High-Cal Foods Aren’t Just for Athletes

High-cal foods

October 31, 2020

By Ciara Ainsley McLaren

Avocados, potatoes, and peanut butter taste great for a reason. These high-calorie, dense foods contain the nutrients we need to thrive, whether we’re athletes or office workers.Unfortunately, I learned the hard way.

As a college rugby player, I ate without guilt. An 800-calorie smoothie in between classes? Sure! A dozen chicken wings after practice? Absolutely! I understood that I needed to get enough protein, fats, carbs, and vitamins to sustain myself on the field.

When a knee injury ended my season, all that guilt came rushing back. I traded in my potatoes for rice cakes; my whole milk for skim.

I forgot the biggest lesson sports taught me: embracing nutrition, not avoiding it, brings health and abundance. I stopped worrying and learned to love the avocado.

Embracing the Bulk

In rugby, getting bigger, stronger, and heavier can improve your game, especially if, like me, you play as a forward — your primary job to make tackles and win physical struggles over the ball.

When I joined my college team, I was a scrawny teenager who struggled to protect myself, let alone to dominate anyone else. The coach encouraged me to “bulk”: to gain weight and get stronger. I plugged my height, weight, and activity level into a calculator and realized I’d have to eat nearly twice what I was used to. With some trepidation, I looked up a list of calorie-dense, protein-rich foods and got to work.

A typical day of eating started with two thick slices of avocado toast topped with four eggs and a generous glug of olive oil. Plus a banana berry smoothie with a generous helping of nut butter. With a side of hashbrowns. And that was just breakfast.

According to good old My Fitness Pal, I was getting the protein, carbs, and fats I needed to gain strength and perform well. And it wasn’t just my macros I was hitting, but my micros — the vitamins and minerals everybody needs — as well. All those avocados, potatoes, and bananas were not just calorically dense, but nutritionally rich.

As a young woman, I found this perspective incredibly freeing. For the first time, I ate to gain, not to lose, weight. After months of bulking and practicing, I was heavier — and stronger — than I’d ever been. And it showed on the field. I’d gone from a benchwarmer to a starting forward. I was making tackles. I was thinking not about what my body looked like, but what it could do.

Back to Dieting

The night before a game against our biggest rivals, I ate a huge sheet pan dinner full of the nutrition I needed the next day: chicken thighs, brussels sprouts, and roast potatoes coated in olive oil and butter. I woke up feeling ready for battle.

All that changed in the first five minutes of playtime. The ball on the ground, the two teams fought for possession, each side pushing to send the other falling backward. In the middle of the melee, I got tangled in a pile of bodies. I felt myself falling and — pop. I tore my LCL.

I would spend the next few months walking as little as possible while my ligament restitched itself. In an instant, I’d gone from an extremely active lifestyle to a completely sedentary one.

Questions about the future played over and over in my mind. Would I ever play rugby again? Would my knee heal without surgery? Would my high-calorie diet catch up with me? Would I gain a massive amount of weight? Stories of athletes transitioning out of play only to end up unhealthier than ever hung over me.

For years, I’d ignored the rules about what one could and could not eat.I hadn’t cared that I was supposed to avoid white potatoes or skip cream in my coffee. I’d ignored my classmates on keto when they said a banana was as bad as a Snickers. My job was to gain weight and stay strong, not to worry over carb counts. Abruptly, I felt the rules apply to me again.

I thought back to what I’d added to my diet to bulk up — the peanut butter, the avocados, the potatoes. Calorie-dense foods. Foods I’d learned to love. Grimly, I cut them all out. No more avocado toast and hashbrowns and smoothies for breakfast. I switched to black coffee and half a cream cheese bagel. Oof.

After several weeks, I was losing weight, and my knee was healing up ahead of schedule. But I got headaches. I felt nauseous. I lacked the limitless energy I had before. In short, I felt awful.

Forget the False Dichotomy. Eat Healthfully

To lose weight, I’d cut out all those calorie-dense foods, but in doing so I cut out all the nutrition-dense foods, too. It was really, really hard to get all the nutrients I needed in a day having black coffee for breakfast and salad for dinner.

I thought I’d forgotten about good and bad foods. Turns out I’d just thought I’d found a loophole: sports.

The high-calorie goal I set during my rugby days allowed me to eat whatever I wanted. But I was still thinking of foods as fundamentally good (salad) or bad (potatoes). I just convinced myself that by working hard enough, I could earn the bad foods. Once my injury forced me to stop exercising, my unhealthy perspective returned with a vengeance.

It became clear it was taking a toll. I half-listened to lectures through a thick mental fog. Hobbling from class to class exhausted me. MyFitnessPal warned me that I wasn’t getting enough protein, or Vitamin A, or magnesium (the list goes on).

Nearing the end of my rope, I decided to experiment with adding foods back. Would an avocado sandwich really be so bad? A spoonful of peanut butter? God forbid — mashed potatoes?

As it turns out, it was fine. While I couldn’t hit my goals and eat those foods the same way I used to, they weren’t just possible to include in my diet — they were crucial.

As I returned to a less restrictive diet, my energy returned. It wasn’t all sunshine and daisies — I was still recovering from a painful knee injury, after all. But the space worrying about food took up in my head was gone, along with some of the hunger pangs. Walking was easier. The fog lifted.

I noticed I was hitting my recommended daily values of micronutrients again. When, out of curiosity, I took a closer look at the nutrients of a potato-based meal, that made sense. One medium potato contains about 70% of our daily recommended value of Vitamin C, 30% of our B-6, and 12% of our magnesium — more, even, than a banana. It’s not a bad choice, just a dense one.

Reasonable portions of whole, nutritious foods helped me reach my goals more sustainably than nonstop salads ever could. I don’t play rugby anymore. But I still eat potatoes. And I’m healthier than ever.

At times, it can feel like certain foods are reserved for a lucky, chosen few. But I’ve worked to gain weight and I’ve worked to lose it — I’ve been highly active and completely sedentary. In every case, restrictive eating was counterproductive. Accepting food for what it is — precious nutrition — instead of what I imagined it to be — good or bad — helped me achieve true mental and physical health.