Recently, we had the pleasure of sitting down with one of Charlotte’s premier Crossfit coaches and nutrition experts, Jessica Pinkerton. Pinkerton has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and biology and a master’s degree in health promotion and health education. She is Precision Nutrition Certified and works one-on-one with athletes and nutrition clients. She is co-owner and coach at one of Charlotte’s largest Crossfit gyms, Crossfit Vitality. Pinkerton discusses the benefits of a whole foods diet for athletes of all types. She discusses, in detail, how food choices not only affect how our bodies look, but more importantly, how our bodies feel and perform.
Body Helix: Being a Crossfit coach, I am sure you get a lot of questions about both the physical side of working out and also about the nutritional side that goes along with it. What do you tell people when they come to you with questions about nutrition and diet?
Jess Pinkerton: Well, I’ve been working in the gym industry for eight years now training athletes, and the first thing I tell people is that you can’t out train a bad diet. You can work really hard in the gym. You can run miles and miles a day. But, no matter what it is you’re doing, if you’re stopping on the way home and having fast food for dinner, or drinking a soda and having a Snickers bar before bed, you’re sabotaging all the efforts that you’re making in the gym. And the health benefits that you would be receiving from those workouts are kind of going down the drain. Exercise is a stress on the body. It’s a good stress, but it’s a stress. So, if you’re also stressing your body with a bad diet and you’re exercising, you’re just not going to recover well.
So, it’s really important that you fuel your body properly, especially for your workouts and for your performance. The diet that I recommend to people, and to our athletes in our gym, is a whole foods diet. It’s all based on real foods and the least amount of packaged, processed foods as possible. I recommend things like meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. It also includes starches like sweet potatoes and butternut squash and then very little added sugar. Your body will get rid of a lot of inflammation when you eat like this.
BH: What does that inflammation look/feel like in our bodies?
JP: When you’re eating a lot of inflammatory foods like sugar, gluten (which is a protein component in grains), or lactose (which is a protein component in dairy products), your body develops inflammation from those foods. That can manifest in different ways for different people. It could be chronic congestion or a runny nose for someone. Or it could be achy joints, like when you wake up in the morning and your ankles or your wrists are achy. It can be GI upset - anything from bloating, gas, diarrhea, or constipation.
And like I said, it’s different for everyone. So, when you eliminate some of those inflammatory foods from your diet and your gut is able to heal itself, you feel better and you perform better at whatever you’re doing: running, crossfitting, weightlifting, whatever it is. You have more energy for your job, for your kids, for everything. So, it really comes down to that fuel that you’re putting into your body.
BH: Let’s talk a little more about sugar. Why doesn’t a banana, which has sugar in it naturally, cause an inflammatory response in the body, but a processed sugar food, like a Pop Tart, does? Both have sugar – so what’s the difference in how the body reacts?
JP: It’s all about what it’s “packaged” with. For example, a banana, while it has sugar in it, also comes along with a lot of great vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Whereas, a Pop Tart is pretty much just processed sugar that is not going to give you any vitamins and minerals— it has no nutritive content. Yes, they both give an insulin response in the body, which is that hormone that tells you to store excess fuel for later use. So, it’s going to be stored in your fat cells, or your muscle, or liver glycogen. If you’ve just done a workout, you’d be able to store it there. Processed sugar is just going into the mainline into your bloodstream, and then you’re going to have that spike and then crash later, and you’ll continue to crave more of it.
BH: So, hopefully people reading this are thinking “I could do this. I can get on board with this.” Realistically, how long do you think people need to give this way of eating a chance before it no longer becomes a challenge, and becomes just that—a lifestyle?
JP: Well, before you see the real benefit of it, it’s going to be at least two weeks. And, during those first few weeks, a lot of people experience what we call the “carb flu.” That’s when your body is kind of just craving those simple carbohydrates because they’re the easiest fuel source for the body. Your body is kind of revolting against this shift in diet. I like to tell people to think of a burning fire and think of sugar as the kindling. It’s the twigs, and the newspaper, and it gets the fire burning, but it burns out really quickly. And then you’re left hungry again.
Whereas, if you use that same burning fire example, think of good, healthy fats as the logs on the fire. Things like avocado and butter, especially a good grass-fed butter, nuts, seeds, and oils. Although, oils to stay away from are the highly unstable polyunsaturated ones like vegetable oil, canola oil, and soybean oil. The good healthy fats are a cleaner source of energy and they are going to keep you full longer, unlike the sugar, which is going to burn out quickly.
So if you don’t give into the body’s cravings during the “carb flu,” timeframe, if you hold out, you’re going to feel, at some point, like a switch has been flipped. You will feel better in the gym. Your performance will go up. You won’t be tired, cranky, or moody anymore like you were in the beginning.
BH: So this “carb flu” only last two weeks and then what?
JP: For some people, it lasts about two weeks. Others, it’s four weeks. I’m generally blatantly honest with people about that because everyone is different. Everybody’s past diet is also different. If you’ve had a standard American diet based on oatmeal, orange juice and a banana for breakfast, and a sandwich or a hamburger with fries for lunch, and dinner is usually some fast food, you’re probably going to be a real carb burner. So, it’s going to take you longer to get all of that out of your system and become fat-adapted, which is what we call it when we’re able to burn our own stored body fat as fuel.
BH: Okay, so let’s say I have made it through the “carb flu” phase and am now in the “fat adapted” phase. What is happening to my body when I reach this stage?
JP: So, now you have mental clarity. Now you’re not, at 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon, having a slump where you need a nap or a cup of coffee. Now you’re able to get through your workout and feel recharged instead of just beat down. In addition, it’s going to help your body to naturally lean out. If you’re working out, you’re going to lose body fat while maintaining and gaining muscle. Also, because of the decrease in inflammation in your body, you’re not going to be bloated anymore. A lot of women come to me and ask “How do I get rid of my midsection?” A lot of that is dairy—the inflammation from dairy. So, you cut that out, and you feel so much better, you look better, you’re fitting into clothes that you couldn’t previously. So, there’s great benefits all around.
BH: So what’s the difference in someone doing a diet plan like, say, Weight Watchers compared to a whole foods based diet?
JP: I’ve been working one-on-one with nutrition clients for a few years now, and I’ve found that the bottom line is that it really comes down to establishing healthy relationships with food. For instance, sure, you could have a dinner of Skittles and a Snickers bar if it’s in your “points” for the day. You might even be able to lose weight eating that way if you stay “on plan,” but you’re not resetting your insulin level. You’re still on that rollercoaster wanting more as soon as you come down from that sugar high. And maybe you have the will power to not have it because you’re out of points for the day, but most likely, over time, you’re not going to because the cravings are just too hard to bare. You give your body sugar, it just wants more and more sugar.
So, I would much rather see athletes, or any clients, eat nourishing food that’s going to support their body, and make those healthy decisions over and over again to establish healthy habits and healthy relationships with food. I want them to realize “These are the foods that I can have. These are the foods that are going to make me feel better for my workouts and throughout life, and give me more energy. And these are the foods that aren’t.”
BH: Often times, people’s knee-jerk reaction to starting a whole foods diet is that it’s not sustainable in the “real world.” Almost like they are saying “Nobody can eat like that ALL of the time.” How do you address those concerns?
JP: Look, I get it, but something interesting to consider is this: If you could put all of human history into a timeline of just one year, since our whole existence, we really only started eating processed foods yesterday. So, for the previous 2.5 million years, humans ate real foods. People ate what grew on trees or grew in the ground. They ate what they could either hunt or fish.
Processed foods were developed because they are convenient. But our bodies were not made to eat these type of foods. And that’s why we’re seeing all of these new cases of Crohn’s, and Celiac, and ulcerative colitis, and it’s why cases of metabolic syndrome are through the roof. I mean, all of these diseases of modern society are a result of, I really think, the sugar and the processed foods.
So, really, if you can’t prioritize your health, what else is there? If you’re not going to be healthy, and be there for your kids or your family, who cares about everything else? You’ve got to make the time. And that’s the bottom line. Whether it means watching an hour less of sitcoms throughout the week or being on Facebook a little bit less. Put the time in, plan for it. If you don’t do that, if you don’t grocery shop ahead of time, if you don’t food prep, what happens? You end up making poor choices for you and for your body.
BH: What about the times when you do have to go out and you can’t always plan ahead? Life happens and things get in the way.
JP: I tell people that I want them to enjoy food. I don’t want them to be nervous in a social setting. There are so many good options for whole foods. Say you go out to a steakhouse - have a steak. Have a sweet potato. Have a side of broccoli with butter on it. Have a salad with chicken or shrimp. There are many options. You just can’t have the mac and cheese or the side of fries. But, you will still be enjoying your food so much that you won’t be tempted by that. After a while, those temptations will go away.
BH: So, where should people start? Any resources you would point them to?
JP: Absolutely. One of my favorite books is The Paleo Solution, by Rob Wolf. Also, www.balancedbites.com is a website by Diane Sanfilippo who also wrote a great book, Practical Paleo. The Whole 30 Program is another fantastic resource. It’s a shift in the way people think and live, but it’s totally worth the effort.
If you would like to learn more about moving towards a whole foods diet and how it can positively affect your life, contact Jess Pinkerton at firstname.lastname@example.org.