“I’m a bodybuilder and I’m going to Olive Garden,” 3D Muscle Journey Podcast, #216: How to Eat Out

How do successful elite, competitive bodybuilders think about eating out in restaurants? Is there wisdom there for the rest of us?

Truthfully, I believe most of the advice that comes out of bodybuilding can tend towards too much obsession over the details to be mentally healthful or practically applicable for most of us. AND that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to have these conversations between bodybuilders and everyday lifters and glean some useful, actionable information.

Recently on Stronger By Science, Greg and Eric discussed some of the diet advice out of the bodybuilding world that isn’t a great fit for many people. Highlights from the conversation include an over-emphasis on precise macro counting and a tendency towards restrictive, perfectionist mindsets about targets.

What I love about the conversation at 3DMJ is that it is evidence-based, compassionate, and veers away from the most disordered styles of thinking we tend to hear in bodybuilding. I’ve heard versions of this advice over the years from folks like Georgie Fear and the ladies at Balance 365, but maybe you’ll hear it better from a bodybuilder? If that’s the case, I’m glad this avenue to a more flexible mindset is available for you.

Overall, the advice breaks down into skills and mindset. If someone has physique goals and wants to eat out in restaurants with some regularity, they need a combination of strategies and ways of thinking that allow them to enjoy the experience and continue to work towards their goals. The coaches at Balance 365 would argue that mindset work is most effective in the context of learning new habits and strategies, as it’s in the practice of the new habits that we encounter mindset blocks, so it gives that work context. I hear a very similar refrain from the gents in this 3DMJ conversation, and I find the confluence exciting. We are one step closer to my vision of marrying the worlds of bodybuilding and compassionate, habit-based wellness together.

So, what are the skills and mindsets that can help someone with physique goals navigate eating out?

The first theme I hear in this conversation is around mindfulness and staying in the moment. The reasons we eat out are to enjoy other people’s company and the experience of having delicious foods that someone else has prepared. This mindfulness is a skill that we can practice. It wasn’t mentioned in this podcast, but you can practice this skill outside of eating out, which might be an easier way to develop the behavior–away from the excitement and distractions of a novel environment and company. In any case, the coaches at 3DMJ suggest going out and paying attention to your companions rather than living in a place of anxiety about the meal. They also suggest noticing what I’ve heard Georgie Fear call “the diminishing returns” of delicious foods. Pay attention to how delicious and satisfying each bite is and notice when it is no longer amazing. Again, this is a skill I would suggest you could practice at home before the higher-stakes environment of a restaurant.

The next theme is focused on the skills and accompanying mindsets that help someone adhere to their goals in preparation of the meal and afterwards. A big mindset block here is dichotomous thinking–the notion that there are “good” foods and “bad” foods and that if someone is eating out, it is bad, and they have failed. The coaches at 3DMJ mention athletes who feel guilty for eating out even before they’ve enjoyed their food, feeling like they’ve already “failed their diet.” They suggest some of the expected strategies of focusing on lean proteins and veggies, but what I really appreciate is their emphasis on regardless of what was eaten, not restricting afterwards. Steve points out the binge and restrict cycle that can be triggered by intentionally undereating to “make up” for a bigger meal, and I wish more content creators would emphasize how harmful this behavior can be. (In short, intentionally undereating can set a person up for overeating later due to both psychological and physiological responses to the restriction. This can create a harmful cycle of overeating being overcorrected by periods of undereating, increasing the chances of another overeating experience, etc.)

Another skill that Jeff mentions, and I think is worth emphasizing, is pausing before eating something and considering your future self. Jeff talks about how he considers his health as an aging athlete and his bodybuilding goals before making his food selection. I’ve witnessed people using this skill to harm themselves, to berate themselves or try to guilt themselves into making another choice. That is not an evidence-based practice. Shame is a shit motivator. Rather, consider developing a wise, compassionate voice guiding you towards the future you want. For me with my PTSD it can sometimes be difficult to imagine a rosier distant future, so I practice this skill with a shorter-term focus–what will make me feel best an hour or two from now? This is an evidence-based practice with research that shows folks are more likely to make health-promoting decisions when they consider their future before deciding what to do rather than focusing only on the present moment.

Finally, this conversation has a theme of avoiding a scarcity mindset around delicious foods and eating out. They encourage their athletes to treat eating out as a regular occurrence, not something that is off-limits or rare, so that they don’t find themselves overeating every time out from that place of feeling like they have to get it all now before it’s gone. Scarcity mindset is something I notice in myself, and I’m regularly working on reframing those thoughts when they come up. That is the skill–noticing the thoughts and challenging them from a place of self-compassion. I think making the food regularly available is a useful step towards challenging those mindsets, and that is the main way the 3DMJ coaches approach it. I would add that their athletes, and the rest of us, would benefit from learning to notice our thoughts and to gently reframe them when they come from a place of scarcity. Regularly using these strategies can help make them less powerful and give us more autonomy over our actions and behaviors.

There are a few skills I would add to the list if someone were to ask me. They don’t specifically talk about listening to internal cues–learning to recognize when we are hungry and satisfied and learning to eat in alignment with those sensations. They imply it a few times in the conversation, but I think learning these skills can give us a powerful tool for enjoying our foods but not overeating them. I would also like to add the skill of learning to pause before eating, or building in a pause during a meal, to check in with ourselves and our bodies. I’m not sure if this something bodybuilders talk about? It seems like the folks who are successful in this world do it automatically or they aren’t as influenced by environmental factors in the first place? In any case, I would encourage folks to learn to build these skills at their regular meals before trying in the more challenging environment of a social situation. Learning to pause and check in before or during eating can dramatically decrease eating on autopilot.

At the end of the day, if someone has physique goals, they can eat out without making their lives, and the lives of wait staff, more miserable. I don’t want to change my body in the short-term using methods that I wouldn’t want to be able to do for the long-term. Eating delicious meals will hopefully always be a part of my life, so it needs to be part of any intentional weight management strategies I choose to employ, too. These skills and mindsets can be powerful tools for any of us to develop towards that goal.

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