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You’re Thinking About High Calorie Foods All Wrong

By Ciara Ainsley McLaren
August 17, 2021
Photo Credit: Jeremy Pawlowski

Avocados, peanut butter, and potatoes taste great for a reason. These high calorie foods contain all sorts of nutrients we need to thrive, whether you’re an athlete or a work-from-home type. Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way.

Eating with Purpose: Embracing the Bulk

As a college rugby player, I ate without guilt. An 800-calorie smoothie in between classes? Sure! A dozen chicken wings after practice? Absolutely! As an athlete, I understood that I needed to get enough protein, fats, carbs, and vitamins to sustain myself on the field. Plus, in rugby, getting bigger, stronger, and heavier can improve your game — and I had to work for all of those things.

When I joined my college team, I was a scrawny teenager who struggled to protect myself, let alone to dominate anyone else. When the coach encouraged me to “bulk,” i.e.  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.

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 foods I was inhaling weren’t just calorically dense, but nutritionally rich.

For the first time, I ate to gain 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.

Then a knee injury ended my season. In an instant, I went from an extremely active lifestyle to a completely sedentary one.

Back to Dieting: The Old Rules of Eating

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 bananas (which my keto classmates said were as bad as Snickers) or skip cream in my coffee. My job was to gain weight and stay strong, not to worry over carb counts.

Abruptly, I felt the rules apply to me.

I thought I’d forgotten about good and bad foods. Turns out I’d just 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.

I thought back to what I’d added to my diet to bulk up — the high calorie foods like peanut butter and avocados that I’d learned to love. Grimly, I cut them all out. I traded in my potatoes for rice cakes; my whole milk for skim. My new breakfast: Black coffee and half a bagel.

Recalibrating Healthy: Finding My Clean Plate

After several weeks, I had lost weight, and my knee was healing up ahead of schedule. But I got headaches. I was nauseous. I lacked the limitless energy I had before. Hobbling from class to class exhausted me. And I half-listened to lectures through a thick mental fog. In short, I felt awful.

I’d cut out all those high calorie foods, but in doing so I cut out nutrition-dense foods, too. It was really, really hard to get all the nutrients I needed in a day by having black coffee for breakfast and salad for dinner. 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 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 walking was easier. The fog lifted. And I noticed I was hitting my recommended daily values of micronutrients again.

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 find my clean plate.

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