By Liz Applegate Ph.D.
“Where’s the food?” is the question I ask many runners when I review their food diaries. It’s not that they’re starving. Most are taking in lots of calories and nutrients – but it’s in the form of energy bars, nutrient-enhanced drinks, and fortified packaged foods. The problem is, “real” foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats) are better for you than fortified products.
That’s because there’s more to a carrot or a sweet potato than just vitamin A.
Within the body, vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients work together with literally thousands of other compounds, such as colour components in fruits and vegetables, special starches and fibers in whole grains, and unique fats in seeds, nuts, and dairy. And it’s the whole package that promotes good health and peak athletic performance.
Of course, protein bars and fortified juices seem like a convenient way to take in all of the 50-plus nutrients every runner needs daily. But getting them – and more – from real food is easy.
Follow these six rules every day, and your body will get everything it needs for better health and better running.
What makes seeds so special? Seeds, including whole grains, many beans, and even tree nuts, contain the crucial mix of nutrients necessary to grow a new plant, which means they are packed with health-boosting compounds.
In addition to traditional nutrients like protein and essential fats, seeds contain bioactive compounds, such as phenolic compounds and ferulic acid, which act as antioxidants.
Eating a diet with ample plant seeds has been shown to improve health and help maintain a healthier body weight. People who eat whole grains and beans have a lower risk for developing type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, and they tend to have lower cholesterol levels than people who don’t eat nuts and seeds.
You already know that eating fruits and veggies supplies your body with vitamins, minerals, and the carbs it needs to fuel your running.
Fruits and vegetables also fill you up with few calories, helping you maintain your weight. But to get the most from your produce, you need to think in terms of colour: yellow, orange, red, green, blue, purple, and every shade in between. There are 400-plus pigments that light up the produce aisle, and each offers unique health benefits.
The rich red in pomegranate comes from anthocyanins, the deep red in tomatoes comes from lycopene, and the bright orange in sweet potatoes comes from beta-carotene. These and other pigments have been shown to lower your risk of cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s, while also improving your memory. And since most pigments act as antioxidants, they can help reduce inflammation caused by disease or heavy exercise.
New studies suggest that the pigments in produce need to interact with other color compounds in fruits or vegetables to produce their beneficial effects, which is why it’s important to eat a wide variety of colors every day. The results of these studies also explain why taking a single pigment, such as beta-carotene in supplement form, doesn’t lead to the same health improvements as eating the whole foods and may even increase your risk for some diseases.
Drop the peeler. From apples and black beans to red potatoes and baby marrow, plants’ outer skins protect them from UV light, parasites, and other invaders. As a result, those skins are bursting with a wide range of phytochemicals that also protect your health.
Grape skins, for example, are high in resveratrol, and onion skins contain quercetin, both of which can help lower your risk of heart disease and colon and prostate cancer, and boost your immunity.
Produce skin is also rich in resistant starches and various types of fiber. These compounds promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the intestines, improve intestinal function (relieving constipation and decreasing hemorrhoid risk), and help curb appetite and aid in weight control.
Studies have shown that fiber from vegetable and fruit skins (which contain both soluble and insoluble fibers) actually blocks absorption of three to four percent of total calories consumed when eaten as part of a high-fiber diet. This is why people who follow a higher-fiber diet (over 35 grams daily) that consists of mainly fruits and vegetables tend to have lower body-fat levels and smaller waist sizes than low-fiber eaters.
Whether from a cow, a goat, or even a reindeer, mammal milk (as opposed to soy milk) and other dairy products, like cheese and yoghurt, should be a part of every runner’s diet. Sure, milk supplies calcium, and calcium builds strong bones, which is great for your running. But animal milk offers much more.
Dairy supplies a runner’s hardworking muscles with an ample amount of protein to help speed recovery. But whey protein, the specific type of protein found in dairy foods, may also help strengthen the immune system.
Milk products also contain stearic acid, which is thought to improve blood-cholesterol levels. Ample research also suggests that regular dairy consumption can lower your blood pressure and your risk for heart disease. And for anyone watching his or her weight, studies have shown that dieters who include dairy in their low-calorie plans lose more fat than those who simply cut calories.
Fermented dairy products, such as yogurt and cultured milk, contain live bacteria, which also bolster immune health. These bacteria, as well as a special fat in dairy called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), can also help alleviate constipation, improve symptoms of certain intestinal ailments, such as inflammatory bowel disease, and reduce the occurrence of yeast infections in women. And people who are lactose intolerant may see an improvement in their symptoms when they regularly consume cultured dairy products.
Fish and other seafood provide a unique combination of nutrients important to runners. Most seafood is an excellent source of quality protein (you need about 50 percent more protein than your non-running friends) and also contains zinc, copper, and chromium: minerals that are often low in a runner’s diet. But the omega-3 fats found in fish, particularly those from cold waters, are what make seafood such an essential part of anyone’s diet.
Over the past decade, researchers have unfolded a fish story of grand proportions: People who eat fish and other seafood a few times per week have a lower risk of sudden heart attack, vascular disease, and stroke.
Fish intake has also been linked to lower rates of depression. And recently, low intake of fish (and omega-3 fats) has been associated with certain behavioral conditions in children, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Anthropological scientists who study “caveman” nutrition theorise that our ancestors consumed much more omega-3 fats than we currently do and that many of our modern-day ailments, such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s, may stem from low omega-3 fat intake. Runners should also note that the omega-3s in fish have anti-inflammatory capabilities, giving them the potential to counter exercise-induced muscle soreness and help alleviate diseases such as psoriasis.
By eating lean meats, poultry, and eggs, along with dairy products, runners can easily meet their increased protein needs and take in crucial minerals that can be hard to get from non-animal sources.
In particular, meats are a great source of iron and zinc, which support healthy red blood cells and a strong immune system. And these two minerals are simply better absorbed by the body when they come from meat instead of non-meat sources.
While a vegetarian lifestyle can be quite healthy, studies suggest that diets balanced with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean cuts of meat, including beef and skinless poultry, help lower blood-cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and heart-disease risk.
Sticking to lean meats, however, is key, so consider foods from animals raised in open pastures that graze on grasses. Compared with their stockyard-raised, corn-fed counterparts, free-range, grass-fed animals may contain more omega-3 fats and less artery-clogging saturated fats due to their healthier diets and higher activity levels.