Now that I'm partway through my Masters degree in Functional Medicine and Human Nutrition, with a few years also of training as a committed endurance athlete and experimenting with my own diet, I've been asked a few times recently for advice on what we should and shouldn't be eating, both for general good health, weight management, and also for athletic performance. There is a lot of information out there, lots of research, and lots of opinion, and the only thing I know for sure is that the specific answer to this is different for everybody, and indeed different depending on that person's goals and where they are at in life.
I will write more specifically about different aspects of nutrition, but for now, based on some research, my studies, and indeed personal experience and some personal opinion I will place some general guidelines I think are worth adhering to at least as a starting point for most people (nothing quite like perching firmly on a fence and covering all bases huh?).
Eat lots of vegetables, of all kinds, as often as you can (don't forget you can eat vegetables for breakfast!)
I don't think I have come across any advice or indeed research that would go against this suggestion, and it's not new: eat your vegetables. Vegetables have been linked to a lower incidence and risk for all manner of diseases and health conditions, and really, you can't eat too many. They contain antioxidants and phytochemicals that need to be consumed in their natural form and not from supplements - they just don't work the same in pill form. Vegetables are tasty and nutritious and can be prepared in a variety of ways. They should be highlighted as featured components of meals, not last minute additions or decorations along side a giant piece of meat. You should eat them both raw and cooked and when in season if possible. Different nutrients are more available to you depending on whether the vegetable is raw or cooked so sometimes munch on salad and other times cook those veg. Go ahead and juice veg sometimes - you still get the great nutrients in juice, but don't only juice - the fiber in veg is important and juicing gets rid of it. And also, don't think that juice is a meal substitute - it's not.
I include potatoes of all sorts in the vegetable category (however, potato chips and fries are not the best version of potato) - russet potatoes actually have one of the highest antioxidant content of any vegetable.
There is warning to heed for selecting vegetables however. Many are grown with high use of pesticides and in low nutrient soils. So select organic, and locally grown if you can, especially if it is a vegetable that is not protected by a thick skin that you will peel of before eating it.
Eat some meat & meat products, if you like it, and if you can get it from ethically acceptable (for you), and sustainable and responsible sources
Most meat that you find, especially in the US, comes from mass farmed, and yes, generally not always ethically acceptable sources for most people. There are enough resources out there now in the media that open your eyes to where most of our meat comes from and I don't at all blame people that immediately convert to vegetarianism or even veganism for these reasons. If you sit on that side of the fence, by all means, stick to your morals and beliefs - you can mostly eat a full, healthy, and nutritious diet without animal products so long if you pay some attention to your intake of protein, fat, and certain mineral and vitamin requirements on a vegetarian or vegan diet (note: pay attention, and think about supplements of iron, B vitamins, essential amino acids, and omega-3's).
However, if you like meat, and yes humans have eaten meat for their whole history, and our bodies like whats in it nutritionally, pay attention to where you get your meat from and be discerning. Yes, organic, local, grass fed and pasture raised meat (and meat products) is more expensive and harder to find, but even if you are in areas of the country without a whole foods market or local farmer round the corner, there are many online companies now that anyone can order from. Yes, yes, it's more expensive, but my answer to that is just eat it less often, and/or eat less of it when you do and fill up the rest of your plate with those vegetables. Also, ask yourself, what is your health worth to you and is quality food not worth spending some money (and time actually) on?
'Paleo' - we hear it all the time, it's the latest fad and a lot of what Paleo is about is great, I'm just not sure it should have a label. Our paleolithic ancestors ate what they could when they could to survive, and no, they didn't get meat every day - it was a special occasion when they were able to hunt an animal down. For the rest of the time they gathered - fruit, nuts, seeds, vegetables and whatever other plants they could make edible and that had energy and nutrients in. What I do like about the 'Paleo Diet' is that it's based on real food - food that still looks like it was grown or raised sometime recently, and hasn't been put through a processing plant and wrapped in shiny plastic packaging with all manner of health claims on it; this part of the paleo food movement I will buy into.
I like meat, I eat some almost daily, but only if I am comfortable with how that animal was raised, and with the journey it took to get from it's farm to my kitchen. We're lucky enough to live in the region of a farmer who personally cares for the meat that we eat. It was raised 30miles away and I fetch it from the farm myself. Those animals have a better life than for the most part they would get in the wild. They are safe, have all the natural pasture and food they need, and to be fair they are only born for the purpose of eventually feeding the families who are sustained by Girlfarm. I supplement what we get from Girlfarm, with some meat from whole foods market (or similar), our local natural food store, online from Pete's Paleo bacon, and occasionally the grass-fed aisle of safeway. We don't eat out that much, but when we do, unless I am sure the restaurant has some standards for it's meat sources, I order from the vegetarian section of the menu. Not only is mass/factory farmed meat often unethical, it's often unhealthy. 100% grainfed animals (or worse), possibly with antibiotics and steroids thrown into the mix, plus lack of sunlight and exercise makes for meat that has little that is good for us in it. This is where much of the saturated red-meat fat fear emerged from. Sure, the fat content of terribly raised meat is not good for us - anything toxic the animal eats gets stored in it's fat that we then end up eating. But, 100% grass fed happy meat - that fat, now that is good stuff. I'm rambling here so will stop now, but will plan to go into more detail on these aspects in another post.
Eggs and Dairy
I go by the same rules as meat. Eat 'happy', organic, grass fed/pastured dairy and eggs and not versions that are processed into something else. With dairy eat/drink the whole milk version of cheese, yoghurt etc. - there is more goodness in it and yes the fat is good for you if it's from pastured animals; again, if you don't care for it, or think you have an intolerance (some people find that once they try grass fed whole milk, minimally processed sources, their intolerance dissipates), don't worry, you can get all the calcium you need from dark green leafy vegetables.
Eggs are incredible sources of nutrition. Eggs from pastured hens are higher in omega 3's and vitamin E than eggs from factory farmed hens, and you also feel far better about eating eggs from chickens that are free to roam and take part in their natural behaviours. You could do far worse than eating an egg or two a day. The majority of research (unless maybe if you are diabetic) actually shows positive correlation with healthy blood lipid levels and consuming eggs.
Eat sustainably raised fish a couple of times a week
Fish is very good for you - more so wild fish vs. farmed, and yes there is the mercury problem but it's really hard to eat enough fish to really be at risk; plus some fish are higher in mercury than others - a whole blog post of it's own.
Fish has healthy fats and vitamins that it's hard to get from anywhere else. It doesn't have to be expensive. Canned sardines, salmon, tuna, mackerel, or kippers are great the have in the kitchen for lunch salads and simple dinners. Salmon steaks or fillets are easy to cook and again not expensive if you're not eating them every day. I love Vital Choice as an online ordering option for frozen and canned options. I need to make sure fish is on the menu more often in my house - it's easy to get out of the habit.
If you're not into fish, it's not the end of the world, but for health reasons it may be worth thinking about a quality fish oil supplement. I'm not a huge supplement consumer, I'd rather make sure I get everything from food, but there are just some things that are hard to get, especially if for your own reasons you choose not to eat fish and or other animal products. More on this in future posts!
Nuts & seeds
Protein, fat, oils, fiber, minerals, and energy! Include nuts in your diet (peanuts are not technically nuts in this category - they are legumes and I'll get onto those). Almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, macadamias (I'm forgetting something) are all great - eat them! Not whole packets full of them, but some. Add them to salads, to vegetables, grab a handful as a snack - they are far better to snack on than cookies and muffins! Eat them raw, or roasted, but easy on the salt, and avoid those sugar-coated, chocolate covered ones (for most of the time at least).
Flaxseed lowers blood pressure - find a way to eat it every so often; some recommend a spoonful or two daily (grind it up so it can actually be digested). Sunflower seeds, chia seeds, sesame seeds - liven up green veg by adding these or add to salads; sprinkle on your breakfast oatmeal instead of sugar.
Prepared the right way, these are a great source of protein, fiber and carbohydrate. Recent objections to legumes from the paleo and whole30 worlds include the 'antinutrient' content that prevent absorption of other nutrients, and potential for inflammation. While theoretically this could be assumed to be a problem in both cases, most research doesn't conclusively support either theory. Antinutrients are also mostly eliminated when legumes are cooked. The 'intestinal effects' of beans can also be reduced by correct preparation; soaking and discarding soaking water, sprouting, and also cooking in water that is slightly alkaline can all reduce the oligosaccharides present in beans that cause unwanted intestinal effects of consumption. Diets that include legumes have been linked to reduced risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and for vegetarians they can be a nutritionally dense source of protein.
There may be some people that are more sensitive to beans than others, and this is individual - maybe your body doesn't care for them quite so much, but until you've figured that out, don't be so fast to ban them from your diet without reason.
It's good for you - eat it, but not all the time, and not just in the form of juice. Eat organic when you can. Fruit, like vegetables has high antioxidant and phytochemical value in it's whole form (these things don't work nearly as well from supplements). But, unlike vegetables, fruit is higher in sugar, and lots of sugar in whatever form just isn't that great for you (especially if you're not that active). Eat fruit as whole fruit rather than as juice; the fiber in fruit is really healthy for your digestive system and also stops you from consuming too much sugar by filling you up. If it's just juice, you can drink the equivalent of 10 oranges full of sugar without realising it. Eat variety rather than always just apples and bananas. Try berries, kiwi, pears, or peaches.
This is a tougher topic, so I will preface it with saying that your diet doesn't necessarily need grains so if you thrive without them by all means don't eat them. That said, I do think they have got a generalized bad rap recently with the gluten free craze, so let me try and shed some light.
Some people do have celiac disease. It is testable for and causes terrible symptoms in those that are afflicted. For those that have it (about 0.7% of the US population) they must avoid all sources of gluten containing grains at all times.
Some others do have non celiac gluten sensitivity, and/or wheat sensitivity. This is harder to test for and generally causes less severe symptoms than celiac disease, but still can be unpleasant. It is unknown how many people have this, and generally only eliminating it from the diet as a test to see if symptoms disappear can it be determined. In some cases, it may actually not be be the gluten that people are sensitive to, but the pesticides that the grain is produced with which can bind to gluten making it more allergenic.
So, with these caveats out the way, why eat whole grains? Well, athletes listen up - your body needs energy and whole grains have piles of it. Sure you can get lots from vegetables and for some that may be enough, and for others, maybe your body is very efficient at using fat for fuel, or you'r trained it to do so - for some this is possible and for some ultra-endurance events it can be a great strategy. But usually at some point, you will need to use your muscle glycogen, and if you're not eating enough carbohydrate, your muscles won't have enough glycogen stored and hitting those high intensities will be hard, if not impossible. Carbohydrates are also essential for recovering after those hard efforts and again here whole grains can play a role.
Research on whole grains (in particular the phytates in them) has linked them to actually be anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and anti-cancer. Weight management has also been associated with higher intake of whole grains.
Now, whole grains are WHOLE grains. That's the whole grain, grown organically and not processed into a gluten-free snack. It's brown or wild rice, not so much white rice that has had it's outer casing removed, been polished, and enriched for our enjoyment and ease of cooking. Whole grain means (in my current view with current research at least) ancient forms of wheat that have not been bred for fast growth and high production value - try out some Einkorn, Spelt, Emmer, Farro or Heirloom Wheat. Oats - go for it, but try them in their least modified form possible - Oat Groats before they are rolled or steel cut, or made 'quick cook'. Quinoa is also a great choice. Corn is a hard one as it is so mass produced now, but it's not inherently bad. Corn should be prepared by soaking in lime water to make the B-vitamins bioavailable (antinutrients in corn not treated with lime prevent Niacin from being absorbed) - those ancient cultures that relied on corn historically had this figured out and many mexican food store will provide corn in this lime-water treated form, or the lime water (pickling lime) to do it yourself.
Fats and Oils
I'll keep this brief as I'll expand in a future post. Grass fed butter and pastured animal fats (lard, tallow, duck fat, schmaltz) and coconut oil - use them to cook with; olive oil, avocado oil, walnut oil (and other similar) are for salad dressings and drizzling, not for cooking. 'Vegetable oil' - that's safflower, sunflower, corn, soy and combinations of - all those cheap oils that are manufactured and processed in factories using various chemicals - avoid them the best you can, they're not so good.
What not to eat
There is really only one category of thing I put here and that is 'processed food'. It's not really food anymore when it's been through a factory manufacturing line. It's had a bunch of nutrients taken out via the processing, only to have select ones then added back in to fortify the food to satisfy one regulation or another. Sugar, salt, fat, colourings, preservatives are all added to increase taste/texture/visual appeal after the original food has had all of it's natural taste stripped from it, and to increase shelf life so your food can be transported in trucks from thousands of miles away and stored for weeks or months without going bad. None of us are perfect, time gets away from us and quick convenient meals happen, but work on making this a rare occurrence, not the everyday norm.
Alcohol, Caffeine, & Chocolate
This is a moderation guideline. None of these things are intrinsically bad for us; indeed there are some components of wine, beer, coffee (and tea), and chocolate that are actually good for us - and this includes the enjoyment factor - mental health and social time are a big deal for our well-being. A glass of wine, a beer, a coffee or tea (or course without most of it being processed non-fat factory farmed milk with a few tablespoons of sugar thrown in) are enjoyable parts of life for many. Chocolate in itself, before it has a pile of milk products and sugar added to it is actually good for us - find that 80% or 100% chocolate if you can and learn to like it! But don't let them become a crux, and don't consume too much - you know what is too much, be smart. If you think you can't possibly survive your day without 3 coffees before breakfast, rethink it - control the habit, make sure it's not in control of you. Same goes for those stress-relieving 3 glasses of wine every night, and more on the weekend. A moderate drink with dinner a few times a week, fine, or a beer with friends after work or a long bike ride, of course - enjoy it. A special meal out where you share a bottle, no worries. But again make sure it's not a habit every night of the week - rethink it the minute you realise it's getting away from you.
A short (ish) note on eating for athletes
High performance athletes know that what they eat plays a big part in how they train, recover and ultimately perform in their given event. Food is ultimately fuel, but it is also health - the immnune systems of athletes are constantly challenged by high volume and/or high intensity training and food is also how those immune systems and muscles recover and repair to be able to sustain training and develop increased levels of performance.
Real food with variety should be the staple of any athletes diet. Vegetables, and lots of them should make up a good percentage of the diet. After that, nuts, seeds and healthy fats are also important. Then it's the athletes choice with what else to experiment with - be it good quality meat & animal products, fish, whole grains, legumes etc. Some may find that a rich vegetarian diet is something they perform very well on and also maintain good energy levels and health. Others may find that some combination of meat, fish, dairy or eggs is necessary for them to be healthy, perform well and still enjoy their meals. Some athletes, usually those with more of a focus on endurance events will want to make sure their bodies are somewhat adapted to be able to access fat stores as well as using the carbohydrate they eat during exercise and glycogen (stored carbohydrate) - when an event lasts multiple hours or days there are advantages to having at least part of your energy system be able to rely on fat burning for some of that time. This can be done by modifying the diet in terms of its fat:carb ratio, often timed with certain training or rest blocks. At some point though, even for endurance athletes, the body will need to burn carbs so you can't lose sight of making sure the body still knows how to do that. This can all be very individual and I've tried a few different approaches myself - my body still needs a good amount of carb when I'm training hard, be it from potatoes, other veg, or whole grains, especially in high volume weeks or prior to high intensity workouts. It also needs carb for recovery - muscles recover using carbs, not so much protein as many may think. Protein can help, but really it's the carbohydrates that help you recover for the next workout. Your body may do better with less carb and more fat than your training partner, but you won't know until you try out some different things - there is something optimal that works for you. Now, fueling during a race - well that's a whole other topic, and even more individual. Start with healthy eating and fueling for your life as a whole, then we'll talk about race food (and hydration!).
My last few words for now
So there are the highlights - sorry it's long but there is a lot to say. I will go into more specifics and expand on some of the topics touched on above in more specific posts. Some of this is my opinion, but I like to think it is informed and educated opinion. Beyond all the specifics I would like to emphasise that there is no one way to eat for everybody - our bodies are different in the way their genes express the proteins to metabolise certain nutrients, our needs are different, our beliefs and values are different. There are definite problems with the food system and too many convenience foods and fad diets that have crept into the way we eat. We shouldn't need to make food a chore or something that is stressful to figure out, but it has unfortunately become that way for many. I hope I can help even a few people to unravel the tangled ball of string that is food/diet/nutrition and make food a bit more simple and a lot more enjoyable.
*Disclaimer stuff: I'm not a licensed medical practitioner, or nutritionist (yet!) so none of this should be deemed advice on treating or managing any kind of medical condition. Also, the recommendations I have made on where to source certain products are not endorsements and no one is paying me to market their products - they are just companies I use myself and have had great experiences with*