For Runners Who Want to Lose Weight

When I worked at Runner’s World, from 1972-76, the owner was still the magazine’s founder, Bob Anderson. (Since sold to Rodale Press, the original magazine with its Joe and Jane Runner demographic morphed into today’s glossy, upscale East Coast rag for Tiffany and Brock Spandex.)

Bob started RW as an avid high school runner and track fan, printing the semi-annual copies of Long Distance Log on a mimeograph machine in his bedroom.

It takes all kinds. Increased joy comes by honoring our nature as we explore our edges.

Running alone probably won’t take the weight off, unless we eliminate gluten from our diet.

Now in his 60’s, Bob still runs – I occasionally see him, flying along the trails of Rancho San Antonio, a 3200-acre park on the San Francisco Peninsula.

Always performance-oriented, Bob still runs top times in his age group; last time we spoke, he’d run a sub-35:00 10K in his late 50’s.

One of Bob’s unique contributions in the old RW days was a 24-hour relay for runners. The once-a-year, all-day, all-night event was held at the Foothill College track in Los Altos Hills. Copycat events sprang up all over the country, and the magazine kept records.

The original all-day endurance parties drew runners from all over northern California and beyond. I recall happily running several legs with Harry Cordellos, a blind runner from San Francisco. Harry was an endurance stud, a great guy, and a fine conversationalist. (I ran beside Harry and we touched elbows to keep ourselves on track.)

The 24-hour relay in its original format is sadly no more, replaced by hundreds of charity fundraising events.

Here’s an excerpt from a sweet account posted anonymously on the website of the Greater Rochester Track Club:

Back in the 70’s when it was still a serious running magazine, Runner’s World popularized the 24-hour relay and kept records of the top marks for each state.  The format for the event was a ten-man team with each runner doing four fast laps and handing off the baton to the next runner.  After running your mile (tracks were 440 yards back then), you could rest until your turn in the rotation came around again about 45-50 minutes later.  As I recall, the “world record” of over 300 miles in 24 hours was set at an Olympic training camp in 1972.

With 10-men teams, we had long breaks for socializing. I remember a conversation with a grizzled master’s runner. Perhaps because he knew I worked for RW, he sought my “expert” advice.

“I’ve been running for five years,” he said. “I run 50 miles a week like clockwork, and I eat a pretty healthy diet. When I started running, I dropped 15 pounds, but that was it. I plateaued, and since then I haven’t been able lose the rest of this weight, and it’s really frustrating.”

I wished I could have helped him. But I had no clue. I didn’t have a weight problem, though my mileage was no greater than his. What could I say?

In the 40 intervening years, I’ve been through the weight-loss mill many times. As I’ve aged I’ve done every weight-loss diet imaginable. I’ve gone low-carb, low-fat, taken supplements, done more speedwork, all to try to keep the fat off. And all those attempts failed, except for two.

One is Dr. Joel Fuhrman, M.D.’s “Eat to Live” system. I’ve talked about it elsewhere, so I won’t go into it now. Suffice it that it was very, very successful. I left that diet after 2½ years because I needed certain nutrients that the diet in its purest form wasn’t supplying. But I was able to lose an amazing amount of weight and keep it off, without any gnawing hunger pangs or feelings of deprivation. In the first six weeks I lost more than 20 pounds, safely.

Toward the end of that 2½-year period, I realized that my body required eggs and occasional fish. For as long as I stayed on the extended-Fuhrman diet, I thrived and kept the weight off.

But then I hit a snag. I was eating the same “very good” diet as before. Yet I began to have a major problem with belly fat.

It was annoying, embarrassing, and it hindered my running. Imagine running while carrying a 20-pound sack on your forearms. No matter how I changed my diet, the tubby-gut just wouldn’t go away.

And then while browsing at the library I spied a book called Wheat Belly, by William Davis, M.D.

Two things immediately struck me. First was the title – that word Belly. That was exactly where my problem lay. My legs were slim and runnerly, my butt was still as cute as a bug’s even though I’m 71. And I didn’t look obese. But there was that blasted bowling ball that just wouldn’t be budged.

Was I pregnant with the Alien? Had I unwittingly swallowed a watermelon seed? What was I doing wrong? I was as frustrated as the guy I’d spoken with at the 24-hour relay.

The second thing that struck me was that my diet had been mostly wheat-free until about a year before – about when the gut problem began.

At the time, I discovered that eating a whole-wheat cinnamon raisin bagel an hour or two before my longer runs really put fuel in my tank, especially if I topped it with a thin shmeer of cream cheese and a liberal layer of Smucker’s Strawberry Preserves.

Being a curious guy, I did a little research and concluded that I hadn’t been covering my carbohydrate requirements, and that fructose is a great fuel for short-distance events because it gets converted to glucose for the working muscles really fast. I knew about the health hazards of fructose but reasoned that it was okay a couple times a week before I ran.

At any rate, I took the Wheat Belly book home and had a revelation.

Dr. Davis describes how the wheat that’s grown around the world today is the result of over 50 years of tremendous modifications by food geneticists, to the point where the “wheat” we now consume is a very different substance from what America was eating until the early 1950s.

The details are complex. Let’s just say there’s huge evidence, which Davis lays out in detail, that the present-day “wheat” product is the source of a long list of serious health problems, including obesity.

Davis writes:

Wheat products elevate blood sugar levels more than virtually any other carbohydrate, from beans to candy bars. This has important implications for body weight, since glucose is unavoidably accompanied by insulin, the hormone that allows entry of glucose into the cells of the body, converting the glucose to fat. The higher the blood glucose after consumption of food, the greater the insulin level, the more fat is deposited. This is why, say, eating a three-egg omelet that triggers no increase in glucose does not add to body fat, while two slices of whole wheat bread increases blood glucose to high levels, triggering insulin and growth of fat, particularly abdominal or deep visceral fat.

Dr. Davis, who suffers from an extreme gluten intolerance, performed an experiment. Having located a small farm in Massachusetts dedicated to preserving genetically unaltered grains, he persuaded the owners to sell him some “ancient grain” wheat berries, from which he baked a loaf of bread. He then made a loaf using the same recipe but with modern altered “wheat.”

After consuming several slices of the ancient-grains bread, he experienced no ill effects. But after munching the altered “wheat” product he had severe headaches and gastrointestinal pain that lasted 36 hours, accompanied by dizziness, nausea, and poor concentration.

Admittedly, it was an experiment of one, and thus purely anecdotal and unreliable. But Davis has seen similar effects in thousands of patients over the years.

He describes how the patients who gave up gluten-containing products, particularly wheat, found a range of health symptoms simply vanishing, including their wheat guts. Patients who dropped wheat commonly lost 30-40 pounds in 2-3 months, without other diet restrictions.

I’d like to make the case that foods made with or containing wheat make you fat. I’d go as far as saying that overly enthusiastic wheat consumption is the main cause of the obesity and diabetes crisis in the United States…. It explains why modern athletes, such as baseball players and triathletes, are fatter than ever. Blame wheat when you are being crushed in your airline seat by the 280-pound man next to you.

Wheat Belly is an important book for athletes, including runners. Dr. Davis lays out the science that explains why wheat is addictive – its contains factors that bind to the same brain receptors as heroin – and how to break the addiction and find nourishing, satisfying replacements.

Since giving up wheat, I feel mentally clearer, have more energy, and have begun to lose Mr. Tubby-Gut. If you’s running for two, you may be rewarded by reading Dr. Davis’s excellent book.

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