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How to Eat Like an Athlete - Part 1

I recently received the very kind comment and question from my blog: "What an inspiration. We are all at different training levels and it is so nice when I can hear from someone I admire so much that we all have challenges in our training. I would love to hear about your experience with training and nutrition."

In this post, I'll share with you some of my own journey in nutrition and athletics. In an upcoming blog, I'll share with you 3 ways to eat as an athlete.

My own journey with nutrition for athletics has been a slowly evolving and interesting learning process. When I started ultrarunning in my late 30s, I basically ate whatever I wanted and whenever. My diet was not the healthiest and included a lot of candy and sugar and definitely a lot of reward eating after long runs. Like most women, I noticed my metabolism subtly beginning to change in my early 40s, and so I jumped on the 'low carb' bandwagon with disastrous results. This is the hot dietary trend of our time, with many endurance athletes embracing it. Optimized fat metabolism (OFM), which is a generally very high fat/low carb way of eating, is enormously popular among endurance athletes. Although I should have known better as a physician and scientist, I too jumped on the bandwagon. For me, unfortunately, it was a disaster. My energy plummeted, I began to GAIN weight, and began to develop borderline distorted eating habits. I finally noticed this on a camping trip with friends, where I realized everyone around me was, quite simply, eating breakfast, whereas I was categorizing foods into 'good foods' (eggs, bacon) and 'bad foods' (pancakes, carbs). I had slowly become immensely carbo-phobic and it had impacted me negatively in every way. Paleo and low carb are enormously popular right now, and I'll say straight up that for many people, I do NOT think that is a good dietary trend. Two reasons:

  1. There are 3 macronutrients: proteins, carbs and fat. It does not make sense to me that an entire macronutrient group is bad and to be avoided. This to me is common sense and intuition. In the 80s and 90s, fat was the 'bad' macronutrient. Now carbs are the new 'bad' macronutrient. Have we learned nothing?
  2. The human brain does not like being told 'NEVER'. As in, never eat carbs again, never eat gluten, never dairy, and the popular, 'no sugar, no grains'. The concept of eliminating huge food sources, assuming you do not have a documented allergy or insensitivity, such as celiac disease, seems to set most people up for failure. Being told you can NEVER have something makes you want it all the more, right? Now I know some people develop addictive behaviors towards certain food groups, such as sugar, and even a little bit sets up a cascade of binging with no end in sight. But I think for many of us, a better goal would be to be able to enjoy small(er) amounts of those tempting foods from time to time, and to enjoy them in the context of an overall healthy diet.

Back to my own journey, with the help of a sports nutritionist, I began to reintroduce carbs into my diet and noted marked improvements in health, energy and performance. I have delved into a few other nutritional programs, with varying success. I checked this out, as it sounded so darn healthy, but then realized it was that same restrictive eating, elimination of massive food sources. The Whole30® Program - As featured in the New York Times bestselling book, The Whole30 I did an elimination diet, through the Institute of Functional Medicine, which involved eliminating, for 3 weeks, common food irritants, such as wheat, dairy, soy, eggs and corn. You then gradually reintroduce these foods to see if they irritate you. None of them did, and while it is definitely not a way to eat long-term, it is not a bad way to kick off the new year. It is not designed for weight loss, but for health. These days, I don't really do anything fancy. I loosely follow, as it emphasizes a very balanced and healthy way of eating, avoids restricting foods and does not involve weighing and measuring foods. I don't eat much in the way of processed foods and I go a little crazy around the holidays like everyone, but I always return to a balanced approach to eating. In my next blog post, I'll talk more about eating specifically as an athlete and for performance. Keep moving and stay healthy!

About the author

Sarah Vlach