Wednesday, 11 September 2013

You Are What You Don’t Eat

I once knew a girl and whenever we went to a café she’d order a decaf macchiato with soya milk and three sweeteners.

She didn’t drink milk or consume any dairy products. She didn’t eat refined sugar, avoided gluten and was a vegetarian. She was a runner too, but one day she collapsed while out training.  Her body had become so deficient of vital minerals and nutrients that it had gone into survival mode.

She was critically anemic and lacked vitamin B, D and C. Her periods had ceased and the doctor has warned repeatedly that her lifestyle was jeopardizing her fertility. And yet, she continued with this life-threatening stunt, cutting out food groups and convincing herself that she was doing the right thing by living “pure”.

Quite remarkably, she wasn’t underweight. In fact, to the untrained eye she looked like your average mid-twenties girl, fit and healthy. Put her in front of a plate of bangers and mash, a Full English or an ice cream sundae, though, and anyone would have seen that all was not well.


Britain was recently labeled Europe’s fattest country with the blame being laid on fast food, ready meals, cheap snacks and sugary drinks. Busy lifestyles, apparently, leave little time for preparing fresh meals, meaning that even mothers of young children are regularly opting for convenience food, stacked with additives, salts, hidden sugars and fats.

In a nation where almost a quarter of all adults are deemed clinically obese, it’s no wonder that we are being bombarded with messages about what we should and shouldn’t eat. But as a runner, you’re most likely not to fall into that 25% category. Ironically though, we’re probably most likely to respond to urges of healthier eating – because we’re more conscious of it - and that can result disaster.

In fact, some experts believe that cutting out whole food group can actually be just as harmful as overeating. Women, especially, can become highly susceptible to osteoporosis if they avoid dairy products, for example. The condition, characterized by a decrease in bone density, markedly increases the chances of bone fractures in the hips, spine, wrists and ribs.

Women of an advanced age are at an increased risk of developing osteoporosis – even when they do regularly consume dairy products – and following the menopause, a drop in estrogen levels can send bone mineral density dwindling further.

On a psychological level, experts have warned that if foods are omitted completely, people may become nervous about adding them back into their diet, creating a type of phobia and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Medics have termed the condition Orthorexia – derived from the Greek word “ortho”, meaning correct – which literally translates into “right diet”.


Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against vegetarianism. I myself cut red meat out of my diet some years ago – partially for health reasons, partially because I’m not mad for the taste, but I do urge anyone who is adopting an “exclusive” diet to be aware of the risks.

If you don’t eat meat, you will need to make sure that you get enough iron, Vitamin B12, zinc, vitamin D and riboflavin.  Yes, leafy greens and legumes are a source of some of these nutrients, but often don’t cover your recommended delay required dose.

Stock up on milk, yogurt, and cheese for calcium and make sure you regularly eat pulses, beans, nuts and seeds to get your required amount of protein. Fortified cereals, mueslis and juices are also recommended by some nutritionist and if you’re really struggling, then you might want to consider supplements.

If you’re running or doing any kind of exercise regularly, ensure that you eat generous portions of whole meal pasta and rice as well as potatoes and bread. Eggs are one of the best sources of protein for vegetarians thanks to the mixture of amino acids they contain.

Vitamins B1,2,3,4,5,6 and 12 are also all found in eggs, as are both selenium and iodine, required for a properly functioning immune system.

If this all seems a little complex and theoretical, simply try to eat the widest possible range of different foods. Aim for a multitude of colours, as different colours usually signal different nutrients. Don’t be shy to experiment with flavours, textures and recipes and don’t restrict.

As a runner, think of all the food you eat as precious fuels. Different parts of your body need different fuels so it would be silly to power some parts and not the others.

If my decaf coffee drinking friend had followed that advice, she might still be running today.

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