New Year’s Diet
A few thoughts on what I’ve learned over the years…
Did you see last week that Dave McGillivray has heart disease? How can that be? This man who has been running long distance consistently since he was in his teens has blockages in his arteries. He started feeling a shortness of breath. They had to do a Cat Scan to find it because people like Dave pass the stress test with no problems…until they have a heart attack.
Why does Dave have heart disease? He says it’s from years of poor diet. Our generation of runners believed that ‘if the furnace was hot enough anything would burn’. We thought we could train away bad diets. And of course we now know that’s not true.
Exercise is good for you and will add years to your life. Running is the best exercise there is. But heart disease has a large hereditary and dietary component as well.
I am not super comfortable talking about diet and nutrition. Sure I’m an amateur endurance athlete with a busy life who manages to get most of it done and at a decent level of efficiency and effectiveness, but I’m a bad example. Over the years I’ve adjusted my diet as I’ve learned, but I’m still far from perfect.
I have yet to find the holy grail of diet or lifestyle design that makes everything rosy. But, I have learned a few things over the last 50 years that may be useful to you.
I have lived through all the major diets crazes. I survived the bran and roughage diets of the 70’s. I survived the low-fat diets of the 80’s. I survived the high protein diets of the 90’s and I’m currently surviving paleo, veganism and diet-shake crazes as we speak.
Here are two fundamental underlying thoughts that I want you to consider before I get into specifically what I do.
First, you can’t separate one element of diet from everything else and expect it to make you healthier. We are always looking for shortcuts. “Just tell me the one thing, or the top 3 things I have to eat to be healthy.” The world preys on this desire for simplicity and direction and give us simple answers. Unfortunately these simple answers are nonsensical.
Every day I open some web page and get smacked up-side the head with a banner ad that declares there is one secret trick to lose belly fat. There isn’t. There isn’t one multi-vitamin, or one element, or one herb, or one macro-nutrient or one protein or one carbohydrate that is going to unlock the magic key to you being skinny and healthy.
In many ways the oft quoted medical studies add to this nonsense. They find a correlation between one element of diet and some outcome. Like, “The study found that the subjects who ate more fiber had a 10% less chance of heart events.” And somehow that gets translated into “fiber prevents heart disease.”
The truth is that life is not simple. Sorry. Life is chaos. Your health is the result of an infinite number of environmental factor sand inputs over time. The inputs and outputs are nuanced. There are no silver bullets. Avoid people who want to sell you silver bullets.
Second, you are an experiment of one. What works for me may not work for you. In fact recent science says that your genetic makeup has a large influence over what your diet should be, or more appropriately how your makeup reacst to certain diets. Again, we want simple answers. Industry is happy to provide simple answers if you are willing to pay for them. But just like your training plan, your dietary plan needs to work for you, not for an average person.
Now let me share with you some specific things that I do as I have adjusted my diet over the years to try to get healthier.
One, avoid processed food. Processed food is anything that comes in a can or a box. It’s a challenge. Processing was invented because it makes everything easier. It supports mass production and efficient distribution. It makes food convenient. How much easier is it to open a bag of chips than eat a salad?
The problem with processed food is that it is high in calories and low in nutrient. Again this is the process of singling out one element of food and optimizing it. In this case they are optimizing calories and production costs. We produce lots and lots of cheap calories, which is great but we process out all the other stuff in food that we need to survive.
The other problem with processed foods is that our super smart food scientists have figured out how to use the most readily available and cheapest ingredients in everything. The processed food of 25 or 30 years ago had different and more diverse ingredients.
It’s in everything. For example; if you order a salad it will come smothered in dressing made from corn syrup and croutons that triple or quadruple the calories in the salad.
Oh yeah, sorry but that shake from your favorite nutrition company is probably processed food. I don’t trust them. Those low calorie prepared foods designed for dieters? Yeah, those are super processed foods. Anything that is made to do something it wasn’t supposed to, like tofurkey, that’s processed too.
I don’t’ drink any soda. Soda is processed food. I drink sparkling water. Sparkling water is a good compromise and doesn’t stain your pants when you spill.
Second, eat fruit.
My packaged food is fruit. I eat 4 -5 pieces of fruit a day. Apples, pears, bananas, oranges, grapefruit – I try to be sensible about the high-sugar fruits and keep it balanced. Fruit has carbohydrates, nutrients, water and that fiber everyone was so concerned about in the 70’s and fruit is portable. The biggest apple you can find is only 200 calories.
Third, eat a big salad once a day. When I go to the market I’ll come back with a big pile of vegetables. I’ll chop them up into little pieces and put them in a big bowl. It is not just a wedge of iceberg lettuce. You need to have variety. This big salad is what I have after my workouts during the day. It is my mid day meal.
My favorite salad fixings include:
A variety of lettuces, different kinds of kale, red bell peppers, cucumbers, onions, carrots, chard, cranberries, mushrooms, raw almonds, celery, cabbage, radishes, avocado – basically whatever is available. I chop it up small so I can get more into the container and splash a little homemade vinaigrette on it.
Notice what I don’t put on it. I don’t put bread, or meat or cheese or cream-based dressings on my salad. Those would be processed food. This variety of vegetables, especially the colored ones have all those micro-nutrients that the vegans are always prattling on about.
The big salad is full of nutrients, full of fiber, full of water, full of slow-burn carbs and you would be hard pressed to cram more than 500 calories into a bowl.
Fourth, I try to limit the amount of sugar, and bread and pasta and dairy I eat. Especially if I’m trying to lose weight. I am not talking about paleo or Atkins here. I am never in Ketosis for lack of carbohydrates. I get plenty of carbs from my fruits and vegetables. But if I want to lose weight, all I have to do is to cut out the bread and pasta.
Whatever works for you is fine, but these foods make me fat and puffy.
Instead of cow milk I drink almond milk. Especially when I get home from work. This is a behavior modification trick I’ve learned. When I walk through the door I’m always starving, I’m programmed to be starving. Instead of making a poor nutritional decision, like a peanut butter and fluff and nutella triple decker, I have a big drink of almond milk and it fill s me up so I can make a better decision about dinner and it’s only 400 calories or so.
Fifth, as an endurance athlete, I’ve mostly weaned myself off of high sugar energy drinks and gels over the last 5 years. I found that I really don’t need them and most are hyper-processed sugar & chemicals. There are less processed alternatives – look at the ingredients. Once you realize that the gels are mostly psychological you can find a better balance.
I see people with 12 gels for a ½ marathon. Your body cannot absorb that much food. Where do you think it is going?
I don’t know if that helped but maybe it gave you some ideas to pursue for your experiment of one. Exercise alone won’t keep you healthy. There is no silver bullet or simple answer for the diet question, so stop looking for one. Humans are complex machines of infinite chaos. Your machine is different than everyone else’s. You should still take care of it as best you can.
I was a fat kid. Not really fat, just pudgy and non-athletic. I still rock a belly roll even as I’m running a marathon a month. I remember more than once being introduced as a marathoner and having someone say “you don’t look like a marathoner”.
It doesn’t bother me. I am an ongoing experiment of one. I strive to make progress not perfection.
Don’t get frustrated by diet. Just try to eat healthy and make good decisions over the long haul. Eventually you will figure out what is right for you.