Many speeches and books and philosophies exist about how to eat, as a general practice. There’s the old-school endurance athlete playbook: carbs like there’s no tomorrow. Pasta and bread and fruit and beans and gatorade and juice and milk, oh my! (Yes, milk is mostly a carb, especially when drunk in that typical American form of reduced-fat.) That might very well work for you. It did seem to work all right for ultrarunners in the 1990s, as this archive attests. Maybe it works great for your body and your schedule and your budget. Fine. But . . . maybe things could be better. Maybe feeling OK isn’t good enough.
That kind of eating worked O.K. for me for many years of “regular” running, with some fluctuating digestive issues like dairy intolerance and occasional upset stomach. However, ultras were a new challenge for my system, leaving me on the side of the trail wishing I had bought stock in Immodium and a bunch of extra socks. Yeah, it was bad. I DNF’ed at least 4 ultramarathons just due to GI distress. This was getting expensive and irritating (um, literally). Something had to change. I started by just eating healthier foods most of the time but also went low-fat and high protein-bar around the same time.
Low fat, lower calorie, with lots of supplemental foods is not an uncommon diet; a typical day was oatmeal for breakfast, sandwich or salad for lunch, and something reasonably healthy for dinner (home cooked veggies and meat, et cetera). Snacks, however, were protein bars. Lots and lots of protein bars. I loved them. I rated them. I geeked out so far into protein bars that I had a spreadsheet. For realz.
And the tummy was still a bit iffy during longer runs. I noticed it was not so great after having dairy the night before, so that was one mystery solved.
AND THEN. I found what was going to work, and has worked for the last 3 years. Here I’ll “out” myself on one of the most jeered diets of the last several years . . . that is to say that yes, I went gluten-free. I wondered if some of my digestion woes were coming from grains, so I stopped them completely, one month before Wasatch in 2012. Did I have GI issues during Wasatch? No. Nope. Nada. Could I have been more happy about that? Nope.
So, trendy as it was, no grains was and is working for me, well enough that I’ve barely wavered since then. And that is what works for me, for now.
So what if it works for me now? It might not work for you exactly as I am living it. Hell, it might not work for me starting 5 years from now or 5 days from now. I hope I’ll realize it when that day comes and I can make adaptations. We humans are almost infinitely adaptable and that’s a wonderful thing, except for when we find something that works because it will not work forever. Please remember that. Take it to heart. Enjoy it while it lasts, your diet of steak and broccoli or pop-tarts and sardines or fizzy water and raw juices. Your body will reach some unbeknownst-to-you tipping point and the shit will start to wobble like a cheap TV tray from your youth. Energy will sag, training will get weird, a few pounds will creep on, all kinds of things that are not the end of the world but are super frustrating to athletes.
What then? The answer is that you fall back on two basic principles of sound nutrition: unprocessed ingredients and close-to-the-source nutrients. Take those in your hands like two halves of a deck of cards and shuffle away. Then begin again with new verve. Just. Eat. Real. Food. Let’s go.
Two Practices: Ingredients and Nutrients
There are two practices to how I eat now that seem to work pretty well and keep me away from both expensive foods and unknown additives.
First, eat more foods that are “ingredients”. Make switches wherever you can, like:
- cuts of raw meat rather than rotisserie chicken or pre-cooked carnitas in a bag (I see you (and me) at Trader Joe’s!!)
- whole dried beans instead of canned
- nuts in the shell rather than snack mixes
- dates instead of larabars (though those aren’t terrible when compared to almost everything else in bar form *cough*epicbars*cough*)
- whole fruit and veggies instead of prepped and chopped packages
- plain frozen veggie mixes rather than pre-sauced one-skillet meals
Second, choose foods that are ridiculously high in nutrients without being fortified. My favorite source for this kind of info, way back in about 2005, was a site called “the World’s Healthiest Foods“. One guy named George ran it and it was the first nutrition site that told me I should be eating for nutrients first rather than eating low-fat and taking vitamins. It was the site that told me about the awesomeness of calves’ liver (it pains me to see that while grass-fed beef is still there on his list, liver is not. What’s happened to you, George???).
Once I actually read why nutrient-first foods are critical, it made so much sense that I couldn’t not give it a try. Athletes are often low on nutrients to begin with, and even whole/real foods can be low since our soil is so crappy. Here are some quick tips to get insanely deep nutrition. All you do is add a few specific foods to your rotation:
- sardines (whole, in olive oil) – the bones (totally edible) give you calcium, the olive oil is far better than veggie or soy oil
- liver (calves’ is good, wild is good like elk or buffalo but even organic chicken liver is pretty good for ya)
- broths and stocks made from good, healthy, pastured animals: chicken, beef, game. Seriously crazy nutrients for building supportive tissue leach out into that broth and are hard to get other ways (glycine, gelatin, and more). Making your own broth sounds dump? Fine. Go have pho at a good family-style Vietnamese joint. Or lamb stew at a Mexican dive. Basically, go have STEW at any ethnic restaurant.
- Lacto-fermented foods. It’s not as gross as you think. Think traditional sauerkraut, kimchee, natural pickles, homemade yogurt, some kinds of kombucha or kefir, even sourdough bread if done correctly. When foods start to ferment, the typical result is that the bacteria are producing nutrients that WE need. Pick up a jar of hipster kraut at the next organic grocery store trip and get the ball rolling.
Other summaries abound out on the interwebs. My favorites are the ones that don’t go overly into details, rather give a basic framework and guidance, giving YOU the choice to dig deeper if it really is important to understand how Vitamin D is created and processed in order to convince you to take fermented cod liver oil (yeah, it might be a good idea).
Here are just a couple of my favorites:
- Liz Wolfe’s summary, Nutrition in 100 Words.
- Good Better Best on Weed ‘Em And Reap (farming blog . . . get it?): color coded and awesome to keep in your car along with your grocery bags
- Practical Paleo’s charts galore for finding good fats, choosing meats, all kinds of stuff. Love Diane and all her work!
Bonus: want a troop of Legos to explain the Paleo diet to you? Done and done, thanks to NerdFitness: