How runners can make the most of three popular diets: flexitarian, high-carb and Mediterranean

Healthy eating is important for everyone, but it’s especially vital for runners. A proper diet dominated by nutritious food can help runners train hard and keep their energy levels high. As the media trumpet various styles of eating, runners might choose to get their necessary nutrients by following any one of a number of diets.

Here’s a breakdown of three popular diets and how to make them work for you:

Flexitarian Diet

The Lowdown: In short, a flexitarian diet is a part-time vegetarian lifestyle where you’re diet is primarily stocked with plant-based foods, with meat contributing only a small part of overall calorie intake. So, you might eat animal protein such as beef or fish only a couple of times each week. Or perhaps you shun all meat products during the day but include some at dinnertime. Generally, the flexitarian diet is geared toward those who cherish flexibility and don’t want to restrict themselves 100 per cent to vegetarian or vegan eating.

The Good News: Studies indicate that people who consume a diet focused on plant-based foods routinely take in more dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals – all of which can safeguard you against a number of maladies and optimize exercise recovery. Plus, there are environmental perks to eating less meat. Most animals raised for the dinner plate require large amounts of water and land, and collectively produce more greenhouse gases than transportation, according to a United Nations report. Plus, think of all the money you’ll save trading in beef for beans a few times a week. Your waistline may also benefit from cutting back on meat. Researchers in Boston compared food-frequency questionnaires from more than 55,000 healthy women, finding 40 per cent of the meat lovers were overweight or obese. By contrast, fewer than 30 percent of semi-vegetarians and vegans were too hefty. Further, a 2010 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found total meat consumption was positively associated with weight gain over a five-year period in 370,000 men and women studied.

The Bad News: Not everyone knows what to do with tempeh and French lentils in the kitchen and some family members might not be so keen on another night of tofu surprise. Plus, not all meat and dairy alternatives such as some veggie burgers and sickenly sweet soymilk are nutritional bell-ringers.

What to Do: Even if you’re a devoted steak lover, your health and performance can benefit from consuming more plant-based meals. Start with one or two meals each week and build from there. For help cooking balanced meals without chicken or steak, pick up Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian with hundreds of vegetarian meal ideas. Instead of overly processed vegetarian packaged foods, choose whole foods such as quinoa, lentils and nuts. When you do eat animal protein make sure it comes from greener sources such as grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and sustainably harvested seafood.

High-Carbohydrate Diet

The Lowdown: Carbohydrates are the most important fuel for active muscles, so some runners adhere to a diet replete with copious amounts of pasta, bread and rice to provide plenty of this macronutrient that muscles need to run strong. A high-carbohydrate diet is typically one that draws 65 per cent or more of total calories from carbs.

The Good News: Studies show that runners must consume an adequate amount of dietary carbohydrate on a daily basis to restore levels of glycogen stored in the body’s muscles and liver. As the preferred fuel for most types of exercise, carbs are required for peak athletic performance. Plus, many high-carb foods, including fruits, whole grains and vegetables, are brimming with the nutrients and antioxidants that runners need to support training. There’s a misleading theory that carbohydrates cause weight gain. Case in point: Researchers reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that women following a diet low in fat and high in fruits, vegetables and grains actually lost weight. You pack on pudge by consuming too many calories whether they’re from carbohydrates, protein or fat.

The Bad News: With this diet, protein and healthy fats can take a backseat, which hinders muscle recovery and may lead to overeating, since protein and fat help quell appetite. A number of studies suggest that diets high in overly processed carbohydrates that digest quickly and spike blood glucose, such as white bread and baked goods, can increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.

What to Do: A well-balanced diet that will provide a runner with an adequate amount of carbohydrates to support training should consist of 55 to 65 per cent carbs, 15 to 20 per cent protein and 20 to 25 per cent fat. Aim to get most of these carbohydrates from whole grains, low-fat dairy, legumes and fruit. Reserve white pasta and chocolate chip cookies for post-workout treats, when muscles need rapidly digested carbs.

Mediterranean Diet

The Lowdown: Among the range of nutrition plans, the Mediterranean diet has become a poster child for healthy eating, garnering praise for its focus on fruits, vegetables, herbs, whole grains, olive oil, fish, nuts, legumes and moderate amounts of alcohol, mainly from red wine. Just as important as what the diet contains is what it limits: high amounts of refined sugars, high-fat dairy, red meats and preservatives.

The Good News: It’s hard to think of a runner who would not benefit from a whole-foods focused diet such as this one. Though higher in fat than what we have been lead to believe is healthy, people who adhere to the Mediterranean style of eating have lower rates of cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, depression and diabetes compared to those who follow a “Western” diet higher in sugar, saturated fat and red meat. And good news for your waistline: A study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported subjects following a Mediterranean diet for two years lost more body weight and had better blood-glucose control than those following a low-fat diet.

The Bad News: Sadly, our food system is such that a recent study concluded that subjects who adhered most closely to the healthy Mediterranean diet spent more on food each day than those who ate mostly a “Western” diet. For those on a tight food budget, there might be an economic barrier to following this diet.

What to Do: Strive for seven to 10 servings a day of vegetables and fruits. This is probably the most important component of the Mediterranean diet. Aim to eat plenty of beans and try to include fish at least once or twice a week, with a focus on omega-3-rich varieties such as salmon, trout and char. To save money, buy Mediterranean staples including beans, nuts and whole grains from bulk bins. Local, in-season fruits and vegetables from farmers’ markets can often be found for bargain prices. At the fishmonger, look for less expensive yet just as healthy species of fish such as mackerel, catfish and sardines. Though made up mostly of healthy fats, items like nuts and olive oil still pack in plenty of calories, so portion control is a must. And don’t overdo the wine intake.

Spelt and Lentil Salad

By Matthew Kadey

Serves 4-6

This salad contains all the healthy and performance-boosting qualities of the best diets. Make it on a lazy Sunday afternoon and bring for lunches during the workweek, as the flavours only get better after a day or two melding in the fridge. Spelt is a very nutritious, chewy whole grain with a nutty flavour.

Ingredients:

1 cup spelt

1 cup dried green lentils or 1 can green lentils, drained and rinsed

¾ cup pecans or walnuts, roughly chopped

2/3 cup dried cherries or dried blueberries

1 small red onion, minced

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 stalk celery, sliced
1 cup chopped parsley

½ cup chopped mint
2 tomatoes, seeded and chopped

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

2 tbsp rice vinegar
Juice of ½ lemon

Salt and pepper to taste

Rinse spelt berries and place in a saucepan with 2.5 cups of water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and let simmer for 45-55 minutes, or until tender and liquid is absorbed. If using dried lentils, rinse the lentils and cook them in a saucepan with 2.5 cups simmering water for about 30 minutes, or until tender but still somewhat firm. Drain and discard the liquid. While the lentils and spelt are cooking, toast pecans or walnuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring often, until fragrant, approximately 4 minutes. In a large bowl mix together spelt berries, lentils, pecans, cherries, onion, bell pepper, celery, parsley, mint, tomatoes, olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice, salt and pepper.

Matthew Kadey is a runner and dietitian in Waterloo, Ont. Visit the website at www.wellfedman.com

Nutritional info per serving for Spelt Salad

Serves 4-6

Calories: 333

Fat: 20 g

Carbohydrates: 36 g

Protein: 7.1 g

Sodium: 220 mg

Fibre: 7.5 g

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