Should Runners Sub Out Carbs for Cauliflower?

Cauliflower rice and pizza crust aren’t going away anytime soon, but how could this trend affect your training?

It’s no secret that cauliflower has been having a moment over the last few years as food manufacturers have discovered that those florets are remarkably adaptable and moldable.

These days, cauliflower is used to make a variety of formerly carb-heavy foods from pizza crust and pasta to gnocchi and tater tots. Alongside the bags of frozen peas and corn, you can now find “rice” made from the cruciferous veggie in the freezer aisle, too. You can even try baking up a batch of muffins using cauliflower flour.

What’s the reason behind the cauliflower trend? It generally started with the rise of diets like paleo and keto that steer followers away from eating grains and promote scaling down carbohydrate intake. Want rice but don’t want rice? Now there’s a low-carb cauliflower sub for that.

But carbs are a runner’s friend—without them, your miles feel sluggish and hard. So how does cauliflower fit into an endurance athlete’s diet? We tapped a registered dietitian and the most definitive research to find out.

Cauliflower Nutrition Facts and Benefits

Here’s a breakdown of 1 cup of raw cauliflower’s nutritional value, as per the USDA:

  • 27 calories
  • 2g of protein
  • 5g of carbs
  • 2g of fibre
  • 24 mg of calcium
  • 16mg of magnesium
  • 47mg of phosphorus
  • 320mg of potassium
  • 32mg of sodium
  • 52mg of vitamin C

“Cauliflower is low in calories and high in fibre which makes for a great food to provide satiety without adding a lot of calories to the diet,” says Marni Sumbal, M.S., R.D., owner of Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition.

Although low in calories, cauliflower contains many important nutrients, such as vitamin C, folate, antioxidants, and electrolytes. Folate helps convert carbs into energy and electrolytes regulate muscle contraction and the balance fluids in your body.

Research suggests that higher intakes of vitamin C may slash the risk for heart disease and could help reduce the severity or duration the common cold for runners. Plus, one study in the journal Stroke found that for every 25-gram increase in the daily intake of white vegetables and fruits (about 1/4 cup cauliflower), the risk for suffering a stroke dropped by 9 percent. Another investigation showed that higher intakes of isothiocyanates—potent antioxidants found in cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower—can slash the chances of developing bladder cancer.

But just keep in mind that studies like these looked at consuming whole forms of the food and not necessarily cauliflower linguini, crispy cauli puffs, or cauliflower “chicken wings” doused in buffalo sauce, which are all slightly processed.

Should Runners Sub Out Grains for Cauliflower?

One cup of cooked rice has about 205 calories and 45 grams of carbohydrate; whereas a cup of cauliflower “rice” supplies a mere 40 calories and 8 grams of carbohydrate.

If you are looking to lose weight, these stats probably appear helpful. But Sumbal cautions that if other dietary habits are not changed, cauliflower-based foods themselves are not a magic food that will initiate weight loss. “It needs to be part of an overall wholesome diet that factor in other lifestyle habits like exercise and sleep.”

The question you need to ask yourself is this: Are these more processed forms of cauliflower as nearly as nutritious as eating the whole vegetable? Perhaps it’s best not to think of cauliflower pizza crust as counting towards a daily serving of vegetables if it’s made by adding a bunch of parmesan cheese and deep frying it.

“When you cook products like cauliflower rice, there will be some loss of nutrients,” adds Sumbal.

If your goal is not weight loss, but rather running performance, cauliflower-based products don’t have to and should not replace your beloved regular spaghetti and rice that you use when carb-loading for races or refueling after a long run.

“Reducing your overall intake of carbohydrates to a level lower than what the body needs to support training stress can prove to be unhealthy to physical and mental health—not to mention it can sabotage your workouts,” Sumbal says.

For instance, eating cauliflower breadsticks with your prerace dinner could leave your carb stores on the low end, resulting in a less-than-stellar performance the next day.

“Instead of eliminating starchy carbs like pasta and bread and replacing them with cruciferous veggies, it’s better for many runners to simply focus on consuming appropriate portions and then incorporating cruciferous veggies to bulk up meals,” Sumbal says.

There is the risk that your body will sense it’s getting fewer calories than expected from a bowl of cauliflower rice, which Sumbal cautions could bring on a serious case of the munchies later on, resulting in overeating and no net reduction in overall calorie intake.

“Your body requires the carbohydrates it needs to support metabolic processes, so a good intention of swapping out starchy carbs for cauliflower could end up backfiring.”

You also need to look past the cauliflower in the ingredient list and make sure less-healthy additions like added sugars aren’t tagging along. Sumbal cautions that it’s best to approach these items like you would other processed foods and read labels carefully.

The Bottom Line

The cauliflower craze shows no signs of grinding to a halt, especially with the trend towards more vegetable-centric eating. And there is nothing wrong with eating one or more of the endless iterations of cauliflower, including a slice of cauli-crust pizza or serving up a General Tso’s version of the veggie.

But always keep in mind that active bodies still need enough carbohydrates from items like real rice and real pasta to fuel the engine, as well as plenty of lesser processed forms of veggies, like steamed cauliflower florets. As per usual, everything in moderation is key.

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