About 40 years ago, several major reports altered the way Americans ate. So began the worst mistake in US health policy: the low-fat diet craze.
The advice was to eat less fat and cholesterol, resulting in a national food production frenzy that stocked supermarket shelves with low-fat food products.
Everyone started eating egg whites, low-fat crackers, low-fat dairy products, low-fat everything.
But something strange happened: we kept getting fatter.
Sturm, R., J. Ringel, and T. Andreyeva, “Increasing Obesity Rates and Disability Trends,” Health Affairs, Vol. 23, No. 2, March/April 2004
Clearly, there’s a disconnect between government advice and popular culture diet fads and what actually helps you stay thin.
Look around the health and diet landscape online and you’ll find wacky diet claims that are outdated, misinformed, and ineffective. No wonder why most of the US population can’t lose weight.
There has been too many extreme diets and poor science reporting for the general public to understand what “eat healthy” actually means.
We’re fat because we don’t know how to eat.
Who can blame us? Corporations spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convince us that their food products are healthy. We’re inundated with marketing messages:
- 100-calorie snack packs FTW!
- Want to lose weight? Just eat this bowl of fiber cereal for breakfast and lunch every single day.
- Dr. Oz said this green coffee bean supplement was a “magic weight loss cure!”
I’d rather eat only Gu for the rest of my life than listen to this nonsense.
Aside from diet, there’s also exercise. Many of us focus on running for weight loss and some see great results – but others don’t. The simple reason is that most runners exercise instead of train. With more focus, you’ll get more results (but this topic is for another day).
Today I want to clear the air about food choices and how they help or hinder your weight loss goals.
Of course, I’m not a doctor and I certainly do not play one on the internets. I’m acting as a journalist (this article took nearly 10 hours to research and write). I’m also piggy-backing on the work of the many Registered Dietitians that were consulted for this post.
Let’s start with the most widespread diet and weight loss myths that just won’t die.
Myth #1: Cholesterol is Bad For You
A few decades ago, the US government advised that we should limit our intake of dietary cholesterol because it causes heart disease. Many people still believe they should limit dietary cholesterol.
Finally, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Council (DGAC) has reversed its stance on dietary cholesterol and is acknowledging the science: there’s no need for most of us to limit dietary cholesterol.
Not only does dietary cholesterol have virtually no impact on blood levels of cholesterol, but all cholesterol isn’t created equal. There’s “good” (HDL) and “bad” (LDL) versions.
But it’s even more complex: there are different types of LDL cholesterol, some of which are completely benign.
This is important because we’ve been led to believe that we should avoid cholesterol, but the truth is that only a tiny minority of people (diabetics, for example) should be worried about cholesterol.
And more importantly, we should focus our efforts on increasing our HDL cholesterol. Lifestyle has the biggest effect, so here’s what you should do:
- Don’t smoke cigarettes (it amazes me that people still smoke today…)
- Lose weight
- Exercise at least five times per week for 30 minutes of aerobic activity – like running!
- Eat healthier fats (grass-fed beef, nuts, fish, flax) and avoid trans fat whenever possible
- Drink alcohol in moderation. I.e., have fun in moderation 🙁
But why does this matter for runners?
Simple: when you avoid cholesterol, you’re avoiding nutrient-rich foods. Without a variety of nutrient-rich foods, your overall nutrition will suffer and your performance and recovery will suffer.
Plus, cholesterol helps you run faster!
Krista Austin, owner of Performance and Nutrition Coaching, has a PhD in Exercise Physiology and Sports Nutrition. She agrees:
The body needs cholesterol, especially for producing hormones that improve physical performance. Too much or too little is not good so it’s important to be reasonable.
Of course, we’re not saying eat two dozen eggs every day. But just like you don’t have to actively avoid protein or Vitamin C, you don’t have to actively avoid cholesterol.
Myth #2: Skim Milk is Healthier than Whole Milk
Ask anyone over 50 about milk and they’ll all agree: nobody drank watery skim milk when they were kids.
But after the low-fat movement in the 1980’s, skim milk stole the show and whole milk sales plummeted.
Unfortunately, eating less fat doesn’t mean that you’ll lose more fat. Consider the research:
- Eating whole fat dairy is “inversely associated with weight gain” in middle-aged women according to this study
- A high intake of dairy fat was associated with a lower risk of central obesity according to this study
- This literature review concludes that high-fat dairy foods do not contribute to obesity and suggests that high-fat dairy consumption within typical dietary patterns is inversely associated with obesity risk
It seems like our fear of full-fat dairy is misplaced. More specifically, our fear of the saturated fat in dairy products is misplaced.
Consider a few more studies:
- There’s no evidence to support the claim that dietary saturated fat is associated with a higher risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease
- Current evidence does not support low consumption of total saturated fat
Fat is necessary for the absorption of many vitamins – like Vitamin A and D – so if you’re limiting your fat intake (often through non-fat dairy options), you’re simply not absorbing most of these vitamins.
For more on this topic, see this article about saturated fat from Tim Ferriss.
Like anything, it comes down to moderation. If you’re having a hearty breakfast, it’s wise to choose one food from the choices of bacon, whole milk, and gobs of butter on your pancakes.
But why does this matter for runners?
One word: Satiety.
To avoid over-eating, you must satisfy your hunger at the appropriate times.
By choosing low-fat options, you’re depriving yourself of less-processed, higher satiety foods. Meaning an hour later, you’re more likely to grab a handful of M&M’s in the office kitchen.
Lindsay Livingston, a Registered Dietitian who writes the Lean Grean Bean blog, encourages full fat foods because they contain less junk:
In most cases, low-fat and fat-free products have the fat replaced by things like salt and sugar to make the product continue to taste good. I’d rather have a higher fat product with just a few, wholesome ingredients than a lower-fat product filled with junk!
Myth #3: Cut Calories for Effective Weight Loss
The keyword here is “effective” – if you do cut calories, you WILL lose weight. And rapidly.
But it will be short-lived. Research suggests rapid weight loss and extreme dieting can slow your metabolism, deprive your body of essential nutrients, and weaken your immune system.
And that weight you lost? It will come right back, and likely even more than before.
The issue is calorie counting. Until recently, humans never counted calories – so why are we all of a sudden being told it’s the only way to maintain our weight?
Anne Mauney, MPH, RD (my partner on the Nutrition for Runners program) works with her private clients using an approach called Intuitive Eating, which is a philosophy based on the premise that listening to the body’s natural hunger signals is a more effective way to attain a healthy weight than tracking calories.
Our bodies use a complex system of hormones that alert you when fuel is needed. Those cravings you have? They aren’t the enemy. They are your body telling you that it needs nourishment. Don’t ignore it! It’s when we suppress those signals that we get into trouble.
In the Nutrition for Runners program, we go into far more detail about how to actually put this into practice (with example meal plans, how to avoid over-snacking, and even how to structure each meal).
Eating intuitively forces you to be more aware of what you’re eating and how much you’re eating.
Instead of calorie counting, Danielle Omar, a Registered Dietitian and author who writes the Food Confidence site, says this “awareness” is key:
Calorie awareness is better than calorie counting! It’s important to know how much food you’re eating and how much you need to eat.
Once you’re aware of your ‘budget’ each day, you can choose the most nutrient rich, calorie poor foods within that budget.
For intuitive eating without calorie counting to work, you must focus on real foods.
But what exactly is “real” or whole food? It’s just how it sounds – food that is in its most natural state and has not been processed or refined. Things like whole fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and unprocessed grains. Animal products should be grass-fed and organic, if possible – the way nature originally intended.
The reason for eating real food is twofold: first, real food generally has more nutrients than processed food. In order to make foods shelf-stable, whole foods are often stripped of many of their nutrients during processing.
White rice, for example is made from brown rice. It’s processed to remove its fiber-rich bran and germ, which contain about two-thirds of the nutrients in rice.
And second, this lack of nutrients also means that processed food is not nearly as satisfying as real food. Have you ever eaten a processed food and found you’re hungry again minutes later? You’re taking in calories, but not a whole lot of nutrition. The food you’re eating isn’t “food” at all – it’s a food product.
But why is this important for runners?
Simple: when you cut calories and “diet” while training, you sacrifice performance AND weight loss goals.
By trying to train for a race and lose weight, you effectively accomplish neither goal. You won’t lose as much weight and you won’t run as fast in your race.
This is why we include weight loss training plans in Nutrition for Runners. They’re to be used before a race training plan so you can lose weight first and then get fast.
Separating the two goals is the fastest way to accomplish both.
Myth #4: Low Carb Diets Make it Easy to Lose Weight
Yes… and no. Again, the reality is somewhere in the middle.
If you drastically cut your carbs, you WILL lose weight. But a big chunk of that weight will be water (for every gram of carbohydrate you eat, your body stores roughly 3g of water).
If you’re looking to temporarily cut weight and don’t mind that you’re not losing body fat, then a low-carb approach works great (say, you want to look slim for your wedding).
But for people who want long-term, sustainable weight loss, low-carb diets aren’t your best option.
Omar has this to say about low-carb diets:
Not a fan. It may work in the short run but it’s not a sustainable lifestyle for most people. It’s important to enjoy your food and if you’re constantly focusing on foods that you love but can’t have, that’s no way to live.
Besides, there’s nothing wrong with eating whole grains, fruit, beans and other complex carbs. In fact, they’re extremely important for weight loss!
I find this fascinating. Why do so many Registered Dietitians tell runners NOT to follow a low-carb diet?
It’s for the same reason that low carb diets don’t work long-term: they’re more difficult to follow. Low adherence might is the nail in the coffin for these diets.
Nancy Clark, arguably the country’s top sports dietitian (she consults with the Boston Red Sox, has been on the back of a Wheatie’s Box, and has the top-selling nutrition book for athletes ever) agrees:
The body is the best calorie-counter. You don’t need to count calories.
But why is this important for runners?
Eliminating carbohydrate is almost always disastrous for runners, resulting in low energy, sub-par training, and poor race results. Ultimately, reducing carbohydrates diminishes your training capacity – or the amount you’re able to exercise.
But focusing on a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods that provide the fuel (i.e., carbohydrate) you need to boost your training capacity, you’ll be able to run more, train harder, and race faster. These in turn improve your body composition (and make you a better runner).
If you want to learn more about the intuitive eating approach, we cover it in-depth in our free nutrition series.
Recommended Books, Podcasts, & Resources
If this topic gets you jazzed up and you’re tired of wondering why you’re not losing weight, you should definitely check out our Nutrition for Runners program. It’s exhaustive while this is just one blog post.
I’ve also had the pleasure of learning about diet, nutrition, weight loss, and training to lose weight from a wide variety of sources.
There’s a lot more on the diet and running books page, but the resources below are my favorite choices.
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan
Pollan outlines his philosophy on food and diet in one easy to remember phrase: “Eat food. Mostly Plants. Not too much.” This book is highly recommended if you’re into healthy food and forms the central pillars of my own diet philosophy.
The Paleo Diet for Athletes by Loren Cordain and Joel Freil
If you’re gung-ho about Paleo, this is the best resource available on how to still fuel appropriately for running. The authors give a great overview of the Paleo Diet’s background and a complete diet plan for how to implement it with your training.
No Meat Athlete Radio hosted by Matt Frazier and Doug Hay
This podcast is for our plant-based friends. Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan, or veg-curious, Matt and Doug cover nutrition, healthy lifestyle, and running tips with guests like Rich Roll and Brendan Brazier.
Nutrition Q&A and Myth Busting (2-part audio seminar with Anne Mauney, MPH, RD)
In this seminar, Anne and I discuss critical diet questions that impact runners (how to avoid over-snacking, fueling post-workout, how to maintain your goal weight, and more fun stuff). There’s two parts to this series, plus additional text lessons, recipes, and case studies.
One Last Thing
This article is long. There’s a lot of information here. And if you click on the many links in this article, you’ll fall down the rabbit hole of nutrition and weight loss.
My one critical suggestion: don’t get overwhelmed.
You don’t have to be perfect with your diet (I had a donut this morning).
Perfection is the enemy of the good. So if you’re wondering what to do now, choose ONE (only one!) piece of advice from this article and implement it today.
Think of it as an experiment. A fun experiment!
Now go have fun 🙂