By Elizabeth Wingard
originally published in Pace Running Magazine Winter 2014
What if I told you there was one thing you could do that would improve your running, decrease your risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, and ultimately enhance the quality of your life? It is not a trendy diet and you don’t need a chef or a trainer. Actually, it is something so simple, and something you may already know.
It all starts with your grocery cart. The food you buy and bring into your home is the key to health and vitality. In order to stay healthy, we need to eat lots of fruits and vegetables. We all know that this is true, but the reality is that it is not always easy to put a plan into action. We all fall into patterns of eating the same foods again and again, even healthy foods, but the problem is that our bodies miss out on the benefits that Mother Nature has to offer.
Of course, there are vitamins and supplements, but there is no question that our bodies recognize and absorb real food much more efficiently than supplements. It is often the combination of foods, which creates synergy between nutrients. Combinations of certain vitamins and minerals can enhance disease prevention and bioavailability (the ability of the body to absorb and use the nutrients).
There are some roadblocks when trying to clean up our diets. It takes a little planning, a little time, and a sense of adventure to try new things. People ask me all the time what I buy and don’t buy from the grocery store. My biggest piece of advice: shop the perimeter. Buy (and eat!) as much fresh, perishable food that you can and you will automatically improve your overall health.
As runners, our nutritional needs are high. Sometimes we have a misconception that because running burns so many calories, it is okay to eat anything we want to eat at any time. While there is always room for a treat here and there, without proper nutrition we could be causing inflammation. This accelerates the aging process and puts us at risk for disease, in spite of our best intentions with exercise. We are so dedicated to our daily workouts, training plans, and race schedules that we often overlook our nutrition, the very thing that could take our performance to the next level, improve our immune system, and, as a bonus, prevent life-threatening disease and give us more energy to face the daily challenges of our lives.
Running (and any exercise for that matter) requires more oxygen, which means more oxidative stress on the body. This means athletes may be at a higher risk for the effects of free radical damage, which leads to inflammation and disease. How do we stop the damage? We should consume more fruits and vegetables that contain antioxidant properties to combat these free radicals. Athletes need even more of these antioxidants than do people who are sedentary.
In addition, fruits and vegetables are needed to keep our immune system strong, especially during heavy training times when our immune function can go down. After a workout, the foods we choose may be just as important as the workout just completed. Don’t let it go to waste.
So, as the winter cold and flu season approaches, load the grocery cart with fruits and vegetables, choosing a variety of colors to be sure your body is getting a variety of phytochemicals every day. Phytochemicals, also called phytonutrients, are chemicals found only in plants (not supplements). They protect the plants against bacteria, fungi, and viruses and they give plants their vibrant color. There may be up to 10,000 different phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables that could possibly prevent cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes, just to name a few. The key is to choose a rainbow of colors when you are in the produce section of your grocery store or local farmer’s market. Here is a guide to get you started:
Green leafy vegetables are probably the single most important food that we don’t eat enough. The darker the better, so try kale, spinach, Swiss chard, arugula, and even romaine lettuce. Packed with nutrients like magnesium, calcium, fiber, and chlorophyll, dark leafy greens reduce inflammation, maintain blood sugar levels, replace electrolytes and contain Vitamin C. Greens are a great source of plant-based iron, which will keep energy levels up. To enhance iron absorption, eat a Vitamin C rich food such as citrus with your greens. Salads are always a great option, but you can also sauté greens, use them in an omelet, add to a soup, or enjoy them in a smoothie.
Avocados are also green, but often overlooked as a “superfood” for runners. Not only do they contain healthy, monounsaturated fat, they also stabilize blood sugar. Avocados contain 35% more potassium than bananas, which is a common ingredient in sports gels and drinks as it prevents muscle cramping. Try substituting avocados for mayonnaise on a sandwich, toss into salads, or use as a spread on sprouted toast.
Eat your beets! Did you know that beets could make you run faster? It is possible because nitrates found in beets help your muscles work more efficiently. Beets are high in magnesium and potassium, minerals lost in our sweat and essential to prevent muscle cramps. In addition, beets cleanse the blood and the liver and contain tryptophan (just like Thanksgiving turkey) which helps stabilize mood and gives a sense of well-being. Who doesn’t need that? Beets are delicious roasted and in soup. They are great for juicing and great on salads.
Cherries and berries are also runner-friendly. Research shows that tart cherry juice reduces inflammation and speeds muscle recovery. Not only are berries wonderful antioxidants, they are also filled with fiber, which helps you digest them more slowly so you stay full for longer and maintain a healthy weight. Fiber is essential to digestive health, and every runner knows that digestive health is essential to happy running.
Orange & Yellow
Choose sweet potatoes if you need a quick energy source. They are easy to digest and filled with beta-carotene. Studies have shown that they can help reduce stress related sugar cravings. Craving an afternoon treat? Try a cooked sweet potato with cinnamon, instead of a cookie or candy.
Filled with Vitamin C, oranges quench our thirst and satisfy our sweet tooth. Vitamin C has been shown to reduce the risk of upper respiratory infections and to lower heart rate during exercise. Consume it with dark leafy greens to improve iron absorption as well. Pineapple, nature’s ibuprofen, contains bromeliad, which is known to reduce inflammation. Sore after a workout? Injury coming on? Try adding pineapple to your diet either alone, in a fruit salad or a green smoothie.
Purple & Blue
Grapes are delicious for a snack anytime! These yummy treats might actually keep you young. Grapes contain antioxidants called polyphenols, including flavonoids and resveratrol. Both antioxidants may help lower your risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, blood clots, and heart disease, according to an article published in The Journal of Nutrition in July 2009. So stock up! For a refreshing change? Freeze them and they taste like little popsicles.
Eggplants are a favorite, especially among vegetarian runners. Don’t be afraid to give these a try. Eggplant has only 20 calories per cup and contains chlorogenic acid, which has been shown to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol. Enjoy a classic eggplant parmesan, or baba ganoush. You can bake, roast, or steam it, and it is a great addition to stir-fry.
Blueberries are nutrition powerhouses. At 84 calories a cup, who can resist these healthy treats? The more you eat, the quicker your recovery time between workouts and the better your immune system will function. One of nature’s “super foods,” blueberries are delicious plain, sprinkled on oatmeal, in smoothies, or even in muffins.
So next time you hit the produce section, challenge yourself to try at least one new thing. Keep your shopping cart filled with more colorful fruits and vegetables and less packaged processed food. Think of it as part of your training plan, enjoy the “fruits” of your labor.
Elizabeth Wingard is a Board Certified Health and Nutrition Coach, Group Fitness instructor, marathoner, mom, and the owner of Healthy Balance For Life LLC. For more information about one-on-one nutrition and lifestyle coaching, group detox programs, or to schedule a free consultation, visit healthybalanceforlife.com