When it comes to food...
When it comes to food, there are so many mixed messages circulating around the internet. Should I only eat meat and not legumes? Are all carbs bad? Do I really need to put globs of fat in my coffee?
When it comes to food, Stephanie Howe-Violett is the woman you want advising you. Armed with the experience of having completed vigorous coursework with the degrees to prove it, Stephanie’s approach to food is marvelously simple and true; keep it simple, local and nourishing. I’m really pleased to share some of the insights she gave, and hopefully it will help frame your relationship to food in both a healthy and sustainable way.
Stephanie gave me incredible insights into some of the most frequent questions I get asked about when it comes to food and how we should be fueling our bodies. Food is vital to our existence (duh), and as athletes and human beings, it’s important we have a grasp on what nourishing our bodies truly means.
Food for thought.
You know that friend you have who seems to scarf down everything in sight and not put on a pound? In the sport of ultra-trail running, I’ve noticed some very lean runners not pay a single piece of mind to their diet and yet have incredible performances. Likewise I’ve seen the opposite end of the spectrum; athletes scrutinizing too much over their diet without the success of races to prove it. So I asked Stephanie a simple question, “is it quality or quantity that counts?”
Food matters. To be heathy doesn’t require one to be restrictive. Stephanie’s approach to my question was rooted in the premise that yes, both quality and quantity matter; labeling food choices only enables you from engaging in a diet like mindset that is neither sustainable nor enjoyable. Stressing out over everything you put in your body isn’t healthy either, in the same way that ascribing to one very particular way of eating, isn’t either.
Advice from the pro: You need to get enough, but you need to get enough of the right foods. I think fueling works best when when we don’t think about it too much. Eat food, mostly real sources, locally if possible, and don’t overthink it. Every meal should incorporate a blend of carbohydrates (a lot of them!), fat and protein. If you’re making sure to have each of these components present at every meal, chances are you’re doing fine!
Eating under a label.
When it comes to the diet industry, gimmicks and schemes seem to be begging you to take part in the, “cut this and it’ll make you instantly healthy, ” trend. And I get it, I’ve been there. Stephanie’s response to my question, “What on earth should we eat!? Should I be vegan when it seems like all trail runners are too?” Eating under a diet label is lame. There are so many cultural food experiences you miss out on! I think it’s perfectly fine to cook how you’d like at home, but when you travel or have a meal with others, be flexible. It’s no fun sharing a meal with a picky eater!
And while people have all sorts of reasons for choosing to be vegan or vegetarian, from a nutrition standpoint, I think she’s spot on. Her advice is to keep it predominately plant based; keep food simple, local, and don’t overdo it. Listen to your satiety and honor your hunger and cravings! When it comes to eating plant based, a lot of assumptions arise that it’s “better for the planet.” She is quick to point out however that if you live in Ohio for example and enjoying the fruits of Hawaii, it’s (arguably) worse for the planet than to opt for something native to your backyard, regardless of it comes from an animal or not.
Advice from the pro: I say that eating local is the best way to protect the planet. I’m pretty sure that milk coming from the local dairy farm has a lot less impact than the exotic fruit coming from South America.
Timing of meals.
Should I train fasted? The short answer; no. When the body wakes up from fasting all night, it needs energy. Stephanie is quick to point out that training on little to no food does nothing for performance or weight loss (if that’s what you’re after). After a long night of rest, your body has naturally undergone a fast. When you wake up in the morning it’s crucial to fill your tank so you can have both the energy and mental capacity to perform in your workout and your normal routine. The misconception that skipping breakfast will lead to fewer calories has been largely dispelled by evidence based research; those who eat a healthy balanced meal in the morning are shown to eat fewer calories throughout the day as opposed to those who go without breakfast.
Advice from the pro: “Break the Fast” is important to not only wake up the body an increase blood glucose, but to also keep metabolism going. Training in a fasted state results in more energy compensation later in day, which is not great for a number of reasons.
During activity and at rest.
What we eat is vital to our performance. You could be making healthy choices and not seeing results simply because you’re not eating the right foods at the right time. Sports nutrition can be tricky, but understanding the science can be a good start when it comes to ameliorating our knowledge around performance and nutrition. When you’re in the middle of an important training cycle, what you eat not only impacts your performance, but how well you recover after your run. It’s important to think about nutrition in two frames, fuel for activity, and fuel for your body.
Pre-workout: Simple, easy to digest carbohydrates like rice, oats and toast. The more simple the better, and if your body can digest fat and protein, adding a bit of butter or avocado to your oats or toast can go a long way!
Post workout: Eating after a run is vital for recovery. After you’ve finished your workout, you have 30 minutes before the receptors in your muscles begin to close, making it more difficult for the body to absorb the necessary glucose to start rebuilding from the work you just put in. It’s a myth that you need to pound protein straight after a hard run; Stephanie notes that even a piece of fruit will do! Forgetting to refuel may not feel like a big deal in the moment, but if you are diligent about eating something straight away, notice how you feel on the next run. Chances are you’ll feel more recovered and energized, making it an easy way to see noticeable gains just by remembering to eat!
Advice from the pro: Food intake should look very different when fueling for activity then at rest. Try to think of food in two perspectives; what can I eat before activity that will help me perform best? And what can I eat after a workout that will help nourish my body? And also, protein powders are just junk food in disguise. Your body will always prefer natural sources of fuel, so opt for real food instead!
Should food just be food?
The line between eating for performance and eating for health can often become muddled in unhealthy behaviors. Food can serve as a mechanism of control and lead to the formation of eating disorders and unhealthy relationships with food. When it comes to food, it’s important to think about the big picture. Think of your body as a thermostat, there is an ideal temperature upon which feels comfortable (and enjoyable) and the most important thing is to make sure it stays stable. Some days your thermostat may feel more hot (you’ve overeaten) and some days your thermostat may feel more cold, (you’re a bit more hungry) both are acceptable and totally normal! All you can do is make sure each day you’re doing your best to keep the temperature of your thermostat as normal as possible.
Advice from the pro: I am not an advocate of restrictive eating. I don’t think it’s healthy mentally or physically. Many times this kind of restriction is an eating disorder undercover. Many people I work with subscribe to a certain way of eating to control food intake. On the surface it may seem that they are just trying to eat well, but usually there is some sort of disordered eating under the surface.
Ditch the buzzwords.
There is no such thing as a superfood. Admittedly, I’ve been that person who tags their food as being, “powerhouse nutrients,” and chalk full of, “anti-inflammatory/super-power/antioxidants,” without really looking at all the context of my meals. A good relationship with food means moving away from numbers, labels and articles that annunciate superiority. The best thing we can do for our bodies (and the planet) is to eat locally and seasonally.
Mother nature has a fantastic way of telling us how to fuel, and it has to do with where you live. Granted, some climates are more conducive to foods that are typically more, “nutritious,” than others, but if you’re in Japan trying to eat watermelon, I have a feeling that both your wallet and your waistline aren’t going to be very happy. Likewise, if you’re eating grapes in the winter time, many of the nutrients that make grapes a delicious treat in the summer won’t be there in the winter! Nor will it be a sustainable option for the planet either.
So because this isn’t a glamorous answer to a frequently asked question, I asked Stephanie what some of her favorite food staples are throughout the year.
Advice from the pro: I love making homemade bread and truly think there is nothing better, additionally, I love a good, really thick full fat yogurt. When it comes to staples, I always look to the seasons. In that regard, it’s kind of hard to have a staple; so long as you’re choosing foods that are native to your surroundings and if buying from a package you can clearly understand all the ingredients, generally you’re in the clear.
A few extra crumbs of information.
- Try and incorporate as much variety as you can in your diet. When it comes to food, get involved! Plan meals you’re excited to cook. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store and do your best to avoid pre-packaged foods. You’ll find that the more involved you are in the process, the better your food choices will become without having to really do that much extra work.
- Snacks; think of these as “mini meals.” Be careful to avoid grazing throughout the day as a means of alleviating boredom. When it comes to eating between meals, if you’re truly hungry a good snack will incorporate a source of fat, carbohydrate, and protein. Some good examples?
- Dark chocolate and almonds
- Roasted sweet potatoes with sea salt and avocado
- A PB+J (or with almond butter!)
- Take a lesson from our European counterparts. Always enjoy the food you’re putting in your body. If you’ve gone out to eat and had a tremendous meal, avoid feeling “guilty,” or like you need to spend the whole next day on a fast. Food is meant to be enjoyed, it’s a way to take part in community and share with one another, especially when crossing cultures. If you stop stressing about every last crumb that passes your mouth, chances are you’ll feel better both physically and emotionally.
- Moderation. In a society that praises “extra,” moderation can be difficult to understand. If you listen close enough, your body will tell you exactly what it wants. Having a slice or two of bread every day is perfectly acceptable! Eating pasta every week is by no means “bad”. Your body will tell you what it wants; sometimes a really nourishing salad for dinner seems like the perfect option and sometimes a hearty slice of lasagna for lunch is just what the doctor ordered. If you’re constantly neglecting your cravings, you’ll be less satiated and more confused when it comes to food than you ought to be.
Oatmeal or avocado toast? Toast!
Coffee or tea? Coffee. Is that even a question?!
Sweet or savory? Savory.
Favorite post-workout/race meal? Chips or pizza.
Favorite pre-workout meal? I’m not super picky. I just try to avoid vegetables before big races. I usually eat rice, avocado, and salmon. Or pizza. Both sit really well for me.
Chocolate or nut butter? Both? They go together well.
Cook a feast at home, or go out to a lovely dinner? Both. I absolutely love cooking, but I also loving dressing up and going out.
Favorite season to make a meal in? Summer, definitely. I love the fresh produce available and being able to eat outside is lovely.
So eat ALL of the carbs. Opt for whole, real food sources and try your best to eat what is offered seasonally in the super market. Incorporate dark leafy greens just as much as you incorporate a variety of complex carbohydrates. Keep things simple! Just because tofu is plant based doesn’t mean it’s healthier than eating a chicken breast.
Eating shouldn’t be complicated. The less you stress, the better you’ll feel. If you’re out and about and the only option that feels like it will be satisfying enough to get you through the day is a slice of pizza from a local shop, opt for that! We’re not perfect, and our diets aren’t meant to be either. If you can do your best to fuel your best, that’s all anyone can ever expect from you.