Even the experts have their weaknesses.
They spend their days helping other athletes with their fuelling. But what do sports nutrition experts themselves avoid? Their pantries show a few surprises – including that most hesitate to outright ban any particular items or ingredients.
Labelling certain foods “bad” paradoxically makes them more appealing. It also triggers feelings of guilt and shame that don’t do anything to improve your eating. “I try to have people take the fear out of food,” says dietitian Anne Mauney, a marathoner and co-author of Nutrition for Runners.
Even if they don’t make blanket condemnations, most running dietitians have at least one or two things they routinely leave off their shopping lists.
Low-fat pudding. Sugar-free cookies. These products may be marketed to the weight-conscious, but most nutrition experts see them as inferior replacements for more satisfying treats.
“If we have an imitation or variation of something that isn’t really what we want, we often end up eating that, not being satisfied, still eating other stuff, and eventually maybe just ending up having what we wanted in the first place,” Mauney says. “Or maybe we just have a ton of other crap that we didn’t really want and now we don’t feel that good.”
So if Mauney wants chocolate cake, she skips the “light” snack pack and goes for the real version. When she does, she sits down with a nice plate at a table and eats mindfully, savouring every bite without guilt.
Raisin Bran, granola – ultrarunner and 2014 Western States champion Stephanie Howe Violett, who has her Ph.D. in nutrition and exercise science, loves the taste of cereal. But every time she buys a box, she ends up sorry.
“I don’t really get full off a bowl of cereal, so it turns into three bowls of cereal, and then it’s just like this sloshy mess in my stomach,” Violett says. “It just isn’t super filling to me, so I overdo it every single time. Whenever I buy cereal like that, I’m like, ‘Why did I do this?’”
So she does her best not to buy it and sticks to more satisfying breakfasts instead. This means oatmeal or porridge in the winter or eggs and avocado on toast in the summer – something that includes satiating protein and fat in addition to carbs.
Flavoured, non-Greek yoghurt
Dietitian Chrissy Carroll is a yoghurt snob. She’s also an athlete, blogger and author of Eat to Peak: Sports Nutrition for Runners and Triathletes.
“So many packaged yoghurts have excessively high amounts of added sugar,” she says. Plopping a few berries on top of plain versions adds fibre but lacks depth of flavour, she believes.
Carroll has come up with a hack that satisfies both her taste buds and nutrient needs: she microwaves frozen berries until they’re warm and ooze juices, then she mixes them into plain Greek yoghurt (which offers about double the amount of the amino acid leucine, beneficial for athletic recovery, as regular yoghurt). Voila – a full-on fruit infusion for breakfast or dessert, sweetened naturally.
Sugar-sweetened soft drink
Soda, cola, Coke – whatever you call it, sugary carbonated drinks offer essentially no other nutrients and often take the place of beverages that are better for you, says dietitian Megan Kuikman, who last year won the Mississauga Marathon and finished fifth at the Canadian marathon championships. For those reasons, she essentially never buys them.
Neither does Anne Rollins, who’s run since age 11 and now works as a sports dietitian for The Core Diet. Some of soda’s ingredients can have detrimental effects for runners, she adds. For instance, there’s evidence the phosphoric acid in cola can interfere with calcium absorption, weakening bones.
As with any other food, though, the choice to steer clear is an individual one, Kuikman says – after all, many ultramarathoners use flat soda as a fuel source during extended efforts.
Even dietitians sometimes struggle with impulse control, Carroll admits. “Any packaged cookie can be dangerous for me,” she says. “I love those soft and chewy chocolate chip ones especially.”
Cookies also serve as a weak spot for dietitian Leslie J. Bonci. “I love them. And I’m just not the kind of person to be like – oh, you know, I’ll just have a part of one and call it a day,” she says. “They’re going to get eaten. It might not be all at one sitting, but it’s going to be in a relatively short period of time.”
Carroll tames her sweet tooth by eschewing store-bought cookies altogether. “If I really want cookies, I make them from scratch, and only make a few at a time, freezing the rest of the dough,” she says. “They’re far more delicious and I can limit my portions.”
And Bonci – who says oatmeal-raisin and ginger molasses top her list – will make them a destination food, buying just one from the bakery around the corner. If her kids come in town she might splurge on a few, then send the extras home with them so they’re not left in the house.
While 100 per cent fruit juice stands as a better choice than soft drink, it still doesn’t make the cut for Kuikman. When compared to peeling a fresh piece of citrus, “you’re not getting any of the fibre or the same amount of nutrients if you’re drinking a glass of orange juice,” she says. “Rather than keeping juice in the house, I just have the whole piece of fruit instead.”
WHAT THEY DO KEEP AROUND THE HOUSE:
She’s not a pasta person – so for her pre-race meal, Susan Kitchen, a marathoner, Ironman triathlete and coach, goes for cheese- and tomato-topped slices instead.
“People always label it as such a bad food,” she says. “But it’s not so bad, if you have cheese or a little bit of meat on it and maybe have a piece or two, then a really good salad.” (In other words, don’t inhale the whole pie.)
Dina Griffin, a dietitian who has a sub-3:25 PB at the Boston Marathon, swears by Justin’s peanut butter cups. (She shares them with her husband for a treat.)
Rollins makes a weekly batch of homemade bars – she starts with dark chocolate, then stirs in crushed walnuts, cranberries, coconut and sea salt. Making sweet treats by hand means she can control the ingredients, and each add-in comes with its own health benefits, be it antioxidants from berries or omega-3 fatty acids from nuts.
Sorbet or frozen yoghurt won’t do – when these dietitians want a cold treat, they go for the full-fat, dairy-rich variety, which satisfies them without artificial ingredients. That cone or cup might just taste even better when you go out to enjoy it with your family or your running buddies, Rollins says.