Lifestyle Makeover: A Runner’s Dietary Analysis

My eating habits have improved since I started running, but exceptions remain. I have a fondness for pastries, and no desire to curb my enthusiasm for dark chocolate. But I can pass up fast food, white bread, and sweets of lesser quality without a qualm.

My “willpower” amazes people at times.

“What are you worried about?” they ask me. “You run so much, you’ll burn it all off anyway.”

Runners hear this a lot. There’s an element of truth in it, but it’s not the entire story. Sure, I burn a lot of calories. But the quality of those calories is just as important as the quantity.

Case in point: the photo below shows what we ate at a D&D session recently.

Yikes.

I can indulge on occasion but not regularly, even if I ran marathons three times a week. Food like this is dense in calories but low in nutrients. So most of what I eat is high quality, with lots of fiber and micronutrients.

Yet I wanted to know if I couldn’t do even better. Was I lacking some key vitamins or minerals I needed as a distance runner? And was I taking in enough to maintain weight without losing muscle? So when my wife signed up with a local nutritionist, I signed up too.

The results were surprising.

We began by discussing my goals and training. The nutritionist is familiar with runners and with my gym (Body Specs), so she understood the type and intensity of my physical activities. Then she gave me a food diary to fill out for three days. Everything I ate and drank, the precise amounts, and the date/time of consuming it. Oh, joy.

The three days included a D&D gaming session, but I figured it would balance out since another day was a Saturday long run. Except it was a home football game, and one of our club runners has a tailgating station. I indulged in what I liked but restrained my portions, helped in part because I’m not usually hungry after a long run.

The carrot balances out the nutrition, you see.

I turned in the food log, figuring that was that. Not quite; she asked me for more information. A sample:

On Thursday can you let me know how much cereal you had. 2.5 cups? How many pecans, and about how much milk and type? What brand of pumpkin ginger bar? On Friday what type of breakfast muffin was that?

This was going to be more detailed than I expected! I provided what I could, including a recipe for the muffin (Morning Glory) I found online I hoped was close enough.

Here are the highlights of her analysis. First, the quantity:

  1. I need an average of about 3,100 calories per day to maintain body weight. This was higher than I’d expected. According to the USDA, an active 55-year old male needs 2,800 calories per day. I must be “super active” then.
  2.  My average intake? About 3,100 calories per day. So without any scientific dietary plan or calorie counting, I’m covering my caloric needs exactly.

This explains why my weight remains consistent, varying only about five pounds from peak race season to recovery periods.

What about the quality of the calories? Going in, I was supplementing vitamin D, but also calcium/magnesium/zinc, figuring I might not be getting as much as I need. Here’s what she found, based on my food log:

Turns out I’m doing just fine with most nutrients. So what did she recommend I change? Not much, actually. Keep supplementing the vitamin D, and add fish oil to get more omega-3 fatty acids.

And as for the pastries and chocolate? Here she surprised me once more by telling me her “80/20” rule: We need to eat well, but also enjoy life. So make 80 percent of your diet high quality, and the remaining 20 percent can be treats.

No arguing with my nutritionist!

Coming up: I mentioned my wife also got a nutrition analysis. She’s okay with me sharing her results on this blog, so I’ll share it with you. Interesting similarities and contrasts. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

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Lifestyle Makeover, Part 2: What Goes In

While my wife is at home for several weeks recovering from abdominal surgery, we’re making some overdue upgrades to our house and our lifestyles. In this series of posts I’m sharing these changes with my readers.

Two weeks after her surgery, my wife surprised me by uttering a phrase I never thought I’d hear from her:

“It’s so nice to be able to eat salad again.”

For about the first twenty years of our marriage, our eating habits followed what is these days dubbed the Standard American Diet. Yes, it’s “SAD” for good reasons. It tends to be heavy on processed foods, highly refined flour, sugar, and saturated fat. (Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich and Frosty, anyone?)

To think I used to love these things. So did my cats.

We had our excuses. As young upcoming professionals (does anyone remember the term “Yuppies”?) we didn’t have time to cook for ourselves. Nor the inclination. As software engineers we spent our mental energy slinging code, not hash. And when we got home all we wanted to do was stuff something in our faces and go to bed. (Or stay up and watch Doctor Who, but I digress.)

Our upbringing didn’t help with this attitude. Both of us grew up in a standard suburban setting, with meals home-cooked by our moms. Unfortunately, it was an era of well-done everything, especially vegetables, which were often cooked to mush. For years I thought spinach only came in bricks doused with vinegar.

It comes in leaves? Awesome!

Salad? That was iceberg lettuce with carrots, radishes (yuck), and other raw stuff which needed to be bathed with thick, fat-filled dressing to be even palatable. Pass the steak and tater tots, please.

I’m not complaining; it’s the way it was, and we didn’t expect any different. But as adults free to eat as we pleased, we did exactly that.

Then things began to change. Having kids was one motivator. Finding ways to get them to eat their veggies required creativity, like incorporating them into pasta sauces and making stir-fries. We switched to whole-wheat bread and reduced-fat milk. We began watching cooking shows and picking up ideas. Still, we relied on convenience (i.e. tasty but not very nutritious) much of the time.

We also gradually became aware of the damage the SAD could do to our bodies. My wife struggled with her weight. I was physically active even back then, but I too was starting to notice some thickness around the waist. So we responded the way a couple of highly intelligent, problem-solving engineers would:

FAD DIET!!!!!!

We tried South Beach for starters, then another variant of low-carb. I remember one week in particular where I decided to give up bread and sugar, substituting lettuce wraps and unsweetened cocoa in milk. After three days all I could think about was when I was going to eat next. As a long-term solution, the fads were hopeless.

Our diet direction was positive, however, Through gradual adaptation and some trial and error, we exchanged our poor eating habits for better ones. More fresh vegetables and fruit. Whole grains. Reduced fat in baked goods. And we began to choose organic food over conventional.

And salads? Who knew they could taste good?

A salad I threw together at Whole Foods. A little of everything – just the way I like it!

By this year, our sordid food past was well behind us. My wife began consulting with a nutritionist to analyze her eating habits and make suggestions on further improvements. I signed up too, figuring that improving my nutrition could help make me a better runner.

And then, routine medical screenings discovered two types of cancer in her. Surgery was required. The good news was her improved eating habits and physical training prepared her well for the ordeal, and have contributed to a so far smooth recovery.

The “bad” part? Guess what her diet had to be for the first few weeks afterward? Yes. Easy to digest stuff. That meant white bread and white rice, vegetables and fruit cooked to death, and other refined products. Except for no fried food, it was the SAD! I felt guilty just shopping for it.

There’s a significant difference between now and back then, however. Neither of us longs for the bad old days any more. We’ve lost our taste for the SAD, and my wife couldn’t wait to start her “new normal” eating again. And thus her quote when she was once again able to eat a salad.

Tonight’s dinner: beef and bell pepper stir-fry with arborio race. Thanks, Joyce!

Coming up: What did the consultation with the nutritionist reveal? I’ll share the data with you all.

Lifestyle Makeover, Part 1: Pillow Talk

Note to readers: My wife is at home for several weeks following major abdominal surgery. The good news is she’s expected to make a full recovery. And we’re using this time to make some overdue upgrades to our house and our lifestyles. In this and upcoming posts I’ll share these changes with you.

One thing my wife and I have had in common the last couple of years: several times a week we get into bed together and moan.

OMG, I thought parents didn’t do that stuff.

No, it has nothing to do with that. This mutual moaning is generally followed by the question, “What did Skip do to you today?”

For we well know what resulted in our conditions, namely our visits to this place:

Photo from Body Specs Facebook page, Halloween workout 2017

This is Body Specs (a.k.a. Tower of London, Ann Arbor wing) where we surrender ourselves to head trainer Skip Bunton and his able crew of assistant tormentors. While the workouts differ in focus and intensity, they get those muscles working, dammit. And so, when in the evening one or both of us takes a little longer to stand up, or just crashes on the bed with a groan, we get it.

At this point you’d be forgiven for asking why we do this sort of thing not only voluntarily, but pay for it as well.

Professional amateur runner. Closed session. Do not attempt.

You see, around age 50 the body begins deciding that if you’re not actively using a muscle, you don’t really need it. As for some bizarre reason I enjoy running and cycling long distances, I need my muscles, thank you very much. But running alone doesn’t do the job; my lower body needs some amount of training under load, and my upper body and core need to stay strong and toned. In other posts I’ve shared photos of some particularly moan-inducing maneuvers. Here’s one of my favorites.

Extension pushups, anyone?

My wife doesn’t share my obsession with running (yet), but she works at a desk all day and has a long commute. She’d been wanting to get into better shape, but wasn’t sure that she could handle the kinds of workouts I’m subjected to.

Finally I persuaded her to talk with Skip, who assured her she’d receive training appropriate to her fitness level and personal goals. While she now shares the post-workout experience with me, she’s glad she signed up. Regularly scheduled workouts with a trainer are her guarantee that she will exercise.

And her training has had an additional unanticipated benefit; when we found out she needed surgery, she worked hard to be in the best possible shape for it. She’s convinced that it’s contributed to her steady, uncomplicated recovery.

Her surgery has put her training on hold for several weeks, but she’s walking every day as recommended to improve blood flow and speed recovery. And she’s looking forward to resuming regular sessions. For we’re making plans to do more activities together, and those will require both of us to be in good shape.

Up next: Changing what fuels us.

(Wasted) Food for Thought

This weekend I cleaned out my refrigerator.

It wasn’t a pretty sight.

Not quite this bad, but there have been times…

I’ll spare you the details (and the images) but let’s just say a lot of stuff went directly into the compost bin. So while it was no longer fit for consumption (or possibly so) at least it isn’t going into the landfill.

Yet it was food we purchased and didn’t use. So at the very least, it was a waste of money. And our experience is, as I found out, pretty typical. According to this article on the Sustainable Brands website, up to 40 percent of America’s food is lost on the way from farm to table and from there to trash.

That’s 400 pounds of food per person per year. More than the body weight of my wife and me combined. In effect, we throw ourselves away each and every year.

And it’s not just the food that’s wasted. It’s the water that went into growing the food, and the fertilizer, and the shipping cost, and the time and energy the farmer put into producing it. The effect is felt across the entire life cycle.

Taken from the Sustainable Brands website article.

What’s going on? Is it an ironic curse that we have so much food we don’t appreciate it? My grandmother raised a family during the Great Depression and into her nineties she saved ham bones to make soup. She understood the value of food and that you didn’t waste it.

(Please note: I’m aware there are many people in this country who are undernourished and go hungry. For this post I’m focusing on the average American who has instant access to as much food as he/she wants.)

And I’m not talking just about what we buy for ourselves at home. Every running event I’ve been involved with has had some amount of food that was either only partly eaten, or (worse) taken by someone and then thrown away uneaten. I’m talking about entire cookies, bagels, bananas, oranges, and even entire sandwiches.

Why? Just. . .why?

This sort of careless, indifferent waste of food baffles me. If after your race you grab a banana out of habit and then decide you don’t really want it, okay. Take it home and eat it later, or give it to one of your kids.

And if that doesn’t bother you, perhaps this will. When you throw food away, in effect you paid more for it. You don’t buy organic because it’s more expensive than the conventional kind? I’ll bet if you bought the organic in smaller quantities and used it all, you’d save money in the long run.

Sure, my wife and I refer to Whole Foods as “Whole Paycheck,” but we buy many meals from that store and others like it. Not that we hate to cook – in fact, we enjoy cooking – but we work long hours and the prepared food bars are very convenient. It’s all fresh and nutritious, and tastes good. And it doesn’t disappear in the back of the fridge, to be rediscovered one weekend when it’s no longer recognizable as what we once put in the cart thinking, “Yeah, that looks good.”

So it wasn’t surprising that after emptying the fridge and putting back only the items I know we’re going to eat, it looked pretty empty. Not only that, I found I hadn’t put all the shelves back. And I like it that way!

Why does this feel so personal? Like I’m opening my bathrobe?

The more open look makes the food in there much more visible, and given that we’re empty nesters, we shouldn’t be stuffing the fridge full anyway. We’ll see if this makes a difference in how much food we throw away from now on. I sure don’t want to repeat the experience!