Category Archives: Food

A Gluten Free Diet Is Actually Really Simple

abundance agriculture bananas batch

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You cannot possibly eat gluten without eating something that is processed, period. Every food that contains gluten had to be manufactured from gluten-grains and other ingredients into its final form.

I always tell people that it’s actually very simple to eat a gluten-free diet… if you only eat meat, fruit, vegetables and legumes.

You could even eat some grains, such as rice. While processed, rice in its purest possible form can’t possibly contain any gluten.

The only chance you have of accidentally eating gluten is if you eat anything processed.

This unfortunately includes most restauarant food. Most of it is made from processed ingredients, and you don’t have control over its preparation. Obviously, following the above advice isn’t so easy if you go to a restaurant. You have to make adjustments and do some planning.

But if preparing food at home, and you know how to cook, you don’t have much of an excuse.

Even price is not a concern: Processed food is more expensive per pound, per calorie, than whole food from the produce/meat aisles in their purest available form.

If you need to follow a gluten-free diet, and you’re struggling to maintain it, you may find adherence a lot easier if you go clean and stick to meat, fruit, vegetables, and legumes.

(And of course if you’re vegan, you won’t eat meat. But the other three categories should cover your nutrition needs well. If vegan, I would make sure to include rice.)

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Two simple reasons you’re not losing fat

Even after shedding 30 pounds over the years… I used to beat my head into the proverbial wall at times trying to figure out why I couldn’t lose weight, why it seemed like I was gaining weight.

Now, when the scale does tip one way or the other, most of the time I know exactly why weight peels off, why I suddenly gained a few pounds, why the scale’s not moving.

It certainly helps that nowadays I focus more on fueling and refueling workouts and recovery, and it’s not as important how much weight I do or don’t lose. My weight for now is okay, even if it could be better, and as long as I don’t put on a bunch for good I’m not as concerned about it as I am about maintaining my training and health.

Back to the point: When the scale tips, when pounds go off, when they peel off, I have a pretty good idea of why. It often comes down to two important factors aside from mere calories consumed vs calories burned.

If you’re trying to lose fat, and you find (despite your calorie counts making sense) the weight is not coming off or that you’re actually gaining weight, it may come down to two likely culprits.

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Eating a good diet at destination marathons

With Vancouver I was fortunate that the coastal city had a wealth of sushi options. Sushi rolls were an almost perfect combination of carbohydrates (from the rice) and protein (from the fish, seaweed and soy sauce). Sure, they also had markets with lots of produce, which also helped.

But produce is easy to get in most locales. Rich healthy whole food carb and protein sources… not as much.

Running the Chicago Marathon in October makes this easy since it’s only a few miles down the street. I can cook and eat as typically desired right up to and after the race. To a lesser but still reasonable extent, the nearby Fox Valley Marathon and Milwaukee Lakefront Marathon are close enough that if I ran either of them I could eat normally up to race day.

So, what if I ran a marathon in a more remote locale, where there’s not a lot of stores and restaurants? Or even if it was a major market, what if pretty much every restaurant available served processed and otherwise unhealthy food that wasn’t going to help me stay ready to run?

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If you eat eggs, get yourself an egg cooker

 

I eat eggs all the time, and when I make them at home I almost always poach them using a Copper Chef egg cooker I bought at Target for about $20.

The key here is the egg cooker makes preparing a couple eggs super easy and quick. Conventionally, you have to oil up a pan, watch the cooking eggs over flame or a timer, and then dispose of the oil and clean the pan afterward. If you boil eggs, you have to boil water, still watch the time, and then deal with removing the shell while eating.

With an egg cooker, you merely grease the poaching tray by hand (I use olive oil), fill the boil tray with the right amount of water, set the eggs and wait for it to go off. The water evaporates, and the only cleanup is to quickly scrub out the egg tray after use. Cooking two eggs takes perhaps 10 minutes.

This saves time and effort on busy days, if you eat eggs. Consider getting an egg cooker.

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The Endurance Diet, and using it to plan a sustainable training diet

Matt Fitzgerald’s book The Endurance Diet is probably the best book on basic nutrition for endurance athletes.

Though Matt has written other books on fueling races and workouts, and maintaining an ideal weight for running, his field research of elite athletes around the world finally put together all the pieces of his knowledge into a system to help you assemble a sustainable, repeatable training diet that will effectively fuel your workout while maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle.

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Losing Fat Without Losing Sleep

An irony of New Year’s Resolutions driving people to diet and hit the gym in January is that winter is probably not the best time to try and burn fat in colder climates.

You have a more difficult time sleeping when hungry, especially if it’s cool or cold. Your body will kick into a sort of overdrive to burn body fat, which revs your circulation up enough to keep you in a state too awake to get to sleep. In fact, if you have issues getting to sleep, you may want to make sure you’re better fed shortly before bed.

But most of you want to lose weight and this is the time to do it because blah blah bathing suit season etc. You don’t want to punt the golden opportunity, and you certainly don’t want to gain weight during the winter when you want or need to lose fat in the long run. Fair enough.

There’s actually a middle ground, and it works especially well if you prefer to train later in the day. The key is intermittent fasting, i.e. not eating for most of the day, then eating all of your food in a limited time window like 6-8 hours.

Now, a myth with intermittent fasting is that it causes you to lose weight in itself. That isn’t necessarily true. You could still overeat for the day in the 6-8 hours you can eat. It’s very easy to pound a frozen pizza, and then a hamburger or something 4-6 hours later, let alone snack on anything in-between, and end up over the line. Even with 16-18 hours of not eating, you could still end up storing extra fat overall.

Given that, it’s still entirely possible to diet effectively and lose weight, while still going to bed each night feeling satiated after a ridiculously sized meal.

The key is to flip the conventional “breakfast like a king, dinner like a pauper” wisdom on its head. This is actually for most a counter-productive way of eating that has been sustained largely out of forced cultural habit. It makes sense to many people (even alleged experts) because that’s always how they’ve eaten.

Basically, even if your last meal of the day isn’t your largest, you want your last meal to be a large meal, one where by the time you go to bed you’re not in any way hungry. You may even want to top it off with a hearty snack right before bed.

Also, as this infers, you probably don’t want to start your limited feeding window at dawn and then eat your last meal around noon or 1pm, going to bed several hours after that meal. You will almost certainly be hungry at bedtime.

You will want to follow a more conventional intermittent fasting window, where you skip breakfast, eat your first meal at lunch, and then eat regularly until before bed. This allows you to fill your stomach close to full before bed and avoid insomnia-producing hunger.

Now, that doesn’t mean your first meal of the day should be the smallest. You can break your intermittent fast at lunch with a large meal as well. Just make sure any meal or snack you eat between lunch and dinner is not too large.

You probably do want to make sure you eat something a few hours after lunch to avoid any hormonal crashes or temptation to binge-eat any garbage at dinner… unless you have a specific reason you’d want to do so (like a special family dinner). Just make sure it’s around the 400-600 calorie range, bigger than a little snack but not quite a full meal.

Just because you can still gain weight intermittent fasting doesn’t mean your body isn’t burning fat during the fasting period. Moderating your diet just makes sure you aren’t piling on more fat than you burn. The fasting period does its job burning fat without food in your stomach. This process revs up your circulation, which you want during the day when you’re awake but mostly sedentary.

By back loading your food intake later in the day, your body can utilize this nutrition for post-workout and overnight recovery, and allow you to relax and sleep.

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Vital foods for serious vegan athletes

vegetables and tomatoes on cutting board

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For a variety of lifestyle and educated reasons I won’t get into, I personally consume meat and other animal products and don’t foreseeably intend to stop. And conversely I have no problem with people choosing to eat vegan, or otherwise vegetarian.

Running is probably one of the easiest forms of fitness to maintain on a vegan diet. Weightlifters and other power-based athletes face substantially greater challenges going vegan. But runners don’t have their strength and power needs. Plus, vegan diets are very carbohydrate rich, which plays right into the needs of endurance athletes.

Still, you need to be wary of your muscles’ and organs’ protein and other nutrient needs. A lot of vegan-common health problems manifest multifold in runners once those runners kick up the volume and intensity. Just because you don’t lift heavy weights doesn’t mean your muscle density isn’t important to your life, let alone your running.

The RDA and other listed mainstream protein requirements are frankly far too low. There’s a variety of political and economic reasons for that, none of which are particularly good for your health. You need more protein than that to live and age well, and most vegans need far more protein than they’re eating.

I set the minimum bar at 0.75 grams per pound of body weight. And if you look at most plant and grain based food, you’ll find reaching that bar is rather difficult.

There are certain foods that are very important to the health of serious vegan athletes.

Beans and legumes. These plant based foods provide the most protein, and a variety of other nutrients. Whether or not you’re a believer in combining proteins (e.g. eating beans with rice), beans in themselves contain a ton of potassium and protein. Just make sure to soak them properly to minimize digestive gas.

Some people swear by lentils, but not everyone digests them well. I’ve always had trouble digesting lentils. Barring that, they too are a great protein source.

Avocados, potatoes and bananas, aka the potassium monsters. Most people vegan or not don’t get enough potassium. The benchmark is 3000-4500 mg per day, depending on who you talk to, and the typical processed food rich Western diet won’t get you close.

Meat it turns out has a good share of potassium, but surprisingly many plant-based foods don’t provide much more than a similar serving of meat.

Avocados and bananas are convenient, useful potassium bombs. One avocado provides 800-1000 mg. Each banana gives you about 400 mg. But potatoes are the motherlode. A small potato can give you 600-700 mg. Cut up and eat three of them, and that’s around 2000 mg right there.

It’s little wonder so many people swear by potatoes. Famous magician Penn Jillette lost over 100 lbs subsisting largely on potatoes, which provided virtually all the nutrients his shrinking body needed. They are a calorie-dense wonder starch.

People love sweet potatoes and they’re totally fine, but they’re a bit harder to find. Conventional potatoes do the trick just fine.

If you can eat gluten, bagels. Most breads are not worth anyone’s time. But bagels are as dense and protein-rich a form of bread as you will find.

Yes, obviously for vegans there is concern that some bagels are made with egg or honey products, which are of course not vegan. If you want to try bagels and aren’t acutely aware of the source, read your labels and make sure no animal products are involved. To my knowledge, most bagels should be clear on that front. But definitely double check.

Provided they work for you… compact and calorie rich, one or two bagels on their own will provide enough energy for your longest workouts… let alone if you tack on any toppings (I’m guessing as vegans that cream cheese or butter isn’t among them). I’m a sucker for crunchy peanut butter and fruit preserves (… if there’s no corn syrup or other additives! Whole Foods has varieties of both that are free of most typical additives, that are worth the extra cost).

Bonus: Ugali. The great Kenyan runners live on two food staples. One is not vegan: Milk infused tea. They drink it after every run. The other, however, is very vegan. Ugali is nothing more than finely ground flour (often cornmeal) and water mixed over boiling heat to create a thick mashed-potato-like porridge. The Kenyans eat a ton of ugali. And their runners crush almost every other elite distance runner in the world at major long distance events.

Ugali is cooked like the love child of rice and oatmeal. You add 2 cups of water for every 1 cup of flour. You boil it, mash out any lumps as it cooks, and then thicken or thin it using more water or flour as desired before serving. Cooking it takes about 10-15 minutes. The nutritional profile is similar to rice, except with a little bit more potassium.

If you train a lot, this is one of the quickest deliveries of large quantities of glycogen-producing carbohydrate you can ingest. This is a great dish to eat before or after tough training days. The Kenyans are not kidding.

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Yeah, I’m not vegan, and I’m in no hurry to adopt the lifestyle.

Still, it can be done without sentencing to death your muscle tone and (for men) your testosterone levels. There are foods that will allow you to take full advantage of your training. Eat them.

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Quick thoughts on what causes weight gain when running

orange food truck

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If you struggle with weight gain while running, your problem may not necessarily be overeating.

In fact, you need all the nutrients you can get during high volume training. Cutting calories might be the worst thing you can do for your recovery.

Your culprit is not how much you’re eating, but the type of food you’re eating. For most of us, the easiest and most readily available form of satisfying food is processed. It comes out of a box or package. It’s either ready to eat or cooks quickly. It was chemically engineered in a lab and factory to taste good.

This food is high in sodium and a variety of additives. The organs’ struggle to process and coexist with these (non-)”nutrients” inflames your entire body and leads to your prime culprit: Water retention.

Water has weight. Drink a 16 oz glass of water and guess what? You just gained one pound. Ideally, your body urinates, sweats or evaporates this newfound pound out at some point soon.

But when your body is inflamed, it responds by retaining water to surround and protect your organs. The more processed food you eat, the more often you eat it, the more water your body continously retains to buffer your organs from all the chemical byproducts of the garbage you’re eating.

This is why when people try to diet, or clean up their diets, they lose a bunch of weight early on. A cleaner diet eliminates the inflammation and the need to water-protect organs. Your body begins to flush the excess retained water out. Whoosh!

(And yes, you may notice you’ve got to pee a lot more after you start. There goes all that retained water!)

This is also why people on diets see their weight loss slow after an early surge of lost weight. They weren’t losing fat early on. They were losing retained water.

Bakc to the point: If you’re gaining weight as a runner, you almost certainly are eating an excess of processed food. You may have your reasons for eating as you do. Your body is the ultimate scoreboard and won’t lie about what you’re eating and drinking.

Simply put, you can stop and reverse your weight gain by eating more unprocessed whole and natural foods. Eat for the whoosh, get yourself back on track, and stay back on track.

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Can Low-Carb Diets Be Good For Runners?

A lot of fitness enthusiasts support eating low-carb lifestyle diets adapted from the traditional Atkins diet… typically with labels like Keto and Paleo, as well as carb-limited variants like the Bulletproof, Carnivore or Primal diets.

The obvious problem for runners interested in these diets is that running is the one form of exercise that demands a LOT of quick-burning glycogen, which can only be properly supplied by a diet rich in carbohydrates. Running minds like Hal Higdon and Matt Fitzgerald outright recommend avoiding low-carb diets and to build your diet around 60+% carbohydrates. Fitzgerald in fact found in his research for his book The Endurance Diet that pretty much every elite coach and endurance athlete he consulted with subsisted on a diet rich in carbohydrates.

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You won’t see your abs until you see fat loss

 

I’m not sharing any groundbreaking info in repeating this, but it’s important:

If you want washboard abs, or at the least for your ab muscles to appear on your stomach… you have to lose enough body fat for them to appear.

Making the ab muscles bigger won’t work in itself. They are covered in fat, and you have to burn that fat in order for them to appear.

You also cannot spot-reduce fat. Fat burns in a mostly even fashion from the inside out, all across your body. To lose the fat over your abs, you have to lose a corresponding amount of fat all over your body.

Plus, fat is first burned from the center of your body, from around your organs and muscles. As that’s exhausted, then your body moves to the fat closer to your skin. If you want to burn the surface fat over your abs, you’ve got to burn off all that other internal fat first.

This takes quite a bit of fat burning, and you typically need to diet down to a rather low body fat percentage before you can see ab definition. For men, this is about 10-12% max, and for women (who biologically carry more fat) this is around 16-19% max.

Yes, strength training helps you get there, not just because muscle burns calories (and in turn fat), but because more prominent muscle will begin to show through the skin and reduced fat layers sooner than less-prominent muscle.

However, strength training is only one part of achieving the needed definition for visible abs. Diet and body composition is the larger component. You can’t out-train your diet and composition.

So if you want six pack abs, maybe take it easy on the core training and ab workouts. While good for core strength, that’s only one minor component of getting your abs to show. You need to lose the fat in a healthy fashion for the muscle to emerge.

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Losing fat, losing weight, begins with knowing your eating habits

One of the reasons most dieting fails is because people lack a healthy, sustainable diet baseline. Of course, a big part of that is people not having any idea what their baseline is to begin with… if they even have one.

This is also a key reason modern people insidiously gain weight over time. Their metabolism slowing with age and decreased activity certainly doesn’t help. But a lack of consistency and healthy eating habits is the larger contributor.

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Overeating: What To Do When You Do It

You’re trying to lose weight or maintain your current weight, trying to stick to a calorie total… but then you go wild and over-eat. Literally all of us have done this countless times. And it doesn’t have to trigger a disastrous slide into terrible long-term eating, or to a lesser extent another eating binge.

Here’s some tips for what to do in the moment after you’ve done it, and what to do the next day to mitigate what you did.

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The Control Rest Day Baseline, and using it to successfully carb cycle

Yesterday with the day off I did nothing, in terms of training. No running, no strength work, nothing particularly strenuous. I actually drove to get coffee, since I had vehicle-related errands to run that day. I did a minimum of walking… not easy to do in Chicago when you live in Wrigleyville and you do most of your business on foot.

Okay, big deal, just a rest day, right? Well….

… it had been a while since I’ve taken stock of my working basal metabolic rate (BMR). Your BMR is the rate at which you would burn calories in a day if you did nothing but lay or sit there. For men my size and age, this is somewhere around 1650-1700 calories.

You do more than sit around all day, so to find your baseline calorie burn you multiply that BMR by a standard multiplier.

  • Sedentary people who drive everywhere and never exercise can use 1.2 as their multiplier. You multiply your basic BMR by 1.2 to get your actual basal metabolic rate.
  • If you get any exercise once or twice a week, or you walk to get around everyday, your multiplier may be closer to 1.3.
  • If you work out every day it may be as low as 1.5 or as high as 2.0, depending on what you do for workouts.

Of course, I can’t just set my baseline at 1700 calories multiplied by a standard multiplier. My daily activity can vary widely, as a Chicago local who gets around on foot and runs a lot. Even if I don’t run, I may walk anywhere from 20ish minutes a day to several miles, and there’s no rhyme or reason relative to my training as to how much walking I do. Plus, this completely ignores strength training and any other physical activity.

I’ve had days where, with identical training (or lack thereof), I’ve burned anywhere from 2100 calories to over 4000. So, plugging my estimated general activity into a BMR tool and spitting out a number isn’t necessarily going to help me.


I still want to get enough to eat, while not overeating. I still do have tracker data that shows an average weekly calorie burn, which is around 3000 calories per day during training. But there’s more to it than that:

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Why is my resting heart rate going up?

 

When I first got my Fitbit tracker, back when I first began seriously training as an endurance runner, it initially showed my resting heart rate’s (RHR) beats per minute (BPM) in the high 60’s.

As I continued training, my resting heart rate came down and settled around the high 50’s. Sometimes it would drift up, but often it came back down to around that number.

I noticed that generally it would increase during times of substantial stress, and that it would decrease with proper rest and exercise.

Suddenly, during the late summer and early fall, my resting heart rate started slowly climbing. Suddenly it settled into the mid 60’s and nothing I thought to do could bring it down. Resting more didn’t help. Eating more or less or better didn’t help. Exercising more or less didn’t seem to help.

At some point, not at the same time as last year, it began to come down again and settled around the high 50’s, low 60’s.

And now my resting heart rate’s risen again. It had settled around 65 for several weeks, and nothing I’ve done has gotten it to move. Now suddenly it’s climbed to 68… but at the same time I think I realized what has caused it to increase.

It’s not a lack of rest: I’ve actually slept rather well, and I haven’t trained at anywhere near the volume I’ve trained before. Outside of residual soreness from workouts and Sunday’s cross country race I haven’t been all that sore, tired or hurting. My energy levels by and large have been great.

It’s not a lack of exercise. I’ve now ramped back up to about 25-30 miles per week, and I’ve done multiple speedwork sessions as well as some long runs. The only difference from my last training cycle is I’ve taken days off and not held myself to much of a strict training schedule.

It’s not even post-marathon weight gain. I’ve had my RHR go lower even after gaining weight, and I’ve had it rise after losing weight. There’s not much correlation between my resting heart rate and my current weight.

It’s not illness. I haven’t been sick and I’m not sick right now. I don’t feel any passive symptoms like unusual tiredness or soreness. I’m in good health on that front.

It’s two things.

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The Race Eve pasta dinner: Is pre-race carb loading a good idea?

I may or may not have touched on the folly of carb loading, that your diet and glycogen stores are a body of work, and not something you can fix in the 48 hours before your race (though your glycogen stores and physical condition are certainly something you can break in the preceding 48 hours).

Still, the Race Eve Pasta Gorge is a favorite runner ritual, and while you may not substantially improve your glycogen reserves, you at least won’t go to bed hungry.

This leads me to two questions.

  1. Can there be a situation where a Race Eve carb-load can be beneficial?
  2. Is the Race Eve carb-load beenficial for races shorter than the marathon? If so, when so, and when not so?

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Using the glycogen equation

I’ve referenced this a few times. Jonathan Savage crafted an equation, out of 1993 research from Dutch professor JA Romijn, that estimates the percentage of energy you use from glycogen, vs fat, based on your effort relative to your VO2max.

y = .0021x² + .7896x – 21.031

… where X is the percentage of your VO2max and y is the percentage of caloric energy that comes from glycogen.

So, for a simple example, if I do a run at an effort equal to 70% of my VO2max:

(.0021 * 70 * 70) + (.7896 * 70) – 21.031


10.290 + 55.272 – 21.031


44.531 % from glycogen

Note: Yes, this is a massively reductionist estimate, ignoring all sorts of factors, not to mention the VO2max percentage is itself a guesstimated assumption based on what you believe is your VO2max, with your given x-percentage probably based solely on your running pace and/or heart rate. But correlative observation and evidence indicates that it’s more accurate than other methods, so here we are.

Anyway… at 70% effort, if I burn 123 calories per mile, then 54.8 of those calories will come from glycogen, with the rest coming from fat.

If (based on other quantitative assumptions) we can say I have 1208 calories of glycogen stored in my lower body, I can run about 22.0 miles at this effort before my lower body runs out of glycogen.


Now, this number probably seems low to many experts, who are used to assuming that the glycogen rate is closer to 65-70%.

At the same time, most coaches and runners are used to pushing harder on regular runs (even recovery runs) than they should. Many run their marathons harder than their bodies probably should, and it figures they burn out of glycogen before mile 20. So it would figure that most would assume a 65ish% glycogen burn rate.

Even Daniels‘ metrics flattens the slide on his similar VDOT metric, where as you drop below an 80% effort it flattens the change in the percentage of max until it assumes a rough minimum of about 80%. I would posit you can (and many do) their comfortable easy runs at far less than 80% of VO2max.

More than anything the Romijn/Savage Equation, while counterintuitive, is probably closer to an accurate estimate of glycogen use than other estimates. It’s one I go by.

Where am I going with this? Basically, this equation has some uses.

  • Let’s say you are trying to eat low carb, or at the least carb cycle to improve your insulin sensitivity and in turn how well your body utilizes ingested carbs. If you’re doing serious endurance training, you probably do need carbs. If you know your training volume and intensity, you can figure out how many carbs you can eat on a given day to fuel or offset the glycogen your body will burn that day.
  • This can help you get an idea of what pre/post workout or race nutrition you need to fuel or recover from your workout. Your protein needs should remain fairly static, and of course you need not worry too much about recovering fat since we all carry so much. But your carb needs can vary dramatically.
  • Similarly, this can help you figure out an accurate fueling plan for a marathon or longer race. By knowing exactly how much glycogen you need, relative to your estimated glycogen body storage, you now have a hard figure of carbohydrate calories you know you need to ingest. You can plan accordingly.
  • This can also help address the larger question of how many carbs you need on average. Perhaps you can set a low baseline, like 100-150g a day, and then add carbs based on how many you may burn in a typical week. The equation can give you a fairly accurate number.

There are I’m sure other examples. I’ll leave it to you to find possible ways to utilize this data.

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