Nutrition is something that I’ve become increasingly fascinated by recently. I listen to a lot of podcasts, mainly while I’m out running or in the car. Among my typical runner’s collection (Marathon Talk, Talk Ultra, Runners Connect, TrailRunner Nation), and BBC staples (Friday Night Comedy, File on 4, Analysis), I’ve added a few podcasts that are aimed at endurance athletes who embrace what has been called the “primal” approach. My favorite of these is Endurance Planet, hosted by an American triathlete and coach. She can get a bit woo on occasion, but in general she’s quite on the ball and I like that she is not completely dogmatic about the diet and health effects that she advocates. Sometimes it all gets a bit much, and it begins to sound like another way of getting athletes to feel bad about themselves. I enjoy the ideas put forward by people like Mark Sissons, the main force behind the Primal Endurance Podcast. He was a high level triathlete, an early advocate of a low carb/fat adapted style of training, and a proponent of heart rate regulated endurance training, which I think has a lot of benefits for the amateur endurance athlete.
I have learned a lot from listening to this type of thing. I know I do my easy runs too hard and my hard runs too easy, and being made aware of the concept of Phil Maffetone’s theories of endurance base building has helped me to change the way I train (I hope for the better, we will see). One thing that I have learned is to be more aware of nutrition, and to be alert for the hidden pitfalls in certain processed foods. However, it is so easy to start to feel guilty and find yourself whether the apple you ate at lunchtime is sabotaging your diet by carrying too much sugar, or feeling anxious because all you could find to eat at an airport was a processed salad with grains. I eat healthily, and rationally I know I do. But even I get confused at times and start doubting my own choices.
On the other hand, the basic ignorance about nutrition among so many people still shocks me. I have a few friends who have been on the “Cambridge diet”. This is a meal replacement diet – so instead of normal meals you eat their ready made shakes. Now, of course you will lose weight on such a diet: you will be cutting calories. However, I saw the ingredients in one of these shakes. Maltodextrin (a polysaccharide derived from starch, and nutritionally void), other saccharides, artificial flavourings, colourings, and artificially fortified with vitamins. Quite simply, a nutritional car crash. Even if you lost weight on such a diet, your insulin will be all over the place, and as soon as you start eating again you will pile the weight back on. Just awful. Yet one of my friends, who is a CHEF, and not a stupid person by any means, followed this diet for a number of weeks.
It makes me sad that as a society we are so divorced from the ability to eat food as fuel and something that gives us health and pleasure. On the one hand, there are people like me, who want our bodies to be able to do difficult things, and try to fuel them in the best way possible to achieve this. But our “best way” is such a difficult thing to define and even more difficult to achieve in a world dominated by food fads, quick fixes and conflicting theories. On the other hand, there are so many people who simply don’t have a clue what they need, and are so caught up in a cycle of junk food, they have lost sight of what food actually can do. People react with such shock when I say I don’t eat refined grains – cake, biscuits, bread, cereal, sweets – but I don’t because I don’t like the way they make me feel. I probably eat far too many nuts, biltong, apples (yes, I love apples) and Greek yoghurt. I could live on yoghurt, apples and almond butter. But until quite recently, I would have reacted with sheer horror if you told me I’d have dinner without any grains. Pearl barley, bulgur wheat, brown pasta were my staples. I’ve weaned myself off them, and don’t miss them now. But am I really more healthy? I genuinely don’t know.
On another topic. When I was a child my mother would only use Mason Pearson hair brushes. I was told to brush my hair 40 times morning and evening. As an adult, I have awful hair – 20 years of dying, styling, neglecting, bleaching, and it is dry, frizzy and not very nice. My lovely partner bought me a Mason Pearson brush set as celebration for my London Marathon performance, and it has completely transformed my awful hair into something almost passable for shiny and frizz free. Magic brushes! Sometimes the old fashioned ways are indeed the best.