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What You Need to Know About Low-Energy Food Swaps

You don’t have to look very hard to see the ‘clean eating’ message all over social media and the internet. While I believe the intention of this movement isn’t to create harm, it is problematic in so many more ways that people understand.

Listen To Your Body 357- What You Need to Know About Low-Energy Food Swaps

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Key Takeaways

If You Want To Stop Making Low Energy Food Swaps, You Should:

  1. Put work into unlearning what you have been taught about food and fueling
  2. Stop making low energy food substitutions and start fueling for your activity level and volume
  3. Join the Group Strength Nutrition Program to explore the 4 Keys of Fueling Your Strength

Why ‘Clean Eating’ May Not Be for You

If you are an active person and are not fueling your body with the energy needed to complete your chosen activity, you are doing a disservice to your body. 

Creating an energy deficit for yourself can happen easily when you are not giving your body the carbohydrates and fats it needs to perform at peak capacity. While nobody is saying that vegetables are bad, it takes more than just vegetables to fuel your body the way it requires. Figuring out the right combination of foods that work for you is the only way to fuel your body the way it should be fueled.

Fuelling Your Body the Right Way

By being mindful of the old habits that you are still engaging with, you can start to change your mindset and routine to eat in relation to the intensity and volume of your training. 

The good news is there is a middle ground to develop awareness, a framework, best practices, and science-based information to fuel yourself for your activity in a way that does not consume your whole life. It doesn’t need to be complicated; it just takes some learning and unlearning to see the results you have been looking for.

Are you ready to stop counting calories and start eating in a way that is both healthy, but also non-restrictive? Share how you are working to fuel your body the right way for you with me in the comments below.

In This Episode

  • Examples of low energy food substitutions that you may be making without even realizing it (5:52)
  • How ‘clean eating’ and other food trends could be disrupting your strength training (9:21)
  • Why you need more than just vegetables when fueling your activity levels and energy (14:30)
  • Learn my personal story with fueling in relation to my intensity and volume of training (19:05)
  • What to do if you are ready to walk away from macro counting (25:43)


“This is a very common issue that is facing people who are active and working out and lifting weights and challenging themselves and asking their bodies to do fun and hard things. And it really has to do with an element of fueling and energy intake that not a lot of people talk about or are aware of.” (2:49)

“You don’t intend to do these low energy substitutions or really low carb substitutions, but it is kind of a holdover from your old habits and ways of looking at food.” (11:31)

“Vegetables are not bad, vegetables are amazing. Fibre, nutrients, vitamins, minerals, delicious! But they are usually much lower in energy.” (16:40)

“I went on to be on a team at CrossFit Regionals in 2013 and really had one of what I would consider the Top 5 athletic performances of my life; it was amazing. It was such night and day contrast from where I had been just a few months earlier because I really started to eat enough, and I didn’t go out and count every single thing I was eating.” (24:38)

“I want you to experience how amazing it feels, how powerful and strong and badass you feel when you are properly fueled up and recovered, and you can go out there and do hard things.” (30:26)

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Related Episodes

LTYB 352: Energy Flux and Fueling for Athletes with Jamie Scott

LTYB 353: Fueling Best Practices for Active People with Jamie Scott

LTYB 350: Are You Eating Enough? Low Energy Availability in Sport

What You Need to Know About Low-Energy Food Swaps FULL TRANSCRIPT

Steph Gaudreau

The Listen To Your Body podcast is all about helping women who lift weights get stronger, fuel themselves without counting every bite of food perform better in and out of the gym, and take up space. I’m a strength coach, nutritional therapy practitioner, and certified intuitive eating counselor Steph Gaudreau. This weekly show brings you discussion about building strength, without obsessing about food and exercise, lifting weights, food, psychology, and more. You’ll learn how to eat, train, recover, listen to your body, and step into your strength. Hit subscribe on your favorite podcast app. And let’s dive in. You don’t have to look too far these days to stumble across the term clean eating on social media and the internet. There are so many reasons why what on the surface seems like a very innocent phrase is a problem. And while many of the people in this movement, who create content in the clean eating category, don’t set out, I think to create harm. It’s worth noting that there are reasons why if you’re working out, you’re training hard, trying to build muscle, and seeing the results from your workouts. If you’re someone who’s competing and someone who’s athletic, clean eating may not be helping you. In today’s podcast, I’m going to be talking about one specific area of clean eating that could be making it challenging for you to get enough energy and take to support your activity.

Welcome back to the podcast. If you’re a returning listener, thanks so much for being here. If you’re brand new to this podcast, Hello, and welcome. I’m so glad that you’re here with me. Today we are digging into a topic that I see happening a lot to my strength nutrition unlocked group program members, my one on one clients. And honestly, just from the myriad of comments, and DMS and emails that I get every week and I have received over the last many, many years. This is a very common issue that is facing people who are active and working out and lifting weights and challenging themselves and asking their bodies to do fun and hard things. And it really has to do with an element of fuelling and energy intake that not a lot of people talk about or are aware of. So I’m going to be talking about this facet. And I mentioned clean eating at the top of the show. because quite often I see this as an element of A either a clean eating way of eating that you adopted in the past an elimination diet that you did in the past or other, what I would call food trends that have sort of gotten into your consciousness. And you may not even be realizing that you’re, you’re doing this. And so I wanted to talk about this today because I see it happening, for lack of a better description quite a bit, and it could be affecting you, even if you think you’re eating healthy.

And I’m also going to tell you a personal story or two, about my experience with this. So before we hop in, I just want to let you know that yes, right now doors to strength nutrition unlocked are technically closed, but we just kicked off a new group and there is still time for you to squeak in. So if you’re listening to this podcast this week, we are basically in week one, and there’s still time for you to hop in with us. So please go ahead if you want to join strength nutrition unlocked. This is my eight-week group coaching program for women who are lifting weights want to get stronger, have more muscle, feel more energetic, perform better in and out of the gym, and frankly, you feel like a badass it’s going on right now. So send me a DM on Instagram or an email if you want to hop in with us. It’s not too late, you will be able to catch up. But I just wanted to make sure that you knew that it’s open and I also wanted to share some words from one of the strength nutrition unlocked members who completed the program. Recently. She said after just one week of properly fueling myself I prs and my back squat by 20 pounds and she put it in all caps. I walked in the gym that day feeling pumped and energized in a way that I hadn’t felt for so long. I was shocked at how poorly I was feeding myself before and suddenly my lack of progress made sense. Now that I’ve consistently fueled myself correctly for eight weeks, I’ve added another 25 pounds to my back squat.

This blows my mind. And I am so excited. This is from Roxanne G, and just absolutely made my heart flutter when I read this from her. So if you’re ready to get some guidance, and really put these things into practice, then come join me. And you can go ahead and send me a DM, send me an email, send a passenger pigeon, let me know that you want to join us before the end of the year is over in this run of strength nutrition unlocked, and I will hook you up with all the details for that. Okay, so let’s go on to this topic. It is low-energy food substitutions that you may be inadvertently making in your routine that are leading to an overall low energy state. Now we have talked on this podcast, both myself and with guests. For example, Jamie Scott, in episodes 352 and 353. I’ve talked about low energy availability recently as well. We need to be aware of energy balance. And we also don’t want to fall down the rabbit hole of making this too complicated, or making it so precise that we’re obsessing about every little calorie or every little gram of every macronutrient. For most people, that’s not even necessary. And even things like calorie counting, or macro counting are never going to be exact, for so many reasons. So so many reasons. Not to mention things like the percentage error that’s going to be found on food labels, and My Fitness Pal, being just what it is, or other counting apps, for example, or food scales not being 100% accurate, or did you weigh that food cooked or uncooked? I mean, it just runs the gamut. But this particular one, this sort of mistake that people are inadvertently making is one I don’t hear talked about quite a lot. And I think it’s worth discussing because it is highly nuanced. Now, when I said earlier, it’s these low-energy food substitutions, you might not be purposely trying to eat lower calories. Now, you might be and there are just so there’s just so much that we could discuss here and I’m going to try to keep it on the straight and narrow with this particular element of foods substitutions.

But there are so many reasons why people try to make swaps in their day, or in their food plan, or in their overall diet and nutrition. That can be really, on one hand, well-meaning and sort of innocent and not Oh setting out to cut energy intake too low. But then, on the other hand, kind of the other end of the spectrum, we have things like purposeful, intense food restriction, and extreme dieting, and so on and so forth. And I feel like most people, at least listening to this show probably don’t fall into that category. But within those sorts of clean eating, low carb, paleo, and other related term lifestyles and communities, I see this happen a lot. Now, if you’re just new to this podcast, or you’ve not been following me for too long, you probably don’t know or maybe you do that I used to run a Paleo Recipe website. And pretty early on it was definitely following paleo kind of to the letter, it was like this is strict paleo. I’ve sent really removed most of those articles from the website when I really rebranded in 2018. And pretty soon after starting my blog, and really understanding as someone who was competing in sports that I needed to fuel myself better. I started to really weave in some of these other like, I guess, technically non-paleo or not strict paleo foods, things like rice and potatoes. And one of the most controversial articles I ever wrote on that blog was about white potatoes and why there could be a good source of carbohydrates for some people, and it was like the pitchforks came out.

And I got so much hate for that post. And so all of that is to say that even fairly early on I was talking about well If you are eating along the lines of, for example, paleo and you’re working out hard, you’re doing CrossFit or you’re an endurance athlete or whatever it happens to be, you probably need more carbohydrate intake. And part of that was my own experience of eating really low carb. Because early on, I had that sense that I should just be very low carb, because that’s what you do, instead of understanding that nutrition is contextual. So that just kind of goes back to show that in 2009, when I first heard about it, I was all up for adopting it just as a one size fits all plan. And over time that evolved, and then, of course, I left that whole label behind. And now I’m definitely an advocate for eating your carbs, and eating enough food, and so on and so forth. But I bring this up, because a lot of you are probably still listening to this show, or you’ve come along with me on this journey. And I hear from you all the time that you have, or you followed me before, and then you stopped, and then you found me again when I rebranded and I changed direction, and I left that, that label behind. And I see this happening in a lot of you where you don’t intend to do this low energy, substitutions, or really low carb substitutions, but it’s kind of a holdover from your old habits and ways of looking at food. So what do I mean by low energy substitutions or swaps, this is typically something like, I’m not going to eat much in the way of carbohydrates, or I’m going to be cutting out things like grains, or I’m doing an elimination, or those things are removed or downplayed, and in its place is some other food that’s meant to give sort of the illusion or the experience or be similar, but it’s not quite the same.

And the biggest example of this I can give is the substitution of vegetables for grains. So for example, and I’m reading this off of a website, and this one makes me cringe on cucumber slices instead of crackers. There is a very popular method of using zucchini noodles, instead of actual pasta noodles. We could be talking about making some kind of cauliflower crust for a pizza. Or maybe we’re talking about a lettuce wrap instead of bread or slices of bell pepper instead of a sandwich bread or something of that nature. those tend to be the most common ones. And then of course, instead of rice, cauliflower rice, or some people would call rice cauliflower, because they believe cauliflower rice doesn’t isn’t an actual thing.

And here’s, here’s the thing, okay, nobody’s saying that vegetables are bad. I am not saying vegetables are bad. Vegetables are an important part of a well-rounded way of eating. They just are fiber is important. And getting enough fiber matters. So please hear me again, I am not saying that vegetables are bad, or you’re wrong if you eat them, because here’s the thing that happens on this the internet these days, it’s like you say something, and it’s taken to the extreme immediately, she said that vegetables are unhealthy or bad for you. No one’s saying that. And you know what you might be under the care of a medical professional, or a registered dietician for something like medical nutrition therapy, where your carbohydrates have to be very, very tightly controlled. There are certainly legitimate reasons why there are substitutions made, for example, for these carbohydrates that I just mentioned, there are other examples of swaps. For example, I’ve seen things like nuts instead of crotons. And it is eating too much refined carbohydrates, generally health-promoting No. So don’t take this to the extreme with what I’m saying. But if you have a medical need, and you’re making these swaps, that’s one thing. But what I see happening and I’m kind of tying all this back together is that a lot of you have been in that those communities or you dabbled in low carb for a time because you heard it was just the best thing and Bob in accounting, who worked with you got amazing results and like lost 25 pounds doing keto, or whatever it happened to be.

And so now you think that that’s, you should do it too, right? Because he got great results. So you’re going to get these amazing results. And, and so that’s what I’m speaking to here is like the voluntary sort of like elimination diets and doing them over and over and over and over again, without any guidance or supervision, making these substitutions. And again, I don’t think a lot of people set out with bad intentions or to create this energy deficit for themselves, especially, you know, I’m talking about physically active people who are training hard lifting heavy, and all of that. But what happens is, is, these types of substitutions tend to be Yes, they’re lower in carbohydrates, typically. But that also means that they are far lower in energy, or far lower in energy. Energy balance is a thing, we don’t want to eat more energy than we need. But we also have to be kind of honest, and look at what’s on our plates. And if the entire plate is full of very low energy, vegetables, for example, vegetables are not bad vegetables are amazing. fiber, nutrients, vitamins, minerals, delicious, great, but they are usually much lower in energy. And where this is a problem, especially with people that I see who are super active and are coming to work with me is that they are not, you are not putting enough energy on your plate. In addition to those amazing, delicious, wonderful vegetables. So I guess my question is, why can’t we have both on the plate, right? Is being more mindful of cutting out too much energy and feeling the effects of that, right?

So you’re training and you notice that you’re getting super sore, much sorer than you should be? Especially if you’re not introducing a bunch of new and novel movements? Or a bunch of volumes, for example? or Why are you having a hard time actually finishing your workouts or sort of doing them as written, assuming that the programming is solid? Why are you noticing changes and things like mood and sleep quality, it could be a recovery issue. And it could also be an overall fueling issue. So if you’re not actually giving yourself enough energy to support both your basal metabolic rate, the or your nonexercise activity that you’re doing during the day, and then your purposeful exercise, those are sort of the three main things, and then, of course, we have the thermic effect of food, which contributes a small amount to sort of energy use a smaller amount to energy usage in the day. So I bring this up because again, I don’t think people oftentimes intentionally realize doing this, they’re sort of carrying over some of these old habits, and unaware that the carbohydrate intake, especially if you’re doing endurance, exercise, endurance workouts, endurance training, and high intensity, kind of glycolytic demanding training, especially. And yes, even if you’re lifting weights, like some amount of carbohydrate intake is important. So I give you this example because I’ve seen it a lot in my one on one clients and in my group members, and also in myself.

So here’s the personal story. I’ve been an athlete, most of my life, I’ve talked about this on the podcast before I’ve competed for most of that time, I believe, yes, you can be an athlete, even if you do not compete. I have not competed for the last about four years, to really just take time to focus on the business and enjoy Jiu-Jitsu and not have the pressure of competing and lifting weights. So if you go back to 2011 2012, though, I was training for competitive CrossFit for local competitions, working a full-time job at the time, so I was still teaching high school, and I was training five times a week, I would guesstimate two hours a day. So that would be about 10 hours a week, maybe a little bit more on the weekend. And so that’s a fairly significant chunk of training. And again, I had life demands in addition to that training, so I wasn’t just training. And that was it, I started to notice that I was having a really hard time finishing the workouts I was feeling really drained. At the time, I was starting to notice an impact on my sleep quality. I was very sore. And again, this kind of training had ramped up already, it wasn’t brand new to me. And I was so sore all the time. And I started to skip kind of that third workout of the week. Now you all know, I’m a big fan of, of course, listening to your body, there’s nothing wrong with taking a rest day when you really feel like it. So don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. But I started to notice it was a pattern, it was a trend, I was just so depleted and drained by that, especially by that third day. And normally we would rest on Thursdays. So I decided to hire a nutrition coach. And he met with me via email, and said, I need seven days of food from you, I need to know what you’re eating. And that’s kind of the first phase which makes a lot of sense. And I do this with a lot of my clients, I need to know and you need to know where you’re starting. And I submitted that to him and I got the numbers back. And it was not It was shocking how little I was eating in relation to the intensity and the volume of my training.

And when I took a look at not only the energy intake, which was on most, if you took the average of my energy intake across the week, it was barely at that sort of basal metabolic rate that my body needed to function without exercise and any other movement factored in. But when we specifically kind of broke down and looked at the other elements, it was very telling my carbohydrate intake was very low. The average of that was somewhere around 50 grams of carbs a day, which again, especially for something glycolytic li demanding like CrossFit, endurance training, if you’re doing that is just way, way, way, way too low. And even for lifting, you know, you need carbohydrates to replenish that glycogen stored in your muscle. So there was that the protein intake again, far too low. And I’ve talked about protein intake recently on my private podcast, which is currently not available. But we went through sort of the ranges. And we do this in strength nutrition unlocked. Like I wasn’t even hitting really the lowest end of the spectrum. And here I was really trying to lift heavy and no wonder why I’ve started to notice that stuff was tapering off. So we had those two things were, in addition to the overall energy intake, we’re very, very low. And I just didn’t know at the time I didn’t have any background in really understanding how to fuel myself properly, even though I’d been an endurance athlete since 2004. So 2004 to 2012.

I was running half marathons I was racing bikes, I was doing triathlons, and again to a pretty high level really pushing myself and training quite a bit. And do I think you can do all those things and train hard, of course, but I did not have the energy intake to support it. And that was really a big wake-up call for me. Fast forward almost another decade from that point. And I had to really learn how to eat to fuel myself, but without micromanaging. So I also had the opposite experience wherein in 2015, I was training for an Olympic weightlifting meet, I had really at that point switched over to Olympic weightlifting, as my only sport. I wasn’t really doing CrossFit anymore after I competed, and by the way, when I changed my nutrition, I started eating more and really giving myself the carbohydrate intake and the protein intake is I needed to recover. I went on to be on a team at CrossFit regionals in 2015. Or sorry 2013. And really had one of what I would consider the top five sort of athletic performances of my life. It was it was amazing. I it was such a night and day contrast from where I had been just a few months earlier because I really started to eat enough and I didn’t go out and count every single thing I was eating. So there was that and then a few years later training for Olympic weightlifting, which is a weight class sport and that’s there’s a whole bunch of stuff mixed up in that with body weight and weight classes and cutting and that’s a story for another day really about that whole world. But I hired a company to provide me with macro coaching. And the long story short in all of that was I had to count and weigh and measure and log everything every day, including my body weight. And it was a mindfuck.

Quite simply, it was a mindfuck. Did I kind of learn and I really learned this in 2012, that I needed to eat things like yes, enough carbohydrates and enough protein. Yeah, definitely. And not cut fat too low. And in that macro counting, cutting experience, my fat intake was just so so so low, they had me in such a low amount of fat, it was difficult. It was difficult overall, you might be listening to this and think macro counting, and really counting and weighing and logging and measuring and the food skill and the My Fitness Pal and the apps like that, that stuff works for you. And so this podcast, probably this episode isn’t for you. But I walked away from that feeling like I could not, cannot maintain that for my whole life. There was no way, no way that that was going to happen.

Despite how sucky it was I went on to do two more three-month stints with that kind of a system with a coach that the coach told me exactly what to eat. And I followed it because I’m a good upholder. And again, at the end of it, what did I really gain from it? Nothing. It was way more taxing and time-consuming and energy-depleting than it was worth and weighing myself every day was not where I needed to be mentally. I tell you these stories because they really illustrate the sort of two opposite sides of the spectrum, I think that people are faced with feeling like they’re not really sure what it takes to eat a reasonable amount of food, or the structures and the systems and the strategies and the science behind those things. That was a lot of SS on one hand. And then, on the other hand, a very regimented very strict, very micromanaging, because this is what it is, is micromanaging approach where you have to be, or aim to be extremely precise.

And from what I’ve seen with working with the community, and in myself and working with my clients is that that, again, is not long term sustainable for the vast majority of people nor is that sort of healthy, or does it foster a healthy relationship with food. So what does all that mean? It means that there is a middle ground, there is a way to develop awareness and a framework. And some use best practices and use science-based strategies and information and practices to fuel yourself for your activity in a way that does not consume your life. And that’s really what strength nutrition unlocked, is aiming to do. And so if if you’re listening to this podcast thinking like, Okay, I’m definitely making still making some of those inadvertent mistakes with being really low energy or thinking coffee is a meal, it’s not a meal, or skipping meals, and I have a really inconsistent and chaotic way of eating, then that’s, that’s some of the stuff that we talk about. Because really, it’s it’s getting those ducks in a row, but not having it take over your life. That’s what we do. We look at the four keys of strength, nutrition unlocked. Fuel, obviously, so the food side, we look at lifting, and some very important best practices that you need to know because there are some not-so-great programs out there.

There are a lot of great programs out there on the other hand, as well. And similarly, if you’re trying to wing it and do it all yourself and not seeing results, then let’s get that taken care of. It’s recovered. So that’s all kinds of recovery practices. from food to sleep to the actual like physical recovery, and then calm is the last ones is all about stress and not just kind of like stress management. But what does science say about stress? How do we try to introduce a little bit more calm, a little bit more of the parasympathetic nervous system so This is what we do in strength nutrition unlocked. And I’m there to be with you the whole way. So we do this in a group, it’s eight weeks long. And by the end of it, you are going to not only learn stuff but put it into practice, because I want you to experience how amazing it feels how powerful and strong and badass you feel when you’re properly fueled up and recovered. And you can go out there and do hard things. Cuz you, you should be able to do that, if that’s what you want. If you want to go do hard things, you want to test your body and see what it can do. You want to get stronger, you want to build muscle, you know, all the health reasons why that stuff is important as well. You want to get those benefits, you want to see how lifting can expand your life and enjoy it, then let’s do it. Let’s do it together.

So like I said, Strength, Nutrition, Unlocked is currently going on, we just started. If you heard me say at the top of the show if you’re in, it’s not too late, just send me a message, let me know that you want to join, and we’ll get it all squared away, and you can hop in with us, I’m teaching it, it’s not some other coach. So you sign up to work with me and a small group, you get the best of working with me. But in a group setting, it is a more affordable rate than working with a one on one. And at the end of it, you’re gonna get amazing results. Alright, that does it for this episode of the podcast. Of course, you can get a transcript for this in the show notes on StephGaudreau.com. If you liked this episode or found it useful in some way, please share it out on Instagram and tag me at Steph_Gaudreau. I would love to be able to amplify what you sent back out into the world. And of course, as always, please hit subscribe on your podcast app, it sends a signal to the app to show it to more people. It’s a really easy way to help the show grow organically. All right, I’ll be back next week with another episode. Until then, stay strong.

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Steph Gaudreau

Hi, I'm Steph Gaudreau (CISSN, NASM-CPT)!

Nutrition and fitness coach for women, Lord of the Rings nerd, and depending on who you ask, crazy cat lady. My mission is to help you fuel for more: bigger muscles, strength, energy, and possibilities. We’ll do it with my signature blend of science, strategy…and a little bit of sass.


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