A few of the comments and emails I received on the last nutrition rant made me realize that I wasn't as clear as I could be about what "listening to your body" meant.
Listening to what your body asks for doesn't mean that you'll always get the perfect nutrition signal at the perfect time (although sometimes you will). A little heads-up display window won't pop up in your left eyeball that says, "231 calories of lean chicken, 120 of olive oil and a doughnut. Now!" Nope. But if you just pay a little bit of attention to how you feel and how you perform (whether you're rocking a desk or a huge day out in the mountains) then you can start to really gain some understanding and self-knowledge (at least about food--although some treat diet as the path to enlightenment I've never found it to be so.).
I have tried the low fat, high protein diet, the high carb low fat diet, and about every single version of "performance diet" out there. But all my best athletic successes came when I started to record not calories or portions but simply what I ate, how I felt, and how I trained. Patterns started to emerge; eat a lot of sugar, feel great for a bit, then want more sugar. Hmmm.... Eat a can of tuna, feel good for longer, get hungry for sugar... Hmm... Exist on sugar and cans of tuna while climbing hard in the desert during the day, eat a huge mexi feast with extra sand at night, get ripped and feel pretty good. Hmmm.... Drink three coffees and eat a croissant for breakfast, not good. Drink one Red Bull 30 minutes before training, rip it up! Hmmm.... Eat all carbs and coffee for breakfast, go skiing, flail. Eat all protein for breakfast, go skiing, flail. Eat a huge egg, bean and cheese burrito with some extra sausage, bring another for a snack along with a some hard candies and a couple of pastries, ski hard all day, eat a lean steak with a side of veg and potatoes, feel great, yeah!
Eat a lot white bread pastries and climb hard, OK, but getting heavier and not recovering well... Hmmm... Live on soda pop, truck-stop sandwiches and potato chips for two days while driving across the country, feel like hell for a week. Do the same thing but while drinking loads of water, eating solid sandwiches on good bread and peanut butter with some fruit, still feel like hell but climb well after only one day of rest instead of four...
Cut out all alcohol, simple carbs, sleep eight hours a night, train like a machine and eat clean simple foods, get ripped, strong, invincible. Feel great for a month or two, send hard climbing projects, dominate, then crave beer and cookies, accept that a super-high performance level can't be maintained forever, drink beer and eat some white-flour junk cookies, take a rest week or month, realize that pastry cookies make you feel lousy if you eat more than the very occasional cookie, back to fruit and beer, realize you like fruit more than junk cookies... Hmmm....
Spend a month in Venezuela going paragliding and never working out except for the occasional hike, but live on beer, beans, fruit, chicken and coffee, come back ripped and feeling great... Hmmm....
Count calories and blocks 'cause you want to get leaner, get leaner, success!!! Do this for a month or two or even a year, suddenly your performance starts falling apart (usually in about a month or less), you crave chocolate cake by the entire cake when you never did before, every bakery window is heaven, it all falls down. Every single time.
The above are all real examples of "listening to your body." You can do it.
I don't know a single fat person who doesn't claim to be on a diet. How is that for an inditement of diets? In the last 40 years or so it's become very fashionable to be on a "diet," and yet obesity rates and pretty much every malfunction of the human body possible has skyrocketed. Think about that for a minute. On the other hand, I don't know a single "best in the world" athlete in any sport who counts calories or measures their food, especially the athletes that dominate for long periods of time. Not one, and that's because world-class athletes are not figuring out what not what to eat for lunch but how to kick ass (and CFers, go and watch the videos of Khalipa and Speal--they're eating reasonably well, but definitely not formally "Zoning").
Today my body seems to respond to the sport I'm doing. If I go ice climbing for two or more days I will literally double my calorie intake immediately because that's the signal I'm getting in two-foot type across the inside of my eyeballs... If I start sport climbing I'll want way less food, and tend to get leaner with time while dropping muscle mass out of my legs. If I'm just doing Crossfit and desk jockeying I'll often crave huge amounts of protein, good carbs, and nice fat, but the total intake will be far lower compared to kayaking or ice season. I still gain muscle, but the caloric requirements of Crossfit are tiny compared to most of the other sports I do.
I can hear someone saying, "But you learned this through years of counting and measuring!" No, I truly learned as soon as got rid of the scale, stopped counting calories, and started really paying attention to how I felt and PERFORMED. Performance is the acid test of anything, including eating. I often get out in the mountains with "city-dwellers." I can tell with laboratory precision when their blood sugar levels drop as we hike; their eyes dim, and usually they say something like, "I ate a good breakfast, I'm OK" when I suggest what they need is a candy bar right now. Yes, they had a good breakfast, but it was only good for sitting at a desk all day. They burned up that six blocks of nonsense in the first hour of hiking, and are dying for something to replace some glycogen ten minutes ago. But often they don't want to eat 'cause they aren't used to eating when hungry, they're used to eating when the clock or their diet plans tell them to. And that's the real tragedy. I sometimes ask people when the last time was that they can remember being truly hungry, or felt so stuffed they didn't want any food at all. Most people can't remember because they're not eating when they're hungry but when the clock or the diet says, "Eat now." And that's a tragedy in my opinion.
I am sure of few things in life, but I am sure that the more we diet, portion control and ignore what our bodies are signalling the harder and harder it will be to decode what your body says, and what you as a thinking sort of person are feeling from your toes to your brain. This is why all diets based on measuring, calorie counting or any other gimmicks are doomed to eventual failure. Why so many people, myself included, have played this ridiculous game is a mystery to me. Maybe people play it for the same reason we lift weights when we should be doing skill work; it's easier to record numbers, see progress and think you're improving then to actually go and do the skill work and measure that against the performance level? Eat. Listen. Train. Have fun. Perform. Cool.