When it comes to my ramblings about running, those who’ve been around these parts know that I usually don’t delve into the subsidiary topics such as fueling and nutrition. I know there are many running bloggers out there that are both knowledgeable and skilled in this arena so I figured I’d leave the advice and the recipes to them. After all, I spend so much of my blog space talking about running and marathon training that I feel I would not do the topic justice if I were to cover it sporadically. As such, even if nutritional counseling is part of my daily responsibilities as an obesity specialist, up to now, I’ve resisted all temptation to talk about my attitudes/advice concerning nutrition in this blog.
That all changed last week when I saw two patients in the clinic back-to-back and found myself giving the same exact speech to both families. The odd thing was that they would appear for all the world to be completely different in every appreciable way. One was a morbidly obese teenage girl who was seeing me because all her previous attempts at weight loss has been unsuccessful. The other was a muscular teenage boy, very active in school sports, who was seeing me for an underactive thyroid condition, but mid-interview, asked if he needed nutritional supplements because he felt groggy after early morning football practice. As I was explaining to both patients and their parents some key principles of proper nutrition, I was quite shocked to find that most of what I had to say was completely foreign to them. Seriously? And both of them had been to countless other professionals, such as trainers and nutritionists, before coming to me.
As I was coming home from work that day, it occurred to me that I should write about this, not because what I have to say is so earth-shattering or brilliant, but because it is so basic, and would help both those who are trying to lose weight and those who are looking to improve their athletic performance. Again, dear readers, the list that follows is not comprehensive, but serves to just highlight some basics for those who have no idea where to start. I hope they will be useful to you and will inspire you to look elsewhere for more information.
My Five Easy Steps to Better Nutrition
- Always eat breakfast – This is by far the most frequent faux pas among dieters and athletes alike. In my opinion, breakfast is the MOST IMPORTANT meal of the day. That is because your body has been in starvation mode while you’ve been sleeping through the night. When you awake, all your hormones are reved up to help your body physiologically get ready for the day. It is in desperate need of some energy to fuel this transition. (That’s why that cup of joe feels so good in the morning!) If you skip that meal, then you are essentially asking the body to use alternative sources of fuel (by breaking down muscle for example) for energy since the glucose/glycogen stores from the previous meal has long been depleted by this point. (It is well known that those who don’t eat prior to early morning workouts bonk earlier and suffer more injuries than those who do.) Also, because the body adapts amazingly well to your eating habits, when you skip meals, you will feel more hungry during the infrequent meals that you do eat, and will tend to store more of those meals as fat to be used in the early morning. (That’s why those who don’t eat breakfast can’t lose weight or maintain their weight loss for very long.) So for both the athlete and the dieter, it is imperative that they both eat a small breakfast to reach their goals.
- Have smaller and more frequent meals – The current recommendation is 6 to 7 small meals folks, not the standard three big meals that we knew and love when we were kids. This is due to the fact that when we eat, insulin is secreted in proportion to the meal size. So the bigger the meal, the higher the insulin level. High insulin levels are generally not good because it enhances lipogenesis (or the deposition of fat cells). Not only so, but it is also a culprit behind hypertension, high cholesterol and a myriad of other problems. When you eat smaller but more frequent meals, you keep insulin levels somewhat low and in a narrow range, which helps your body adapt to metabolic changes and handle energy demands more rapidly and more efficiently.
- Chew your food and eat slowly – Aside from the obvious enjoyment of the food that you’re eating, another reason to take your time to chew, eat, and drink is because stretch signals from the stomach (carried on slower nerve fibers) take a good 5-10 minutes to generate a feeling of satiety in the brain. What this means is that if you eat at a pace that is faster than what the brain can process, you will still be eating when the stomach is already full. This is one situation that can be avoided if we allow the time to chew, swallow and digest our food fully before proceeding to the next bite.
- Skip the juice/Avoid liquid calories – Except in specific circumstances, such as during or after a hard workout, it is generally a good idea to skip the juice. These empty liquid calories do not offer any nutritional benefits and can sabotage any well-intentioned diet very quickly. Stick to the diet stuff if you must.
- Avoid eating around stress/Be calm when you eat – I like this one because it makes perfect hormonal sense. When your body is stressed, again there is a surge of hormones (think flight-or-fight response) that is preparing the body for a physical or psychological battle. These hormones, just like we saw in the early morning, is helping the body cope by absorbing more of the food and storing it as fat. (It’s not a coincidence that at times of extreme stress, we often feel the most hungry.) This tendency to overeat is also in response to elevated cortisol levels which is the inherent stress hormone for the body. If you can find a calm setting for a meal, you not only will eat less and eat more comfortably, but will absorb less of what you eat as fat as well.
That’s it. Hope all my knowledgeable and fine readers are already abiding by these basic principles. If so, then pass this advice along to someone else who needs it. God knows how many people there are out there who just need a little guidance to improve their health and their lives.
If you have questions for me, or have other clinical questions related to running, training, or nutrition, drop me a line. Au revoir for now!
[FYI – For those who are new and never read the first installment of Running: Physiologically Speaking, you should check it out. It was pretty well received and convinced me to continue the series…albeit nine months later! Okay, my bad. Still, it might be educational if you’ve ever had a headache after a long run on a hot sunny day…]