Salad Wars

Salad Wars

In Fitness Intuition, I suggest that our running goes best when we train expansively — that is, when we do the things that promote physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health and well-being.

Not an earth-shaking discovery. But it’s hard to achieve expansion, on any level, when the body is pinging along on three cylinders. And one of the best ways to keep the body happy is to eat well.

As athletes, the first three things we typically think of, when it comes to diet, are carbs, protein, and healthy fats. But a fourth group — the micronutrients — is equally important. Those tiny nutrients in salad, fruit, and nuts, many of which have yet to be identified and given names, enable the body to use the macro-fuels (carbs, fats, and protein) effectively. Avoid salad for a few days, and you’re bound to feel sub-par, with sagging energy.

Scott Jurek talked about this when I interviewed him for the March 2007 issue of Trail Runner:

Q: It’s widely known that you follow a vegan diet. Can a person become a better trail runner by changing what they eat?

SJ: You’ll find people who have great diets and run decently, and people who have very poor diets and run very fast.

In terms of performance, diet may not help you on race day, but a healthy diet improves the body’s ability to recover and repair. When you’re young, you can bounce back quickly, but individuals who’ve paid attention to their diet for many years usually run and recover better, late in life.

Q: Are there specific foods that you find helpful for recovery?

SJ: I like to say “get-down, wholesome, whole food.” Fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans. Dense protein sources like tempeh and tofu are great. But I try to advise individuals, as I do with my own diet, to incorporate as many fresh whole, unprocessed foods as possible, because they have the most intact vitamins and minerals. They are the building blocks.

Fruit and beans are easy. The trouble with salad is, it’s so darned inconvenient. I can make an omelet in four minutes, a smoothie in three, and a sandwich in two. But salad takes longer. At least, it did until I figured out how to make salad as easy as breaking an egg.

Quick answer: I make salad just every three or four days, but I make a lot. I fill an enormous stainless steel bowl with a “salad base” of romaine, grated carrot, and finely chopped kale — anything that won’t wilt, brown, or turn slimy in four days.

For lunch, on the intervening days, I’ll throw several handfuls of the base in a smaller bowl and customize to taste, using effortless, instant ingredients that I keep on hand: olives, beans, peas, avocado, tomato, orange and/or lemon, Bragg’s Liquid Aminos, croutons, onion, bell pepper, spinach, bok choi, sunflower seeds, Bac-O’s, etc.

I’m powerfully motivated to eat my veggies — not merely for how I feel, but because I’ve seen the research.

Here’s a small library of articles on the health benefits of veggies, from the website of Dr. Joel Fuhrman, MD, author of Eat to Live, a guide to healthy diet and weight-loss.

I like Dr. Fuhrman because he’s scrupulously objective, and because he isn’t wedded to a single ingredient (high-fat, high-carb, etc.). Yet his plan does work. Don’t let anyone tell you that rapid, healthy weight-loss is a contradiction in terms. In the first six weeks of the Eat to Live diet, I lost 20+ pounds and — except when I swerved from Fuhrman’s guidelines, as described below — never felt better.

Here’s a short chapter from my book, where I describe an experience with the Eat to Live diet. At the end of the article, I’ll give the recipe for my favorite salad dressing, and some tips for preparing the three-day salad base quickly and efficiently.


I put on weight over the winter, and I was feeling unhappy about the roll around my waist. I prayed, saying I didn’t want to repeat the low-fat diet that I’d used, years earlier, to lose 40 pounds

I asked God if there was a more balanced way to lose weight, and the next day, while browsing in a bookstore, I found a book called Eat to Live, by Joel Fuhrman, M.D. I was intrigued that Fuhrman is an athlete, a former world-class figure skater, and I bought the book and began the diet.

Eat to Live is carefully researched. Fuhrman documents his claims meticulously, with references to solid scientific studies. Yet the basic concept of the diet is extremely simple: hunger ceases when we give the body an ample supply of the nutrients it needs, plus bulk. Thus, eating huge salads, steamed vegetables, and moderate quantities of beans, grains, nuts, and fruit, is a healthy, easy way to reduce calories without feeling hungry. As I began the diet, I found that Fuhrman’s claims were true. Eating delicious salads and meals of cooked vegetables and beans, plus tons of fruit, I never felt hungry, even as the pounds melted away. On the old, low-fat diet, it had taken me six months to lose 40 pounds, but with Eat to Live, I lost 20 pounds in the first month.

My personal motto being “Everything to excess, nothing in moderation,” I decided that if I cut out all starchy carbs and fats, I could lose weight faster, so I eliminated grains, starchy vegetables, and nuts from my diet – and straightaway, I began to feel awful.

I was running three times a week: 10-12 miles twice during the week and 15 miles on Sunday, and my runs immediately turned into death marches.

After six terrible weeks, I prayed for guidance. But, to be honest, I was cheating, because I was praying with half my mind, and with the other half I was stubbornly determined to continue avoiding starchy carbs and lose weight fast – and I didn’t consider that to be a problem.

Meanwhile, I was running at greatly reduced speeds, with feelings of dizziness, mental exhaustion, and dampened spirits. I tried eating more protein, vitamins, and fruit, and in a final desperate concession, I began eating a few nuts. But nothing worked.

In my experience, God seldom lays out our answers for us on a silver platter, simply because we do Him the great honor of praying. In fact, He’s much more likely to defer the answers until we find the inner humility and openness to receive His guidance and act upon it – and thereby deepen our relationship with Him. Thus, God let me fiddle with my diet until I was finally ready to abandon resistance and open my heart.

The last run was on a lovely trail by San Francisco Bay. At this point, I was so tired that I could barely jog. I felt like a frail old man.

I ran along a levee that extends far out into the Bay, to a remote place where people rarely go. Hundreds of shorebirds were squawking and diving overhead, catching a meal at the mouth of Stevens Creek. I stopped to rest and savor the purity of the surroundings.

On the way out, while shuffling along, old-man fashion, I had felt a surprising amount of joy. I had insisted on losing weight my way, and I had lost the battle, but now I felt free, and very still inside. I was running with a feeling of being wholly in the moment, restfully watching the purple hills across the Bay, the birds chattering on a nearby island, and a pair of geese resting in a weedy outcrop by the trail. I could think of nothing to worry about; I was immersed in a mood of simple – if exhausted – being.

I turned back, still in that peaceful state, sensing that I was near to finding an answer. I told God that I was serious about wanting to do the right thing – that I would abandon the diet, if necessary. I was fully humbled, reduced to impartiality. What could I lose? My heart was nonattached, quiet, neutralized; my mind was calm, cheerful and receptive.

I thought, “I’m giving my body everything it needs–protein, vitamins, healthy fats, and fiber. The only thing I haven’t tried is starchy carbs.” I’d been eating tons of fruit, but it clearly wasn’t giving my body enough energy. After all, it takes 16 oranges to replenish the calories burned in a single 10-mile run. As this thought entered my mind, it was accompanied by a lightness and a clarity and resonance that made me feel intuitively that it was the right answer.

When I got home, I cooked rice pilaf and mixed it with steamed veggies and beans, then lay on the bed, watching a video and enjoying a meal that seemed prepared in heaven. It was deeply satisfying, and I knew with complete certainty that it was the answer. Within 30 minutes, I was feeling my old self again, the healthy, happy runner I had been six weeks before.

Why must it always be so hard? Perhaps because the lessons we learn through pain are driven deep into our cells. In fact, I learned a lesson that was far more valuable than my body’s need for starchy carbs. I learned something priceless about the process of learning. I learned that it is only my own desires that prevent me from receiving the help that a higher guidance is always eager to give.

I can’t resist sharing a delicious salad dressing that I invented during the first six weeks of the Eat to Live Diet.

  • Peel two organic Valencia oranges.

  • Grind two handfuls of organic almonds. Or use raw almond butter (cheap at Trader Joe’s).

  • Put oranges and almonds in a blender with a little water.

  • Add a dash of Bragg’s Liquid Aminos (to taste).

  • Add a dab of stone-ground organic mustard (optional, to taste).

Add the dressing to a salad made from two large heads of finely chopped organic romaine, plus any other ingredients you like: avocado, olives, artichoke hearts, garbanzos, kidney beans, shredded carrot, chopped celery, onions, etc.

Substitute any other nuts for the almonds – try walnuts, tahini, etc. Or use avocado instead of nuts. You can make a second meal from leftover salad by adding it to leftovers from a cooked meal, such as a mixture of beans, rice and steamed greens.

Quick and Easy Salad Prep

We’d all probably eat more salad if it didn’t involve swishing Romaine in cold water, washing (a sometimes appalling number of organic) bugs down the drain, wondering how many bugs managed to hold on, and endless chopping and scraping on an (invariably inadequate) cutting board.

While time crawls and our minds to meander to the many more-involving things we could be doing, I’m sure that most of us have considered: “For what?” For lettuce? If it were a question of brazil nuts and raisin cabbage rolls with sweet and sour sauce, or bulghur pilaf with mushrooms and carmelized onions — or even nut loaf — the effort would seem worthwhile.

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well It were done quickly. Here’s my strategy for efficiently preparing a salad base. A nice thing about doing it the same, orderly way is that, as it becomes routine, you can turn your mind to pleasant thoughts of bulghur pilaf:

  1. Plug the drain and run cold water.

  2. Grab two heads of Romaine, 3-4 carrots, and (optionally) a head of kale from fridge and place on counter.

  3. Unwrap veggies. Chop off 1 to 1.5″ from bottom of Romaine. Rinse carrots. Rinse and strip kale. (Hold kale “face-downward”, strip in one sweeping motion from thick end to thin.)

  4. Put Romaine in sink, separate the leaves, and swish. Keep leaves lined-up for quick removal and chopping.

  5. Line up stray Romaine leaves. Grab in both hands, drain in air over sink, and place on chopping block.

  6. Hold Romaine leaves in one hand, and with a long knife (I like a 12″ serrated baker’s knife), cut in narrow strips across the Romaine leaves. Then turn the cutting board and cut in narrow strips the other direction.

  7. Put Romaine in bowl, chop kale, and grate carrots.