Pilates and the Diet

Introduction: Incentives and Interdependencies 

Most people looking to improve physical fitness approach muscle training in the correct way, by engaging in a regular muscle workout program, and are able to improve their muscle structure. However, many of those people never get a good look at that improved muscle structure, because their muscles remain shrouded in a layer of fat. While such people definitely reap health benefits from getting fitter they will unfortunately never get to see – or to show off – an improved body shape. As a result, many people lose the drive to keep training, and fall out of their routines. 

Getting fit and staying fit requires persistence and psychological toughness. The incentive provided by incremental improvements in body shape can act as a wonderful assistant. Consequently, I always advise my clients to approach a fitness regime from two angles: the fitness regime itself; and the diet. 

Besides the psychological link, training and diet are also physically interdependent. For example, by increasing muscle quality, one generally increases base metabolic rate, which is defined as the number of calories one would burn over the course of 1 day spent lying motionless. One the flip side, if you control calorie intake appetite during a training program, your body will learn to route more calories to building muscles, and less to building fat reserves. 

In my experience, therefore, for both psychological and physical reasons, a training program and a controlled diet should be employed together as part of a holistic lifestyle plan. So, assuming your pilates training is under control, how should one start thinking about diet?

My Own Experience: It’s All About Balance

I am a pilates instructor, not a nutritionist. Most of what I say here (about diet) is opinion, not fact. The following is a description of my experience, and of my perception of what  works and what does not work for me. Please feel free to take notice or not of what I say.  I have tried the following diets, amongst others.

  • low carb diet
  • no carb diet
  • CPF (carbo, protein, fat) balance diet
  • banana diet
  • cabbage diet
  • fasting / juice diet
  • green smoothie diet

In all honesty, I don’t think there is much value in detailing the results of each of these diets.  What I would say, in general, is that most of these diets make life more difficult than it should be, and are also rather unnatural, which gives me cause for concern.  I also think these sorts of diets get plenty of press coverage because they sell well.  And they sell well because people feel there is a clear theme that they understand. And when people have a clear theme, they feel they are doing something pro-active about their weight issues.  And while that ticks a lot of boxes in the psychology of weight loss, I’m less sure it actually ticks any boxes for actual weight loss!

All of that said, my own conclusion is that the best results come from a properly balanced diet, and what I want to do here, is explain to you how to follow such a diet without the hassle of can’s/cannot’s, CPF calculators, and calorie counting. 

The Balanced Diet: How Much to Eat?

These 3 guidelines will help you control how much you eat.  

  1. Don’t feel you must eat 3 meals per day.  If you can, why not skip a meal?  
  2. Stop eating when you feel 60% full, and apply the 10 minute rule: stop eating, wait 10 minutes. I find the urge to eat more has usually gone away.
  3. Follow the scissors, paper, stone method:
    • Scissors, 2 fingers plus a fistful of protein.  
    • Paper, a flat hand sized amount of veggies. 
    • Stone, a fistful of carbohydrates.  

The Balanced Diet: What to Eat?

In terms of what to eat, follow these 3 guidelines and you will be well on the way to a healthy diet.

  1. Carbs: should be at least 50% complex carbs. Eat more whole grains, less refined sugars.
  2. Protein: focus on leaner proteins with high quality fats. Eat more tofu, beans, fish, chicken, and less red meat.
  3. Veg: variety is key – mix it up from the subgroups: dark greens; red/orange; beans; starchy. 

Tip 1: Snacking

If you feel really hungry between meals, eat a snack. But be organised about what and how much you eat in one day!  One handful of nuts per day is acceptable, but stick to almonds and walnuts, and steer clear of pistachios and cashews (the tastiest ones are naturally highest in calories). Otherwise try a protein drink, or a boiled egg with soy sauce.  Steer clear of carbo-loaded snacks such as chips, and avoid anything with added sugar.  

Tip 2: Green Smoothies

I don’t recommend green smoothies at all if you are trying to lose weight.  The problems with green smoothies are as follows:

  • Our natural digestive process starts with chewing. If you skip this process, the brain feels hungry again quickly, regardless of your calorie intake.  
  • Peeling fruit and blending causes fibre to be removed and/or broken, allowing sugar to be absorbed unnaturally quickly into the blood. 
  • It is easy to eat too much sugary fruit.  Think about how much fruit you would actually eat in the normal way.  
  • It is a much better idea to eat whole fruit and veg in the traditional way. 
  • If you must drink green smoothies, use them as meal replacements, and limit the ingredients to one piece of sugary fruit. 

Tip 3: Alcohol

It’s easy to advocate giving up alcohol, but this is another way to make a life too hard, increasing the chance of failure. I love a night out with a few glasses of wine.  But alcohol is literally rocket fuel and contains loads of calories, so if you do have a night out, you need to offset your extra calorie intake. I recommend the following guidelines.

  • Limit drinking to 1 or 2 nights a week, and try to keep 24 hours between drinking and a workout. 
  • Keep it down to 2-3 drinks, by alternating alcoholic drinks with sparking water.
  • Stick to wine (red is better, avoid sparkling), whisky, gin or vodka with soda, and avoid sugary mixers. 
  • The next day, for breakfast, have a non-sugar yoghurt and a drink of hot water with a squeeze of lemon or grapefruit juice.  Skip carbs for the whole day to offset the additional calories.

Tip 4: Hydration

This one is simple.  Stick to water, and avoid sugary or milky drinks and fruit juices. If you want some taste, add a squeeze of fresh lemon or fresh grapefruit, or make yourself a mint, chamomile, ginger or barley tea.  

On Training Day: Eating around Pilates Classes

Pilates classes emphasise the use of core muscles, and can be a tough workout, so while you don’t want to be hungry, you also don’t want to feel full or gassy in class. A good bet is a light, protein rich meal at least 90 minutes before class.  And always make sure you are hydrated: muscles are inefficient when dehydrated, both in terms of power and repair. 

After class, avoid the temptation to reward yourself, or to binge eat (don’t ever allow emotion to guide what or how you eat). If you are looking to lose weight, replace your next meal with a protein shake. This gives you body the nutrients it needs to rebuild muscle, but also forces your body to start consuming internal calorie storage.  

Pilates, Diet, and Weight Loss: Manage Your Expectations

It is important to understand that you should not aim for, or expect quick results. If you lose weight quickly, it’s probably mostly fluid, and not sustainable. Your body needs time to switch systems on and off, so expect to see limited weight loss for at least a month. But keep going, and it will happen. Once you do start losing weight, you will probably notice that weight loss occurs in stages, with body weight plateauing for a month or so at a time between periods of weight loss.  Be patient during the plateaux, your body is adjusting to new conditions, and weight loss will follow, so hang in there!   As a rule of thumb, over a 1 year period, aim to lose 1-2kg per month, depending on how overweight you are to start with.  

Summary: Pilates and Diet Together

  1. Pilates and diet control should come together, as part of a holistic healthy lifestyle.
  2. Control of your diet will improve the results of your exercise routine, through both physical and psychological effects.
  3. Control the quantity you eat by
    • skipping meals, 
    • eating until 60% full, 
    • using the 10 minute rule, 
    • applying the “scissors, paper, stone” method.
  4. Maintain a varied diet, and focus on the following changes
    • replace simple carbs with complex carbs
    • reduce red meat and replace with leaner proteins
    • rotate veg intake between dark greens, red/orange, legumes/beans, and starchy veg.
  5. Cut out sugary drinks altogether, plan your daily snack limit, and cut down on alcohol consumption.  
  6. Manage your expectations: sustainable weight loss is slow weight loss.  
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