As an elite lightweight rower (standing 171cm tall and competing at 57 kg) it was a daily challenge to maintain the balance in my diet. Training 6 days a week for 2-4 hours a day, trying to build endurance, strength and lean muscle mass; at the same time hitting the low body-fat required to meet competition weight targets sometimes seemed incompatible.
Every meal or snack triggered a cascade of thoughts that sometimes bordered on excruciating. You might be hoping for my ‘secret to success’ that allowed me to compete in the lightweight category for 4 years winning a silver and a two gold medals at U23 and senior World Championship level, whilst studying for my PhD in human metabolism. Unfortunately, there isn’t one secret, just the sum of a lot of small truths. Attitude to food and developing an awareness of mindful eating was one of those truths.
In the early years of my lightweight rowing career, I developed a fixation with food that occurred as a result of my self-imposed dietary restrictions, which is in stark contrast with the thoughtless and over-indulgent attitude that permeates society today. When it comes to our attitude to eating there is a spectrum: at one extreme end of the spectrum you have typical eating disorders, the newly coined term of ‘orthorexia’ (obsession with healthy eating) and a plethora of prescriptive and restrictive diets all promising to help you easily achieve your body goals.
At the other, you have a ‘obesogenic’ culture where food is constantly available and hard to resist, where we are bombarded by food advertising, where a great deal of pre-prepared food is full of hidden nasties and where the notion of portion control has vanished. Most of us live somewhere in-between these two extremes. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, it can't do any harm to take stock and see if we can bring our relationship with food any nearer to a middle ground. So, I waned to use this post to share some suggestions that I have used to cultivate a healthier, mindful attitude towards food. I have finished off with a recipe that is one of my go-to suppers that I love to prepare with care and eat with relish!
- Try to come up with a repertoire of meals that are cheap and super quick to prepare (e.g a vegetable stir fry with chicken or prawns (avoid shop bought sauce); an omelette loaded with herbs, greens, cheese; or a jacket sweet potato topped with tuna, sweet corn and red onion). This is vital so that home cooking is a feasible alternative to packaged meals.
- Don’t be scared of a little bit of food prep, it is an important part of the whole experience of eating which is lost with shop-bought instant meals. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and I always found that cooking could be a relaxing, active way to switch off from the worries of the day. A few minutes spent chopping veg or stirring a pan got me engaged with my food, and gave me a sense of achievement at having prepared something for myself.
- Challenge yourself to be creative and experiment. Try out a new recipe or ingredient every now and again, it is a great sense of achievement when you serve up a new creation!
- Don’t be afraid to try out new ways of seasoning your food, herbs (both fresh and dried) and spices are such an easy way to mix things up a bit!
- Make a meal to hit all of your senses. Food should look and smell enticing and have a range of textures as well as tasting amazing. Sounding good is tricky, but we all know the welcoming sound of bacon crackling or a pan bubbling away! Try to include a range of colours and textures on your plate, vegetables are great for this but consider topping your meal with seeds, nuts or croutons to add some crunch, or add cheese, crème fraiche or yogurt to make your food creamier.
- Make mealtimes an event. Set yourself a place at your table; perhaps consider having a pretty placemat or napkin and lighting yourself a candle. Make sure you have plenty to drink and anything else you need for your meal (e.g. salt and pepper) on the table so you don't have to get up halfway through.
- Minimise screen distractions while you eat. Mealtimes are about enjoying food not about checking social media on your phone or watching TV, switching off the screen allows you to concentrate on your meal. Whilst this can be challenging if you are on your own, these things can wait for twenty minutes.
- Don’t rush your meal. Especially as a ‘hungry lightweight’ the temptation is to shovel in the food, meaning it is gone all too fast and making it hard to know when you are satisfied. I know it might sound clichéd, but take time to chew, and at least once in your meal try to focus on the sensation of the food: is it warm or cool, salty or sweet, chewy or crunchy?
- Sit for a minute or so after you finish. I am often tempted to leap to my feet to clear away or to get on with the next task in my day, but it is satisfying to sit and just wait a few seconds for the meal to go down. Try having a glass of water to sip on as you relax. Giving everything a bit of time allows you to work out if you are full or if you really want to have dessert!
I’m going to put my hand up and admit I am far from perfect: my meals aren’t all lovingly, thoughtfully prepared and eaten slowly by candlelight! Sometimes it feels great to just let food happen. But, taking steps to take a bit more care, and time to be mindful about my food day to day has been a huge part of my success as a lightweight rower. Being busy, tired and hungry can make things difficult but, if you regularly try to practice eating mindfully, soon it becomes a habit like many of the attributes that we seek to train as athletes.
Food is an essential part of being human; if we can engage with it healthily then we stand to do a better job of allowing it to sustain both our bodies and our souls. Getting more out of what we put in our bodies is only going to be good for us whether we are elite athletes or trying to lead a healthier lifestyle.
Mexican Leafy Wraps (Serves 2, total time 20-25 mins):
This is a colourful meal, full of wholesome vegetables, which is wonderfully hands-on to eat!
· 2 baby gem lettuces, washed and leaves carefully separated (or 4 wholemeal tortilla wraps)
· 2 chicken breasts, thinly sliced into strips or chicken breast fillets
· 1 large red onion, sliced.
· 1 cup of cooked sweet corn.
· 2 bell peppers, sliced
· 1 can of kidney beans (mashed with a fork until chunky) or refried beans
· 3 cloves of garlic, crushed or finely chopped.
· Spices: 1 packet of Mexican spice mix OR ½ tbsp. cumin, 1 tbsp. smoked paprika, 1 tsp. chilli flakes.
· To serve (any from): cooked rice, sour cream or crème fraiche, grated cheddar cheese, feta cheese, tomato salsa, guacamole.
- Slice onions and peppers, and mash kidney beans (5-10 mins).
- Heat a little oil in a large frying pan. Add the chicken breast slices and cook on a medium heat for a few minutes until browned on the outside and the meat is no longer pink on the inside. Remove the meat from the pan and set aside. (5 mins)
- Add a little more oil if need be. Cook the onion and peppers on a medium heat until they start to soften. Then add the crushed garlic and spices and cook for a further few minutes, stirring to ensure the veg are coated (5-10 mins).
- Add the mashed or refried beans and stir, then return the chicken to the pan and cook together for a further 5 minutes.
- Serve generous helpings of the chicken, veg and bean mix wrapped in lettuce (or a tortilla) and topped with lashings of sour cream, cheese, salsa or guacamole.
About the Author: Dr. Brianna Stubbs is a successful rower, picking up a gold for Great Britain at the 2016 World Championships in the lightweight quadruple sculls (having won Silver in the same event the year before) + she still retains the record for youngest person to ever row across the channel (an incredible feat completed at age 12). Dr Stubbs has just completed her Phd in Physiology at the University of Oxford, UK.