Racing Weight and Healthy Weight Loss

food scale

Don’t try this at home. Actually, don’t weigh your food anywhere. Ever.

It’s a diet obsessed world out there.  It’s sad, really, how much our society focuses on looks and thinness.  Working in the eating disorder field I’ve grown to hate the “D” word.  But this is not a blog about the pitfalls of our society.  No, this is a blog about finding the balance between managing ones weight for sports performance and not sacrificing ones mental and physical health in the process.  There are many athletes with unhealthy and disordered eating habits and athletes are thought to be at a higher risk for developing an eating disorder.  This is not surprising seeing as the reality is that weight does, to some extent, affect endurance sports performance.  Some runner’s talk about their racing weight as if it was a holy grail that they would do anything to obtain.  You hear stats like “your mile time improves by 10 seconds for every pound lost”, or some crap like that.  Cyclists talk about how every pound lost improves power output by so much.  I don’t remember the specific statistic because I don’t care.  I mostly ride my bike because it’s fun.  It’s important not to lose sight of that in the process of trying to lose weight.  You probably started running or riding because it was fun too.  Sure there is a correlation between weight and performance-to some extent– but I challenge any athlete to cut off their hand (that weighs about a pound right?) and suddenly drop 10 seconds from their mile time! Okay, I kid, but seriously, the point is that the mere act of losing weight will not necessarily guarantee that your performance improves.  Lose too much weight or lose weight too quickly and your performance will suffer.  And you might lose your love for the sport in the process.

If you want to lose weight solely because you feel you don’t look like the stereotypical runner/cyclist/fill in the blank kind of athlete then stop right there.  Athletes come in all shapes and sizes and I am a firm believer of not modifying ones diet and exercise in order to change how one looks.  If your only motivation for weight loss is because you think you “have” to or because you want to look better in your underwear then this is probably not the blog for you.  Trust me it’s not worth risking falling into disordered eating or even a full blown eating disorder.  I’ll even admit to my eating disorder patients: sure you can modify your nutrition and exercise to manipulate your body to look however you want, but at what cost? What kind of life would that be? How about working on body acceptance instead of weight loss?

Losing weight for health or sports performance is different, but even those motivations can be taken too far.  It’s not always easy to know when an innocent desire to drop a few pounds to become a better athlete starts to become an unhealthy obsession with weight. As an athlete AND an eating disorder professional, I am acutely aware of the issue and believe that I have developed a pretty healthy and moderate approach to the subject.  I truly believe that if you focus on training right and eating well your weight and body composition will take care of themselves over time.  However, if you feel that some weight loss is truly justified and want to get a jump start read on to learn how to do it as healthfully (for your mind and body) as possible.  I could probably write a book on this topic (maybe I will someday…..) but below are some of my top tips.

  • Don’t count calories.  Just because you meet your body’s caloric needs doesn’t mean you are eating right or getting the nutrients your body needs.  You could meet your daily caloric needs with ice cream for Heaven’s sake!  Calorie counting can easily become compulsive, as it puts so much emphasis on hitting numbers and looking at nutrition labels.  Instead of counting calories, count servings from the food groups: fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, proteins, and fats.   All the rest, desserts and alcohol for example, would fall into the category of extras and you wouldn’t have a target for those, you would just aim to not have too many of them! (Not sure how many of each group you need? Consult an RD!)
  • Keep a food journal.  But not all the time, especially if you know this tends to become a compulsive “diet” activity for you.  Keeping a food journal for a few days will give you a picture of how much you are getting from all of the food groups mentioned above.  Once you know your baseline, you can work on eating more from some of the food groups, and possibly less from others.  Keeping a food journal can also help you keep tabs on mindless eating and boredom eating, which are common problems.  A handful of food here and there might not seem like a lot in your head, but it can add up quickly, and having it on paper helps put it in perspective.
  • Keep an eye on portions.  Most people have no concept of portions, and it’s not surprising given the ridiculous amount of food we are served at some restaurants.  Note: a giant plate of pasta does not count as one serving.  One grain’s worth of pasta is actually only ½ cup- the size of ½ of a baseball.
  • Focus on what you want to eat more of, not less.  The answer will probably be vegetables and fruits, as most Americans don’t meet the minimum recommendations of 5-9 servings/day.  I think that it’s mentally more helpful to focus on what you want to eat more of, instead of what you want to eat less of, since telling yourself you can’t have something will likely make you want it more (blame human nature). Plus, I find that when I’m able to up my vegetable intake I naturally do not have room for, or crave, the less than healthy foods I typically like (desserts and wine mmm!).
  • Choose foods that don’t come in a package more often than not.  You’ve also probably heard that it’s best to shop the perimeter of the grocery store. That’s because that is where most of the whole foods are, like fruits, veggies, meats, dairy, and to some extent whole grains.   There are plenty of healthful foods that come in packages though, so don’t avoid the inner aisles completely.  When buying packaged products aim for ones with very few ingredients (i.e. if you are buying brown rice the ingredient list should look like this- ingredients: brown rice).
  • Don’t make food rules.  Then you fall into the good food, bad food trap and feel like a bad person when you eat a “bad” food.  Take the judgment out of eating. There are no “good” foods and “bad” foods.  Just foods. Some foods you should eat more often and some foods should be occasional treats.
  • Don’t skip breakfast.  I truly believe it’s the most important meal of the day and studies have consistently shown that breakfast eaters tend to weigh less than breakfast skippers.  This could be because skipping breakfast makes you hungrier and more likely to overeat later in the day.
  • Listen to your body.  Try to check in with your hunger.  If you are hungry eat.  If not, wait until you start to feel some hunger.  Don’t wait until you are starving to start eating, as you will be more likely to reach for high sugar/more processed foods and to over eat.  Eat until you are satisfied, not stuffed.
  • Plan ahead.  Think about what you want to make for your meals during the week and make sure you have the food on hand.  I know that if I leave work hungry and with no dinner plan I’m not going to have the patience to go to the store and cook something healthy. I’m doing take out.  Same with snacks. Bring your own snacks to work so that you don’t have to rely on the office donuts for a mid afternoon pick me up.
  • Drink up.  Water that is.  Thirst is often mistaken for hunger.  Make sure you are meeting your fluid needs.  Not sure if you are? Hint: your urine should be a very pale yellow.
  • Know when to use sports nutrition products.  Sports drinks, energy gels, and protein shakes are all great when used appropriately.  But if you are drinking Gatorade throughout the day or eating gels on 45 minute runs you are taking in more sugar and calories than you need to be.
  • Be safe.  DO NOT use diet pills, laxatives, diuretics, or any other weight loss aid. Period.
  • Monitor your body fat too, not just weight.  Your body fat percentage tells you a lot more than a number on the scale. Healthy ranges are:
Males Females Rating
5-10 8-15 Athletic
11-14 16-23 Good
15-20 24-30 Acceptable
21-24 31-36 Overweight
>24 >37 Obese

(from Sport Nutrition, 2nd Edition, by Asker Jeukendrup, PhD, and Michael Gleeson, PhD, on the Human Kinetics publishing website)

  • Don’t weigh yourself more than once a day.  Don’t even weigh every day if you can help it. Your weight will fluctuate naturally from day to day and seeing those fluctuations may just psych you out. It’s more important to look at overall trends, taken into consideration with body fat percentage, than daily numbers.
  • Be realistic. Set small and slow weight loss goals.  If you lose too much weight or lose it too quickly you will sacrifice your performance. You shouldn’t lose more than 1-2 pounds/week.  You might not lose any weight one week, and that’s okay too-it doesn’t mean you need to lose more the next.
  • Monitor your sports performance as you lose.  You may not need to lose as much as you think to hit those time goals.  You may also need to accept that your body may be built a certain way, and to change that may involve extreme deprivation or excessive exercise.  If you find that you have to cut your intake to the point of starving to drop weight your body is telling you something. Listen to it.
  • Train right.  As I mentioned above, to some extent your body will adapt and change naturally in response to your training. Be patient with this process.  Try to focus more on your training then your weight.
  • Don’t try to lose weight during the middle of your racing season.  Your performance will likely suffer if you do so.  The off season and pre-season are actually the best time to tackle weight loss goals.

Can I Visualize Myself to the Finish Line?!

As I was driving home from a training run on Mt Evans last weekend, sitting in I-70 traffic, I started thinking about how the words “awesome” and “awful”, although fairly opposite by definition,  sound pretty similar.   I’m guessing they both come from the same root word-“awe”, which according to a quick Google search is defined as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder”.  Yup, that about sums up how I feel about Mt Evans.   I’m betting that the Mt Evan’s Ascent will be a roller coaster that is both awesome and awful, possibly at the same time, and hopefully ultimately worth the battle.

I am at that weird place in training right before a race where there is really nothing you can do but sit back, relax, eat right, and hope that you’ve done the appropriate training to reach your goals. It’s sorta like that last hour before a big test.   There is typically a fair amount of freaking out during this time, but cramming won’t help, and might actually hurt you.   But there actually is something I can be doing: visualizing a successful race.  I once heard about a study that had basketball players practice visualizing themselves shooting the perfect free-throw over and over again.  They never actually touched a basketball, but their shooting average went up (sorry if that is incorrect basketball terminology).  So just by merely imaging yourself performing your particular sport with perfection, you may actually improve your performance.  The theory was that, if you do it right, you can “trick” (or teach if you are a glass half full kind of person) your brain into thinking you’ve physically practiced a bunch of free throws, and new neural pathways can be created, because your brain basically doesn’t know the difference between doing a free throw in real life and only imaging you are doing one (again you can choose to think of this as awesome that the brain is this powerful, or awful that the brain is this stupid!)  Think of it as an imaginary dress rehearsal.   It’s pretty cool stuff.

I’ve seen visualization mentioned in many other articles, so I figure it’s worth a shot.  I’m not talking cheesy “The Secret” type stuff, just simply picturing myself running up the course, feeling strong and fast, pumping my arms and breathing steadily….I’m feeling better about it already!

And even if it doesn’t help, it’s unlikely to hurt me (note to self: do not visualize self tripping and falling!)  If nothing else, doing it may help build confidence in my abilities and distract me from all of my nervous thoughts about what may go wrong during the race.

So time to sit back, eat carbs, and visualize success!

 

For info regarding visualization or “mental imagery”:

http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/psychology/health_psychology/mentalimagery.html

Why I’m Marinating My Meats

One of the many qualms with nutrition that I have wrote about on here before is the feeling that no matter how hard you try to eat healthfully it’s never good enough.  Sometimes it seems that no matter what you are doing, there is another step to be taken towards “perfect” health.  For instance, maybe you decide instead of going out and getting fried chicken, you’ll bake some at home yourself.  Good move towards better health! Now let’s say you choose the chicken breast labeled “natural” at the grocery store and you feel pretty good about that too. But is it organic?  Nope.  Well, is it locally raised? Nope.  Opps, could’ve done better! And did you know that when you cook that chicken, you could be creating harmful carcinogens? See what I mean?!  What started as a great step toward eating more healthfully (baked chicken instead of fried) is now not good enough.  Taken too far, an unhealthy obsession with eating healthfully is unofficially called “orthorexia”, and I see it all time working with eating disorders.

It is my personal belief that the ever changing face of nutrition, along with this “never good enough” or “I should eat more healthfully” mentality sets us up for failure when it comes to meeting our nutrition goals and feeling good about it.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed and develop a “why bother?” attitude, which is unfortunate because nutrition is important.  But it is hard to navigate the ever-changing “facts” about what optimal nutrition really looks like, and to determine what’s important enough to actually implement and what not to worry too much about.  We all draw the “ah screw it” line in different places, which is totally fine.  Life is too short to worry too much about the quest for perfect nutrition (see that blog), so we each have to determine individually how much we want to pay attention to our health and nutrition.  So is buying chicken at the store instead of getting fried restaurant chicken enough? Well, generally I’d say yes, as small steps are better than no steps, but it also depends on who you are and what your health goals are.  For the average American choosing to bake at home instead of going out to eat and ordering a fried chicken is a positive step toward better nutrition.  However, if you already do that consistently maybe you are ready to take the next step, such as marinating your meats.  That is where I find myself today.

So back to the carcinogen topic:  Carcinogens are compounds that can cause cancer.  There is data that says that marinating your meats before cooking can cut down on the level of carcinogens, particularly heterocyclic amines (HAs or HCAs), created during the cooking process (particularly in grilling and frying, but to a lesser extent in baking as well).  Researchers aren’t entirely sure why the marinades work, but the theory is that the marinade creates a barrier on the meat’s surface which prevents water-soluble molecules from moving to the surface where they would be turned into HCAs by the high temperature, reducing the HCAs created by as much as 99% in some cases.

This is one nutrition philosophy that I do feel is worthy of implementing.  Why? Well firstly because cancer scares the crap out of me, so if I can do something simple to reduce my risk I’m all for that. Second, marinating meats is pretty easy. It won’t cost a lot of money or take a lot of time.  All marinades help reduce HCAs.  Lastly, marinating meats is delicious!  Whether or not marinating meats falls below your “screw it” line or not is up to you, but if not below are some of the marinades I’ve used.  Feel free to recommend others, I’ve got a lot of marinating to do!

Salmon marinated in white wine and lemon, with an avocado/mango salsa

Salmon marinated in white wine and lemon, with an avocado/mango salsa

 

For steak/red meat: soy sauce and/or Worcestershire sauce; beer (yup, beer); red wine and rosemary

For chicken: orange juice and bbq sauce; apricot preserves; rosemary and olive oil

For salmon: honey with ginger and lime; white wine with lemon; soy sauce (w/ honey)

 

 

Super Foods: Super Healthy or Super Silly?

One of the first books I did a report on during my undergraduate nutrition program was “Super Foods Rx: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life” by Steven Pratt and Kathy Matthews.  I think I liked the book at the time, but I honestly don’t remember what I said in the report, and unfortunately it’s on a floppy disk somewhere so I can’t access it anymore (yes, college was that long ago for me!).  The 14 “super foods” were beans, blueberries, broccoli, oats, oranges, pumpkin, salmon, soy, spinach, tea (green or black), tomatoes, turkey, walnuts, and yogurt.  You may be surprised by some of those, but bear in mind the book was written in 2004.  Since then many other foods have been labeled super foods. Remember Acai?  It got booted by Chia.  And these days you hear more about kale than spinach.  The ever changing list of super foods is, to me, proof that there really are no magical super foods.  Sure kale is good for you.  Spinach is good for you too. I’d say the most “super” one is the one you like the most, because if you enjoy what you are eating you’ll be more likely to keep it in your diet long term, and thus reap the health benefits.  Choking down a vegetable (or whatever the health food du jour is) that you find disgusting is not the best path to true health.  That’s why it is unlikely that I will never force myself to eat a mushroom (sorry mom).  Maybe I’ll miss out on a few nutrients, but I’m pretty sure I can get them in less vile forms.  That’s the thing about super foods-maybe they have more of a particular nutrient than other foods, but they aren’t they only food with that nutrient.  And by focusing too much on incorporating one holy grail of foods, you’ll likely end up leaving out many others or possibly even exceeding your energy needs by eating too much of the super food.  So let’s all stop worrying about incorporating a few key “super” foods.  What shall we focus on then?  Glad you asked. Below is my top list of nutrition rules for dummies (although not really dummies, it’s for everyone!)

vegetables

Nutrition For Dummies:

  • Choose from a wide variety of foods. Different foods= different nutrients. Try not to eliminate any food group , unless you have a legitimate allergy or sensitivity to it.
  • Bright colors = lots of nutrients and antioxidants.  This is assuming that the bright colors are natural, like in fruits and vegetables, and not the result of added food dyes.
  • Choose foods that don’t come in a package more often than not.  Less processed foods tend to have more nutrients, so make sure the base of your diet is from whole foods.  The closer a food is to its natural form, the better.  The less ingredients, then better.
  • Eat when you’re hungry. Stop when you are satisfied (not stuffed!).
  • Mind your portions. Don’t measure your food but just be aware of serving sizes.  Portions at restaurants these days are pretty out of control.  For example, a standard serving of meat is 3 oz, which is the size of the palm of your hand.
  • Hydrate.  Your body is mostly water so be sure to keep it supplied! Generally, aim to drink at least half of your body weight in ounces per day.
  • Balance and moderation.  Yup, I said it again.  Allow yourself moderate portions of less than healthy foods you enjoy.  Denial often leads to over eating down the road.

 

Living 100 Adventure Packed (and worthwhile) Years

Ever since I read the following quote I’ve pretty much considered it my philosophy on life:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely and in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow, what a ride!”

That being said, as adventure packed as I’d like my life to be, I still want it to be a long life, which is why I’m always interested in articles about people who live to over 100 years of age.  Most of these articles say the same thing: be active, eat lots of vegetables, have a good social circle, but recently I read one that was a little different.  It was called “Odd tricks people who lived past 100 swear by”, and some of the recommendations at first did seem a little odd compared to what you usually hear for longevity and health.  Among the “tricks” were: eating bacon daily, drinking port wine, eating 2 pounds of chocolate every week, participating in extreme sports, doing what you love, drinking scotch, and, my personal favorite, do what you want and eat what you want.  But after thinking about it, none of those sounded odd to me.  Sure bacon isn’t exactly a health food, but I’ve always said “all things in moderation” because a piece or two of bacon a day is unlikely to drastically alter your health.  It’s more about the big picture (i.e.  what are you eating the rest of the day?).  I think that particular centenarian might have been on to something else that promotes longevity: enjoyment.  Allowing yourself things that you enjoy can reduce stress and make life, well, more worth living for 100 years.  So next to each seemingly odd suggestion I wrote my interpretation of what actually helped the person live so long.  I came up with: enjoyment, indulgence, being social, movement, stress management, adventure, humor and laughter, doing what you love (that one speaks for itself), fun, happiness, having a “I don’t give a F$%# attitude, and keeping your mind sharp.  Yup, those are the keys to a long life.

But, how does one interpret the plethora of  nutrition studies about what is “good” for us to eat and also apply the quirky habits of those who have lived to over 100? Nutrition authorities (self included sometimes) are always saying “eat this, don’t eat this, eating this will increase your risk of this, eating this will decrease your risk of this” etc etc.  However, studies rarely “prove” anything.  They usually just show a link.  So while eating bacon daily might increase your risk of developing heart disease, there’s no guarantee you’ll get it. So how do you decide what to do?

Here is what I recommend:

  • Health is important, but so is enjoyment.  While I’d still recommend to base your diet on productive foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, I believe it’s okay to include not so healthy foods that you enjoy in moderation.  And moderation may even be on a daily basis.  A life of deprivation is, in my humble opinion, not worth living for 100 years. The occasional indulgence (chocolate and port anyone?) is okay.  I myself just might’ve had ice cream for dinner not that long ago.
  • Be active, but know when to slow down.  A common thread in this article (and all I’ve seen on living to 100) was being active on a daily basis, but it wasn’t logging long hours at the gym or 80+ mile weeks.  It was gardening, dancing, biking around town.  It doesn’t have to be hard core, just get out there and move your body. Find an activity you actually enjoy doing, because you’ll be more likely to stick with it and thus reap the long term health benefits. But also know how to listen to your body and give it rest when needed.
  • Have an awesome social circle.  Whether it be friends or family it’s important to surround yourself with people you enjoy.  Few who lived to 100 did it alone.

To end, I’ll leave you with another of my favorite quotes that fits the topic:

“Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast… a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.” – Edward Abbey

Eating Protein and Fighting Aging

Protein gets way less bad press than fats or carbs.  Sometimes I think it gets too much good press actually, such as the super high protein diets that are promoted for weight loss. Truth is protein is very important since it supplies the building blocks for just about every tissue in your body.  It also helps with recovery after workouts and satiation after meals, helping you to stave off hunger until the next meal or snack.  However, loading up on excess amounts (beyond what your body actually needs that is) isn’t going to help out your health or fitness.  I think people forget that excess protein can be stored as fat, just like excess carbs or dietary fat.

So why am I writing about protein? Because of a quote I recently read in SCAN’s Pulse newsletter that caught me off guard.  The comment was regarding protein intake after exercise as it relates to muscle repair and it said “this could make a meaningful difference over the course of a year, particularly for athletes over 30 years old who slowly lose muscle as a normal part of the aging process”.  Well crap.  I feel I handled my 30th birthday last year relatively well, mostly by ignoring the fact that I have entered this decade in life.  I’ve always said age is just a number anyway.  But this comment bothered me.  Whether I tell myself I have the fitness of a 22 year old or not, the reality is my body is 30 and apparently that means I’m going to start losing muscle mass.  Another joy of aging!  So I’ll do my best to fight it.  Here’s my plan and how you can too: getting enough total daily protein, incorporating optimal amounts of protein post workout, and strength training regularly.

Post Workout Protein Recs:

According to the article (and many others on the same topic), eating optimal amounts of protein shortly following a workout can help speed recovery and prevent muscle loss, since post exercise not only do the muscles need protein but they are primed and ready to utilize it.  There isn’t a lot of good data that suggests that one protein type is significantly better than another (i.e. whey, casein, soy) so pick the one you like best.  If you like it, you’ll be more likely to be consistent with consuming it.  This particular article didn’t give specific post workout recommendations, but generally it’s recommended to consume 10-20 grams of protein in the recovery window (within 30-60 minutes post workout).

Daily Protein Recs:

Another key point the article (which was based on a recent study) suggested was that the optimal amount of protein at meals for athletes is about 30 grams.  Beyond this amount there are no additional health benefits and you run the risk of storing the excess protein as fat.  Fall significantly short of this number and your muscles may not be getting as much protein as they need, which means you could lose muscle mass. The 30 grams per meal recommendation actually equates to a higher daily protein intake than what typical recommendations have called for, depending on body weight, which this study did not factor in.  According to traditional guidelines, the minimum amount of protein necessary to prevent deficiency is 0.8 grams/kg of body weight per day (0.36 grams/lb of body weight). That equals 49 grams for a 135 pound person.  However, that’s the minimum to prevent problems and if you are an athlete you definitely need more. The typical recommendation is for endurance athletes to consume 1.2-1.4 grams of protein/kg of body weight per day (0.54-0.64 grams/lb). So a 135 pound runner, for example, would need about 73-86 grams of protein a day, slightly less than 30 grams x 3 meals. Strength athletes need more, 1.4-1.7 grams/kg of body weight per day (0.64-.77 g/lb). Whether you go with the body weight recommendation or the 30 grams times 2 meals, these protein levels are not difficult to obtain if you are a meat eater. The key is to space your protein intake more evenly throughout the day, as it’s likely that your breakfast falls short.  An egg, for example, has 6 grams of protein while a 6 oz steak has about 42.  Vegetarians will have to work harder to make sure they meet their protein needs.  It’s okay to add a protein powder or bars as a supplement if you are not getting enough protein from food alone but aim to meet your needs from food first, supplements second.  Some good sources of protein are lean meats, chicken, fish, eggs, soy, dairy, nuts and nut butters, seeds, and beans.

Strength Training Recs

Well, the goal is 2-3 times per week.  I have to admit that I have a hard time with that.  There are just so many things I’d rather do besides strength training, particularly because I’d rather be outside than at a gym.  However, I also recently read in Matt Fitzgerald’s book “Racing Weight” that runners should do strength training 2-3 times per week, so now that 2 people have said it I’m going to try….to do 2 times/week.  According to Fitzgerald, body weight exercises are okay, so the second time won’t even be at the gym. It will be post run body weight stuff such as lunges, push-ups and core work.  Hey, it’s still an improvement from where I’m at.

So there it is, my plan to fight the aging process. Obviously it’s more complicated than this, but it’s a start. Wish me luck!

.

To Beet, or not to Beet… that is the Question

You may have heard about the potential link between nitrate intake, specifically from beets, and improved sports performance. It goes like this: nitrate (NO3) is converted to nitrite (NO2) which is then converted to nitric oxide (NO) in the body, and nitric oxide is a powerful vasodilator (meaning your blood vessels dilate and blood can flow more freely, and quickly, to working muscles). Various studies on beets and beetroot juice have found performance benefits, including improved efficiency in oxygen usage, improved time trial times, improved power output, and prolonged time to exhaustion. What does this mean? Basically that beets (or beetroot juice which was used in most of the studies) may help you run, ride or climb harder, faster, and longer. It may also be of help at altitude, where oxygen availability is reduced. There are some studies that haven’t found any benefit, but overall the results look good. Another positive benefit of beets is that they can help lower blood pressure, so if you’re on blood pressure medication or already have very low blood pressure proceed with caution.

You may also have heard of potential concerns about nitrites, mostly found in processed meats in the form of sodium nitrite, which have been associated with an increased risk of some cancers and a condition called “methemoglobinemia”. These associations are still in question, however, but it’s best to limit intake of processed meats anyway as they tend to be high in saturated fat and focus on beets and beetroot juice if you want to increase your nitrate intake.

Bottom Line– Beets can be a great addition to your diet. Besides the potential sports performance benefits, beats are jam packed with nutrients and low in calories. In addition to beets, leafy green vegetables such as spinach and arugula are also good sources of nitrate. If you want to incorporate beets into your diet but hate the taste, try the refreshing smoothie recipe below, or vary it to your taste preferences. You can also try roasting beets in olive oil and tossing them in a salad or blending them up and adding them to a pasta sauce.
beets

Berry Beet Smoothie

1 cup frozen beets, cubed

1 cup spinach (optional for extra nutrients)

1 cup frozen mixed berries

½ – 1 cup 100% apple juice or other 100% real fruit juice (a sweet fruit juice such as apple will help mask the beet flavor)

1 scoop protein powder (optional but recommended after an intense workout for muscle repair)

Splash of honey or agave to taste (optional)

Blend all ingredients until smooth. Enjoy.

Alcohol and Exercise

I have to admit there is something quite refreshing about a cold beer after a hard mountain bike ride or a long day of hiking. This is particularly true if you are an athlete or outdoor enthusiast in Colorado, where new microbreweries seem to be popping up every week. Every now and then you’ll even hear about studies that find health benefits with moderate drinking and free beers are often included at post race festivities. But do you ever wonder if that post workout brew is hindering your sports performance? While a beer (which is equivalent to a 5 oz glass of wine or 1 oz of hard alcohol) here and there won’t hurt your workouts, if you’re doing it regularly and excessively, there are some potential negative effects.

Here are some things to consider:

Alcohol provides empty calories
At 7 calories per gram of alcohol it’s easy for the calories from alcoholic beverages to add up. A typical beer has anywhere from 100-150 calories per 12 oz, while some mixed drinks (sorry margarita lovers) can clock in close to 500 calories! These are empty calories too, as they provide virtually no nutrients.

Alcohol is a diuretic
It’s no coincidence that you have to use the bathroom more when imbibing. Alcohol is a strong diuretic, meaning your body loses water. Dehydration will definitely affect your sports performance so be sure to drink water when drinking alcohol to help cut your losses.

Alcohol suppresses fat use as a fuel during exercise
If you’re an endurance athlete you need to be able to use fat efficiently, so not being able to tap into those stores effectively could affect performance.

Alcohol disrupts your sleep
Sleep is an important part of an athlete’s training as a lot of muscle repair occurs during this time. Most athletes need more sleep than the average person, and alcohol can interrupt your deep sleep cycles making recovery more difficult.

Alcohol increases the release of cortisol and decreases release of testosterone
This may affect protein synthesis and muscle repair.

Bottom Line– I’m a big believer in balance and moderation. Sure a beer isn’t the most effective post workout beverage, but life is short so if you like beer it’s okay to enjoy in moderation. So if you just finished a hard race on a hot day, and there is a free beer coupon hanging from your race bib(and your favorite beer just happens to be on tap), I say go for it! Just make sure to drink plenty of water and properly refuel (read: eat carbs and protein) before indulging. Besides potential negative effects on performance, it goes without saying that drinking the night before a hard workout or during intense training cycles is going to make the workouts feel awful and could potentially affect your pereformance. Don’t forget the general alcohol consumption recommendations- no more than 2 drinks a day for men and 1 drink a day for women.

Coconut Water is Not a Real Snack

 I recently read a line in a famous fashion magazine from a certain waif-like starlet who claimed “I love to snack”. As a professional in the eating disorder field, this was so refreshing to hear! Except that she followed this comment by saying that she “is constantly reaching for coconut water and fruit”. * Sigh* Seriously? Coconut water and fruit?! That’s not a real snack!

It’s not that I have anything against coconut water. I actually find it a quite refreshing way to rehydrate after some of my longer runs. And obviously fruit has health benefits. It’s the message the statement sends that concerns me. I worry that women and girls who struggle with their body image will think that if they just have coconut water and fruit all day they will look like her, when in reality they will miss out on the real nutrition their bodies need, and potentially set themselves up for problems with disordered eating.

A small (11 oz) container of coconut juice has about 60 calories in it, roughly the same as a small piece of fruit. That’s not nearly as much as the average person needs for a snack and it’s certainly not going to keep anyone satisfied until the next meal or snack. No wonder she is “constantly” reaching for that snack! I for one would be hungry again in less than 5 minutes if that’s all I ate. Even for those trying to lose weight healthfully I wouldn’t recommend a 60 calorie snack. That being said, I am a fan of having snacks in between meals, but it’s important to snack effectively.

Here is what I recommend for snacks:

• Space meals and snacks out as evenly as possible throughout the day, typically every 2-4 hours. Don’t wait until you are starving for your next meal or snack, but don’t feel you have to eat a snack 2 hours after a meal if you are still full. Listen to your hunger and fullness cues.

• Be sure to include a source of protein at all snacks. This will help keep blood sugars and energy levels steady until your next meal or snack. It will also help ensure that you meet your protein needs for the day.

• Try to include fruits and veggies whenever possible. It’s not easy to get the recommended 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables in every day so if you rely solely on meals, you’re not gonna hit the quota. Try carrots or other cut up veggies with hummus, an apple or banana with peanut or almond butter, greek yogurt with fruit, or blend a smoothie with the milk of your choice (dairy, soy, almond), some frozen berries and a handful of spinach or kale. Add protein powder to make it a little more satisfying. Oh, and by the way, you are never too old for “ants on a log”- celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins.

• Plan ahead. If know you’ll be on the go, throw a protein bar or a bag of mixed nuts into your purse or bag so that you don’t have to rely of fast food or a vending machine.

Happy (and healthy) Snacking!

Holiday Eating

The holidays can be a stressful time, especially for those trying to lose weight and for those struggling with an eating disorder. Food and alcohol abounds and social engagements are almost constant, making it hard to stick to a meal plan or workout routine. The holidays can be a joyous time, however, with proper planning and perspective.

 

Here are my tips for successful holiday eating:

• Don’t skip meals to stockpile calories for later. This strategy almost always backfires as you will likely get so hungry that you end up eating more than planned. Eat regular meals as scheduled and have a small healthy snack before the event so that you don’t arrive ravenous.

• Scan the buffet. Check out the options and prioritize what you really want to try as opposed to going through the line and taking some of everything.

• Water frequently, especially if you are drinking. Try to have 1 glass of water for every alcoholic beverage you drink. Even if not imbibing, keeping a glass of water in your hand can prevent mindless munching.

• Enlist a buddy with similar goals. If you struggle with an eating disorder and may be tempted not to eat, bring a supportive friend who will help you stay on track. If you’re trying to lose weight and might be tempted to overeat, an understanding friend can help keep you in check.

• Have a game plan. As with regular meal planning, having a plan is important with holiday eating. The plan can be general if you’re not sure what foods will be available (i.e. “I’ll leave space for one dessert”) or specific if you do know (i.e. “I’ll indulge in one piece of chocolate cake”).

• Set boundaries. Don’t feel that you have to attend every engagement you are invited to. Know when to say no. Also plan to set boundaries if you know you may encounter pushy coworkers or family members. Some people won’t know how to react if you say you are watching your weight or struggling with an eating disorder, so only say as much as you feel comfortable with. Sometimes people will react better if you emphasize health and not diets or weight. Practice setting your boundaries if you need to so you are not peer pressured when put on the spot.

• As always, moderation is key. Don’t deny yourself the treats you really want as this often backfires and makes you want it more (and eat more of it when you finally do give in). Enjoy the foods you really want, but do so in moderation.

• Change your attitude. Sure, it seems like the holidays are about food, but really they should be about giving thanks and celebrating relationships. Shift your focus from the food and drinks to the family and friends. Sometimes just changing your attitude is helpful with meeting your nutrition goals!

• Most importantly, if you do overeat, don’t stress. Shaming yourself will only make you feel worse and may lead to emotional or stress eating. Remember, one meal will not make or break you or your health. Do your best to get back on track and don’t beat yourself up over it.

Happy Holidays!