Fitness Intuition is about tailoring your training to your own body. Those needs include food. Yet, at one time or another in most runners’ careers, diet becomes a big issue.
“I need to lose weight – but I’ve heard that diets just don’t work.”
“Why is my energy sagging? – is it my food?”
Or: “I’ve finally found a diet that looks like it works – but gosh, the foods I’d have to eat totally turn me off.”
It’s hard enough finding a diet that sustains energy, keeps us trim, and doesn’t screw-up our emotions. Let alone tailor it to our own, specific needs without changing the diet beyond recognition.
But take hope — there is a solution. Just make your own healthy foods diet pyramid.
Let’s start with the number-one diet problem: losing weight.
Losing weight is easy — I’ve done it many times. Apologies to Mark Twain – but it’s true. I lost a ton of weight before I finally discovered the diet that works for me. But I’m grateful for my many mistakes – for all of the diets that failed. By learning what didn’t work, I gradually fine-tuned a diet that works really well. I believe the underlying principles can help you, too.
When I came back to running in the late 1980s after an eight-year layoff due to illness, I had slid a long way downhill. Standing before a full-length bathroom mirror, I saw a fat, totally deconditioned 48-year-old. I weighed 195 lbs, 45 over my maximum healthy running weight, and I had a pot belly.
Three years later, I weighed 130 and was slim a deer. But I still wasn’t healthy.
Running took me partway toward losing those 65 pounds. But like many runners, I lost the first 20 pounds and plateaued – no amount of running would budge my weight.
Having achieved basic fitness, I wanted the experience of being “a real runner” — I wanted to be skinny as a rail, able to run fast and far in a body as light and swift as a gazelle.
Looking for a good diet, I ran across a book by Nathan Pritikin, who preached an extreme low-fat diet high in complex carbs. For six months, I followed the diet and lost 45 pounds, achieving my lowest-ever weight of 130 pounds. Trouble was, I looked like a runner, but I didn’t feel like one.
Sure, I could run marathons and even ultras – slowly. But I had less energy than seemed normal.
Then, a strange thing happened. In the middle of a 100-degree summer, I began getting colds and bronchitis. I called a nutritionist friend. He immediately said, “I knew we were going to have this conversation. Your body needs high-quality fat. Good fat is essential for a healthy immune system — that’s why you’re getting colds in 100-degree weather. Also, the immune system is critically involved in exercise and recovery, and that’s why you aren’t able to run as hard as you feel you should.”
The next day, I took just one teaspoon of flax seed oil, and my energy went Sprong! Within hours, my energy improved drastically, though it still wasn’t as high as I felt it should be.
Unfortunately, I then did what folks often do when they discover that a diet to which they’ve dedicated all their will power and energy fails: I began to eat haphazardly. I gained back about 20 pounds. I rationalized the added weight as the price for eating healthy. Also, I was running ultras, where people are often muscular or outright chunky.
At the time I stopped running ultras, I left a physically demanding job and immediately began putting on weight. I was alarmed, so I prayed for help. The next day, browsing in a bookstore, I found a book called Eat to Live: The Revolutionary Formula for Fast and Sustained Weight Loss, by Joel Fuhrman, MD.
Fuhrman’s book was stunningly good. The case histories described patients who were able to lose large amounts of weight quickly, without suffering hunger or compromising their health. Equally convincing was that Fuhrman backed every statement with solid, mainline medical research.
Fuhrman urged people to read his book from cover to cover, to convince their minds of the solidly researched truths behind the diet. I dutifully read the book and found it very convincing.
In essence, Fuhrman discovered that high-nutrient foods such as raw, leafy vegetables, lightly steamed veggies, fruits, beans, nuts, and complex carbs absolutely kill hunger, while drastically lowering caloric intake.
I found this to be completely true – I never felt hungry on the diet, and I enjoyed the foods that I was allowed to eat. In the first six weeks, I lost 25 pounds and felt great.
In my book, Fitness Intuition, I describe what happened next. The Eat to Live diet allows a small amount of starchy carbs — up to a cup of potatoes, bread, rice, etc., per day. Being of unsound mind, I thought, “If I’m losing weight quickly while eating carbs, why not eliminate them and lose weight really fast? Surely I’m getting enough carbs in the fruit I’m eating.”
It didn’t work. I lost weight rapidly, but I felt like I’d been run over by a truck. My long runs were death marches. I eventually realized that I wasn’t getting enough calories – replacing the 1000 calories expended by a 10-mile run would requires eating 12 or 13 oranges! After my last carb-depleted run, I limped home and ate a cup of rice pilaf, and within 30 minutes I felt wonderful again. Lesson learned.
I remained on the Eat to Live diet for a little over two years and was moderately happy, though I still didn’t feel that my energy was as high as it ought to be.
It wasn’t that I lacked carbs. I was eating starchy carbs in moderate amounts, primarily potatoes and rice. But something was wrong – there was still a “hole” in my nutritional intake.
Dr. Fuhrman is sufficiently realistic not to try to force people to eat a purely vegan diet, even though he believes it’s the healthiest diet of all. For those who aren’t able to give up meat and/or dairy, he recommends that they eat those foods occasionally, but continue to consume large amounts of vegetables and fruit, and moderate amounts of beans, complex carbs, and nuts.
Of course, being a typical runner, I had to take Eat to Live to the limit, So, for two years, I was 100 percent vegan.
The immediate cause of my giving up Eat to Live was that Mary Ellen entered the hospital for surgery and my athletic and dietary concerns immediately seemed trivial. I would grab a candy bar at the hospital store when I was hungry, and I no longer watched my diet carefully at home.
That was the immediate cause, but it coincided with a growing realization that I wasn’t thriving on pure vegan fare. My weight was stable, and I enjoyed the food I was eating, but my energy was still below par. I continued to have a nagging intuitive sense that something was missing.
I was working at the computer all day, and as I began eating eggs and milk again, my weight began to soar. It was very confusing, because I felt much, MUCH better now that I was eating eggs and dairy. My energy was at last fully normal. But I was taking in way more calories than I was expending by running, and they were gathering around my waistline. What could I do?
Disgusted with my rapidly increasing weight, I stopped eating eggs and dairy for a few days at a time, feeling I might figure out what was wrong. But no new insights came. Finally, I prayed hard for an answer, and it was then that I began to see how to manage my diet so that I would have plenty of energy, while still losing weight.
I realized that every time I stopped eating eggs and milk for a few days, then began eating them again, I felt a surge of vitality and energy. But if I continued to eat them daily, it was too much. Those foods became relatively uninteresting, even tiresome. Given my sedentary work and low-mileage running schedule, eating them daily wasn’t necessary.
My body’s need for eggs and milk seemed to parallel my exercise schedule. Over time, I realized that I felt best if I ate eggs the evening before a hard exercise session, and that I recovered best if I drank milk after those hard sessions. On the in-between days, I felt fine without dairy or eggs unless my energy sagged and my intuition told me I needed a small amount.
Meanwhile, I was mentally reviewing what I had learned from Joel Fuhrman. I knew that I lost weight quickly and felt best when I ate a ton of salad and fruit. So I made those foods the cornerstone of my diet again.
As I’ve mentioned in another article, I prepare three days’ worth of raw salad base in a big bowl; for example, chopped Romaine, chopped spinach, and grated carrot (all organic). This makes it effortlessly easy to “get my veggies” — all I need to do is throw several handfuls of salad base in a bowl and make a dressing with raw almond butter, an orange, and some Bragg’s Liquid Aminos. Add beans, olives, croutons, peas, and/or yesterday’s leftover steamed veggies, and voilá — a complete meal that tastes good and totally slays my hunger.
A key trick to losing weight is to take care of volume. Having the salad base on hand makes it much easier to keep the volume of healthy, hunger-killing foods high. I also keep tons of fruit on hand — frozen pineapple, blueberries, cherries, oranges, apples, bananas, etc.
There’s another important factor that people who want to lose weight almost never understand.
What happens when you eat high-volume, nutrient-dense foods? Your body is completely satisfied because you’re giving it everything it needs. So it turns off your hunger. Now, what happens if you eat a large volume of foods that are tasty and not actually nutrient-poor or deficient, but aren’t packed with the nutrients that the body actually needs?
You guessed it. The high volume of those foods fills your stomach, but the hunger doesn’t go away, because your body still doesn’t have the nutrients it needs. So the body continues to signal your brain to make you feel hungry so you’ll look for the foods it needs. And if you once again try to quell those hunger feelings with semi-nutritious foods (we typically reach first for fatty, starchy foods), you still won’t quench your hunger. And so the cycle continues – we can consume hundreds of calories that don’t satisfy the body and turn our hunger off. You can eat chips, corn curls, and cookies all day and still feel hungry.
Your body will keep you hungry until you give it the foods that satisfy its needs.
And that’s why, if you want to lose weight, it’s very, very important to keep your fridge and cupboards crammed with nutrient-dense, high-volume foods such as veggies, fruit, beans, nuts, and complex carbs. When you eat your salad first, as Dr. Fuhrman recommends, you absolutely will lose weight rapidly – so long as you’re limiting the foods that can pack on the fat quickly – namely, starchy carbs, simple sugars, and saturated fats.
I believe Fuhrman makes a major mistake, when he under-emphasizes the importance of fats. There is good, and growing, evidence that suggests the traditional view of fats is wrong — that it isn’t saturated fat that causes heart disease, but trans-fats (fats that have been industrially processed or altered by heat during preparation). The body does need some saturated fat – it’s an important element in the structure of the walls of every cell in our bodies. But it doesn’t need very much. The body stores saturated fat very, very easily – so anything it doesn’t need for actual metabolic purposes will add to your girth.
I believe Fuhrman makes another mistake when he under-emphasizes the value of dairy products and eggs. Eggs and milk are the only two foods that can sustain life without the addition of any other foods. For people like me who simply don’t thrive on a pure vegan diet, eggs and milk are a godsend.
I’ve been a vegetarian for 41 years, and whenever I’ve tried eating a 100 percent vegan diet (for up to three years), I’ve suffered from abnormally low energy, flagging motivation (“get up and go”), and poor concentration (no amount of calcium pills could satisfy my requirements).
What have my dietary experiments taught me? Simply that a well-rounded diet is best. No surprise there — we need all of the “food groups” that nature offers from her generous bounty.
For health and weight-loss, what really counts isn’t identifying a single food as a “villain.” What really works is eating foods in the right proportions. We can stay healthy and lose weight if we eat tons of green, leafy vegetables and fruit, large amounts of lightly steamed veggies, moderate amounts of beans, small amounts of nuts and starches, and relatively small, appropriately scheduled amounts of eggs and milk products.
To give you an idea of what this might look like in practice, I’ll briefly describe my diet, and how I schedule the important but potentially fattening eggs and dairy.
I find I feel a lot better in my long runs and hard gym workouts if I eat a two-egg omelet the night before.
Then, after a long run or workout, I’ll have my favorite recovery smoothie: 1 packet of Recoverite, a half-quart of buttermilk, a handful of dates (4-6), half a banana, about a cup of frozen pineapple, and optionally, a scoop of vanilla Biochem brand protein powder, and frozen cherries.
This drink greatly aids my recovery. The Recoverite product is outstanding, but in my experience, it doesn’t work nearly as well without the buttermilk. (I‘m allergic to regular milk, which bloats me horrendously, but I seem to do okay with buttermilk.)
Another point on which I disagree with Dr. Fuhrman. He says that dates and other dried fruits are verboten for those trying to lose weight. But I differ. I almost never eat starchy carbs, with the exception of an occasional pizza after a long run. I get all the carbs I need from dates and raisins, yet I find that they actually allow better weight management than when I eat starchy foods, perhaps because dried fruit is more nutrient-rich and satisfies hunger better than starches do. (For long runs, I fuel with Clif Shot gels.)
Yet another point where I’m at odds with Fuhrman is on raw nuts. It’s been shown that almonds are a calorie-neutral food — that is, you can eat at 4 tablespoons or more per day and not gain weight. The researchers aren’t sure why this is so, but there it is — people who eat raw almonds (or almond butter) in moderate quantities don’t gain weight as a result. (Trader Joe sells a 16 oz jar of raw creamy unsalted almond butter for under $5.)
What if you absolutely can’t tolerate raw green, leafy veggies? If that describes you, you may find the ancient Indian dietary system of Ayurveda helpful.
Ayurveda defines three basic body types: Pitta (fire), Vata (air), and Kapha (water). Salads tend to be especially problematic for people of the Vata body type (typically, these people don’t tolerate cold, windy weather well). A good book on Ayurveda can help you identify nutrient-rich substitutes for salad — among these are highly concentrated “superfoods” such as chlorella, spirulina, marine phytoplankton, etc. The best book I’ve found on Ayurveda is The Ayurvedic Cookbook, by Amadea Morningstar and Urmila Desai.
And now we come to defining your own best healthy foods pyramid.
At the top of the pyramid are small quantities of eggs and dairy. Just beneath are nuts, followed by a narrow band of starchy foods, then wider bands of beans and lightly steamed greens, and finally, a broad band of fruit, and a solid, ample base of raw vegetables.
How to define your own pyramid? Simply substitute the foods that work best for you at each level.
There are any number of successful athletes who are full-time vegans. Two outstanding examples are seven-time Western States 100 winner Scott Jurek, and Canadian 50K champion Brian Brazier. If you thrive on a vegan diet, more power to you – simply lop off the top of the pyramid and replace it with your favorite superfoods.
Similarly, if you’re salad-averse, reduce the width of the raw-veggie base at the bottom of the pyramid and add lots of green superfoods, lightly steamed veggies seasoned with “warming” herbs and sauces that agree with your body type according to Ayurveda.
Vata types also have trouble with beans – kidney and garbanzo beans are especially troublesome. They’ll likely want to reduce the “bean band” to a narrow strip including small amounts of the more easily digested Azuki beans; or they can eliminate beans altogether.
A good diet:
1. Gives you energy. You should feel that your body is working at its optimal capacity. The diet shouldn’t create energy spikes or valleys (as simple sugars do). Nor should it create “fake energy” through stimulation.
2. Is emotionally satisfying. Certain foods can be emotionally unbalancing. Ayurveda is helpful here, because it lists foods and food categories that help balance, or that unbalance, each body type. My body type is Pitta, for example (fire), and “heating” foods such as garlic, hot chilis, and corn chips put me over the edge – garlic makes me irritable and reactive, chilis kill my energy, and dried corn destroys my mental focus.
Emotional satisfaction also derives from taste. A diet that’s too bland isn’t sustainable. Runners have the perfect excuse for breaking the mold occasionally. After a long run, my favorite treat is pizza. (Hey — it’s got all the food groups: fats, carbs, veggies, even fruit [tomatoes are biologically a fruit].)
3. Support your “get up and go.” Some foods bring your energy down, regardless of your Ayurvedic body type. Over-cooked foods are an example, as are stale or over-aged foods (stinky cheeses, etc.). Fresh, raw foods are tops for creating and sustaining energy and enthusiasm. And you can’t optimize your energy carbs alone. A good way to goose-up the nutrient content of soups and bean dishes is by throwing in a handful of salad base just before serving.
We need all of the healthy food groups: veggies and fruit to run the body’s complex energy-making motor; carbs for energy and endurance; fats for cellular health and endurance; protein for endurance, improvement, and recovery.
4. Help you be even-minded, cheerful, and focused. Again, consult a book on Ayurveda for foods that will balance your brain.
5. Remove obstacles to spiritual wholeness. It’s harder to find inner joy when your energy is sagging or your mind is confused and unfocused, or your emotions are drooping.
Eating from your own best healthy food pyramid will keep you running well and happy.