Food is food is food, right? Well, not quite. Runners tend to be highly aware of what we put in our bodies. We know all about carbohydrates, fat and protein, and how many grams of each to consume throughout the day. But numbers do not tell the whole story. In fact, they’re just the tip of the iceberg.
What you eat is just as important as how much you eat. An avid runner training six days a week needs somewhere between six and 10 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight. For a 150-pound runner, that means around 400 to 680 grams of carbohydrates per day.
But is 400 grams of pasta the same as 400 grams of dark leafy greens? If we just concentrate on the number and not the quality of food, we can trick ourselves into thinking we are eating healthier than we actually are.
When you hear the word carbohydrate, do visions of pasta, bread and potatoes dance in your head? If so, congratulations—your carbohydrate-food-associating skills are on par with 99 percent of the population.
However, although pasta, bread and potatoes are indeed carbohydrates, they aren’t the type to emphasize in your day-to-day diet, because they don’t give you much besides energy. In contrast, fruits, vegetables and whole grains (oats, rice, kamut) are carbohydrates and chock full of vitamins, minerals, fiber and water. These foods give you more bang for your buck compared to the processed, refined, nutrient-devoid version.
The Almighty Protein
For some reason we’ve had drilled into our brains that it is really difficult to get enough protein. This is simply not true. The average endurance athlete requires 1.2 to 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. That means our 150-pound runner needs about 80 to 95 grams of protein per day. Those grams add up fast.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 21 amino acids in the body used for building protein. The body can synthesize several of these amino acids on its own, but nine of them—the essential amino acids—must be obtained through foods. A protein’s quality is a reflection of its biological value in the body.
The best sources of protein are found in real, whole foods. Picture this: one cup of protein powder versus one cup of lentils. Which one do you think is better for your body? If you answered lentils, you are correct. One serving of protein powder typically contains 15 to 20 grams of protein, but contains a long list of unrecognizable ingredients. And the taste … oh, the taste. Of course, processed powders pack a lot of protein into one serving, but such high amounts of protein are unnecessary.
Lentils, on the other hand, contain plenty of protein, along with other vital nutrients like fiber; vitamins A, B-complex, D, E and K; calcium, copper, magnesium, iron, phosphorus and potassium, to name a few.
In general, animal products like turkey, chicken, beef and dairy are easy sources of high-quality protein. They contain all the essential amino acids.
Does that mean animal proteins are essential for healthy nutrition? Not at all. As our cup of lentils demonstrates, it’s easy to meet your protein needs through a plant-based diet, although variety becomes even more critical to get all the essential amino acids. High-quality plant-based protein sources include quinoa, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and edamame.
However, be wary of supposedly “healthy” plant-based proteins like tofu and “alternative meats.” These fall in the processed, refined-food category and lack all the same things that a piece of bread lacks. Instead, aim for plant-based sources that you can recognize as real food.
Embrace the Fat
We used to be afraid of fat, but it’s starting to make a better name for itself. Fat is one of the most important nutrients for an athlete. Well, all nutrients are essential, but because we’ve shunned fat for so long it’s vital to highlight its importance. Fat is involved in everything we do, from growth, immune function and recovery to absorbing vitamins and minerals.
The same rule of thumb applies: focus on real-food sources, such as high-quality olive oil, nuts, avocado, cheese, full-fat yogurt, coconut oil, whole eggs and even butter … gasp! Yes, butter is perfectly fine. It’s a naturally occurring fat, and our bodies require some saturated fat in moderation—especially the endurance athlete, for whom overeating is rarely the issue. If you limit the number of foods you eat out of a package, you will naturally improve the quality of fats in your diet.
All of this can be summarized in three words: eat real food. Prioritize the kind of food you put in your body, rather than the amount of food. Shop local, get to know your farmer and treat food as a precious commodity … because good food is. We can’t thrive without it.
The Danger of Focusing on Numbers
Both sample meals below yield the same number of carbohydrates (80g), and, on paper, look the same. But the food quality is quite different.
Example A is made up of processed foods, while example B focuses on real foods. The higher-quality foods in example B mean more vitamins and minerals, along with fiber and water for greater satiation.
Turkey Club Sandwich, 6” 42g
Tortilla chips, 1oz 19g
Granola bar, chewy chocolate chip 19g
TOTAL Carbohydrate: 80g
Brown Rice & Vegetables, 1c 37g
Apple, large raw 31g
Broccoli, 1c cooked 12g
TOTAL Carbohydrate: 80g
Stephanie’s Real Food Smoothie
You don’t need protein powder to make a delicious post-run recovery smoothie. I make one with lots of protein, but it comes from real food. It’s better for your body and your wallet.
½ c plain, full-fat Greek yogurt
½ c frozen blueberries
¼ c quinoa
¼ c sweet potatoes
1 T nut butter
1 large handful of greens
½ c milk or choice (or kombucha) to taste
Ice, if desired
Add to blender,
turn on. It’s that simple.
The author has a PhD in Exercise Physiology and Nutrition. When not geeking out on nutrition, she can be found on the trails in Bend, Oregon, with her dog Riley.