Mark Bittman offers eight new rules for healthy eating.By Mark Bittman
From the October 2009 issue of Runner's World
Eat what you like, but think about proportion
Americans eat more doughnuts, soda, and chips than real food. While you should continue to eat the foods you like, eat them moderately and concentrate the majority of your diet on foods that are naturally low in calories (low-fat junk foods can be pretty high in calories, and even low-calorie junk foods add up quickly, too). Don't fall into the trap of thinking about foods as "good" or "bad"—nothing is evil, or is going to hurt you in moderate proportions; similarly, no one food is going to save you.
Make it Happen So how do you find the right proportion? For me, it means eating loads of fruits, vegetables, grains, and nuts during the day, and saving meat, processed foods, and desserts for dinnertime. Maybe this method will work for you, too, or maybe you'll find you need a tiny bit of dessert after another meal, or you get less hungry if you have high-protein eggs or other meat with breakfast and not dinner. The key is to experiment until you find what works best for you. [Yes! For me, if I have extra protein with breakfast it helps me crave sugar less during the day! Also, if I have a tiny bit of dessert after lunch and dinner, I am less likely to binge on chocolate! - L]
Think plants first
You cannot go wrong relying on vegetables, fruits, nuts, and beans. In general, they contain far fewer calories per ounce than anything else, along with nutrients that runners need. Iron, for example, which helps runners sustain energy and fights fatigue, is found in spinach, green peas, broccoli, kidney beans, and chickpeas—all of which also provide more protein per calorie than animal products (per calorie, cooked spinach has more than twice as much protein as a cheeseburger). Even those plant foods that are relatively high in fat and calories, like avocados and nuts, contain the sort of fat that should be in our diets (namely, mono- and polyunsaturated, which are actually good for your joints—good news for runners) and minimal saturated fat, the unhealthy kind that's been linked to increases in the risk of heart disease.
Make it Happen Set goals that are going to help you cut back on animal products, processed foods, and junk foods—as well as help you load up on vegetables, fruits, nuts, and beans. Here are a few easy changes to incorporate into your routine: Try adding a salad to dinner every night, or going completely vegetarian once a week. I keep a bag of superportable nuts and dried fruit in my desk drawer at work all the time so I don't reach for a bag of chips or an energy bar out of laziness. [I have made the goal to each vegetarian 2x a week - to do it the easy way, you can buy the "fake meats" then use those instead of real meat in your favorite recipe. - L]
Start shopping and start cooking
It's impossible to eat well if you don't shop; it's nearly impossible to eat well if you don't cook. I'm not talking about shopping in farmer's markets (though they're great), and I'm not talking about cooking four-star meals. You should be shopping like your grandmother, which means buying ingredients that are fresh (vegetables) or naturally long-keeping (grains and beans), and cooking like, well, me, which means simply. The recipes in this story are good examples.
Make it Happen Start shopping regularly—twice a week is great (I often wear a close-fitting backpack on runs so I can pick up a few things while I'm out), but once a week will do to keep your kitchen stocked. Few runners have time to cook seven nights a week; but if you cook none now, one would be a good start, and if you cook three now, try to make it five. [I try to shop once a week, then have organic produce and groceries delivered once a week from Spud! - L]
Buy and make extra
Once you're shopping regularly, start buying and cooking in bulk. It takes just a little more time to roast or grill three pounds of vegetables than one pound.
Make it Happen Wash, prepare, and cook vegetables, beans, and grains in large quantities that will last all week. It also helps to plan for leftovers; if a recipe is for four and you're only two, that's perfect; or you can easily double recipes and freeze the remainder for a future meal—it's just a matter of thinking ahead. [Super advice! It's easier to eat healthy when it's convenient. - L]
Don't set goals you can't reach
It's just like running: If you've run a 50-minute 10-K, you wouldn't shoot for 35 minutes the next time around. If you set realistic targets and reach them easily (or at least without too much of a struggle), you're likely to move closer to your ultimate goal than if you set an unrealistic one, try to reach it all at once, and fail.
Make it Happen If you're incredibly motivated—as I was—you might cut your consumption of animal products and processed and junk foods by two-thirds. For many, that's a huge adjustment. If you are intrigued about gradually changing your diet, you might try this: Each day, eat one more piece of fruit and one more vegetable than you do now, and one less serving of processed foods than you do now; each day, eat one more serving of whole grains than you do now; and each week, eat one less serving of animal products than you do now. Take it from there. [I've been tracking my dessert and junk food consumption every day to see what I'm eating. Have not made much progress, though. :-( -L]
Ultimately, animal products are treats
USDA data shows we eat 225 pounds of meat and cheese per person every year—that's up 79 pounds per person just since the 1950s. That's way more than is good for our health. If we reduce our intake by 10 percent, that'd be a terrific first step.
Make it Happen Meat is flavorful, so think of it as a seasoning rather than the anchor of your meal. Use bacon to flavor beans and rice instead of eating a quarter pound of it at breakfast; make vegetable sauce for pasta with some meat, rather than a meat sauce; have that huge steak four times a year—not 20.
Don't worry (too much) about "nutrients"
Many runners are hypervigilant about getting a certain amount of carbs and protein in every meal. They forget that carbs are in everything; if you eat plenty of whole grains, beans, and greens, you're getting enough. Same goes for protein. The only exception is when you're in heavy training, like for a marathon. If you're seriously training, you'll want to eat some extra complex carbohydrates before most runs to make sure your energy levels are high. And throughout the day, get an extra serving or two of protein to repair your muscles from workouts.
Make it Happen Oatmeal is one of my favorite sources of complex carbohydrates, and I usually have a bowl before most runs—but any whole grain will do the trick. If you eat two servings of concentrated protein a day, you'll be fine even if you're training hard: That could be in the form of eight ounces of animal products or one serving of lean meat, fish, or poultry and one of tofu, or for that matter, peanut butter or beans. Remember, "protein" is not synonymous with "meat" or even with "animal products." Per calorie, lentils have nearly the same amount of protein as ground beef. [Greek yogurt and cottage cheese are both excellent sources of protein! -L]
Don't confuse energy bars with real food
A heavy dose of simple carbohydrates has its place in a runner's diet: namely, during a run. But for recovery, eat real food consisting of protein (preferably plant-based) and complex carbohydrates. While energy bars can be useful in a pinch, most runners mistakenly eat them in addition to—not in place of—an actual meal. [This is something I've tried to take to heart. The bars are great in a pinch, but don't think of them as a small snack, they are dense calories. I use them as a meal replacement if I'm on the road, along with a piece of fruit. -L]
Make it Happen On runs over an hour or so, make sure you have a sports drink like Gatorade or a gel out on the route to keep your energy up. Postrun, skip the 350-calorie protein bar in favor of real food—a slice of whole-grain bread smeared with your favorite nut butter and topped with sliced banana is nearly as simple and much better tasting. [Although, it's important to have recovery food within 30 minutes of a long or hard workout, and sometimes when you drive to your workout, you need to re-fuel in the car rather than waiting until you get home. But you can do that with a LUNA Bar, Mojo Bar, Z-Bar, or Baker's Breakfast Cookie (my favorites!), it does not have to be a mega-calorie protein bar. -L]
Mark Bittman, avid home cook and author of "How to Cook Everything" and "Food Matters" shares his cooking philosophy—and explains how to create healthy, tasty, and simple meals that will help you run your best.