What can we do – to reward ourselves, to relax ourselves, to remove ourselves – that doesn't revolve around overeating and alcohol?
That was the theme of our last session with the nutritionist, less than two months before our races in the Milwaukee Marathon Oct. 15.
Dave Jones (marketing) and I (reporter) are both runners who work at the Journal Sentinel and we've been seeking the consultation of Nicole Kerneen, a registered dietitian at the Froedtert Sports & Medicine clinic in Wauwatosa, Wis., for a few months now to help us better fuel our runs in preparation for the Milwaukee Marathon races Oct. 15.
Frankly, it hasn't been going so well.
Dave's marathon training plans have been torpedoed by a relentless work schedule, a move to a new house, his wife's changing work schedule and illnesses and funerals of family members. Sometimes exhausted, other times overworked, Dave found that a dinner out at a restaurant became more than fuel. It was both a mental and a physical break from the demands he faces every day, all day.
The stress has even crept into his morning runs, typically a moment of sanctuary and clarity for Dave. He had been running 6 miles three times a week and then one long run of 15-16 miles on the weekends in spring and early summer. All that came to a halt in June and was non-existent for at least a month. And so, he lost four pounds of muscle, gained 1.6 pounds in fat, and has readjusted his goal to now run the Milwaukee 13.1-mile Half Marathon.
"I have to cut things from life, is what I'm learning," Dave said. "And that's the hardest part – I don't have anything to cut. I have family stuff and I have work. There's nothing to cut there. It's hard to focus attention on eating well – so that's the easy thing to cut. That's the easy thing to skip. Running is the first thing to go.
"I can't not go to the hospital for family. I can't not go to work."
In these moments, food also becomes a diversion, a coping mechanism.
"Instead of stressing about work, or a project, I say: I haven't eaten in an hour. I should eat," Dave said. "And then I'm making something, or I am getting something, and not thinking about the stress."
However, there is good news. Since seeing Kerneen, Dave has adopted a better breakfast routine, added more protein to his first two meals of the day, and that has helped him throughout the day. He has stopped snacking while he was preparing dinner, saving hundreds of calories. Huge wins.
"I'm conscious of things like, all right, I'm not going to have bread with the chicken salad I just made," Dave said. "I'm just going to put it on lettuce.
"I've also stayed with the schedule, and the smoothie every morning for breakfast. I don't overeat anymore. I don't remember the last time I ate to the point where I can't physically fit another bite in – where I used to do that at least once a week."
As for me, I've maintained my body composition (weight and muscle mass) since May – which I find hugely disappointing since I am 10-15 pounds overweight. By the end of July I had already done 13 races in 2017. So I work out a ton, but I must eat a ton, too.
Even worse, I'm unmotivated. When I stick to my calorie and nutrition goals for several days and see no weight loss, I get angry. What was the point of turning down fries and dessert and drinking all that bleeping water (10-12 glasses a day)? If I'm still going to be fat, I'm going to have a lot more fun than this.
I think about doing the opposite of what Kerneen advises – I could skip breakfast, take weight loss supplements – because that's what worked years ago. I've talked to my editor and friends about quitting this Chin Up column because I'm ashamed and embarrassed at my constant struggles.
I have sugar when I really want a nap, I drink Cherry Coke to fire up my brain for writing stories and I overeat when I am overwhelmed. None of this is new.
"The thing about going for food for stress – it is a drug," Kerneen said. "It sometimes can immediately affect your serotonin balance – but that serotonin doesn't last, and it drops even more when we eat too unhealthy. Eating junk strips more of your B vitamins just to try to metabolize that crap food, and our brain chemistry gets worse."
That's why our one-hour session with Kerneen barely discussed 120 grams of protein a day or nutrient timing. Kerneen, who also has her nutritional counseling business, Way of Life, wanted to focus on why we eat what we're eating. Here's what she shared:
On the frustration of not losing weight: "I can't stress consistency enough. If we're not consistent we don't allow our body to do what it wants to do. If we're consistent we allow this very neutral, safe zone for our bodies to function."
On her least favorite word, "diet": "There isn't anything I deprive myself of; I don't believe in not eating certain things. I eat chocolate every single day because I want it. But it's how much discretionary calories are you going to do and an amount that your body can actually deal with."
On making time to eat well at certain points of the day: "It's about prioritizing. Just remember that you are valuable. In order to stay valuable, and good to other people, and on top of your game, you have to be super good to yourself. Sometimes that means saying no to something even for a half hour because you have to stare at the wall and not have any demands on you. It could be as simple as that.
"That takes practice. Trust me. I have been there to an extreme. And it's ugly. I also worked my (tail) off to get balanced. Now I won't let anything interfere with this balance; I will guard it with my life."
On how food and alcohol is our biggest entertainment and our source of pleasure: "In our country, we really deprive ourselves of a lot of pleasure, to be honest. So we need to be aware enough to know: That's why I'm eating this stuff. Always take that pause. Ask yourself: What is the second beer, third beer going to do for me? I am still going to feel the same whether I have two or three – or one. That's when you start to look deeper at, what needs more of my attention, what needs less. What actually makes me feel good, what can I give to myself that actually builds me up. It's life evaluation."
On feeling the pressure of a demanding career, long hours and high expectations – and the emotional tie to food: "Our outside environment will always suck the life out of us. It's important to know, OK, what does your week look like? What are the demands on me that I'm accepting? And then we need to accept them – this is going to be stressful. We don't need to abuse ourselves on the inside."
It happens to everyone: "I have a lot going on right now that I'm going: Oh shoot – did I put myself in that position again where I am doing too much? And I don't ever want to go back there again – but sometimes you go: Wait, how did this happen? So I found myself at the grocery store, kind of going into an old thing: 'Oh, I haven't had that certain food in a long time. That looks good.' And I stopped and I went: Oh, I'm feeling stressed, aren't I?
"I walked right away. I said, I need to sit with this for a while. That night, I went home, I put a heating pad on my neck because it's atrocious and I put on – this sounds so stupid, but this is me – ocean sounds. I closed my eyes. I gave myself some deep breaths. I thought, I am fine, I am in control, if I don't want to do these things, I can say: No."
On the value of preparing for the week ahead: "On that Sunday, get your ducks in a row. How can you take care of yourself? Get all the homemade meals you need to haul with you to work every day made, so you can take care of yourself. Or, if you have to go out to eat on a certain day, find out where. How can I make this a relatively decent meal? Aim to make it 75 percent healthy. You plan so that when those moments happen, you got it."
Spouses, friends, personal trainers, doctors, nutritionists can help – but ultimately it is up to us: "You have to take care of yourself because no one else does. No one else cares – so you have to. Self recognition has to be there. We have to be our own cheerleaders."
Most important: "I don't want you guys to feel anything negative, or shame. I just want you to be aware. I want you to own your choices. If you want the chocolate, the beer, then own it. Own why we are making these choices."