Eating should be one of life’s
greatest pleasures. But these days, with all the late-breaking nutritional news
speeding down the information superhighway, it can be difficult for
health-conscious runners to take a bite of anything without feeling guilty or
To help you out, here are
answers to four of the most common reader questions I’ve received recently.
Q. I’ve heard that
some fats are good for me, while others are bad. Which fats are which?
A. There’s a lot of
debate on this. There’s also a
lot of debate on how much fat you need in a healthy diet. A few years ago, all
fat was considered bad. But times
have changed (lucky for us), and fat is back “in,” and in certain amounts.
Here’s the skinny on fat – the good and the bad.
Omega-3 fat: that
is a good, “essential” fat which means your body can’t make Omega-3 fat on
its own. Therefore, you need to get
Omega-3s from your diet. This
important fat helps protect us from age-related ailments such as heart disease,
certain cancers, immune disorders, arthritis and possibly multiple sclerosis and
Alzheimer’s. We need just a few
grams daily, but most of us don’t take in enough Omega-3 fats.
The best sources are cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna,
as well as flaxseed meal and oil (used as a salad dressing, not for cooking).
Canola and soybean oil and most nuts also contain small amounts of Omega-3 fat.
This is another essential (and good) fat.
And we typically have no problem getting enough, since Americans consume
plenty of corn oil, sunflower oil, and other vegetable oils. While this type of
fat is crucial for healthy skin and proper brain function, too much of it is bad
for your heart. No more than a
third of your total daily fat should come from vegetable oils, or about 20 grams
or fewer per day. Consume more than
this, and you risk lowering your heart-healthy HDL cholesterol levels.
is not an essential fat (your body produces it on its own), but it’s still a
good fat. Studies show that if you
take in a majority of your fat from monounsaturated sources, you can lower your
cholesterol levels and your risk of heart disease. So aim to get more than a third of your total fat intake from
monounsaturated sources. Use olive,
canola, or peanut oil when cooking, and substitute avocados as a spread or dip
instead of margarine, butter or sour cream.
This fat has been dubbed “bad” for very good reasons.
Saturated fat increases cholesterol levels and raises heart-disease risk. Most of us consume too much saturated fat in the form of
butter, margarine, fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and fast food, which is
typically prepared with vegetable shortening or lard. You should limit your intake of saturated fat to fewer that
20 grams a day.
This fat is formed when vegetable oils are hydrogenated – a process
that adds hydrogen to unsaturated fat, making it more solid and increasing its
shelf life. Studies show that trans fats are just as bad for your heart as
saturated fats. Cut down on them by
avoiding processed foods make with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated
vegetable oils, such as snack crackers, chips, margarine and fast food There’s
no set dietary limit for trans fats, but they should be lumped together with
your saturated fat budget of 20 grams or fewer a day.
Manufacturers are required to
list total fat, saturated fat, and percent of Daily Value from fat on food
labels. To spot trans fats, you
have to scan the ingredient list for hydrogenated vegetable oils.
Soon, label regulations will require trans fat totals.
You won’t find Omegas and monounsaturated fats on labels either, so
check ingredient lists for sources of these good fats.
Q. I’ve heard
alcohol can be good for you in “moderation.”
What’s so healthy about it, and how do you define moderation?
A. There is considerable
research showing that drinking alcohol in moderation, particularly red wine, can
boost your health. The benefits
come mostly from substances called flavonoids, which are found in the skins of
the grapes. Flavonoids have been
shown to protect arteries from damaging cholesterol.
But even white wine (which doesn’t contain flavonoids), distilled
spirits and beer have been linked to health benefits such as an increase in
heart-protecting HDL cholesterol levels. Bottom
line: Compared with teetotalers,
those who drink alcohol have a lower risk of heart disease and generally live
But again, the operative work
here is “moderation.” According
to the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, moderation is defined as no
more than one drink per day for women and two or fewer drinks per day for men.
One drink equals: 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of
80-proof distilled spirits such as gin, vodka or tequila.
By the way, this doesn’t mean you can forego your daily drinks and then
have all of them on a Friday night. That’s
The moderation rule also
doesn’t mean you should drink alcohol. Women,
in particular, need to be aware of the downside of alcohol.
Studies show that regular consumption of alcohol (about two or more
drinks per day for women and three or more for men) is linked to health problems
such as increased breast cancer in women and other cancer types in both sexes,
along with a greater risk of stroke, accidental death, and suicide.
Excessive drinking may also compromise bone health and lead to
osteoporosis. So, if you don’t
drink now, there’s no reason to start. If
you do drink, be moderate.
Q. As a runner and
vegetarian, I eat soy daily. Is it health to eat this much?
A. Definitely. Soy is a
great way to add protein to your diet if you’re a vegetarian, and there are
lots of other health benefits associated with soy. For example, studies show that those who regularly eat soy
have a lower risk of heart disease, breast cancer, and prostate cancer. This is
because soy contains phytochemicals called isoflavones, which help lower
cholesterol levels and block cancer development. Soy may also be beneficial in protecting bones from mineral
loss and osteoporosis.
But there has been controversy
concerning soy, because some researchers believe a very high soy intake may
actually boost cancer cell growth. Also, the isoflavones in soy behave like the
female hormone estrogen once they enter the body, and there has been some
concern that men who eat a lot of soy could experience changes in their
Recent research has put some of
these fears to rest. Studies have
shown that people who eat soy foods on a daily basis do not increase their risk
of breast cancer, and the men in these studies have not experienced any changes
in their testosterone levels.
be cautious about taking isoflavone supplements. These supplements may cause high levels of circulating
isoflavones, which can enhance breast cancer cell growth in women who already
have the disease or in those genetically predisposed to it. Researchers
theorize that soy’s benefits come from the interaction of isoflavones with
other substances in soy rather that the isoflavones alone.
Therefore, instead of taking isoflavone supplements, you should focus on
whole soy foods such as soy burgers, soy mile, and whole soybeans.
Q. I’ve heard
conflicting advice about eating before a run if you’re trying to lose weight.
Should I eat or not? Is so,
A. The evidence
overwhelmingly show that eating a meal high in carbohydrates about 2 or 3 hours
before a race or workout helps delay fatigue, boosts endurance, and assists
sprint performance at the end of a run. And
this is true whether you are trying to lose weight or not.
To win the weight-loss game, you
simply need to take in fewer calories than you expend throughout the day.
Changing the timing of your meals won’t change the number of calories
you burn (for running, that’s around 100 calories per mile).
But timing your eating will
affect how you feel and perform when you run.
If you don’t take in enough fuel before a run, you may end up feeling
sluggish and shaky, which will ultimately compromise the intensity and duration
of your run. The best part about
eating something before exercise: You’ll
boost your endurance, add more pep to your step, and ultimately be able to run
farther, which burns more calories and speeds weight loss.
So 2 to3 hours before you head
out the door, aim for 300 to 500 calories or so depending on your body weight
and what your stomach can tolerate. Some great pre-run meals:
pancakes with fresh fruit, a whole-grain bagel with fruit spread, or a
sports drink and a low-fat energy bar. And
if you aren’t able to eat in the optimal 2 to3 hour window before your run,
down a sports drink, a carbohydrate gel, or an energy bar just before heading
out. You’ll run better because of