I just returned from close to a month in France. The first part of my trip was to participate in the grueling Haute Route bike race. This is a 7 day stage race from Geneva to Nice France, covering over 800km through the French Alps, climbing over 21,000 meters or 70,000 feet of grueling mountains passes every day at my maximum race pace effort. It was undeniably the hardest endurance event I’ve ever competed in and it certainly lived up to its reputation as being, “the Highest and Hardest” cycling sportive in the world.
Approximately 600 participants competed in Haute Route and for one week I lived in a “cycling bubble”. Imagine if you will an environment where every person is keenly aware of their personal health and fitness level (I was even comfortable wearing compression socks in public). This obviously contrasts to the everyday world we live in, where the typical North American’s personal health and wellness is not a priority, that is unless they have an illness or disease.
Outside the Haute Route cycling bubble, which consists of very thin cyclists that take their health and fitness to a scientific level, was the everyday person who cheered alone the roadside as 600 of us passed through their villages or towns. It’s these people that caught my attention, because they represent the general population by which I can draw comparisons to what I observe here in North America.
After finishing Haute Route, my wife and I spent the next few weeks in the Provence region of France, starting in Nice where we observed and enjoyed a very different lifestyle compared to what we’re accustomed to in Calgary, or our other home in Arizona.
It seemed we could find any number of close-by markets where fresh locally grown food was always available.
By contrast, when I returned home, I found myself steering my oversized grocery cart through my local supersized grocery store, selecting produce that was probably aged artifically under ultraviolet lights, while surrounded by oversized people stuffing their oversized carts for what appeared to be a month’s worth of processed junk food and supersized soft drinks.
My general observation is that, “North Americans are obsessed with size and equate ‘more’ with better value”. This thinking manifests itself in our supermarkets, restaurants, home appliances, highways, real estate etc. We drive oversized minivans and sport utility vehicles; we rip into potato chips bags the size of garbage bags, we drink soft drinks from bathtub-sized containers and wedge our steroid fed Thanksgiving turkeys into oversized refrigerators that have more room than most European cars.
The fact that we weigh too much because we eat too much on a regular basis may be obvious to some, but I’m starting to see a disturbing trend of pseudo-science that’s distracting us from the real causes behind our unhealthy size. Study after study are looking at fringe reasons why over 65% of us are either overweight or obese and are focusing on the edges of the problem instead of the flabby core. It seems like we’re focusing on the less daunting issues that distract us from the one that’s most difficult to change, which is the sheer volume of food our “larger is better” culture accepts and now believes is normal.
In the past two weeks since returning from France, I’ve read stories or blog posts that describe research exploring the effects of a proper breakfast on weight loss; the implications of gut bacteria on a person’s tendency to be fat; the impact that sleep deprivation on dietary cravings; the possibility of strenuous exercise as an appetite suppressant (I can attest this isn’t true after observing how much food we ate after strenuous daily racing during Haute Route); and the unhealthy food choices a person will make when their favorite sport team loses the game. I even read an article that experts have now drawn a parallel between air-conditioning and obesity.
Like the trillion dollar business seeking a cure for cancer, obesity has become full-time employment for scientists, physicians, nutritionists, and professors, who are funded to look for every obscure reason why we’re so fat. What’s upsetting is that these experts have done little in the way of providing clarity; in fact they have done more to confuse the general public than help. We’ve been told that snacking is good for us and that it’s not; that fruits and veggies will save the day and that they won’t; that more exercise means fewer pounds and that it makes little to no difference. Their approach to the weight issue is like a doctor stitching a cut finger on a severed arm; they're focusing on the cursory problems when the larger issue is staring them in the face. There’s no one standing at my door offering a million dollar research grant, but what I’ve advised the people I’ve coached has yielded positive and lasting results more consistent than anything the experts are advising and it’s largely because I keep it simple and focus on the obvious problem.
Back to Europe for a moment. I’ve been there a number of times over the past few years and from my observation, I know they’re generally thinner and healthier than North Americas. I also know they walk more, and they eat more locally grown foods, but these factors alone don’t make the difference in body size or health when compared to North Americas. The reason for the difference is because they don’t celebrate huge portions the way we do. They can’t comprehend the sheer volume of food we eat over here. For example, my friend in France said the French don’t understand the concept of the “Doggie-Bag” (you know, for that time when we just can’t shovel anymore food in our faces, so we take whatever’s leftover home and eat it later). He said it would be very difficult to move his family back to the United States, where he's originally from, largely because of the lifestyle differences, which includes the unhealthy eating practices of North Americans. Note the healthy portion size on "Mrs. No-Finish-Line's" plate (Eggplant, Rice and Pork Tenderloin, served with a wonderful bottle of local rosé wine).
When the typical North American thinks of value; 7-11’s Super Big Gulp, Coca Cola’s economy pack, KFC’s party size, Papa John’s two-for-one pizza, the Whopper, the Double Whopper, the Triple Whopper, Costco in all its bloated grandeur all come to mind. With restaurants that serve obscene volumes of food and are celebrated on shows like “Man vs. Food”, we’ve been taught that quantity, not quality, equals good value and it’s established a dangerous baseline for what we consider to be a sane and acceptable amount of food.
While preparing for Haute Route, part of my training objective was to reach and maintain an optimal race weight. I often think cyclists are more pre-occupied with weight than international super models. Although for a cyclist, carrying an unnecessary 5 to 10 lbs over 70,000 feet of mountain climbs, as I did in Haute Route can be the difference between racing well and just surviving. For me, this meant I had to lose around 10lbs to 15lbs, which doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re already thin, losing 10 to 15 pounds requires extra attention to not only what I ate, but how much of it I consumed. During the 7 months leading up to Haute Route, I dropped my weight from 167lbs to 153lbs. Actually, I gained 4lbs of muscle during this time and lost 18lbs of body fat for a net weight loss of 14 pounds (6.36 kg) and still managed to maintain a very healthy 7.8% bodyfat. I achieved this simply by paying particular attention to my food portions in addition to my food quality. After getting over my habit of eating more than I really needed, I was surprised how easy it was to eat smaller, healthier portions and still not feel hungry. And the surprising and unexpected benefit was how much more I enjoyed the food I ate.
So my advice if you’re seeking a healthy body size is to ignore the cursory pseudo-science that’s confusing our lifestyle choices, especially when it comes to food and simply learn what a healthy portion is and eat accordingly. Remember, when it comes to food, “less is more”.
Enjoy the Ride....Rob