Which Diet is Right for New Runners?

If you want to get fit and lose weight, it’s important to make some changes to your diet. And while deep down you may know that to lose weight you must eat less and move more, it’s hard to resist the lure of diets that promise instant, permanent results with little work or restraint.

The truth is that diets are a lot like training plans. There’s no ONE diet that’s best for everyone. Only one healthy eating strategy is best for a particular person at a particular time. Each diet has its benefits and drawbacks for new runners.

The most important factor in any diet is how well it helps you meet your goals and fits your needs, and helps you maintain the healthy eating habits for life.

Here is what you need to know about some of the more popular diets on the market now.

Low-Carb Diets

A number of popular diets fall under the umbrella of carbohydrate-restricted diets. The Zone Diet, Carbohydrate Addict’s Diet, the South Beach Diet, and probably the most famous, the Atkins Diet, advocate low-carb eating with generous portions of protein and fat.

Any low-carbohydrate diet – technically – is defined as an eating plan consisting of less than 20 per cent of a day’s kilojoules from carbohydrate, or approximately 20 to 60 grams per day. Each has a slightly different twist. Atkins calls for perhaps the most drastic reduction—less than 40 grams of carbs per day at first—reasoning that this forces the body to burn stored body fat and burn an energy source known as ketones. Another popular plan, The Zone Diet, restricts carbs to 40 per cent of daily calories and calls for the balance to be split equally between protein and fat.

The upside: Proponents claim that weight loss will naturally follow restriction of sugars and carbohydrates. And indeed, you’ll see fast results. Carbs cause your body to retain water. So when you slash carbs, you retain less water, and the water in your system is flushed out. (Plan for lots of extra pit stops.) And you’ll see numbers you like on the bathroom scale. Also, because many of these diets allow you unlimited fats and protein, you can indulge in carb-free foods you might have previously written off as off-limits, such as eggs and bacon. And because fat and protein are digested more slowly in the body, you’ll feel fuller for longer and avoid feelings of deprivation that can lead to a binge down the road.

Are these diets right for new runners? Short-term, these diets appear to be safe, but there are lingering concerns about long-term safety. Research has yet to determine the impact of such diets on the development of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and kidney disease, not to mention nutrient deficiencies. Because you eliminate many food groups when you go low carb, you can develop certain vitamin deficiencies. And you might be wondering what happens when you start adding carbs back into the diet. Alas, some of the weight you lost is sure to return, and you’re bound to experience the frustration of “yo-yo dieting.”

Carbohydrate is the nutrient that your body can most efficiently convert into the energy you need to run strong, without causing you any GI distress. (It’s generally recommended that runners get 50 to 70 percent of their daily kilojoules from carbs.) The body digests fats and protein more slowly. So you won’t feel as energised on the run, and to avoid GI distress, you may have to be more careful about what you eat before you run.

High-Protein Diets

In recent years, high-protein diets that fall under the “paleo” umbrella have become more popular. Many of them focus on replacing carbohydrates with protein, reasoning that the body digests it more slowly – so you feel fuller for longer – and that it helps build and repair your working muscles.

These diets, which generally stress foods that can be hunted, gathered, or fished, is based on the theory that our bodies are designed to eat like our caveman ancestors; they’re not designed to digest the processed foods that are the basis of the standard Australian diet. They generally advocate sticking with various grass-fed meats, wild fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, fruit and vegetables – which are generally high in protein and fiber and low in carbohydrates – and avoiding grains and starchy vegetables. Healthy fats are also recommended.

The upside: You may feel better overall and lose some inches around the waist as you cut out empty calories from the processed foods. You won’t go hungry. Studies have shown that people who eat more protein – about 30 per cent of total kilojoules – are less hungry and take in less kilojoules. And studies have shown that those who upped their protein intake were 50 per cent less likely to regain the weight they’d lost. They also lowered their percentage of body fat.

Are these diets right for new runners? Because these diets are so high in fibre, your digestive health may improve, but it may be tough to get through a long run without a few pit stops, or hitting the wall. Because these diets are very low in carbs and higher in fat, they are not the best choices for runners. The body runs most efficiently when it’s using carbs for fuel; the body has a harder time converting fat to fuel. So you may feel sluggish while you’re adjusting to this new diet. And if you’re running longer distances – say up to a 10K or a half-marathon – it may be challenging to find any sports energy gels or chews that meet the parameters of the diet.

Detox Diets

A diet is commonly classified as “detox” if it involves a change of eating patterns with the goal of ridding the body of toxin buildup. These types of diets vary from those that involve a two-day fast to others that call for a 21-day detox, during which time dieters must eliminate certain food groups or even drink “cleansing” beverages on a daily basis. Generally these diets promise quick weight loss, healing, and cleansing and a renewed sense of better health. While not all detox diets are solely focused on weight loss, the eating is so restrictive that weight loss often follows.

The upside: Quick results; because you’re consuming so little, the weight immediately drops off.

Are these diets right for new runners? Generally speaking, it’s best to avoid these kinds of diets. While you may lose weight in the short term, they don’t nurture the kind of lifestyle change and nutrition improvement that are essential to losing weight and keeping it off in the long term. Plus, you won’t have the energy you need to exercise, which is critical to sustainable weight loss. Probably the most frustrating part of these diets is that once you finish the detox and return to your old eating habits, the weight you worked so hard to lose is certain to return. There are some serious, negative, long-term consequences that can come from detox diets. Short term, you might suffer some unpleasant side effects from so-called “cleansing” products. And if you are suffering from a chronic disease like type 2 diabetes, these diets could put you at risk for other complications if you put traditional, effective medical treatments aside while you “cleanse.” As a runner, detox diets are likely to derail your training.  You’re likely to feel fatigued due to too few nutrients, and you may spend extra time darting for a loo thanks to the “cleansing products.” Bottom line, think twice before jumping into a detox diet with both feet.

Commercial Diets

Many people turn to commercial programs like Weight Watchers or Jenny Craig for weight loss.

The upside: Some commercial weight-loss programs can be very effective in not only helping with weight loss but also helping to encourage general lifestyle changes. For instance, with Weight Watchers, foods and drinks are assigned point values according to the nutrients they provide and overall kilojoule contribution. This encourages people to learn how nutritious certain foods are. They also require members to weigh their foods, which teaches portion control, another important tenet of long-term weight loss. Some programs also include weekly meetings led by trained instructors and require weekly weigh-ins and accountability. This type of program encourages exercise, as working out can “earn” you more points. All of this includes the social support and counseling that research has proven can be so helpful to weight loss. Many of the programs provide online support in addition to in-person meetings, so people can take advantage of that even if they don’t live near a regular meeting place.

Are these diets right for new runners? Some commercial diets – namely those where you have to buy that diet brand’s food either in the supermarket or through the mail – can be difficult to sustain. Once you stop buying the food (which has controlled portions) and return to eating regular food that you prepare, the weight is sure to creep back. The foods on the system don’t come cheap either, so you may see your grocery bill swell. Another drawback: Mail-order diets are not designed family style. That means you can expect to receive your food in the mail and still need to prepare a meal for the rest of the family. Finally, if the diet cuts kilojoules too rapidly, you may not have the energy you need to work out, and that can make the weight loss more difficult.

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