People start running for a variety of reasons, like losing weight, improving fitness, and leading a healthier lifestyle in general. The desire to develop healthy eating habits often goes hand in hand with these reasons. But while getting out the door to start running can be simple, the conflicting information about nutrition can make eating healthy anything but. I’ve learned healthy eating does not have to be complicated. By following these tips and eating as many minimally processed foods as possible, you can eat healthy, maintain a healthy body weight, and fuel your runs.
Don’t starve yourself
Food is meant for pleasure (food should taste good, even nutritious food) and for fueling your body. Even if you are trying to lose weight, do not restrict your intake and consume too few calories. Eating too little will not only make your running feel miserable, but will also impair basic bodily functions like cognition and breathing.
Additionally, restricting your calories too much overtime can disturb your metabolism and hormones that regulate hunger (such as ghrelin and leptin) and send your body into starvation mode. Your body will start clinging to its fat stores, drawing energy from muscle and lean tissues. You’ll be losing the muscle mass that’s essential for keeping your body strong and workouts productive. Muscle mass boosts your metabolism, so over-restricting your calorie intake could actually impair your weight loss.
So how do you strike the right balance to lose weight safely? How can you really know how much to eat? It’s important to remember that calories are not the enemy! They’re simply a unit of energy — energy that every cell in your body needs to function properly. If you’re trying for weight loss, you just need to burn more calories than you consume. Figuring out your Basal Metabolic Rate (the amount of energy your body burns at rest) and using a calorie counter can help you do so.
Aim for 6-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day
Fruits and vegetables should make up the bulk of your diet for numerous reasons. They are rich in vitamins and minerals that aid your running by reducing your risk of injury and promoting recovery after your runs. Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in calories even as they pack a big nutritional punch, so you can eat a lot of them while maintaining a healthy body composition and weight.
Don’t worry about the sugar content of fruit or the starchiness of certain vegetables like potatoes. The sugars in fruit are naturally occurring and unrefined, which means the body metabolizes them differently than it metabolizes refined, processed sugars. Meanwhile, starchy vegetables, like potatoes, contain numerous vitamins and minerals, and (unless you add butter, cream, or other high-fat ingredients) are a whole food, and a minimally processed option for the carbohydrates you need to fuel your running.
Nature does not make junk food. You will better achieve your running goals by selecting foods that are natural — fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, meat, and dairy — then you will with a diet full of processed foods, even if those processed foods are labeled as “health foods.”
Opt for complex carbohydrates over simple
Runners of course need to eat a balanced diet of carbohydrates, healthy fats, and lean protein. The lean protein and healthy fats tend to cause less debate, but the trend of Paleo and low-carb diets has given many people a case of carbo-phobia.
A nutritious diet includes carbohydrates. This is especially true for runners, because carbohydrates are such an important source of fuel. However, there is a significant nutritional difference between simple/refined carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Complex carbs, like whole grains (oats, brown rice, whole wheat), quinoa, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, fruits, and other vegetables, are more difficult to break down, so they fill you up and act as an energy source for longer than simple carbs such as white pastas, white bread, cereals, and baked goods.
Don’t eliminate food groups
Unless you have any allergies or intolerances, there is no need to eliminate particular food groups from your diet. Dairy offers calcium and protein, gluten and wheat provide carbohydrates and essential vitamins and minerals, and meat contains protein, iron, and essential B vitamins. In moderation, even sugar has a role to play in sports nutrition. Elimination of a food group can lead to deficiencies in key nutrients, especially if not done under the guidance of registered dietician.
When I share recipes on my blog, I prefer simple, nutritious recipes. You can find vegetarian recipes on my blog and recipes using meat, as I eat a balanced and sustainable diet that focuses on athletic performance and overall health and well-being.
One of my favorite simple meals is this Mediterranean Spiced Chicken with Brown Rice. Most of the meal can be made in the oven (yes, I bake my rice — and it turns out perfect every time!). The recipe provides lean protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats. For vegetables, you can serve the meal over greens or any vegetables of choice — seasonal is best!
Bonus recipe: Simple Greek Chicken with Brown Rice and Tahini Sauce Recipe (Serves 4)
For the rice:
1 ½ cups dry brown rice (short grain or long grain)
2 ½ cups water or chicken stock (use only 2 ¼ if making short grain rice)
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Bring the water/stock to a boil. Pour it over the rice in an oven-safe pan, stir together, and cover the pan with aluminum foil or an oven-safe lid.
3. Bake the rice for 40-50 minutes (depending on short grain vs. long grain); the rice is done when the water is absorbed and the rice is cooked through. Fluff with a fork. You can store the rice in the fridge for up to four days.
For the chicken:
1-1.5 pounds chicken breast
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons ground smoked paprika
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1-2 teaspoons ground pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
1. In a bowl, whisk together the garlic, lemon juice, paprika, cumin, salt, pepper., and olive oil. Evenly coat the chicken with spice mixture, then transfer to an oven-safe pan or parchment paper lined roasting sheet.
2. Bake the chicken for 40-50 minutes (as the rice cooks). The chicken is done when the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
For the sauce:
2 tablespoons tahini (sesame seed paste)
1 tablespoons of lemon juice
Sea salt, to taste
½ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
1. Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk until smooth.
Divide the rice and chicken equally amongst four plates and drizzle with the tahini sauce.
Read more: Is Intermittent Fasting Good for Runners?