One of the questions I am asked most often about my running is if I have a specific diet that I adhere to or that I believe is the best for running performance? Like virtually all of the most commonly asked questions about my views on running, this one has a lot more layers to it than a simple one- or two-sentence answer can address. However, because I’m not typically asked this question in a setting where I can really go very far in depth, I usually give a short answer that goes something like this: “I try to eat mostly natural, organic, minimally processed foods, but that I don’t limit any specific things from my diet. Instead I just try to eat a lot of the things which I think have high nutritional value and which I feel help my body feel good when I eat them.” This does a decent job of scratching the surface of my views on this topic, but certainly there is a lot more that can be said to make these thoughts more clear.
The first point I would make when looking deeper at this topic is that there is clearly no ‘best’ diet for every runner, so as I explain my views on nutrition, I’m certainly not implying that I think all runners should adhere to what I do. After all, some of the most accomplished runners in our sport are vegan while others who have accomplished just as much are paleo. Even more telling perhaps are the dozens of very highly accomplished runners over the years who have paid almost no attention to what they eat, and somehow seem to be very healthy, happy, and strong.
Certainly I believe there are foods which are typically better for us than other foods, and as high-performance athletes, it seems logical that it might be even more important for us to pay very close attention to which foods we put into our bodies. But I also think nutrition is a lot less black and white than it is often made out to be. By this I mean that I don’t think it’s really helpful or accurate to simply label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ In many cases the inherent value of a food is based on the timing of when we are eating it, and what we are looking to get out of it, or more specifically what we are needing or wanting from a food source at that time. A very obvious example of this that many runners will understand are gels and other products designed specifically for endurance athletics. In the setting of a 100-mile race, a gel seems to be for most people a very ‘good’ food, whereas in most other instances, not so much. You could certainly make the argument that a gel is bad for you, even if you are running a 100-mile race. They’re almost entirely made up of simple carbohydrates and have little to no nutritional value, but in the midst of running 100 miles what we most need are easily digestible calories which give us the energy to keep pushing ourselves at a high level. Gel is really good at doing this.
I understand that the gel example is a very extreme example, but my point is that this is how I see food in general. To some degree, I think there is a time and a place for all foods in our diets. Sure, I can agree that kale has more nutritional value than a donut, but sometimes there is more to what makes a food ‘good’ and what makes a food ‘bad’ than simply nutritional value. Going back to the gel example, the reason why I think that a gel is a ‘good’ food during a 100-mile race is that the emotional, psychological, (and thus physical) health benefits you will get from running a successful 100-mile race typically far outweigh the negative effects of consuming that many simple carbohydrate calories in one day.
This isn’t to say that I think all people should eat an all-inclusive diet, but simply that I think the labeling of foods as automatically ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is inaccurate, and in many cases becomes unhealthy in its own right.
Essentially what I’m driving at here is that I think there is a lot more to our overall health and well being than what foods we eat or don’t eat. Our lifestyle, our non-dietary habits, and so many other factors contribute so much to our overall health, and in many cases these things can have a more significant impact on our health than the foods we consume in those moments. Sometimes the ‘healthiest’ foods are simply the foods which allow us to most effectively do these other things in our lives, which then contribute to our overall health in their own, unique way. Again, the obvious example is the gel-during-a-race example, but I think this is also the case (in a more subtle way) in just about every situation that we find ourselves in.
Another reason why I think it can often be ‘unhealthy’ to label any food as inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is that we then often end up allowing food to have much more of a negative impact on our overall health than it really ever should. This is another one that’s hard to explain, but if we have all these black and white ideas about which foods are ‘good’ and which foods are ‘bad,’ we are almost continually eating things which we have decided aren’t necessarily as good for us as something else we might have chosen to eat at that moment. Yes, many people who do choose to definitely exclude certain ‘bad’ foods from their diets are able to always stick to their own code and ethic, but in my observation it seems like most people at least occasionally ‘cheat.’ In many of these cases I think the cheating occurs because, in that moment and in that setting, the ‘bad’ food they are cheating with might actually not be that bad for them. It might be the most effective thing they could be eating right then to help with their overall health and well being. I’m not saying I’m naïve enough to believe that this is always the case, and that anything we choose to eat is automatically good for us because we choose it. But rather that when we look at food in this way, we then have a tendency judge ourselves in a negative way when we eat something we deem as inherently ‘bad.’ In many cases, this negative self-judgment can be more unhealthy than the ‘bad’ food we ate.
Again, I’m not saying that I think all people should eat all foods, and certainly there are many foods which I hardly ever eat, but I do think that any diet which completely and definitively excludes certain foods based on the notion that they are ‘bad’ for us has a very high potential to be unhealthy in its own way. For me it makes a lot more sense to focus my diet on eating as much as possible of the things that I know have high nutritional value and that my body seems to process smoothly and effectively, than it does to focus on definitely eliminating a list of foods that I’ve deemed as ‘bad’ for me. As I’ve pointed out above, I just don’t feel that foods that we perceive to have higher nutritional value are always more healthy for us than foods we perceive to have lower nutritional value.
Obviously the food we ingest has a huge impact on our overall health, but is most certainly not the only piece to the puzzle. The reality is that we find ourselves in countless situations in our lives where other things which affect our overall health momentarily trump nutrition. In those moments, the ‘healthiest’ food might not be the one with the most nutritional value, but instead the one that most effectively allows us to achieve health and well being in these other areas. To me, the healthiest diet has nothing to do with never eating specific ‘bad’ foods, but instead with eating the foods that provide us with the most overall health in the given situation. Conveniently, almost all of the time these are going to be foods which have high nutritional value, and that nearly everyone would label as ‘good’ and ‘healthy.’ Every now and then, though, we are going to be in one of those unique situations in life when the donut is actually going to be better for our overall health than the kale. In these moments, we have three choices: Eat the kale because we have decided that donuts are bad for us no matter the situation; eat the donut and resent ourselves for doing so; or eat the donut and appreciate the benefit we get from it in that moment.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
We know nutrition is a sensitive and, at times, controversial subject among humans in general and athletes specifically. We all bring different beliefs about nutrition to this conversation, so please comment to this article with respect for our varying approaches. Thank you!
- Does your approach to nutrition align with Geoff’s? That is, do you try to eat nutritionally dense, organic, natural foods as much as you can but allow yourself to have donuts, gels, and other foods when it is occasionally appropriate?
- Do you ever find yourself in the negative head space to which Geoff refers about food? As in, do you mentally punish yourself when you eat a food you’ve previously deemed as ‘bad?’