Do I have a nutritional degree? No. Do I have enough initials to make it sound like I do? YOU BET!
Every year TNT invites famed nutritionist and peanut butter evangelist Nancy Clark (MS, RD, CSSD) to come drop some dietary knowledge on us. Her spiel – including such timeless classics as “the pizza principle” and “the crescendo diet” – is well-known and loved by the TNT vets, and at this point I think I can probably recite it by heart.
I can’t recommend Nance’s non-nonsense approach to nutrition enough, but as it turns out I ALSO have some strong opinions about food and running.
Like many women I know, I used to have a pretty unhealthy relationship with food. I counted calories, I felt terrible when I ate something I thought I shouldn’t, and I thought I had to exercise to earn or make up for what I ate. It was not a super fun way to be, especially since it meant – EARMUFFS, NANCY – that I didn’t eat peanut butter for the better part a decade.
Running helped me look at food and my body in a much healthier way. And so while I do encourage you to follow Nancy’s directives to the letter, I thought I’d throw out a few of my own lessons learned in case anyone out there is struggling with the same ish.
Counting Calories is Bad and Pointless
There are some obvious exceptions here – if it is medically necessary for you to reach a certain weight, quantifying your intake can be helpful. And if you truly have no idea whether something is a calorie-dense food, look it up! (Once, and then promptly forget it. Movie theater popcorn is a gift from God we should accept gratefully and without question). But it is my strong opinion that for your average lay-runner, tracking your food on the reg is a terrible idea.
First, despite what a raft of internet calculators would have you believe, figuring out how many calories to put in your face each day is not an exact science. Those calculators don’t know you! They don’t know your life! They certainly don’t know how to account for the
day-to-day variations of your activity level (mine range from “15 mile run” to “levering slowly to 45 degrees from horizontal”). And god forbid you try to get guidance from women’s magazines, which have convinced scores of college-aged girls that 1500 is a reasonable amount of calories for an adult human. (Fact check: it is barely enough to feed a toddler.) No matter what number you land on, it’s likely to be wrong most days.
Okay, so that’s why counting calories is pointless. But why is it bad? Well, because if you are anything like me you will not be very good at adjusting your calorie intake goals based on what your body is telling you. After all, it is a NUMBER and your body is just…an incredibly complex and sophisticated organism finely honed over millennia of evolution. So you will be hungry and grumpy or eat more than you think you should and feel terrible about it. Not to mention, adding up all those calories every day takes a lot of time. There are so many THINGS I could have done with that time! (Learned that 3 is not the right number of deductions to claim on my W-4, for instance).
Food is Morally Neutral
One unpleasant side effect of tracking everything I ate is that I started to think about food as good or bad based on how much of my calorie budget it took up. Kale made me feel like a yoga model drinking green tea while gazing peacefully out a window. Cupcakes or even – I SAID EARMUFFS, NANCY – peanut butter sat cackling malevolently in my stomach demanding that I EARN IT. (Let me tell you what, if the Catholic church ever wants to bring back the practice of indulgences, college girls are RIPE FOR IT.)
I know I had a particularly bad case of the food personifications, but if the office holiday parties I’ve attended over the years are any indication this is an issue for a LOT of people. How many times have you heard someone say they’re “being bad” by eating a slice of birthday cake? I find it deeply upsetting. Save your regrets for the important stuff, like having paid insufficient attention to Beyonce’s maternity photoshoot or not having THREE slices of cake.
Training for a marathon helped me shake the idea of food as good or bad, because after a 15 mile run there is no TIME to consider the moral weight of whatever I’m ingesting. It’s food, and I need it in my face as fast as possible. And once I stopped avoiding the food I used to think of as bad, something magical happened. Nothing! I did not triple in size, I am still a good person, and as a bonus, I eat a lot more mac n cheese these days.
Your Weight is Morally Neutral
This is a tough one. Look, we as a society tend to think that thin is good and thinner is better. We as runners tend to think that fast is good and faster is better. Add in the fact that sheer physics would seem to suggest the less weight you’re hauling around in your skin-bag the faster you’ll be, and runners can end up feeling a lot of pressure to lose weight. Luckily, I have 12 years’ evidence to the contrary!
I’ve run a 4 hour marathon 15 pounds lighter than I am right now and a 3:30 marathon 5 pounds heavier. There is SO MUCH that goes into speed besides your weight – things like sleeping, or stretching, or not drinking Bud Light til 2am on weeknights! Feeling good about your body is hard enough in this world, there’s no need to lob anxiety about athletic performance on top of it.
It is also worth saying that how much you weigh or how fast you run has absolutely zero to do with the light you shine on the world. And to that point, although it is entirely unrelated to running, I would like to share the best advice I’ve ever gotten on the matter.
A few years ago I was getting ready to go out for a friend’s birthday party and I was in a STATE. Everything fit wrong, nothing looked right, I didn’t want to leave the house – but when I grumbled as much to my friend Meredith, she just said: “Girl, I don’t even notice what you’re wearing. When I think about you I just see your smile and the expressions on your face when you tell me a story. That’s who you are to me!”
She’s right. I don’t remember what my friends’ bodies look like. If pressed, I could probably tell you that they are in possession of both arms and legs, but that’s not what I really notice about them. It’s their smiles, or the expressions on their faces when something funny catches them off-guard, or the way they look when they see someone they love.
- Never open a women’s magazine
- Eat food that makes you feel good, physically AND emotionally
- Remember that you are a glowing smile and a warm hug, not an uncomfortable assemblage of paunches and chins