Energy bars - To eat or not to eat?

Over the course of 3 years as an inpatient clinical RD, I learned a lot. With so much textbook literature, research and science packed into my brain over the 4 years it took me to earn my dietitian credential, I quickly learned that in order to properly diagnose and treat my patients, every case study was different.

You see, there was never just one clear diagnosis. Every patient was different based on his/her patient history, labs, other co-existing health issues and symptoms.

Unfortunately, our society doesn't think like this, especially as it relates to daily nutrition.

Our society succeeds at thinking in extreme - you either have a perfect diet or a horrible diet. Food is good or it's bad. You eat well or you cheat. Food is allowed or off-limits.

You don't have to have a perfect diet to have a healthy diet. 

Sadly, a lot of people feel great anxiety, guilt and judgement when it relates to food, especially if self-worth is tied to trying to do what you think everyone else is doing, even if it's not working for you.

This idea of energy or sport bars, whether or not they are good or bad, is a heavily discussed topic among nutrition experts and one with great controversy. The clean eater explains that bars are heavily processed candy bars and should be avoided at all costs whereas the dieter can't live without them. The athlete is then confused, are packaged energy dense "foods" allowed in a healthy diet?
Should I just eat potatoes and trail mix instead?

PopSugar recently interviewed me on the topic so I thought I'd continue the conversation and share my take on bars and how and when to select the appropriate bar for your nutritional needs. 

Bar Ingredients: 

This depends on your reason for consuming the bar. Do you need a mix of protein, carbs and fat, do you need a ratio of high carbs to low protein/fat, do you need high fiber, do you need the protein, do you need the calories, is this a meal replacement or a snack, do you need the vitamins/minerals/nutrients?

What do you need in the bar that you can't get from real food? This isn't a sarcastic joke but instead one you should always ask yourself when choosing a bar as a real food replacement.
Depending on your bar needs, I would first make sure that your bar is free from any type of sugar alcohols (sorbitol and xylitol) or artificial sweeteners (ex. aspartame and sucralose), which can cause a host of GI issues. Always prioritize real food ingredients and minimize added sugar.

Choose real food:

If you have a real food option, choose it! Bars are the perfect easy, convenient option when you are tired, have little desire to cook or don't plan ahead...but that's not a valid excuse to eat a bar. Sure bars are easy to find and easy to eat wen life is busy, stress is high and you didn't prepare your own meal. Ask yourself if you have recently gravitated toward bars as a "healthy" alternative or possibly a meal or snack replacement, to real food? Make the effort to create a meal of food, not ingredients wrapped in a package.

Enjoy your bar: 

 There are many situations in life when you don't have a suitable meal option - commuting, stuck in traffic, delayed at the airport, traveling, in a meeting, etc. Bars are great emergency food when you just need something to help control blood sugar or to provide substance in the belly. The great thing about bars is that they can be very dense, so sometimes a bite or two can go a long way. While bars shouldn't become a daily habit, I think every athlete should keep a bar on hand for those "oh no" situations. 

You need the calories: 

There are many times in peak training when the appetite is zapped, especially in the heat. While liquids and fruit are often craved, solid food may become unappealing for many hours throughout the day. Additionally, many athletes double as parents on the weekend, with rushed schedules and lots of to-do's, like sport games, which makes eating a low priority until evening. It's important to understand your higher energy intake needs on your higher energy expenditure days. There are certain situations when athletes will benefit from the extra calories in a bar, when real food is not easy to consume, easy to find or easy to prepare. For many athletes, who struggle to eat "enough" on higher workout days or who are trying to gain weight, a bar may be the only option to increase caloric intake without compromising digestion (there's only so much real food an athlete can eat without getting too full and uncomfortable).

 You need the nutrients/protein:

I'm sure there are exceptions but when athletes ask me to recommend a bar for more vitamins/minerals or protein, I say "choose real food". Despite bars featuring a high protein content or vitamins and minerals, there's no replacement for the nutrients found in real food.

Before/During a workout:

I'm a big advocate of real food consumed before/after workouts and sport nutrition products consumed during training. While there are exceptions, I believe that every athlete can find a real food option to easily digest before a workout. A banana w/ nut butter or a few Saltine crackers w/ deli meat will do the trick when you only have 20 minutes to digest something before a 90 minute or less workout. As for during the workout, I recommend bars (with a mix of carbs, protein and fat) for low intensity cycling and of course, any long duration outdoor activity that prevents you from transporting real food. Otherwise, for higher intensity cycling, I recommend liquid calories and electrolytes from a bottle and small quantities of solid food (bar, food portable) spread out throughout the workout, for longer sessions (2+ hours), as needed, to keep the tummy happy. 

The great thing about bars is that there are many on the market to choose from, but you can also make them at home. 

As you can see, there are so many different scenarios and situations which make it hard for me to give a general recommendation for bars.

To summarize:
1) Prioritize real food, always.
2) Keep a bar on hand for emergency situations.
3) Bars should be consumed with a purpose, not out of convenience.


(Re)learning how to eat as an athlete

A passion of mine is helping athletes adopt a more real food diet. I don't think I need to discuss the many benefits of eating real food, grown from nature, to support your health needs as you train for your fitness/athletic goals.

For many athletes, there's a lot of confusion as to how to eat as an athlete vs. as a non-athlete. Yes, all human beings should adopt a more real food diet but for athletes, there are many times throughout the year when your lifestyle is not normal, and you need to relearn what "healthy eating" means as an athlete.

You see, as an athlete, your body processes food differently than your sedentary counterparts and you need a lot of it. You burn more calories, your body requires key nutrients, at certain times, to help assist in metabolism, protein synthesis and glycogen resynthesis and food is not simply consumed for health but it is also your fuel.

Far too many athletes think they are eating healthy but in reality, they are underconsuming calories (often 500-1500 calories less than what you should be eating), eating too much fiber before workouts (causing GI issues during the workout), not taking advantage of post workout nutrition (this is where you actually become a better athlete) and not spreading out total calories, with balanced meals, throughout the day (thus initiating overeating in the evening due to not feeling an appetite during the day or intentionally underfueling during the day). If this is you, there's a good chance that your idea of a healthy diet may actually hurt your health as you stress it with training.

Many athletes struggle with this concept because they struggle with food and weight. Despite burning an excessive amount of calories on a daily basis, you don't understand why you are training all the time but can't seem to get the scale to go down. Athletes often email me, concerned about their inability to lose weight despite working out all the time and they assume that eating less is the strategy to weight loss or that being lighter will automatically improve performance.

The best way to change your body composition is by unintentionally trying. When you put all of your energy into your daily diet as an athlete, you will not only adapt better to your workouts, but you will instantly notice more energy, a favorable change in body composition (stronger body) and sleep better, with improved mood throughout the day.

My message to athletes is that weight loss, performance gains or keeping your body in good health relies on your ability to support your workouts with your daily diet. Seeing that every workout and every day is different, you may never properly adapt to training if you don't learn how to eat as an athlete.

But, it's not as hard as you think, for there are many guidelines and recommendations that are easy to apply and follow. 

For many athletes, there can be an underlying disconnect as it relates to how much food an athlete needs to eat to support training, specifically endurance athletes. For any athlete who has spent years of dieting, restrictive eating or relearning how to eat a more real food diet, I understand how you may be very confused as to how to eat as an athlete, and still eat healthy, maintain a healthy relationship with food and perhaps, meet your body composition goals.

Due to much conflicting information, athletes need to understand that strict eating restrictions, "clean" (no processed food) eating, calorie control and improper food/nutrient timing can make it difficult to perform during workouts but also, you may be sabotaging any forward progress with body composition changes, alongside slowly damaging your health.

You see, as athletes, we have similar nutritional guidelines as the normal population but because of our training demands to intentionally change our physiology to adapt to training, there are many circumstances in the training season when a typical healthy diet will not work in our favor.

Consider the below examples:
  • No appetite post workout
  • Two a day workouts
  • Very early morning training
  • Very late evening training
  • Long workout 
  • Intense workout
  • No time to sit down and eat a meal 

Unfortunately, many athletes are so committed to eating the standard "healthy" diet (if there such a thing) that the above examples can actually compromise your health and delay gains in fitness if you don't create a different style of eating to support your training. In other words, your training regime and the affects that training has on your body, energy needs and appetite, can make your definition of a "healthy diet" turn unhealthy.

I see it a lot as athletes will come to me with issues with the following:
  • Adrenal fatigue
  • Thyroid issues
  • Inability to lose weight
  • Low energy
  • Stress fractures and other chronic injuries (tendon/bone/muscle)
  • Anemia
  • Menstruation and hormonal issues
  • Inability to gain muscle
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Moodiness, low motivation
  • Chronically sore muscles
  • Inability to get through long or intense workouts
  • Disordered style of eating
  • Body image issues
  • Lightheaded, dizzy, low blood sugar
By understanding an athletes thoughts about food, his/her typical diet and training regime, along with getting to know the athletes "normal" life routine, I can understand if an athlete is eating "too healthy" (often restricting food groups, counting calories, underfueling, etc.). As you can see, sometimes your good intention to eat healthy can bring out health issues which negatively affect performance.

Now consider this:
-When you have no appetite post workout, is it ok to just not eat? What about maximizing recovery after your workout?
-Did you think about how your energy is affected when you don't recover or fuel properly throughout the day on two workout days?
-If your morning workout is a key workout,  don't you want to get the most out of your body during the morning workout?
-If your workout is in the evening, you don't want to affect your digestion before bed but you still need to recover from the workout.
-When your long workout takes up many hours of your day, have you considered the big responsibility that you now have to replenish your glycogen, rehydrate and repair damaged tissues. Don't assume that you can train for many hours and neglect eating post workout and throughout the day.

For athletes, in order to support the demands of training, the daily diet will likely include foods that may not be advocated in a "healthy" diet. But, as athletes, we need eating strategies that will keep our body in good health as we place intentional stress on the body, to change physiology, and to stay consistent with training (while still functioning well in life).

So while I strongly endorse and advise a real food diet, we must consider that processed food, like cereal, sport nutrition or pretzels or learned "unhealthy" food, like juice, potatoes, pancakes with syrup, raisins or saltine crackers, has a place in an athletes diet under certain circumstances. As great as it is to eat whole foods, thriving on vegetables all day is not performance enhancing. 
A rewarding part of my job as a sport dietitian is helping athletes relearn "healthy eating". There's often some resistance at first because many of the foods I suggest to eat around workouts or on higher volume workout days, are viewed as "unhealthy". Therefore, it's important that throughout any session with an athlete, that I fully understand all past and current eating behaviors and thoughts around food to discover any underlying fears about changing the diet or how/why the current diet was created. 
Keep in mind that a diet doesn't have to be perfect to improve performance and to keep the body in good health. If you are holding too strong onto your defined "perfect diet", it may be working against you as you work hard for fitness gains or a change in body composition. 

Fore more info on this topic, PopSugar intervewied me on the topic. While this discussion is more in depth than what was shared in the article, I hope that the information helps you understand your current eating patterns and food choics that may be sabotaging your health, performance and body composition goals. Perhaps, just maybe, you are trying to eat "too healthy"???

When to eat processed food?

Still confused on this topic? Let's work together so that your diet enhances your health, performance and body composition and improves your overall quality of life.
Nutrition services


Kona Edge Podcast interview - successfully failing

In mid October, I dedicated a blog post to recapping our 2016 season of triathlon racing. 
If you missed it, you can read about it here: 2016 season recap. 

Looking back, 2016 was a very successful season for me and Karel. 

I fulfilled a long time goal of placing on the podium at an international Ironman, where I finished 2nd AG and 4th female amateur (10th overall female) at Ironman Austria. It was also my highest ever overall placing in an Ironman since winning the 18-24 AG at IMFL in 2006 (my first Ironman). Only this time, 11 Ironmans later, I finished 54 minutes faster than at my first Ironman (10:06 at IM Austria vs. 11:00 at IMFL). 

I placed overall female at the Lake James 50 triathlon. 

Eight days later, I was leading the race by several minutes with 1 mile to go, at Rev3 Knox, until a pink arrow lead me and several others off the bike portion of the race course. Due to a 6+ mile detour, I tried to make up the 15+ minutes that I lost on the bike and missed the win by less than a minute. Bright side - I had the fastest female run split of the day (running frustrated and on a mission!).

And to conclude the season, a win at Lake Logan Half which was the result of a very strong performance on a very tough race course, and one of my best executed bike performance. 

And, let's not forget Karel's 3 very successful Ironman finishes (IM Austria, IMMT, IMKona), 3 overall race wins, an IM podium (and Kona qualification) at IMMT and the fastest male amateur run split at IMMT. 

While successes are worth highlighting (it's good to acknowledge when you are doing something right), it would be wrong for me to not mention the many, MANY lessons, mistakes and failures that have occurred since I started racing in endurance events back in 2006. 

  • I'd like to bring up my horrible decision in 2007 when I decided to race my first Kona with an injury. No running for 30 days due to hip issues and a quick-fix, please heal me, approach to every doctor that I saw, only to try to get myself uninjured before race day, results in extreme damage to my body during and after the race. With a stubborn head, I finished (and made it onto the NBC Kona broadcast coverage - yep, I was one of those athletes falling across the finish line) and it negatively affected me for several years (like 6!). 

  • I'd like to bring up 2011, where I didn't race a single triathlon for the entire year, except IM Kona in October, due to another 3 months of no running (hip/back issues) and a time-consuming dietetic internship that took up every hour of my day (10+ hours a day of interning and school work) for 10 months. 

  • I'd like to bring up the 3 months that I didn't run before IM Placid in 2013 and managed to get myself into as good of shape as I could, to feel prepared for that race, with only 8 weeks of consistent running. This also occurred during the time when my dad was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic cancer. Somehow, I managed to get to the start line and qualify for Kona with a roll down slot. 

  • I'd like to bring up the 6 years that I suffered from chronic hip/back issues, which caused many days of frustration, tears and anger toward my body. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to quit the sport of triathlon throughout those 6 years and how much time was spent on PT, doc appointments and anything and everything to try to get myself healed. 
  • And let's not forget Karel's recent issues, with a tear in his plantar fascia just 5 months before his first Kona in 2015 and then a diagnosis of a labral hip tear this past May and painful back issues leading up to IM Austria.
  • I should also mention the passing of my dad, three days before my birthday in 2014. This is something that I deal with on an ongoing basis. I don't think you ever get over the loss of a loved one, especially a parent. 

You see, failure is a step to success. Actually, it is the road to success. 
Perhaps you have followed us for many years or you are a new Trimarni follower. Regardless, it is important that you understand that our successes are not without failures. 

I don't know that I will ever be able to document my 10 years of learning into one blog post but I will continue to document my journey on this blog, with the intention of inspiring you and motivating you to never ever give up on your dreams.  If you don't give up, you never fail. You just keep on learning. 

Sure, we can call it a failure when we get injured, race poorly or make some kind of bad decision in training but failing is an opportunity to learn....that is, if you see it as a valuable opportunity to learn. 

The way I see it, I have successfully failed to get to where I am today.

As a sport dietitian, coach and still developing triathlete, I have 10 years of formal education with 10 years of endurance training and racing behind me. I have learned a lot in 10 years and I don't believe I'm even close to reaching my peak performances by my boy. I think Karel, even at 40 years of age, still hasn't reached his best. He's getting faster, stronger, more efficient and smarter as an endurance triathlete with every season. And next season will only be his 6 season of endurance triathlon racing. 

Thanks to Brad Brown with The Kona Edge, I was recently given a special opportunity to share some of my lessons learned along my successful (and not so successful) journey. 

We had such a great conversation talking about all things triathlon, Kona and coaching, as well as discussing my thoughts on race weight. I hope you enjoy hearing about some of the mistakes that I've made over the past 10 years as an endurance triathlete.
Although this podcast may be about me, Brad wanted to make sure that this podcast interview was also educational, so that I could discuss practical advice to help athletes move closer to reaching personal athletic goals, without compromising health.
Thanks for listening.

If you enjoy The Kona Edge podcast, you can leave a rating and review for The Kona Edge podcast on iTunes.