How has powerlifting impacted our relationship with food?
Throughout our fitness and powerlifting journeys, we have had to wade through swathes of misinformation on the internet and social media related to diets.
Every diet claims to be the most effective, from going low-carb, to low-fat, to intermittent fasting. The thing about most of these diets is that they are unsustainable in the long term.
I myself developed a fear of carbs and believed that eating things like bread, pasta and rice would make me fat.
I would allow myself small portions of oats, because that’s what I saw the bodybuilders I followed on Instagram eating. But never the other staple carbs. I would only eat sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes, wrongly believing that the latter was “unhealthy”. I made replacements such as courgettes instead of spaghetti, and cauliflower instead of rice, and tried to convince myself that these tasted just as good (spoiler: they don’t).
Restriction and Obsession
This period led to my diet quickly becoming an unhealthy obsession.
I also began tracking calories and limited myself to ~ 1200 a day in order to try and lose weight and achieve my “ideal” body image.
At my worst point I was utterly consumed by thoughts of food, dreaming of what I wouldn’t allow myself to eat, tracking every morsel of food in my head and skipping meals so that I would never go over my “required” calories.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that throughout this I was an avid runner and had decided to train for a half marathon. Obviously I didn’t link eating more to perfoming better. At the lowest point, running and other exercise became a tool to distract myself from the hunger pangs. I was no longer getting faster or stronger, I would merely run mindlessly to get through every session.
Moderation and Recovery
Powerlifting has played a key part in improving my mindset towards food.
Although at the start (2014) I was constantly hyper-aware of what I was eating, I allowed myself to eat more. I continued to track under the pretence I was doing so to eat enough (when largely I was scared of eating too much). I still needed control over food. Eating out still gave me a lot of anxiety because I couldn’t track it properly.
Over the first 3 years of lifting, I gradually improved my mindset towards food and began seeing it more as fuel and a tool for performance. By 2018 I was able to successfully run cuts for two competitions, although was always scared of pushing the cuts too hard in case it ruined the mental progress I had made.
Although I’ve gradually put on weight throughout the course of lifting, I had never been on an intentional bulk.
Deciding to leave the 63kg class was a turning point for me.
For the first time in years, I allowed my body and mind freedom over food. I ate intuitively for 5 months, allowing myself to submit to any cravings I’d had when restricting myself to around 64kg, but without bingeing. For the first few months I put on weight fairly fast, but also got a lot stronger. I became competitive as a 72kg lifter, placing 3rd in my first competition in the new weight class. I saw the link between food and performance. And my body found a new set-point within the 72kg class. I see that how, now that I’m no longer restricting my body, it is able to perform closer to it’s potential.
I still have some days where my body image is low and I find it hard to accept the increase in body fat and size I’ve put on to gain strength, and I feel like I should cut and restrict again to get back to how I looked at 63kg. But for the most part, I’m becoming more accepting of making some aesthetic compromises to reap the massive performance benefits, and will therefore eat accordingly.
For Raghul, powerlifting has been a tool to learn more about food and nutrition.
Unlike myself, he did not come into powerlifting already obsessed with food and nutrition. He was familiar with classic “bro-science” knowledge, such as drinking protein shakes and eating around workouts is good, and that brown rice is “better” than white rice. However bulking from 66kg to 74kg he realised that he needed to pay closer attention to his nutrition to become more competitive. Nutrition is such a big part of life outside training, and if we don’t optimise this, how can we expect to optimise recovery and progress?
I later chose to go back to tracking my macros for this exact reason. I was being somewhat inconsistent with my eating habits and this showed in my training.
But now I track my macros without fear that going over them will make me “fat”. I choose to eat freely on certain days if I want to (usually at least once a week). Of course having those years where I obsessed over macros and nutrition in a way is useful, as it means I know what’s in my food without having to think too hard about it, and can eyeball portion sizes if necessary. But now I have the mental freedom to listen to my body and eat intuitively when I want.
Powerlifting has led me to have a more balanced relationship with food. I realise that food is a tool for performance, but I no longer obsess over it. I just try to optimise what I can whilst also being able to live life.