EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an article I wrote in 2017 for the Minnesota Distance Running Association’s magazine RunMinnesota, so the audience was runners.
Oh no, not another nutrition article. Before you turn the page, let me mention that this article isn’t about pre-race meals, in-race nutrition, or post-race recovery. You can find plenty of those types of articles in other editions of RunMinnesota or with a simple search online. Instead, I want to focus on an aspect of nutrition that I believe will have a more positive impact on your race results than just the immediate hours surrounding your event – and a more positive impact on your health. I’m talking about our day-to-day nutrition. What we choose to put in on bodies, day after day, has tremendous long-term impacts on our fitness and our health. Yet, from what I’ve seen, few people stop and ask themselves some important questions. Why do I eat the way I do? How did I develop these eating habits? Are they really right for my health and fitness?
Even though runners tend to be fitter than the average American, I know nutrition is on our minds. I hear my running partners talk about their muffin tops (and I’m not referring to food) and complain about not being able to lose 10 pounds. Then in the next breath they’ll talk about eating ice cream every night and going to McDonald’s after our long run. This leads me to believe that people underestimate the impact the food they eat has on their body. If you don’t think there’s a strong correlation let me share two documentaries that highlight the correlation in opposite directions. First, most people are familiar with Supersize Me, where Morgan Sperlock decides to eat three meals a day at McDonald’s for 30 days. I won’t spoil it for you, but needless to say, the impact on Morgan’s health was not good. Second, in Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, Joe Cross starts out overweight and on multiple medications. He’s able to shed the weight and the meds by going on a diet of fruit and vegetable juices. Of course, these are both extreme examples, but they do show that what we eat has implications on our health.
Although it may take longer to shows its effects on our bodies, the Standard American Diet (whose acronym, not surprisingly, is SAD) is no different. I’m not talking about the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate or Food Pyramid recommendations, I’m referring to what we’re actually eating; foods high in calories and low in nutrients, saturated fat, sodium, and sugars. In short, we’re eating too many processed foods, which are crowding out fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fiber. The result: four of the top-7 leading causes of deaths in the U.S. are linked to diet; Heart Disease, Cancer, Stroke and Diabetes. And it’s predicted that today’s kids in the U.S. are the first generation ever to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Think about that. In the history of the world, no generation has ever lived less than their parents, yet that’s the path we’re currently on.
Let me be clear, it’s not my intent to try to convert you to a certain camp, whether it’s High Fat/Low Carb, Low Fat/High Carb, Mediterranean, Vegan, Paleo, etc. These labels tend to push people apart and cause more confusion, which is something we already have enough of when it comes to nutrition. And quite frankly, confusion is exactly what the food industry wants because the more confused we are as consumers, the more likely we are to just throw our hands up in the air in frustration and continue doing what we’re doing. And clearly what we know and what we’re doing aren’t working, given that in 2012 nearly 1.4 million deaths were attributed to the four diet-related diseases mentioned earlier.
Over 2400 years ago Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” This comes from the father of medicine, who we’ve named the Hippocratic Oath after. More recently, author Michael Pollan added his advice; “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And by “food” they both mean real food, not sugar-coated breakfast cereals, fast food, TV dinners, or anything else created in a lab. Interestingly, there’s no doubt that the various diets mentioned above have a wide-range of beliefs when it comes to food choices. However, there’s one thing they all agree on; processed foods are not doing us any favors when it comes to a healthy diet.
That sounds great, but how do we start to reduce processed foods. The first step is to simply become more conscious of our food decisions and be on the lookout for processed foods. Given that they currently make up 54% of the SAD, it shouldn’t be too hard to pinpoint them. Once we’re aware of all the processed foods we’re eating, it becomes easier to take responsibility and make better choices. As a result, we become more empowered and recognize that we have control over our food choices. I know, on paper, reducing processed foods sounds simple, but it’s not easy. Scientists have designed these foods to be addictive and cause cravings. In addition, they’re extremely convenient, which appeals to our time-crunched schedules. See the SIDEBAR for some tips that have helped me.
At the onset of this article, I “promised” you’d see a more positive impact on your race results by focusing on your day-to-day eating habits. I firmly believe that by reducing processed foods you’ll start to shed those unwanted pounds and reduce that muffin top. I don’t know if any scientific studies have ever been done regarding weight loss and its impact on race times, but one theory I’ve heard is that you run 2 seconds per mile faster for every pound lost. While that might not sound like a lot, if you do the math on losing 10 pounds you’ll see that it equates to running one minute faster for 5K, shaving 4:30 off your half marathon, and nearly 9 minutes off your marathon. You’d have to put in some serious training to see those kinds of results otherwise.
If you don’t think these results are likely, I encourage you to just try focusing on whole foods for as little as 2-3 weeks. I think that’s all you need to start seeing results. As part of my prep for writing this article I signed up for a 5 week community education course on whole foods. With an increased focus on eliminating processed foods, I was able to lose 7 pounds during the class. Before I get hate mail regarding weight loss not being the key to being healthy, let me say I approached this community education class, and this article, as a way of increasing health by reducing processed foods. Weight loss was simply a by-product of the process.
Finally, I’ll close by saying that I realize that we’re all in different places along the food-choice spectrum and that no one can make us change. Like anything else, change has to come from within, when the time is right. If you’re not ready for change yet, I hope this article will at least plant the seed that will someday germinate. For those of you ready to become more mindful of your eating habits, especially as they pertain to processed foods, don’t be surprised that better health will soon follow. Along the way you may even shed some pounds and run faster.
Drink a Salad
For me, the easiest change to make was to replace my morning cereal with a smoothie. They’re a great way to consume leafy greens without even thinking about them. Plus, smoothies are an easy way to include all those superfoods we’ve heard so much about; chia seeds, flaxseed, goji berries, spirulina, turmeric, cacao and more.
Focus on the Possibilities
Think about all the things you can have, instead of what you can’t have. One trick that helps me is to tell myself that I already know what an Oreo taste like, so why should I eat another one? That helps me reach for new fruits and vegetables, and to try new recipes.
Watch Forks Over Knives, perhaps the best known food documentary ever made. Dr. Oz said everyone needs to see it and Roger Ebert called it “a film that can save your life”. If you’re into podcasts, check out The Rich Roll Podcast. His focus is on becoming the best version of yourself and a lot of his discussions revolve around food choices, endurance training, and peak performance.
Progress over Perfection
Understand that, like running, food is a lifestyle and it’s about the journey, not the destination. Therefore, never let perfection get in the way of progress. If you miss a meal or a day, it’s not a total loss, just resume again tomorrow.
The good news is that there are tons of websites, apps, and cookbooks to help in your journey. The bad news is that sometimes the amount of information can also be overwhelming. My suggestion is to pick 2 or 3 resources and focus on exploring them thoroughly, rather than subscribing to 15 different sources without ever using any of them.