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Despite the cliché, food is not simply fuel to power you through exercise. You should actually be enjoying what it is you’re eating, or else we’d have developed nutrient-packed calorie pills we could pop. On the flip side of this coin, food shouldn’t viewed of as a reward you get to indulge in only after you run X many miles.
Yes. Maintaining a quality dietary standard is undeniably important when it comes to running and feeling your best, but it should neither stressful nor onerous for you. It should be satisfying and intuitive.
This stands in striking contrast to diet culture, which focuses on rigid eating whereby certain foods are labeled “bad” and others “good” and glorifies thin over healthy. And it intertwines pretty intimately with recreational running culture. It isn’t sufficient to be a fairly healthy eater if you are an unhappy eater with a relationship with food that is plagued by fear and guilt. If you’re getting the right nutrients and whole foods, but constantly worrying about your diet, there is something wrong.
What Healthy Eating Isn’t
Healthy eating has two components: healthy food and a healthy relationship with food. People who eat food labeled as “healthy” but have an unhealthy relationship with food tend to have diets that are extreme and unbalanced, or erratic. Yes, we know excess sugar, trans fat, and overly processed foods are damaging to the body, but so are anxiety and restrictive dietary behaviors.
Restrictive diets and the stress that comes with them can lead to physical problems like anemia, chronic fatigue, weight fluctuations, and hormonal imbalances in men and women. But undergirding those issues is the psychology behind these extreme diet choices: a mistrust of food and one’s body, and a desperate need to control those things.
Studies have shown that excessive worry about eating “right” does not often result in healthier eating or in better health. In 2015, researchers at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand invited subjects to fill out a questionnaire that collected information about their psychological orientation toward food. The subjects were first asked to state whether they associated chocolate cake with “celebration” or “guilt.” The researchers found that those who chose guilt “reported unhealthier eating habits and lower levels of perceived behavioural control over healthy eating when under stress… and did not have more positive attitudes towards healthy eating.”
Other research has demonstrated that people who develop eating disorders tend to share certain psychological characteristics. Specifically, they frequently exhibit low self-esteem and a high degree of neuroticism (or anxiousness). Some experts believe that the same psychological characteristics that lie behind the fear-based relationship with food that draws some people to extreme diets lie on the same continuum as clinical eating disorders, though they might not always result in that diagnosis.
How to Foster a Healthy Relationship with Food
So, if you’re someone who struggles with extreme dieting or anxiety around food choices know that an unhealthy relationship with food can be fixed. But the first step is recognizing that it’s not the food that is the problem but a relationship with the self around eating.
The popularity of extreme diets, or diet cults, is a major obstacle to the development of a healthy relationship with food. These diets prey upon and exacerbate food fears, nurture food obsession, apply morality to food, and serve as stepping stones to problems that may lead athletes to seek help for physical problems due to lack of nutrients, as well as to full-blown eating disorders.
In my book The Endurance Diet, I encourage athletes to eat the way that elite endurance athletes eat in order to develop a healthy relationship with food. I outline three key habits that define this way of eating.
- Don’t be restrictive about food. Elite endurance athletes, save for those with underlying health conditions, forbid no specific foods or food groups. This “eating everything” approach works against a fear that certain foods or food groups are “bad.”
- Eat quality foods. This is a tricky one because it puts a value judgement on food but, essentially, try to prioritize natural, whole foods. Focusing on overall quality is a saner way to maintain high dietary standards than selecting foods based on some weird conceptual stand-in for quality (such as how long humans have presumably been eating the various food types).
- Eat carbohydrate. This is how your body gets its energy. Elite endurance athletes placing high-carb foods at the center of all meals and most snacks. Maintaining a carbohydrate-centered diet promotes a healthy relationship with food because nearly every major traditional cultural cuisine is carb-centered: rice-centered in India and China, potato-centered in the United Kingdom, bread-centered in central Europe, corn-centric in many Native American traditions, etc. By embracing carbs you can continue to enjoy familiar foods and “breaking bread” together with people in your community and family so to speak. You won’t be continuously swimming against the tide with your diet.
- Eat plenty. Listen to and trust your body and allow its energy needs to dictate how much you eat rather than heeding restrictive calorie limits. Also known as “intuitive eating,” tuning in to your body and listening to its signals is how we are meant to eat. Not mindlessly over-snacking or eating less than what our body asks for out of fear of gaining weight. Your body is not trying to sabotage you! Let it have what it wants.
- Eat individually. Customizing your diet to fit your individual needs and preferences. Diets tactically discourage individuality, forcing all of their followers to start over with a one-size-fits all solution instead of allowing them to simply improve their existing (and presumably preferred) eating habits. Allow yourself to customize a healthy diet to satisfy your personal preferences and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. That includes cravings. For example, if you absolutely love chocolate, have at it and try to opt for the healthier dark options with a higher cocoa percentage.
These five habits foster a healthy relationship with food while also enhancing your running ability. After all, it’s how the elite runners eat and they are some of the happiest and healthiest eaters in our culture.
Of course, if you do worry obsessively about eating the wrong things, and are plagued by guilt when you do; or if you have a history of disordered eating, this might not be so simple for you. You may want to seek professional help. Please visit the National Eating Disorders Association website for more information.
Originally posted on August 15, 2015. Updated on April 23, 2020.