was tougher than normal this weekend, since my in-laws came to town for my husband’s belated birthday celebration. There was a huge chocolate cake involved in his celebration. I opted for an apple instead. I also had people over for a gathering Saturday afternoon, and I sampled some of the homemade caramel corn. In the evening, we went to a dinner party, where ice cream was served. It was non-dairy, but I opted for a small tasting of less than one spoonful to taste but not indulge, thereby preventing a sugar backslide.
So far, so good. The small changes in my nutrition have helped reset my gut. Solid is the word. I am still healing and don’t want to upset the work I have already done in this healing process. Therefore, it is going to be a few more weeks of no sugar for me. As for the dairy, I think it’s going to stay out of my life for a little longer, which means no chocolate for me. That’s okay, because my gut health is far more important than a bit of chocolate. If I do reach for the chocolate in a few weeks, it’s going to be dark.