Nutrition for the Endurance Athlete, part 3.
Nutrition is a lifetime practice. All of us will cease racing and, in many cases, cease walking long before we cease eating. I want to see everyone fight the good fight till the end with nutrition as their ally, not their enemy. This post contains some sad stories that may challenge your view of yourself; I hope they do.
The stories in this blog were the first ones I ruminated on when I started on this series. As a coach, it is essential to guide my athletes with grounded recommendations, but sometimes, I must also ground them with fear of the future and the giant snowball of poor nutritional choices as we age. I usually tell stories of my successes and failures and don’t speak about others. This time will be different-I will talk about others to make my point.
How do you want to age? I argue that nothing you do will impact the care you can provide and the care others must provide you more than your lifetime nutrition choices. Succinctly, good nutritional choices create nutritional habits. Bad choices make bad habits. While we are young, our poor decisions and bad habits are relatively negligible in impact compared to what they do to us when we hit our middle years.
As Americans, we live in GRAND denial about our nutrition choices’ impact on our loved ones. The visible location of poor nutritional habits is our waistline, even though it is considered almost a form of hate speech to talk about it in these terms. Yet, American obesity is well-researched and documented. In 2012, the average American weighed 177.9 lbs. For the same height, the average European weighed 156 lbs. The average is even less in Oceania, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, but I set them aside, as those people groups aren’t the same average height.
Global human biomass is an interesting statistic to view for this conversation. Take the total population, multiply by the average weight, and get a number called human biomass. From that, we can fraction the total biomass considered obesity mass (BMI over 25). The result is called total fatness; the numbers are both meaningful and shocking.
North Americans represent 4% of the world’s population, yet we have 34% of the world’s obesity mass. That means a third of all the world’s human fatness is in the USA. We are the society ridiculed in the movie Wall e. We demonstrate resistance to eating healthy food in appropriate portions nationally. What a horrible prize to earn!
On the opposite side of the total obesity, mass conversation is Asia. Asia has 62% of the world’s population but only 13% of the world’s obesity mass. While we blame India and China for carbon emissions, deforestation, pollution, and other preventable disasters, they at least understand the basics of lifetime nutrition better than Americans do. Don’t fall into the temptation that Asia’s low obesity biomass results from starvation and poverty. Nearly 4 billion people aren’t diluted from the 10 million extreme cases that came to your mind. That is literally a drop in a frying pan.
A desire to be good stewards of our bodies should be the core of our nutrition choices. It is a command of the Christian faith and the secular world that tells us that heart disease, diabetes, and cancer are related to poor food choices. Yet, it is beyond my intellectual capabilities to see how far we have missed the mark.
Now, for some stories that both challenge me and stump me. The girl my stepson married, gave up alcohol when she was pregnant, but she returned to consuming it after she gave birth. She knew it was bad for her and her daughter’s health. I was not the only one to wonder why she didn’t consider herself worth it if her daughter was worth it. Isn’t she someone’s daughter, too? Why did it take an event like pregnancy to better care for herself? What then convinced her that she was no longer worth it? How did we fall so far from following God’s word and equivalent secular instruction?
As a former IT leader, I saw my engineers get overwhelmed by big projects. They seem to hear the project’s deadlines talking to them, telling them to get fast food and return to work as fast as possible. Instead of asking, “what is best for me, both now and in the future,” we revert to “what do I need to do right now for my job, regardless of the long-term cost to my family and me.” They ate a burger and fries, then stayed seated for another 6 hours to finish a spreadsheet, muting out the truth that our bodies are worse off for the effort.
My nephew shares stories about how poorly his father-in-law takes care of himself, oblivious to its impact on his family. He fails to follow his doctor’s advice and will not do uncomfortable physical therapy. He is oblivious to all the missed opportunities to do things with his grandchildren. His obesity prevents even the most basic of family events like hiking in the mountains or spending a day walking across a big city. The essence of his choices results in his stealing from the people he loves. Activities he should be doing with the people he loves were traded for a second plate at the buffet.
When I took our two foreign exchange students to Washington, DC, for a long weekend, we walked the Mall of America several times. I repeatedly told them that the five-mile round trip was a distance few Americans have the strength and endurance to complete without stopping. I speculated that nearly every American could walk from the Capital to the Lincoln Memorial and back one hundred years ago. The two boys were in disbelief, and our Spanish student told me that it made him sad that a five-mile walk was too much for us.
Lastly, my father-in-law’s choice to ignore self-care and nutrition management still impacts family discussions, even though he passed away. About three years before he died, he sat me in his living room to show me how he managed his finances. Part of that included showing me his annual budget. He had a line item for travel that he pointed to. He told me that he no longer can use it, yet he still budgets for it. His days of travel were complete, but his desire was far from gone. Despite a lack of time or money constraints, he never made the changes in his habits to end his life on the note he wanted. I was not the only heartbroken person as we watched him fade.
I was blessed enough to sell my business when I was 52 and lead a slower-paced life with good health. As part of my retirement dreams and plans, I travel and continue to take others with me on great adventures. Each year, I hike in the Himalaya, as I can translate for those who come with me and keep them safe. I invite many, but most of them can’t do it. It isn’t the time away from work or the cost that prevents them from hiking the world’s greatest trails. The failure in waistline management and their inability to establish good nutrition habits prevents them from setting aside their fears and taking up the challenge. My son and I invite people we meet to accompany us as we ride in Spain or on the Blue Ridge Parkway every year. Many want to do it, but few can commit, fearing failure. Many tell themselves they can get fit if they set their mind to the task. Too bad that isn’t true.
I can’t find friends who can hike with me on the Appalachian trail for three days, as they can’t get their weight down enough to walk 14 miles a day with me in a full pack. Do I tell them that most men in Asia that I know can do this without preparation? No, as it won’t help. But the thought goes through my mind.
The world’s biggest fitness lie
At the core of the argument is what I call “the world’s biggest lie.” We tell ourselves that we have time “later” in life to get our bodies into the shape that we want them to be. However, when we finally retire or become empty nesters and have the time, it is too late, and we die with multiple unmet goals and a bucket list of items that never get checked. My experience is that Christians in America deny this more than any other people group. They enter retirement with the hope of great mission trips and beautiful teachings that they want to play an active part in developing, only to find themselves on the couch or in the backyard, looking forward to a good meal and time with family. They falsely conclude that the best way to make a difference in the Kingdom of God is to bring their damaged temple to the party and hope no one notices. This is laughable and foolish thinking. God wants to be good stewards of “the temple,” and the idea of starting to take care of it when we retire is outrageous.
If you read emotion into my comments, you see things accurately. People can’t seem to embrace the truth that failure to maintain the temple of God is a shortcoming and a public display of a lack of self-esteem. For whatever reason, taking care of themselves seems unimportant compared to their attempts to care for others. Failure to do the former inhibits their ability to do the latter. Why aren’t they getting taught this message? Isn’t the lesson of the message obvious?
We do not rise to the levels we seek from willpower and effort; instead, we fall to the levels of our habits. Our eating habits have a way of acting like compound interest on our body size and shape.
Stealing from our children
When we let ourselves get fat, we steal from our children. Even though our society fails to call out their outcomes as unfavorable, we know that it is. Instead of doing the first half marathon with our children, someone else must train them and do it with them. I have a friend in scouting who was preparing to do a 10K, and he trained with his children. One of the children told me that the father “just stopped training,” and he never told them why. He just stopped. What kind of message does that send to the next generation?
Yet, there is hope. This July, after our foreign exchange student from France returned home, he put me in a social media group, and I watched images of fathers and sons spending ten or so days crossing the Alps on bicycles. That gave me hope that the rest of the world still understands that parenting requires leading by example and suffering in front of their children. These fathers pushed themselves to climb these mountains, and they did a great job of showing their children that publicly doing challenging work can be fun. In the USA, men come home from work and hope their stories of adversity inspire their children, only to discover that they don’t.
Nutritional choices are generational. All these bad endings started with small beginnings like another burger and your aunt’s house when you weren’t hungry. The roots they created established underground branches, so the extra burger became a recurring event. When you were 14, there was no measurable impact. Alas, that extra burger routine turned into a 36″ waistline before reaching age 30. These outcomes remind me that it isn’t the 20th swing of the ax that cut the tree down. It was the first 19 swings that carved through the core of the tree that weakened it. Every unnecessary bite you take is a vote against the person you want to become.
Get a handle on your nutrition so that when your days of labor are done and your time allocation has nothing to do with work demands, you can still do something meaningful with your life. Commit to a healthy process while you can and do not await a late-in-life transformation.