Category Archives: Food

Training ambitions, and the unexpected prime obstacle to meeting them

Given I currently have some extra time on my hands, I’m reviewing my upcoming schedule in preparation for winter training. I want to work towards 60-70 miles a week this next training cycle, which may sound scary to the uninitiated until I mention that I was topping 50 miles per week without much trouble during Chicago Marathon training.

While I’m open to staying with a training load around 40-50 miles per week, I do want to stretch out and give 60+ a shot by extending my weekday runs, making sure I go 120-150 minutes on Saturday long runs, and mixing in some brief morning or lunchtime weekday runs in addition to my typical postwork runs. If it turns out to be too physically demanding, I can always scale back to a more regular workload, but for all sorts of reasons I’ll get into someday I believe I can now handle the larger workload.

That said, the biggest obstacle to running more miles isn’t whether my body can handle it, or even the wear on my shoes (my budget is tighter than it was a year ago, but I can always buy another 1-2 pairs of training shoes if I need it).

The problem is whether or not I can eat enough to compensate for all the extra calories I would burn.

I’m looking to get my diet super clean going into this next training cycle, as well as make it more affordable and simplified. An optimal diet that served all of the above only fed me about 2400 calories. That is well and good for weight loss, if I’m not running more than a couple miles every day. I would obviously be running much more than a couple miles per day.

Again, every mile I walk or run burns about 125 calories. I have actually been walking more the last few days, and have hit 3000 calories burned the last couple days despite no running. It’s fairly easy for me to burn calories when I’m active, and during my 30ish miles per week training days I would easily burn 3300-3500 calories.

If I’m running closer to 9 miles per day, that’s an extra 600-650 calories per day I’d burn, and even if I make the extra effort to take it easy in the rest of my life, I’ll easily burn 3500-3600 calories per day.

Okay, you may say… you’re looking to cut fat anyway, and this would be a great opportunity to shed some more of it, right? What’s the harm?

One of the reasons you don’t want to run a huge calorie deficit is the risk of muscle wasting. While it’s in general considered a cardio exercise, running requires substantial lower body strength, and along with depleting glycogen stores you break down lower body muscle. Proper nutrition allows you to rebuild those damaged muscles as well as restore your glycogen stores.

You’re already playing with fire when you run a calorie deficit, and being able to do so safely during training requires some mindful planning and execution. Even then, you should not run a deficit of greater than 500 calories a day. If I’m going to burn 3500 calories a day, I need to take in about 3000 calories to prevent myself from burning out or getting hurt.

And I probably should not take in as much fat as I have. I’m not looking to go low-fat with my diet revisions, because again the body absolutely needs dietary fat. But I do want to work on staying within 80-85g of fat per day, which means the answer to my dilemma is not as simple as committing to pounding a frozen pizza every day.

And as much as I’d like to go paleo or similar, I don’t want to compromise my performance or development by avoiding carbs and the needed glycogen.

Okay, so just eat a bunch of carbohydrates, right? Well, easy to say sure, since I’m going to burn them every day.

But there’s only so many carbs I can stomach. Most healthy carb-rich foods can be very dense and contain a lot of insoluble fiber. I found during my “sure, I’ll carb load” diet phases in previous years that the most carbs I could handle in a day is about 400-500g. And I could only hit that mark now and again: On a daily basis I can’t consistently consume more than 350g of carbohydrate.

Right now I’m eating about 300-400 calories of potatoes with dinner. I can probably handle about 3-4 bananas at most, and eating all of the above means taking in an uncomfortably large amount of insoluble fiber. Either way, I don’t think I can stomach much more than that.

Plus, your stomach can only process so many nutrients before just passing the rest or storing the difference as fat. Carbs do get stored as fat once the window closes on your body’s absorption capabilities. So eating a ton of carbs isn’t really an easy solution.


So, looking at my diet, after factoring in the foods I do and can consistently eat… I realized I had a deficit of about 600 calories if I want to train at a higher volume. How to cover it?

One answer is to swap out potatoes (at least on some days) with semolina-based pasta. I mentioned fusilli as a pasta of choice, though organic elbow macaroni is an option as well thanks to its density. Both provide more carbs in a meal (as many as 60g extra, plus some extra protein) than potatoes do overall.

However, potatoes provide a ton of potassium that pasta does not. It can be possible to supplement the traditional way: By making pasta with marinara sauce. I eat my pasta plain with salt, broth and coconut oil for seasoning. But a cup of marinara sauce adds about 800mg of potassium, which would cover most of the gap.

While it’s not totally my cup of tea, I’m not opposed to quickly heating a cup of marinara or similar pasta sauce and dumping that onto the pasta for dinner with my chicken. And, while not as much, pasta sauce also comes with a few extra carbohydrates.

I also find that sometimes at work I need an afternoon snack. If I commit to quick-prep oatmeal, that can provide some extra carbohydrate on key days.


All of these options of course have a common problem: They’re processed foods. And while inexpensive, it gets away from the whole food philosophy I’ve been working to follow and maintain with my diet. I wouldn’t want to eat these items exclusively, let alone every day.

None of this is to say I’ve found the solution. These are mostly just the options I’m considering ahead of 2019. The good news is I don’t have to find an answer now. Go-Time for this plan would be about 2.5 months down the road.

But it does present an interesting dilemma: If you want to train high-mileage, how do you make sure you get enough energy to eat to maintain that workload?

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What do I eat when I eat “junk” or processed food? A long primer on my favorite processed and “junk” food

So I always mention that while I eat clean most of the time, I do eat processed food about 20% of the time, and often I exercise some judgment (as well as obviously taste) in what I eat that 20% of the time.

Selected frozen pizzas

Despite living in arguably the pizza capital of the world, I don’t go or order out for pizza that much. First of all, that can get expensive in a hurry, there are just as many local varieties of frozen Chicago pizza in stores, and you can often get far more pizza for your buck when you buy it frozen at the store.

Usually, I try and get a pie totaling about 1200-1500 calories, something I can eat in one sitting when I need a huge protein/carb/fat boost. Most mainstream store varieties are TOO calorie dense, and taste a little too chemically plasticine for my liking. The one mainstream variety I’m still down with is the relatively light Newman’s Own, though availability is come and go in Chicago.

Here in Chicago, I usually go with Eastside Cafe, whose protein-rich local ingredients and thin crust make it far superior to everything else on the shelf. Whole Foods generally carries it in spades (I usually get cheese or sausage given that’s available on the shelf), though Eastside distributes locally in Warrenville on the far west side of Chicagoland if anyone in town is willing to make a road trip and take their pick. (Someday on a free weekday I’ll make the trip so I can finally try their pepperoni pizza)

Other local Chicago varieties I like are Screamin Sicilian (known for overloading their mid-thick pies with toppings) and Reggios (the latter of which originated as a restaurant that still runs today). Home Run Inn and Connie’s are okay (those two also run local restaurants: A Home Run Inn location is about 15 minutes from my apartment), though HRI is a little plasticine, and Connie’s frozen pizzas have a bunch of random fragments that tend to get everywhere.

The key with picking these pizzas is that they are protein rich, not TOO calorie rich, and made largely with fresh local ingredients (even if they are processed with some variety of manufactured chemicals). When I need a protein bomb on a protein-weak day, or I’m a bit too gassed to cook a meal, they are a solid fallback option.

Fairlife Reduced Fat Lactose Free Chocolate Milk

I’m not totally lactose intolerant, but my body has a shallow stop-loss when it comes to milk consumption. It’s hit and miss whether a decent quantity of milk or ice cream will send me to the crapper like a hockey player serving time in the penalty box for slashing.

This variety of Fairlife’s chocolate milk removes the lactose, eliminating that risk, and allowing me an easy opportunity to pound a taste-friendly 19 grams of protein in a 12 oz glass, or a single serve 11.5 oz bottle.

Sadly, Treasure Island Foods’ demise means I no longer have an easy go-to spot to get this, and I’ll need to find a new place to get it. But it makes for a great post-workout drink, a poor man’s protein shake… as well as a great dessert option, or even an overnight appetite-cover if hunger wakes me up during the night.

I’m not into drinking it everyday since it is flavored, processed milk. But you could do far worse with regards to chocolate milk, and it’s not as expensive as protein shakes.

English Muffin Breakfast Sandwiches

I do not discriminate much when it comes to breakfast sandwiches. If you can slap meat, eggs and cheese between two toasted english muffins, I will probably want to eat it for breakfast.

I tend to avoid breakfast these days because I value intermittent fasting, but sometimes I will pound a breakfast sandwich to start the day, often while recovering from a hard workout or when I know I’ve got a tough day ahead and will need the extra nutrition.

Starbucks’ sausage sandwiches tend to be okay but reliable, though they’re more plasticine than most sandwiches. Here in Chicago, I’ve become partial to Mariano’s Vero cafes’ sausage (Buon Giorno) sandwiches lately. Local Eva’s Cafe in Old Town makes a great sandwich, and the nearby Lakeview Rewired cafe in my neighborhood makes a great sandwich on ciabatta-style bread.

Evolve and Orgain protein shakes

When I do spend an excessive amount of money on ready-made protein shakes, my shakes of choice are Evolve and Orgain, both sold at Whole Foods. Orgain is loaded with vitamins and goes down relatively easy. Evolve is more fiber and protein rich, though lighter in calories (which may or may not be a problem depending on my needs that day).

I get the vanilla varieties of either one. But at $3+tax a pop, I don’t drink them regularly.

Epic Sea Salt Pork Rinds

These are also expensive at $4+tax, but each bag of these pork rinds contains about 40g of protein, and they are hearty pork rinds without the annoying thick patches of random hardened skin that most varieties of pork rinds provide you. This is another snack food I’ll pound when I want a protein boost, and the bag is usually done right after I open it.

Kettle Style Potato Chips

I’m a sucker for kettle style potato chips, and I’ll usually try to get varieties cooked in avocado, sunflower, coconut, etc oil rather than vegetable or canola oil. Because if I’m going to eat awful junk food as a snack, it had better at least be cooked in some healthy oil, right?

I’m partial to the salted-no-flavor varieties of Kettle brand chips and Boulder Canyon avocado oil chips.

365 brand veggie chips

If I’m going to delude myself into believing that veggie chips are a better snack for me than potato chips, I’ll get the Whole Foods 365 brand, because those tend to be plainer and cleaner than other varieties, plus the bag is not as big… making the act of housing the whole bag in one sitting slightly less regrettable.

Fresh old fashioned chocolate glazed donuts

They don’t make donuts like they used to. The average hipster donut place makes the bread more like cake, and they put nonsense like bacon on top of it. If I want bacon I’ll just get an actual sit-down breakfast at a diner.

When I want an honest to goodness old fashioned made from scratch chocolate glazed donut, it’s hard to find great places that serve one anywhere. In Chicago, I will vouch for Firecakes in Lincoln Park. The only other place I’ve recently found great old fashioned donuts is Lee’s, a stand in the Granville Island Market in Vancouver BC Canada.

I am also amenable to maple glazed donuts and (when in the right mood) plain sugar glazed donuts. But generally, if I can’t get a chocolate glazed donut I just won’t bother. I don’t do sprinkles or neon colored glaze.

Truffle oil french fries (bonus if cheese sauce is an option)

If you’re a bar that serves a heaping pile of french fries as a dish, I’m generally down if I would like to eat.

The Reservoir in Uptown serves a great version cooked in truffle oil that’s garnished in parmesan. The Res is general is highly recommended if you ever land in Chicago, not just for that but for a vast alcohol selection and some of the nicest people running a bar in Chicago.

The Bar on Buena in Buena Park will serve you a side of home made melted cheese with their fries, which I also like.

But the kings of cheese fries in Chicago are Devil Dawgs, who serve a large bowl-caliber cup of cheese fries done right: They don’t just pour cheese over the top of the fries, but mix in cheese with the fries throughout the cup as they pile them on. When I want a sloppy cup of cheese fries every now and again (with a hot dog, of course!), that’s the place to go for me.

Beef taquitos (rolled tacos)

Why have beef taquitos gone away as a dish? This makes me sad. First of all, Mexican restaurants in Chicago don’t really serve them without charging too much for them. Secondly, stores that used to carry them like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have stopped carrying them.

They’re the best kind of rolled tacos! I’ll eat them plain, though I definitely won’t complain if you top them with cheese and guacamole (but I WILL if you top it with sour cream, which I do not like). Chicken doesn’t cut it, and sorry Trader Joe’s but the bean and cheese variety simply isn’t the same.

Fried chicken

I have always been a mark for fried chicken. Even during my chicken allergy phase I’d gladly break off any boycott to eat it.

I’m not as high on the varieties at supermarkets, or breaded chicken tenders. Chicken nuggets are okay, though it does depend on how they’re made. Places like Church’s or Popeye’s are just okay. KFC has cleaned up a bit over the years and now that I can eat their chicken without suffering dysentery I think they’re alright.

Locally, there’s a lot of “wait 20 minutes” boutique joints in Chicago and many cities with shops that’ll gladly serve you “home cooked” fried chicken. They’re okay, but most are probably not worth the premium price or the wait.

Here in Chicagoland, the king for me remains Evanston Chicken Shack in Evanston. I abhor traveling to Evanston but am always willing to make a stopover if given the chance.

In Seattle, I’ll vouch for Ezell’s like many others, but the founder’s spinoff shop Heaven Sent Fried Chicken in Lake City is honestly the king there. If you live in Seattle and like Ezell’s, I encourage you to go to 145th and Lake City Way and try out the original.

If you’re in Portland OR, go to The Screen Door. It’s a sit down meal, it’s a bit pricier and there probably will be a wait, but you probably won’t regret it.

I generally will mark out for a wide variety of local fried chicken. Again, I don’t like to fry food at home, but am more than happy to pay someone else to do the frying. If you drag me to a fried chicken place I will probably be happy with your decision.

Mission style burritos

I was first introduced to big Mission style burritos not by Chipotle, but by Seattle’s famous burrito shop Gordito’s, known for making burritos as big as newborn babies. Fresh, delicious, and if you don’t arrive starving you will probably have to bring some home with you.

Since then, Chipotle has made the big burrito famous, and America has gradually wised up to the fact that Mexican restaurants have been making these burritos for generations. But I had wised up long before this, and have always loved the big Mission style burrito.

Here in Chicago, I fortunately live about five blocks from what I consider the best place to get a carne asada burrito: El Burrito Mexicano, right under the Addison CTA station near Wrigley Field. It’s cash only and it’ll run you $10-12 after tip for a plate. Plus, obviously, avoid going on a Cubs game day because it’ll be stupid-packed. But the massive burrito is chock full of great steak, refried beans, tomatoes and cheese. It’s a total winner, but given I don’t usually carry a ton of cash it’s only an occasional treat for me.

Does sushi count as processed food?

I mean, I guess it does. Seaweed paper has to be processed. Sushi grade rice is as well, as is soy sauce. Even if all the other ingredients are fresh, there’s a lot of processed sodium-rich stuff in sushi, which is another food I love when the price is right.

I’m a mark for Alaskan (salmon avocado) and other salmon rolls, as well as Negi Hamachi Rolls (yellowtail and scallions), and various creative dragon-style combo rolls rich with salmon. If a sushi restaurant offers fried calamari or salmon bits as a side, I am all over that.

Here in Chicago, I don’t have crazy expectations. I like Gorilla Sushi in Lincoln Park because it’s affordable and their offerings are solid. But Chicago’s got quite a few good spots, especially Lakeview. Rollapalooza and Sumo are good Chicago sushi spots.

Seattle’s rising expense has taken away my favorite kaiten spots, so I don’t know what’s good there anymore. In Vancouver BC Canada, Miku Restaurant is the king, a very pricey and upscale joint that is absolutely worth the cost. But Vancouver has a LOT of great, affordable sushi options too numerous to name or visit.

When my dad takes me to his favorite sushi place in Vegas, Sushi Wa, I will pretty much eat anything he shoves in my direction. They make such a wide variety of sushi I wouldn’t otherwise have any idea about 20% of their best stuff.

Sushi is terrific, and if somehow I ended up filthy rich I’d probably eay it way too often.

Ramen

Don’t even get me started on how much I love ramen. Another pricey but terrific food I have to be careful about eating too often.

I’ve dabbled with and enjoyed spots in Chicago and Las Vegas, but nothing I’d fall over to recommend.

In Seattle, Aloha Ramen was easily the best ramen spot, in no small part thanks to their garlic-rich fried rice.

In Vancouver I LOVED Hokkaido Ramen Santouka, which is famous for their excellent pork gyoza but also makes good ramen and backdrops it with terrific friendly service.

I admit I’m still a mark for cheap generic top ramen out of a package, however. Often, given the option and the craving, I’ll just eat that.


I just wrote far too much about food you and I should not be eating that often. As I do after eating any of the above, I regret none of it.

P.S. I also didn’t mention ice cream, which I don’t do much at all anymore, but I remain partial to Ben and Jerry’s Peanut Butter Cup, and Häagen-Dazs Caramel Cone.

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My dietary staples: The food, drink and garnishes I build around

The one thing about serious running that I enjoy the most is how it compelled improvements to every other aspect of my lifestyle: My diet, my sleep habits, my personal habits, life decisions, etc.

Even when I’m not running, those things remain very important in general. In a sense, training never really stops even when you take a break from running. Because your diet is one aspect of your training. Your sleep and resting habits are aspects of your training. Your general activity and life choices are all aspects of your training.

And so when people finish a goal race and take a break, they do one of two things with their lives. They either stop training, or they continue to train.

And I’m not just talking about running: In fact, after running a marathon or longer, you definitely need to stop running for a bit. But in a way: Training is life, and life is training. You’re either training to improve, or you’re not.

Anyway, let’s talk about food.


As I’ve said I eat about 80% clean or better. I’m down for pizza, burgers, fried food, burritos, chips, some alcohol now and then, etc… as much as anyone. There are times where processed stuff might be my best option for a given meal.

But every other time, I eat clean: Baked and boiled food, raw fruit and vegetables, water coffee or tea. I cook using only olive or coconut oil. I season food with garlic salt and maybe 1-2 other garnishes (no sauces). To cover my bases I take a multivitamin and supplement with fish oil, a cal-mag-D3 citrate pill, and Vitamin K2. I rely on simple food items I know I can comfortably consume, and I stick to eating those most of the time.

Some of this food can be classified as processed, though by and large what I consume is a sclose to its original form as is reasonable.

Chicken

I grew up eating a lot of chicken. At some point in my 20’s I suddenly developed a rash whenever I ate it, so I had to stop for a while. At some point in the last decade, I found out I could eat chicken without problems again (perhaps farms were adding some sort of toxic hormone before?), and now it’s once again my top protein staple.

I mostly eat chicken thighs, and occasionally will mix in drumsticks if the store is short on thighs. Wings don’t provide enough meat, and chicken breasts provide too much plus take more time and effort to cook and lack important fat. Thighs fall right in the sweet spot.

I always bake them in the oven at 350-400 degrees, either over coconut oil, or on a bed of potatoes.

Potatoes: Yukon Gold or red

Penn Jillette lost over 100 pounds subsisting on potatoes, and for good reason. They are probably the most potassium rich food you can eat, and are a clean quality starch with loads of other vitamins.

Conventional potatoes are generally super dirty and I ain’t got time to scrub them off nor do I want to lose nutrients by peeling them. So I get the much cleaner gold or red variety, and I eat them cubed with the skin. Reds tend to be dirty from time to time depending on what variety you get, so often I go with the golds.

I either bake 3-4 of them cubed, over olive oil in the oven (a basic recipe my mother showed me a couple years ago), or I boil them in a large pot. They are typically a side dish with meat.

Fusilli pasta

Before I got into potatoes, this was my dinner side dish for a good long while. Of course, it’s not a whole food product (derived from wheat semolina), and it lacks the potassium and vitamins present in potatoes. I definitely noticed the difference health-wise once I switched.

However, a heaping serving does have a bit more protein, and a lot more carbs, plus it’s easier to prepare than the potatoes. I still have it from time to time.

I have tried other brands, but Whole Foods’ 365 still makes the more palatable version of fusilli I’ve had to date.

Coffee

I love coffee. I don’t pound 4+ cups a day like other addicts, but I still have a cup almost every morning. It provides me a strange sort of relaxation with its caffeinated energy.

I’ll drink 8-16 oz, depending on how much I’m in the mood for. I always drink it black and not after 12pm unless it’s decaf (even then I pretty much avoid drinking it at all after noon).

I’m not super picky, even though I often like to go to independent local shops and roasters to hang out over a cup.

I used to brew coffee at home for work, but now rely on whatever’s freely available at work. That could change again if my next long term workplace lacks decent coffee, but if my current work situation sticks then I’m probably sticking with their coffee for the long haul.

I’ve considered giving coffee up for a little while as an experiment (I’ve quit it a few times before with decent results, but I like it too much to stay away forever). It’s not an experiment I’m in a hurry to try.

Coconut oil

I cannot remember the exact source or information that led me to try coconut oil, but once I did I was hooked and now that’s mostly what I cook with.

Coconut oil, along with being a quality saturated fat, along has anti-fungal properties. People even use it as a topical agent for that reason. I don’t really, but I do like to think that if I had a candida issue that it’s long since been crushed.

Because of a low flashpoint, it doesn’t fry well, but all I do is bake with it. You can safely eat it raw as-is with a spoon, though there aren’t many cases where you would want to do so.

I have phases where I put a spoon of it in my coffee as a poor man’s bulletproof coffee. I haven’t done it in a long while but could be swayed to start doing it again.

(TRUE) extra virgin olive oil

I had a come-and-go relationship with olive oil over the years, but after learning more about the difference between bogus mass produced olive oil (which is often mixed with vegetable and canola oils), and true olive oil… I have fallen in with California Olive Ranch’s extra virgin olive oil.

I use it for baking potatoes in my large Pyrex pan, and when the occasional meal out of a box requires a spoon of butter (I use the olive oil instead, with great results).

Garlic Salt

Garlic salt is my at-plate seasoning of choice. I season food to taste with it. I am partial to Frontier Co-Op’s Garlic Salt. Since it’s not as manufactured, it does tend to clump in humid hot conditions if you forget to put the cap back on, but it’s still the best I’ve found.

I don’t drown my food in salt, but I’ll sprinkle it liberally on potatoes and pasta. I may sprinkle some on meat while cooking as the situation calls, but I usually use it at the plate.

Oregano

Oregano’s healing properties more than its flavor are why I garnish baked dishes with it. I can’t imagine a dusting of the stuff works any miracles, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. And it does help the flavor of food.

Others will use it with other seasonings, but I only use it with garlic salt or powder.

Garlic powder, or pure garlic

Speaking of which, I will season meat and potatoes with garlic powder before baking to add some end-game flavor. If I’m in the mood to crush cloves of garlic, I’ll buy some bulbs from the store and get to it. However, it’s easier to just use the powder, so I just go with that.

I hope I don’t reek of garlic. I can’t tell anymore, since I use the stuff so much with my cooking. I avoid mainstream mass-produced brands, but otherwise I don’t have a strong preference with garlic powder.

Jane’s Krazy Mixed Up Salt

It’s getting harder for me to find a store that carries Jane’s fine mix of dried garlic, onion, garnishes and salt. Stores in Seattle (where I discovered it) definitely carry it in spades. But the only place in Chicago I’ve reliably found it recently is Treasure Island Foods, and they are unfortunately closing for good. Instacart claims that Whole Foods carries it but I’ve rarely seen it available there. I’ll need to find another store that has it or I won’t be using it again for a while.

It’s a little too thick to use as an at-plate seasoning, so I generally use it like garlic powder, as pre-cook seasoning for baked dishes.

White or brown rice

Growing up in a Filipino household, we ate white rice with just about everything we had for dinner. It was rare to eat a dinner where the side dish was something else. The family would mix it with butter, but over time I grew to enjoy it plain or with salt.

Living in Seattle I grew an affinity for brown rice, and cooked that a lot more frequently than white rice. I developed a few recipes, and would often carry a batch to work in plasticware to either eat for breakfast, or for lunch. Learning about the presence of arsenic in brown rice, I shied away from it in recent years, but I still do eat it, cooked out of my Aroma automatic rice cooker.

Currently I like to bring seasoned rice with me to work and eat that for lunch with…

Sardines in olive oil

I first dabbled with canned sardines back in Seattle, long after first seeing my dad eat them from time to time. I found them okay, but wasn’t that into them.

That changed during my current work situation, when I wanted to bring a suitable meal to work and eventually discovered that wild-caught sardines were a convenient protein to eat with rice. Getting them with olive oil also helps season the rice a bit more, making lunch a pretty full dish.

Sardines also have the advantage of providing Omega 3, which I get some of via fish oil supplementation and the occasional salmon meal. But it’s great to get it regularly with such an easy, portable lunch dish.

I’m partial to paying a bit more for the King Oscar brand, which I’ve found to taste noticeably better (less “tinny” and more like wild-caught fish). This is pretty much what I eat for lunch every weekday right now.


 

So those are my current food staples. This always evolves, and in a few years some other combination of food may suit my needs better.

But one key to why these foods work for me, along with being minimally processed and/or organic, is that they are affordable and for the most part readily accessible. It’s easy to form habits of eating these foods on a consistent basis.

I’ve definitely noticed the difference with my health and my running performance in the long run from eating this kind of food.

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Losing fat while training as a runner: The healthy middle ground

Fitness guru Alexander Juan Antonio Cortes recommends that if you’re overweight, or “skinny-fat” (not overweight but lacking muscle tone) and want to change for the better, your first primary focus aside from training should be to diet down to 10% bodyfat.

While somewhat extreme, here’s the idea: Most who begin to weight train build muscle beneath existing layers of fat, burdening themselves with the extra weight and complicating the step of eventually burning off extra fat. Burning the fat off up front eliminates the need to carry extra baggage, making all of your life a lot physically easier, and muscle built will show up a lot quicker.

WeightLoss

A Fitbit chart of my weight over time since December 2016, beginning some time after I began running. At this point, now well below my previous high of 193 and more normal… I let my weight fluctuate a bit more, depending on training cycles and goals.

On a different note, running obviously helped me shed a lot of fat, though before I seriously got into running I had already lost about 15 pounds, much of it fat. Running keyed some of my weight loss, but diet habits were what mattered most.

The thing with a running diet is that, regardless of any weight loss goals, its primary objective is to fuel your recovery from workouts. If you run a simple calorie deficit while training regularly, you’re just going to get injured. You won’t have enough protein to effectively rebuild your damaged muscles, and you won’t get enough quality carbohydrates to effectively replenish your glycogen stores. You’ll operate in a state of constant fatigue, which eventually becomes burnout.


Is there a middle ground if you’re trying to shed fat while endurance training? Absolutely.

First of all, if you make cleaner dietary changes as you begin training, you’re going to experience initial rapid weight loss. However, this is not fat melting off your body. It’s usually water weight:

  • You’re sweating more, so of course that liquid is getting displaced from your body.
  • If you’re hydrating more, your body will “decide” to retain less water over time. Extra water will get flushed.
  • As your diet improves, inflammation in your body subsides. Often your body retains fluid around inflamed parts as a sort of protection. As your inflammation decreases, the need to retain that fluid dissipates, and the fluid is flushed.
  • Many of your fat cells are actually just full of water. If you have fat cells that have lost their fat, they often re-fill with water in lieu of re-adding fat. As you burn those fat stores, these water-laden cells get “burned” and in turn release their water instead of releasing fat energy. Whoosh!

This is why when people begin a diet they lose several pounds right off the bat, before the weight loss slows to a relative crawl. The relative crawl is closer to the actual rate of fat loss. The earlier accelerated weight loss was a bunch of water weight flushing away.

Secondly, that water weight loss is actually good! You want to shed any unnecessary extra weight, and if you can eliminate the need for your body to surround organs and load fat cells with water, it’s in your best interests to eliminate the extra baggage.

But don’t you need to be hydrated? Sure, though you certainly don’t need to retain water to maintain hydration. Remember that the human body is more than 70% water. You are already fundamentally full of water. While you don’t want to dehydrate yourself, staying hydrated doesn’t require you retain extra water. Drink a decent amount of water every day, eat clean whole foods (that themselves contain a fundamental amount of water), drink hydrating fluids as needed during exercise, and you’ll be sufficiently hydrated.

Aside from that, your biggest concern is ensuring your body can effectively recover from training. The biggest challenge that trying to lose fat while training offers is that decreasing your nutrition intake, key to losing weight, risks compromising your recovery by denying the body needed nutrition.


The common fallacy people fall into when balancing training with weight loss is that they cut out the difference in dietary fat.

First of all, counterintuitively, your body needs dietary fat in a lot of ways. Without getting into the science, many hormonal and brain processes require the intake and digestion of nutrients from dietary fat. You’re starving yourself just as badly by taking in minimal fat as you would be if you stopped consuming protein.

If you weren’t a distance runner, it can be argued that you don’t really need carbohydrates. If your only exercise is weight training or walking, you could get by on a hardcore keto/paleo-style diet where as few carbs as consumed as possible.

However, if you regularly run harder than a jog for more than a few moments at a time, or you regularly run 3+ miles more than twice a week (low-carb dieters who swear by high intensity interval running do neither), you absolutely do need non-fiber carbs to maintain your glycogen stores.

And of course you absolutely need protein, no matter how active you are. Protein is the body’s rebuilding blocks, and without it your muscles and organs atrophy and break down. Most humans don’t get enough protein. Many athletes certainly don’t, even if they’re trying. Without getting into that discussion, you need protein, period.


So, can you still cut sufficient calories to spur weight loss, while still eating a healthy quantity of macronutrients to keep your body fueled for race training? Is it possible to practice a restrictive protocol like intermittent fasting and still be able to build/rebuild needed muscle, effectively restore glycogen stores, and still burn off fat and water weight at a noticeable rate?

To all this I say… absolutely. Build the right habits, and it’s not even that hard.


  1. First of all, if you already follow a solid maintenance diet, if you already know how many calories you need to eat each day to maintain your current weight… then cutting a few calories each day won’t be too hard. A 250 calorie deficit per day is pretty simple.
  2. Secondly, while intermittent fasting is effective, the risk is that it can potentially, unduly deplete needed glycogen stores over time, while potentially exacerbating exercise-related damage during the fasting period. However, that can be mitigated in many circumstances, and it can be possible to practice it during easier periods while just avoiding the protocol during other key periods.
  3. Thirdly, the key to a successful fat-burning diet is not to cut everything across the board, but to maintain the intake of key nutrients while curbing others.

You can burn fat while endurance training without burning out. There is a huge, fertile middle ground between hardcore dieting and training-friendly gluttony.

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Enough text-jawing about theory. If you’re going to try and lose weight while steady-state endurance training (i.e. running, also stuff like cycling, triahtlons, playing team sports like football/basketball, etc), here’s some actionable tips.

DON’T EVER SHORT PROTEIN

Your daily maintenance level protein needs are roughly around 1 gram for every pound of lean body mass (LBM), or 1 gram for every kilogram equal to 180% of your bodyweight.

Make sure you ALWAYS get at least this much protein. Other macros are going to get cut, but this one will do no less than stay constant.

You can even take in more protein than this on some days. There’s conflicting data on how much compulsive overdosing on protein can hurt your body, but going over some of the time isn’t so bad. Just don’t ever go below this benchmark.

THE EASIEST WAY TO RUN A HEALTHY DEFICIT: INTERMITTENT FASTING

There are various intermittent fasting protocols, and the easiest to maintain simply requires that you skip breakfast and eat your first food of the day at lunch. This ensures a 12-14 hour minimum fasting window and allows for most of the hormone-resetting and fat-burning benefits to kick in for at least a couple hours.

But most of all, it becomes very hard to overeat on calories for the day when you skip breakfast. Even if you overdo lunch or dinner, even if you slip another mid-afternoon or early evening meal between them, you’ll often fall short of your maintenance calorie level by a few hundred calories. Your stomach can only handle so much food in a given time span.

On my longest training days, where I burn in excess of 5000 calories, there’s no way I can take in 5000 calories. Even when I’m up for a Thanksgiving-sized meal, I can get about 2000 calories in, and hours later I might be able to get in 1000-1500 more. Your stomach has a limit as to how much food it can process over time. The best I’ve been able to do is a bit over 4000 calories, still about 1000 calories short on a 5000 calorie effort day.

Similarly, you can pig out for that first meal after breaking an intermittent fast. But unless you ate some seriously ghrelin-inducing processed garbage for lunch, your stomach’s not going to be ready for another massive meal for several more hours. It might be ready to eat again, but likely more on the level of a few hundred calories. Usually, for me, I break a fast around noon with a sizable but not absurd 600-1000 calorie lunch, and feel the need for another big meal around 6pm.

If I do eat a massive meal right after work (1000-1500 calories) I probably won’t want to eat again before bed, or I might eat a 200-400 calorie something before 10pm. Usually I do the latter, because otherwise (unless I am super exhausted enough to stay passed out the entire night) I wake up hungry during the night.

If I skip the big meal at 6pm and cook a full dinner closer to 8pm, this is usually 800-1000 calories. I can stomach up to 1500.

But that’s an absolute ceiling of about 2900 calories. On a typical day I burn in excess of 3000 calories, usually closer to 3300-3500. When I fast, I can’t help but lose weight, even if the fast itself produced no real benefits.

AVOID INTERMITTENT FASTING ON A TOUGH TRAINING DAY (AND MAYBE ALSO THE DAY AFTER)

If you have a long run or a tough speedwork session scheduled on a given day, go ahead and eat breakfast. You’re gonna need all the nutritional help you can get, and any complications from fasting that day could carry over into and compromise the workout. Go ahead and eat breakfast.

If you abhor breakfast, then just eat something light and protein rich, like a couple of eggs or even just a protein shake.

I’d also suggest, if you feel really worn out or beat up after the workout, avoiding a fast the following day as well, especially if you feel real tired or beat up the next morning or at the very least rather hungry (which you might be the morning after a hard workout). Make recovery a priority.

Not only will you minimize the chance of injury and burnout, but also of any derailing cravings that could get you off your otherwise sound diet.

WHEN IN DOUBT, SHORT CARBS

If I won’t fast (which, now that I know how to safely do so during training, isn’t likely), then the next easiest answer is to reduce but not eliminate the carbs I consume.

Since one of the most nutrient-important foods I consume is potatoes, I obviously plan to take in some carbs even if not training at all. A typical dinner serving of potatoes for me contains about 60-90g of carbohydrate.

There are some recovery days where I will go full no-carb and just eat meat, avocados, etc, but if coming off a workout or expecting to do a hard workout soon, carbs are important and will get included.

If taking a day off or only planning to do a short recovery run, that’s a great day to take it easy on your normalized carb intake. Build that day’s diet around healthy fat and protein. If you eat some carbs, that’s fine. But don’t carb load.

Your body is constantly burning fat for fuel. We just are conditioned to store any spare nutrition as fat, and that’s why we have a surplus. But glycogen from carbs is only burned during intense, extended exercise. So if you know you’re exercising less than usual, eat fewer carbs than usual.

But, what you can do instead is not worry about carb loading. Many runners eat a ton of carbs, possibly more than they need. You certainly ought to eat a lot if you’re running a lot, but getting into the 500+ gram mark is usually overkill. You’ll know if you need that much: If you’re eating 400-490g of carbs a day, running 60+ miles a week, and struggling to bounce back from your regular workouts not because of soreness but because your lower body muscles feel dead or tapped.

I talked previously about how pre-marathon carb loading doesn’t work as well as people think. I also think even the most advanced runners overdose on carbs. Your typical working class runner almost certainly does.

If you’re running more than 30 miles a week, you could certainly use 300-400 grams of carbohydrate a day. But most of your running should be easy, more of your energy should be coming from fat, and you probably don’t NEED that much.

Do not cut carbs completely if endurance training. But if you want to lose fat then consider experimenting with eating 50-100 fewer grams of carbohydrate a day. Maintain a normal fat intake, definitely maintain your protein intake, and just cut carbs a bit. Do it during a series of regular workouts, and see how your body reacts.

You may be surprised at how not-bad you feel. And it may help you cut fat without damaging yourself.

GO FOR A WALK AFTER EVERY MEAL

Walking should be very natural and easy for any distance runner. It burns calories but almost doesn’t seem like it qualifies as exercise.

An easy way to knock off an extra few hundred calories per day is to take a 15-30 minute walk immediately after eating a meal. You kick-start the digestion of the food you just ate, while sneaking in some extra fat burning not just during the walk, but thereafter. You also decrease the amount of your meal that could be stored as fat, since some of it will now be used for energy and muscle restoration.

If you’ve been very active that day and know you’ve already burned a ton of calories, there’s no need to take a walk if not desired. Otherwise, get outside and get some air.

… OR GO FOR A QUICK WORKOUT RIGHT BEFORE EATING

Maybe you’d rather not walk after a meal. Maybe your neighborhood’s not so safe at night. Maybe you’ve got to wash and put away a lot of dishes.

You can get similar benefits from getting in a quick walk or run while dinner bakes or otherwise cooks. If you know you can eat within moments after finishing a workout, go do a full workout, and then come inside to eat.

Because nutrient absorption is optimally high within 30 minutes of activity, you will have quickly primed your body to absorb nutrients from the meal you’re about to eat, which means less of that meal will be stored as fat… on top of burning a few extra fat calories, and kicking in a heart-rate-elevated afterburn that will burn a few more.

AT THE END OF AN INTERMITTENT FASTING SESSION, EAT A PROTEIN AND CARB RICH MEAL

In a sense, your first post-fast meal is similar to a post-workout meal. Your body is now in an accelerated-processing state and primed to better utilize the food you eat off that fast.

Maximize this opportunity by eating the cleanest, nutrient-richest meal you can manage in that moment. This is not the time to eat a burger or a pizza. This is the time to pound that baked or broiled chicken, that mass of rice or potatoes, those green vegetables and fruit, etc.

Your body will use much more of this food to rebuild and store as glycogen. Less of it will get stored as fat. More of those vitamins and other valuable nutrients in the food will get absorbed and used.

If the food you eat in this spot lacks nutrients, you won’t die or anything, but you’re blowing a golden opportunity. Maximize the opportunity and minimize the fat storage.


 

If in doubt, if you’re endurance training but also want to lose weight… you’re better off focusing on maintaining your training volume and intensity by getting your nutrients and your rest.

I’ve certainly lost weight (aside from water weight) without trying to lose weight, focusing on a healthy maintenance diet and then somehow losing a few pounds while maintaining lean body mass anyway. Sometimes amidst many days of breaking even in calories burned vs eaten… you burn more calories than expected while eating the amount you expected. Do that for long enough, and pounds go away.

But if you want to take a stab at seriously losing weight while still training to run a race, it can be possible. I wouldn’t advertise incredible results, but I’ve dropped a few pounds between week one and race day enough times to know you can do it without compromising your race goals.

Intermittent fasting can make it easier, but it’s also possible to cut carbs in your regular diet and find a 300-500 calorie daily deficit. Do either way consistently, sustainably, over time, and you’re going to lose fat while maintaining needed running muscle.

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Bake and Run: A quick run while dinner bakes

I’ll preface this by saying the timing’s a bit weird because this isn’t really a thing I’m doing at this time, though I did it quite a bit during training: I’m in the middle of a pretty specifically outlined marathon taper plan that’s going quite well so far, for reasons I’ll get into soon (provided, of course, that things keep going well).

So, let’s say you haven’t been able to run on a given day, or you ran earlier in the day and could be up for a recovery run or to work in some extra miles.

You’re home and you’re baking dinner. Once everything is prepped and your main dish is safely in the oven, you’ve got about 20-30 minutes to kill.

Often I’ve found this is the perfect time to throw on running shorts and some shoes and sneak out for a quick run. I can get in a quick couple miles around the neighborhood and get back in the apartment before it’s time to pull dinner (or stir or turn over dinner, whatever comes next).

Even when I wasn’t on my current run streak, I found going out for a quick run while dinner baked was a great way to sneak in a run, even if I didn’t necessarily plan to run that day.

Perhaps I had an easy day, and more energy than expected. And I didn’t want to risk not being able to get to sleep because I wasn’t particularly active.

Or maybe I did plan to work out, and for various reasons the day got away from me. Or the weather didn’t cooperate and I couldn’t get a planned run in. Or so on.

Either way, the run also provides an added benefit: Having just exercised, my body is in that primed within-30-minutes window to take in carbohydrates, protein and other nutrients, adding value to the dinner I was cooking.

There’s a variety of reasons why I could use a quick, easy 2 mile run in the evening. And often when cooking dinner, I have time to kill while dinner bakes.

So why not go outside and get a quick run in?

P.S. “But what about showering?” So the run actually led to breaking a sweat and you need a shower? Just shower after dinner and clearing the table. Easy.

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My cooking principles

This past weekend I experimented with an old childhood staple: Hamburger Helper. I cooked the Cheeseburger Macaroni blend, using a pound of ground beef and whole milk. I housed the whole thing and eating it felt equal parts good and disgusting. It was a great way to get a bunch of beef in me quickly, but I don’t think I’m going out of my way to do that again.

Part of that is I don’t eat as much processed food as I used to, let alone not nearly as much as most people. So my system doesn’t agree with a lot of it as much as the next gut.

On average I eat clean from food that’s whole and/or prepared at home at least 80% of the time. While I’m not opposed to delicious processed food like pizza, hamburgers, donuts, chips, etc, I mostly cook whole food from scratch, or eat food that’s lightly processed… like a can of sardines in oil or frozen meat in a bag (i.e. the food had to be cut and then processed into the can, but it’s basically in its native form rather than blended with 75 chemicals).

I have cleaned up my diet gradually over the last few years. Even now I can say there’s room for improvement, and if I want to move into that room I’ll give it a shot. I have a set of rules that I settled into following over the last few years: Whether or not I set out to follow them on day one, I found over time that they suited me well as habits, and so they became rules to live by.

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My favorite cooking supplies

I’ve always been a creature of habit. For the most part, I do many of the same things the same way every day, every week.

Related: Some people have cabinets full of cookware and flatware. While I also have cookware (thanks Mom!), I find I pretty much use the same few pieces of cookware. I currently have two plates, one spoon, one fork and one knife. This is in part due to living in a tiny apartment and not having much storage space. I deal with this mostly by washing my dishes every day. If any of them broke or disappeared I’d just go buy another. If my situation ever changed to where I needed more than that, I’d go buy what’s needed (plates and flatware aren’t at all expensive). But I don’t need more than that so that’s all I have.


Cooking supplies are a similar deal. I don’t own cookware unless I use it (because that’s why I bought it), or it was gifted to me. I find myself using the same handful of supplies on a regular basis.

Pyrex baking dishes. I used to bake in tin/metal dishes, lined with aluminim foil. But as I discovered research indicating that aluminum leeches into your food and deposits in your brain long-term, I decided to stop that and directly cook food on baking dishes that are easy to clean and don’t rust.

Enter Pyrex. I bought a simple 3-set of Pyrex dishes, all of which I use. The small dish can bake a fish fillet or a pair of chicken thighs. The medium dish can bake 3 chicken thighs (which I tend to prepare most often). The large dish can handle the baked potatoes dish that I often make. All are easy to clean afterward following a soak. No leeching metals into my food!

Large stainless steel cooking pot. This was a gift (thanks Mom!), and as I discovered I preferred boiling dishes like pasta and cut potatoes I found myself using it far more often. I pretty much just use it to boil stuff, but I find myself boiling stuff frequently. Since I almost always boil in water, cleaning it is very easy.

Stainless steel colander. Since I boil stuff a lot, I usually need to drain it. I put this in the sink and dump my boiled food in, since I prefer my side dishes to not be watery. Easy to use, easy to keep clean, and can strain a variety of boiled side dishes without too much trouble.

 

Aroma automated rice cooker. I bought this years ago and it’s one of the best cooking appliance purchases I’ve ever made.

What makes this cooker super useful is how I can set the delay timer to cook rice for the following day, or in the morning for dinner later than evening. Rice is ready when I plan to eat it, with no hassle. It also has different settings for brown rice vs white rice, and both types come out exactly the way you’d like. I highly recommend it for anyone who likes to eat rice on the regular. It can also sautee, steam vegetables, and slow cool various foods (though I don’t use those features).


I also have frying pans, a saucepan and skillets, but I use those much less frequently since I don’t fry food at home (I bake and boil everything). I also have a garlic crusher which I used a lot when I was on more of a garlic kick, but now it’s in the cabinet as a “there when I need it” kind of thing.

At some point I’ll talk about the kinds of food I eat most often, as well as desired seasonings. Until then….

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