Optimizing health looks a little different for everyone but there’s a common concern: “how perfect do I need to be to see results?” You can replace the word perfect with strict, dedicated, disciplined – it’s all the same. People want to know how much they can loosen their reins before it backfires. I’ve got good news – there’s a lot more slack in the lines than you might think. Understanding this means you can also loosen the mental torment of stressing about it. Less stress = better health so it’s beneficial all around. Let’s get into the specifics by goal.
Using nutrition to enhance your health – a foundational element – is all about flooding the body with beneficial nutrients and avoiding triggering / inflammatory ones. Our best nutrient rich, protective foods are unprocessed or minimally processed plant-based foods rich in natural colors. The more we eat this way, the more we enable our body’s defenses to bounce back quickly after exposure to pro-inflammatory foods. What you eat day to day matters; not what you indulge in once in a while.
Practically speaking, this means: enjoy the event, or the travel, or the experience if the enjoyment is tied to having some more processed or even animal-based foods. Better yet, enjoy it WITH some plant foods to lessen the possible negative effects. One of my favorite studies from 2012 shows how including avocado (a healthy plant fat rich with antioxidants, fiber and polyphenols) on a burger mitigated the inflammation that typically occurs after eating a plain hamburger. Two hours after ingesting a regular hamburger (without the avocado), blood vessels constrict, blood pressure increases, and markers of inflammation, and triglycerides levels, increase significantly. When the burger is eaten with the avocado, these effects do not occur. This isn’t just one occurrence; we see these effects with plant foods in so many cases. If they can help reduce the impact of pro-inflammatory foods, imagine what they can do when that’s all you eat.
Weight loss takes a lot of work and it’s natural to feel protective of that effort with worry about venturing outside of your new lifestyle routine. Metabolism should be thought of like a fire: with steady access to fuel, it keeps burning productively. If we neglect it, it fizzles out. If we throw some gas on the flames, it revs up before settling back down with regular fuel added. We can think of indulging in rich foods as the gasoline: you can throw some on there occasionally but the real power to maintenance is to get back to regularity. Your one meal or dessert does not destroy your progress. Let me repeat that: You do not need to start again if you have something rich. As a matter of fact, letting go of nutrition and lifestyle principles because of one meal and then going crazy for days or weeks until settling back into a routine is like stubbing your toe and then deciding to break it instead of being careful next time. You don’t undo progress with one meal, but you do put yourself at risk when you stop putting in the effort right after.
Gaining Lean Weight / Muscle
Adding lean body mass takes effort. Building muscle requires two things: work (exercise) and materials (food). Doing one without the other is like trying to build a house. If you only send the materials but no workers, nothing happens. If you only send the worker but give them nothing to build with, nothing happens. But what happens if you take some days off? You might actually see more gains – studies show that rest is vital to rebuilding muscle which is an increase in lean muscle mass. A break of 48 hours was optimal between heavy lift test days but working in a few days off throughout the week of training is fine. If you are unable to workout for longer, like a week, there is some slight loss. At ten days of being bed ridden, otherwise fit young men showed a loss of 2.2 lbs of muscle mass. Another study showed two weeks of immobilization resulted in a loss of a third of muscle strength in young men.
Keep in mind, both studies were complete immobilization or bed rest – if you’re still out moving around; the impact will be way less. If you’re traveling and away from your gym or equipment, rest assured that long days of walking or hiking are still keeping your muscles in line. If you find yourself lounging indoors for a week plus, it’s time to get moving. After all, it takes three times the time you were inactive to regain the strength lost.