In an article originally posted on Runner’s World, Elizabeth Millard explores how to eat a well balanced diet. It can be overwhelming to think about all of the dieting fads and clean eating trends. On their quest to become healthy, a lot of people equate losing weight with achieving that, but that’s not always the case. At some point, obsessing over macros and calories become an unhealthy distraction. Instead of restriction, the focus should be nourishment and a balanced diet.
Experts have shared their insights on how to rectify our relationship with food and trend toward a healthier mindset.
When looking at athletes, it’s easy to assume that body fat is an issue. Some take this to the extreme of trying to attain the lowest fat percentage possible through diet. This can actually slow them down, even if they’re hitting their weight goals, according to Mike Matthews, C.P.T., author of Bigger Leaner Stronger.
“Being lighter and leaner does improve performance to a point, which is why competitive runners and other endurance athletes will always strive to be lean,” he tells Runner’s World. “But there’s a point of diminishing returns. You want to be lean enough that you aren’t carrying too much extra body weight, but not so lean that you can’t stay healthy, feel good, and train hard.”
It can be tough to know where that point might be on an individual level. That’s when you might rely on perceptions of what you “should” weigh, says Matthews. Instead of aiming for fat loss, aim for performance goals. In turn, Matthews suggest you eat in a way that fuels those training goals.
Matthews shares that typically endurance athletes tend to focus on carbs and hitting a specific macro number. It’s more complicated though, as macros include protein and fat as well.
“There’s no question carbs are important for athletes, but this single-minded focus can sometimes cause them to neglect other vital aspects of their nutrition,” he states.
Additionally, some studies have suggested that endurance athletes require around two to three times more protein than the recommended dietary intake. This is to support performance, recovery, and muscle mass. It’s particularly important when trying to lose weight, because it ensures you’re not shedding muscle instead of fat, says Matthews.
Another red flag comes with overthinking about food. What you’ve eaten, when you’re going to eat next, what you’re going to eat— too much focus on eating can mess with your head.
“Increased thoughts about food and planning your days around food are red flags when it comes to a potentially problematic relationship with eating,” Amy Gooding, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at the Eating Recovery Center, told Runner’s World. “From there, it might progress to avoiding social situations because the ‘right’ foods aren’t available.”
In her work, she’s seen many athletes start have good intentions with new eating plans. Overtime though, they become consumed by compulsive thoughts around food. Even if they’re eating the way they think they should, they may start to implement even more restrictions or rules.
“This makes it very difficult to resume normal eating because they’re not satisfied, they keep pushing it,” she says. At that point, repetitive thoughts and behaviors can lead to injuries, and plenty of them. That can include stress fractures, injuries that aren’t healing, chronic wounds, joint inflammation, poor muscle recovery, and other problems. Fatigue is also rampant, Gooding adds.
“If you’re not fueling yourself in a balanced, healthy way, it’s going to show up eventually,” she says.
Where do you start when fixing this problem? A good first step is to simply start noticing your thoughts around food, Gooding suggests. It shouldn’t be taking up most of your mental energy. If that’s the case, you may want to consult with a dietitian who specializes in athletes to get a better plan in place.
Matthews adds that when your mind gets lost in food thoughts, try to pivot your thinking. Instead, think of something that brings you joy, like visualizing something you love. Like your body, your brain can be trained with practice, he suggests.
Many dietitians suggest you shouldn’t label any foods as “good” or “bad”. Not only does it turn eating into a moral issue, but it also tends to drive cravings. That said, you should also take a closer look at your relationship to ultra-processed food, believes Joan Ifland, Ph.D., nutrition researcher and author of the textbook Processed Food Addiction.
“We are living in a culture saturated with messages about ultra-processed food, tying consumption to rewarding yourself, seeing these foods as a treat, a comfort, or an indulgence,” she told Runner’s World. “We’re told that it’s okay, because of the ‘everything in moderation’ message. But these foods are wearing us out. They increase adrenaline and then we crash afterward.”
For runners, there are some foods and beverages that boast a “health halo” and claim to improve performance, Ifland says, but they may still increase inflammation in the body. She says options like granola bars and some sports drinks can be packed with added sugars and simple carbs that can be problematic if you’re trying to veer toward healthier choices.
Try to reshape your approach. Instead of thinking about subtraction, focus on addition. Instead of focusing on banning ultra-processed options altogether, lean into adding healthier choices—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, fish—so that there simply isn’t room for all the ultras, suggests dietitian Kara Hoerr, R.D.N.
“Restriction will almost always create the opposite effect of what you want,” she tells Runner’s World. “Once you give yourself unconditional permission to have all foods, and you load up on healthy choices, it tends to take the power out of those ultra-processed choices. You may even find that when you do eat them, they’re not as good as you remember.”
There’s too many trends to keep track of when it comes to healthy eating. Some swear by plant-based eating, while others live by intermittent fasting. If you’ve found that none of these are working for you, you might think “what’s wrong with me?”.
Absolutely nothing, says regenerative and sports medicine specialist Rand McClain, M.D., who says nutrition needs are highly personalized, particularly when your running schedule is thrown into the mix. For example, some people love fasted training while others try it and feel lightheaded and nauseated.
“We have a tendency to try different strategies based on what we think most people are doing, especially our belief about what the average runner does,” he tells Runner’s World. “But there really is no average runner. So, it doesn’t make sense to force yourself into doing something that’s obviously not working for you just because you believe it’s the norm.”
Instead, he suggests keeping a food log, but to expand it way beyond what you eat. What else should you track? Try energy levels, sleep, stress, mood, motivation, running performance, and other potential effects. Then, when you try different eating strategies you can see what changes, he suggests.
“Look, we all have an Aunt Jenny in our family somewhere who lived to be 100 even though she smoked a pack of cigarettes and ate a pint of ice cream every day,” says McClain. “You’re not making your health choices based on that example. Similarly, don’t make your choices based on anyone else either, even the people you hold up as examples of perfect habits. Experiment, be open-minded, stay aware, and see it as an ongoing adventure.”