Every few years, a new fad diet or workout appears on the market, promising to be the answers to your perfect body prayers. But if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or any digestive issue, these diets are typically off-limits because you fall into a special category of diet needs, and don’t have the flexibility to play around with or restrict food groups. It’s likely that you’re already on a restricted diet, and can’t bear the thought of having to cut out more food. Typically, the last thing you want to do is start trying new recipes, as you know from experience the results can be disastrous.
However, unless you keep eating, and eat the right balance of food for your body, what happens is a vicious circle of weight loss, weight gain and weird body results, meaning lumps and bumps in the all the wrong places. We’ve spent so many years obsessed with low fat everything and a zillion ways to lose weight, it’s no surprise that you think the first step to body transformation is stop eating or eat less. That’s certainly what I thought when I started weight training five years ago. Since then, I’ve learned that if you want to get in shape, you have to eat.
But I have IBS, meaning I can’t follow most of the diet plans suggested on body building sites, nor can I take any supplements; even vitamins play havoc with my intestines. My stomach is too sensitive for probiotics, so they’re out, too, and don’t get me started on minerals. In short, my body does not like any energy source other than food, and it’s very specific about which types of foods it wants. I eat a high fat low carb diet, and avoid FODMAPs, not because it’s popular but because this diet matches my body shape, and doesn’t aggravate my IBS.
The key thing to understand is that you cannot make changes to your body unless you know your body, and know it well. That means knowing everything from how much sleep it needs, which foods energize it, which drain it, what activities make it happy, and what or who needs to be avoided at all costs to minimize stress. If you’re struggling with food choices, or are unhappy in your job, relationship, skin, chances are there’s a disconnect between you and your body, and until you reconnect, you’re going to have problems. What can you do to help make that reconnection? Here are some suggestions that can set you on the path to getting in shape.
DETERMINE YOUR IDEAL DIET
For people with IBS, this usually means starting with the FODMAP diet, a list of foods high in carbohydrates that are known to be inflammatory. Like most diets, the diet is controversial, with some people dismissing it, and others swearing by it. I swear by it, and recommend it as your start point if you’ve got IBS, or any digestive condition linked to inflammation of the intestines. If nothing else, the diet will get you into the habit of cutting out foods, and playing around with recipes, which is the same thing you have to do if you want to get in shape.
Warning: this process takes time. It took me almost fifteen years to find a diet that I can eat that doesn’t aggravate my anxious tummy, and it’s really only in the last year and a half that I’ve nailed it to the point where inflammation and bloating are no longer an issue. IBS is not a condition that’s curable so I still get flare-ups, but know how to manage them, which sometimes means eating, and other times means fasting. It turns out that my ideal diet includes fasting, or intentionally not eating for 12/14/16/18 or 24 hours. It’s possible to do longer fasts but I find short fasts enough to manage my symptoms.
The great thing about setting a body goal is that it shakes up the conversation between you and your body, but you have to set realistic goals for your body and fitness level. If you’re 15kgs overweight, and have spent the last five years sitting at a desk with minimal exercise (that was me) this is going to be a difficult conversation. And yes, you can lose weight by diet alone, but if your goal is to get in shape, you have to exercise. There’s a silver lining: the best way to change the conversation with your body is exercise.
And don’t think that your phantom ideal diet is all carrots and boiled fish. I started eating dark chocolate about three years ago when I learned that cocoa has anti-inflammatory benefits. These days, I eat it almost every day, and regard it as a vital source of carbs and healthy fats. Finding your ideal diet does not mean cutting out all the things you like, but it may mean shaking up your food choices so that you’re choosing items that fuel instead of fatigue you. It may also mean thinking about when you eat. Your ideal diet is a wide mix of foods, as many whole foods sources as possible, and includes lots of treats so that you never feel like you’re missing out, or are tormented by cravings.
GET REAL ABOUT YOUR DIET
Once you figure out what you can eat, then you have to factor in your body goals. If you’re going to eat McDonald’s once a week, you’re doing yourself an injustice by causing a setback in your progress. That doesn’t mean you can never eat McDonald’s; in fact, I’d recommend that you do treat yourself to fast food or take-out once in a while because that’s real, and if you’re battling with yourself every day to avoid it, you’re stressing your body and again, impeding your progress. Eat the damn thing if you want it, but eat it consciously.
Take note of every bite. Feel it reach your stomach. Gauge its reception down there. Are there gurgles? Is there gas? Do you feel satiated? Do you want more? If you want more, have it. I’m a big believer in going over the limit because you reach a point where you make yourself sick. Try it. Go to your favourite take-out place and spend a ridiculous amount of money on everything your like; eat it all in one go. You will feel gross. I promise you the temptation to eat there again will be significantly reduced for a long time. We all have our own psychological tricks to manage food; go find yours.
Remember, cutting stuff out completely with willpower alone is a fool’s gold. Find substitutes or incorporate treats into your week so that you’re not feeling deprived. But get real about the treats. If you eat a packet of biscuits or Doritos and feel awful afterwards, have a conversation with yourself about why you’re eating them, and what’s so attractive about the cycle of stuffing and berating yourself? Why are you punishing yourself? Think about your choices. Think about what you’d eat if you had better options. Watch some food shows, research recipes. Start experimenting within the category of foods you like.
FYI I make hamburgers flavoured with nutmeg and cinnamon, and add tahini or peanut butter powder to smoothies. Don’t be afraid to break rules. Follow your taste buds.
The secret ingredient in every athlete’s fitness schedule is food preparation. By preparing food in advance, and having the right meals in the right portions to hand, the athlete can easily stick to a set diet no matter how restricted. Turns out, this is also a great way to manage IBS or any digestive issue. The first step of food preparation is food shopping, which sounds easy, and it is as long as you know what you’re buying. It took me ages to learn the right things to buy, and it was part of the discovery process that led to me determining my ideal diet. In total, this experimentation stage lasted about two years, so be patient.
Likewise, it will take time to get into the habit of learning to prepare your meals in advance, and making sure that each meal has a balanced mix of macros to suit your body. Getting in shape is science, a process of manipulating the chemical make-up of your body by playing with its energy source and expenditure. You have to put the right energy in, and you have to expend the energy in the right way. This is not to put you off, but to explain that the process takes dedication, and if you have a digestive issue, the challenge is tenfold. What I’m saying here is take your time, and learn to fall in love with food. That may sound counterproductive but once you’re buying whole foods and preparing 80% of your meals from scratch, you’re on the right track.
DETERMINE YOUR BODY SHAPE
There are three categories of body shape:
Ectomorph: Lean and long, and finds it difficult to build muscle
Endomorph: Big with a tendency to store body fat
Mesomorph: Muscular and well built
Depending on your body type, you’ll find it harder to lose or gain weight, and may benefit from thinking about your macros, aka proteins, carbs and fat, intake. For example, ectomorphs burn energy quickly, and can eat a lot of carbs without worrying about weight gain. On the other hand, they have a hard time gaining muscle so they made need to up their protein intake, and lower fat intake. If you’re an endomorph like me, you have a greater propensity for energy storage, meaning it’s better to reduce carb intake, and increase fat and protein intake.
According to the folks over a Precision Nutrition, eating for your body type should look something like this:
- 1 palm of protein dense food at each meal
- 1 fist of veg at each meal
- 2 handfuls of carb dense foods at each meal
- 0.5 thumb of fat dense food at each meal
- 1 palm of protein dense foods at each meal
- 1 fist of veg at each meal
- 0.5 handful of carb dense food at each meal
- 2 thumbs of fat denes foods at each meal
- 1 palm of protein dense food at each meal
- 1 fist of veg at each meal
- 1 handful of carb dense food at each meal
- 1 thumb of fat dense food at each meal
Stress will make you fat, period. On top, a 2017 study confirmed the high incidence of anxiety and depression amongst people with IBS. As someone who has been dealing with both IBS and depression for decades, I can attest to this, and would always urge anyone in need of help to seek out a therapist or some form of help. But here’s a tip I use to manage my depression: weight-training. What most people don’t know is that exercise is the best anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drug there is. The trick is to find something fun, an activity you’ll want to do again and again or even, every day. I lift weights five or six days a week, and can never wait to go back. Stay away from things that make you unhappy. Exercise does not have to be a form of punishment. Go for a walk. Go dancing. Move your body. Get out of breath. Sweat. It’ll do wonders for your mental health.
How much sleep are you getting? What time do you go to bed? Would it surprise you to know that if you want to lose weight and get in shape, you need to sleep for up to nine hours every night. Sleep is essential not just for good muscle recovery but also for a calm nervous system, enabling you to fully digest food, and giving the body time to distribute nutrients where needed. Remember, this is science. On top, when you don’t get enough sleep, you stimulate the hunger hormone, ghrelin, which is why you find yourself reaching for donuts or biscuits on those days when you’re tired. If you’re serious about getting in shape, get serious about your sleep.
Go one step further: make a list of things that you like, really give this list some thought, take your time, mull over it, give it a week. At the end of the week, look at your list and calculate how much time you’re giving to the things you’ve listed. If you’re not giving time to the activities and people that fire your soul, what can you do to change that? If you don’t know what you like, try something new, and make a promise to try something new every month. This task is a killer. No matter how often I promise myself to use the boxing bag at the gym, I will not do it. My boxing gloves are sitting by my door to make it easy for me to grab them, and I still don’t do it. Making new habits is HARD. That’s why you feel so good when you stick to it. Let yourself feel good. Stick to something. Start small. Little steps. Surprise yourself.