Sensible Splurging

Food splurging is a natural part of our existence. Some triathletes will choose to splurge on chocolate and ice cream, whereas others will indulge in a pepperoni pizza. No matter what you choose as your food splurge, plan your treat meal to fit within your structured triathlon nutrition and training program. The more thought, understanding, preparation and time you put into savouring your splurge, the more you as a seasoned and prepared triathlete will benefit from eating it.

Athletes often take one or more days off per week from training to allow their muscles to recover. So why not also take a day off every now and again from a strict training diet? After all, don’t we deserve it? Not so fast. Let’s not reach for the cookie jar just yet. Before we give the green light to set aside one day per week when you can simply eat whatever you want, we are obligated to first do a cost-benefit analysis of this proposal. Let’s start by defining a “splurge” before we determine whether it is really worth it, and what you have to gain or lose from it.

Splurge | splurj |

  • (verb): to indulge oneself extravagantly;
  • (noun) an ostentatious effort, display, or expenditure

THE GOOD

We, as humans, innately require splurges. Some individuals prefer a shopping splurge, others a travel splurge, and still others a food splurge. Whatever variety you prefer, we know that splurges are and will always be a regular part of our existence.

When athletes contemplate a food splurge, we are greeted by readily available delicious foods that give us pleasure. Whether your food splurge is a hot-fudge sundae with whipped cream, or a serving of foie gras on three-point toast, it is still your splurge. If you regularly deny yourself some element of your food splurge, then you could overindulge some other time—the old, if-you-don’t-bend-you’ll-eventually-break principle at work.

Recently, researchers at Drexel University have shown that food consumption is increasingly driven by the fact that delicious food is abundant in our society, rather than by a basic need for calories. These researchers have defined this drive as hedonic hunger and believe it is similar to other pleasure-driven activities, like compulsive gambling and drug use.

THE BAD

As alluded to earlier, unplanned food splurging can set you up for overindulging on calories and can create a significant speed bump in your training diet. Although some triathletes can have a small taste of their splurge and be completely satisfied, most triathletes (and humans, for that matter) will not be able to stop after only a small sample of their splurge, and may end up overdoing it.

It is obvious that splurging can set you up for over-consumption. But how do we define over-consumption in caloric terms? What is the “cost” of eating your food splurge, anyway? For example, if your food splurge is a large ice cream sundae, you should know that it could be loaded with 1130 calories and requires a 130-pound athlete to run for 90 minutes at 8- minutes-per-mile pace to negate those calories.

It is important to know the caloric content of your splurge in order to determine whether it is really worth it. A recent client of mine had a dark chocolate addiction. She would regularly consume five heart-shaped chocolate candies every night after dinner. I informed her that this splurge contributed 226 calories to her daily caloric intake, which was about 10 percent of her daily needs. The strategy that we came up with to deal with her splurge was twofold. First, we did not take away her splurge; rather, we increased the enjoyment she got from each candy. Instead of eating five candies in five minutes, she began eating two candies in five minutes, savouring each candy and letting it melt in her mouth for a more lastingly pleasurable experience. Second, we cut down on the frequency of the splurge and substituted other post-meal treats, such as a cup of fresh fruit, to satisfy her post-dinner cravings. Not only are calories an important consideration when discussing splurges, but we must also examine the physiological effects of consuming some common splurge foods. 

Fruit juices, sodas, candy, chocolate: Unfortunately, these foods and beverages are all put into the same high-calorie grouping, as they are all high in sugar. Sugar splurges increase blood sugar, causing the pancreas to release a flood-like flow of insulin. As a result, the body switches to fat-storing mode.

Fast food: Although some fast-food menu choices can fit into a healthful diet, most of it is very high in fat and sodium. Furthermore, fast food is typically made with poor-quality meats that can be tainted with hormones and other nasty stuff.

Diet soda and diet juice: These beverages contain artificial sweeteners. Many triathletes consider them an excellent alternative to regular juice and soda because they are calorie free. However, despite being sugar free, these juices are known to stimulate a craving for additional sweet and sugary foods, potentially increasing future calorie consumption.

Fat-free ice cream: Some athletes go for fat-free ice cream and believe they are making a sensible choice. Although fat-free ice cream is truly free of fat, what triathletes may not know is that the ice cream is likely to be loaded with sugar and have nearly as many calories as the full-fat version.

The calorie savings are relatively small. If you want to indulge in ice cream, and you’re going to enjoy the full-fat version more than the fat-free, we would recommend splurging on a small portion of the variety that is going to give you the most pleasure. 

Alcohol: Many triathletes do not realise that alcohol has calories that are stored as body fat. In fact, alcohol is more calorically dense than carbohydrates and protein, and nearly as calorie- dense as fat. Physiologically, alcohol impairs your central nervous system and slows your fine motor skills; it decreases the use of carbohydrates and protein by skeletal muscle, which leaves less fuel for your hard-working muscles; it weakens your immune system and slows your metabolism; and it can cause severe dehydration and fatigue. That said, a growing body of research has shown that those who consume one or two drinks a day have a significantly lower risk of heart disease and live substantially longer than non-drinkers.

THE PLAN

If there is one piece of advice we would give to athletes, no matter what the specific topic, it is to have a plan. Have a pre-race fuel plan. Have a recovery nutrition plan. Have a holiday food plan. And, yes, have a food splurge plan.

Here are some possible plan outlines:

  • Allow yourself one true splurge per week
  • Drink lots of water on splurge day to flush out any potential toxins that may be present in your splurge food
  • Splurge on a day that you are training, as rest days should be focused on proper nutrition to promote recovery splurge plan; follow them carefully:
  1. Accept your splurge foods. Don’t feel guilty when you have them, but enjoy this simple pleasure in life, as indulgence is an occasional pleasure that we all require. However, you must splurge with full consciousness. Embrace and savor your splurge and fit it carefully into your diet. Know why you love your splurge.
  2. Prepare the food yourself and go for flavor boosters. Instead of cheap grocery store brownies, go for homemade brownies with gourmet chocolates, local cream and fresh eggs. These homemade treats will taste better and are better for you.
  3. Take time to taste the flavours. While slowly eating your splurge, consider all of the joyous flavours that are triggering the pleasure receptors in your brain and contemplate why you love this food.
  4. Have a plan to be a conscious eater. This is a key piece of advice I regularly give to athletes. Any food can fit into a healthy overall training diet as long as you have a plan. Plan to eat splurge foods on an occasional basis and only in moderation.
  5. Go for quality, not quantity. Instead of hastily throwing five or six Munchkin donuts into your mouth at work, consider sitting down after dinner and having a small piece of homemade apple pie with a scoop of vanilla frozen yogurt. You will enjoy this treat considerably more than downing donut holes.
  6. Splurges don’t have to be high-calorie and high-fat bombs. Consider reaching for a handful of fresh local strawberries, or perhaps a fancy olive oil to drizzle on a tomato and mozzarella salad.
  7. Compromise and save yourself a bunch of calories. To reap the pleasure benefits of a creamy frozen dessert, consider low-fat frozen yogurt instead of regular ice cream. If this does not appeal to you, then savour the full-fat version but be sure to eat a small portion.
  8. Structure your splurge around activity. Allow yourself the pleasure of your food splurge but do it on a training day, not an off day. Further, go for a short walk afterward to speed up the digestion process and make yourself feel good after such an indulgence.
  9. Splurge after a healthy meal. Heed this suggestion to prevent overeating your splurge.
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