A successful competitive swimmer in her youth, Gina Crawford was a young woman without a sport between the ages of 17 and 24, when she discovered triathlon. Since turning pro, the New Zealander has won 12 iron-distance races and broken 9 hours on four occasions. The mother of a three-year-old boy, Gina has also recorded four top-10 finishes at the Ironman World Championship, including an eighth-place finish last year. Her 2015 season got off to a good start with a victory at the New Zealand Long-Distance Triathlon Championship.
I try to keep foods as natural as possible, cutting out processed foods wherever possible. I also try to eat mostly organic foods and grow most of our fruits and vegetables ourselves.
I don’t have any strict rules as such. When I began the process of cutting out processed foods several years ago, my tastes changed and now it is good nutritious foods that I crave rather than “junk” foods. I eat a pretty balanced diet of carbs, proteins, and fats. I never buy low-fat items. I have whole creamy milk and yoghurts, etc. I believe that the low-fat items have extra sugar added and I think you need the higher fat to feel full and therefore not to binge on junk foods later in the day.
Proteins I eat directly after a training session. When it comes to sugar, I really would like to reduce the amount I eat; I have a sweet tooth and a bit of a sugar addiction (probably like most people). While I can reduce sugar quite easily when I am in time away from training, I find that once in heavy training it is impossible for me as I need the calories to get through my heavy load and without it I just feel terrible and weak (withdrawal symptoms?!).
For me, apart from trying to eat non-processed foods and a diet high in vitamins (lots of fruits and veggies), I don’t restrict anything. If my body wants it, I have it, and I find I am a pretty stable weight throughout the year. When I have time away from training I don’t tend to crave the higher energy foods, and then when in high training I do, but the weight drops to race weight quite easily as I am using up so many calories that it is hard to keep up (in my bigger weeks I am exercising around 30 hours per week).
What’s a typical breakfast for you?
I make a cereal with oats, chia, flaxseed, coconut, raisins, and usually have it cooked as a porridge with whole creamy organic milk. I have it with lots of fruit, whatever is in season.* Sometimes if I have a really big session ahead I will also have toast.
[*It’s early summer now in New Zealand. That means peaches, plums, strawberries, blueberries, red currants, and raspberries.]
A typical lunch?
I tend to eat a lot of eggs, either boiled, scrambled or an omelette. Some kind of veggies* or salad and often some cheese on toast. Again lots of fruit.
[*Lately it’s been spinach, silverbeet, beetroot, zucchini, carrots, and cabbage.]
A typical dinner?
A pretty balanced meal, with protein (either chicken, venison, or beef), carbs (usually rice or potatoes) and lots of salad and vegetables. For dessert I will have fruit with yoghurt or ice cream.
What’s the biggest change you’ve made to your diet since college?
My diet is vastly different since college. I was not involved in sport back then, and didn’t start my path to fitness until 25 years old. My diet back in college was very budget dependent. I ate a lot of sausages, white bread and biscuits. I also ate a lot of processed foods, packet sauces filled with preservatives and noodles and macaroni cheese packet meals, again with a lot of preservatives. I have now cut all of that out, and the thought of eating what I ate back then makes me feel ill.
Bacon, potato chips, or ice cream?
Definitely ice cream! I also like to make this myself in order to cut out a lot of the unnecessary “gunk” that is in most brands.
Two thousand fourteen has been a dream year for American triathlete Gwen Jorgensen. The 28-year-old Wisconsin native started her season with a victory at a World Cup event in Molooba, Australia, and has since won four World Triathlon Series races. She didn’t do too badly in previous years, either, winning four races in 2013 and representing the U.S. in the Olympics in 2012. Like most world-class endurance athletes, Gwen is careful but not fanatical about her diet.
What is your racing weight?
About 56 kg (123 pounds)
What are your personal dietary “rules”?
Before a race, I try to control my gluten intake. I usually travel with a rice cooker so I can make meals in a hotel and know what I will be eating. I once had food poisoning before a race, so I am now extra cautious prerace.
What’s a typical breakfast for you?
This is one meal that does not vary much! I usually have oatmeal with fruits (banana, raisins or goji berries, strawberries, etc.), nuts, coconut oil, yogurt, peanut butter, and two poached eggs. I usually have this six days of the week. Once a week we normally have something special. While in Vitoria, Spain (where I am now) we have morcilla (a Spanish sausage), scrambled eggs, and fried potatoes.
A typical lunch?
Lunch usually consists of a rice dish with red meat and veggies (curry, Mexican, or something more simple like rice, veggies, cheese and lemon).
A typical dinner?
Dinner usually has sweet potato, meat, veggies, and cheese. We often make a big salad with veggies, chicken, sweet potato, feta and avocado.
What’s the biggest change you’ve made to your diet since college?
I no longer buy foods based on price. In college I would often buy the inexpensive items. I now make sure I’m buying high-quality food, and don’t mind spending money on good, quality fruits and vegetables.
I want to maintain a healthy blood glucose level. I think I will go on a glucose-control diet such as the one described in The New Glucose Revolution by Jennie Brand-Miller.
Then again, perhaps maintaining a healthy level of alkalinity in my body would be more benefical. I think I will instead go on an alkalinizing diet such as the one described in The Alkaline Diet Plan by Connie Jeon.
Then again, I’ve been hearing a lot about the importance of maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria in my digestive tract. I think I will instead go on a diet for gut health such as the one described in The Microbiome Diet by Raphael Kellman.
Then again, I understand that inflammation is the underlying cause of most chronic diseases. I think I will instead go on an anti-inflammation diet such as the one described in Anti Inflammatory Diet by Victoria Lane.
Then again, what’s a little inflammation compared to the Big C? I think I will instead go on a cancer-prevention diet such as the one described in The Cancer Prevention Diet by Michio Kushi.
Then again, heart disease kills more people than cancer does. I think I will instead go on a heart-health diet such as the one described in Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Caldwell Esselstyn.
Then again, what I really want more than anything is to stay young as long as possible. I think I will instead go on an anti-aging diet such as the one described in The Longevity Diet by Brian Delaney.
It’s just too bad that by eating to maximize my lifespan I will have to forsake eating to maintain a healthy blood glucose level, maintain a healthy pH balance in my body, maintain a healthy microbiome, minimize inflammation, minimize my cancer risk, and prevent heart disease.
Or do I? On closer inspection it appears that the authors of all of the above-mentioned books recommend eating lots of vegetables and not a lot of sweets and other junk foods. Indeed, I’m tempted to conclude that just one broadly defined healthy diet will allow me to achieve all of my health objectives! (Agnostic healthy eating, anyone?)
Okay, I’ve removed my tongue from my cheek. The point of the forgoing exercise, as you may have guessed, was to highlight the absurdity of eating for single, specific objectives. The body is an integrated whole. A person has only one diet, and it affects every dimension of health simultaneously. What’s more, precisely because the body is an integrated whole, any food type that enhances one dimension of health is likely to enhance others and is unlikely to have a negative impact on any.
Take whole grains, for example. Consumption of whole grains has been shown to favorably impact gut health and to reduce insulin resistance and systemic inflammation as well as the risk for several cancer types and heart disease. Vegetables and fruits likewise boost all dimensions of human health while nuts and seeds have a wide range of healthful effects and no negative effects. Fish too has a handful of beneficial health effects and (mercury contamination not withstanding) no negative effects. So whichever dimension of overall health is most important to you, you should eat whole grains, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, and probably fish as well.
By the same token, any food type that harms one dimension of health is likely to harm others and is unlikely to have a positive impact on any. This category includes soft drinks, processed meats, refined grains and fried foods. These foods should have a small place in the diet and may be eliminated entirely with no ill effects.
The only food type that is really a mixed bag in terms of its health effects is dairy, which has been shown to slightly increase the risk for certain cancers while slashing the risk for heart disease and diabetes and having no effect one way or the other on longevity. Yogurt specifically prevents weight gain and enhances gut health. If all you care about is minimizing your cancer risk, don’t eat dairy. If you’re more concerned about preventing diabetes, keep your milk and cereal.
The best stand-in for overall health, in my view, is longevity. Since dairy neither extends nor shortens life, it’s fair to label its overall effect on health as neutral. Health isn’t the only reason we eat, though, is it? Cheese is delicious. I include dairy in my diet because of the following calculation: neutral health effect + yummy = eat it!
Recently I came across a new book called The Microbiome Diet. It is based on the idea that the colonies of bacteria in our guts are “the secret to healthy weight loss and to feeling healthy, energized, optimistic, and at the top of [our] game.” Author Raphael Kellman prescribes a three-phase plan that entails including prebiotic and probiotic “superfoods” such as yogurt, sauerkraut, garlic, and tomatoes in every meal.
Like most inventors of new diets, Kellman argues that his diet is needed because existing diets are based on bad information and consequently don’t work. He writes, “I believe that this book will challenge everything you know about the causes of obesity—and about the kind of diet that can successfully overcome it.”
It’s easy to laugh at Kellman’s suggestion that his diet is the only true solution to the problem of diet-related health problems. Only a few hundred people in the entire world are currently following it and it’s unlikely that more than a few thousand ever will. The notion that the only diet that’s truly good enough for humans would come along for the first time in 2014 and then pass into oblivion having made barely a ripple seems far fetched. But what about some of the other new diets, the ones that have caught on in a big way, such as the Paleo diet and the gluten-free diet and the high-fat version of the low-carb diet? The creators of each of these diets has also argued that his is needed because no previously existing diet was good enough to yield optimal health. Is any of these diets really needed? No.
What allows the creators of such diets to convince many people that a new way of eating is needed is the fact that the incidence of diet-related chronic diseases is higher than it’s ever been. This is clear proof, they say, that existing diets don’t work. Except it isn’t. For if all currently existing diets were ineffective in producing good health, then everyone would be unhealthy. But while most American adults are fat and doomed to die from heart disease, diabetes, or another disease affected by diet (Alzheimer’s, some cancers), in absolute numbers there are lots of healthy people. Indeed, virtually everyone who actually makes an honest effort to eat healthy by any definition and sustains this effort throughout life is rewarded with robust health. The people who end up fat and saddled with chronic disease are the majority that doesn’t even try to eat healthy.
If we look at the small sliver of the population that sustains its efforts to eat healthy, we find that many existing diets work perfectly well. People who start and stay on sensible versions of vegetarian, Mediterranean, low-carb, low-fat, clean-eating, locavorian, agnostic, and other diets are typically hale and hearty. The problem is not, as the inventors of new diets assert, that there are no good options. The problem is that only a tiny fraction of us takes advantage of the many good options available to us.
Here’s another way to look at it: In 1950, virtually no one was following anything we would recognize as a microbiome diet or a gluten-free diet or a Paleo diet or a high-fat/low-carb (HFLC) diet because A) these diets hadn’t been invented yet and B) they are not culturally normal, so it was unlikely that some random weirdo would eat by the rules of any of them accidentally. Thus, to argue that any of these new diets is needed because no previously existing diet was good enough is essentially to argue that no one living in 1950 was healthy.
Of course, advocates of the Paleo diet argue that their way of eating is not new at all but a reversion to “the original human diet,” and some proponents of the HFLC diet do the same. This argument represents a complete inversion of the truth. Paleo dieters eat the same modern foods that everyone else eats, all of which are only distantly related to the foods eaten by Paleolithic humans. The only difference between the way the average Paleo dieter eats and the way his next door neighbor eats is that the Paleo dieter eschews some foods, such as dairy, that his neighbor eats. This combination of modern foods and selective exclusions is fundamentally novel. When Loren Cordain published The Paleo Diet in 2002, the eating program unveiled therein was the world’s newest diet. If it resembled primitive diets more than other modern diets did, it was only on the most superficial level.
In any case, a more important way in which Paleo diet doctrine stretches credulity is the same way that most other new diets do. According to Paleo doctrine, humans stopped eating right at the dawn of the agricultural revolution some 12,000 years ago. Therefore, to argue that the Paleo diet is needed because no post-Paleolithic diet was good enough to support optimal health is essentially to argue that there have been no healthy humans for the past 12 millennia.
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that all new diets are bad. I think most of them are good. Humans can thrive on a wide range of diets, so it’s not hard to come up with a novel diet that respects the few nutritional laws that can’t be broken without repercussions for health. But no new diets are needed. The current epidemic of diet-related diseases will not be solved by the discovery of the first and only diet that really works. Good-enough diets have always been available. Until scientists invent a pill that makes people crave broccoli and gag at the sight of french fries, each of us is on his own to solve the problem individually by selecting one of the many good-enough diets and sticking with it.
Most popular weight-loss diets keep lists of forbidden foods—foods you must not eat. Ever. Low-fat diet gurus say we must not eat any high-fat foods if we hope to get leaner. No bacon, no cheese, no oil-based salad dressing. Glycemic control diet gurus say we must not eat any high-glycemic foods or else we’ll never reach our goal weight. No peaches, no potatoes, no pasta. And so forth.
A reality check indicates that such forbidden food lists are both longer than they really need to be and too narrowly defined. In my view, a food should not be forbidden to dieters unless it meets two criteria: 1) it is eaten most frequently by the fattest people and least often by the leanest and 2) its consumption is associated with significant long-term weight gain. Not all high-fat foods or high-glycemic foods or high-whatever foods meet these criteria. Only four foods do: fast food, soft drinks, fried food, and snack chips.
Hamburgers and French fries purchased from fast food restaurants may be the biggest individual food contributors to weight gain in America. The average American gets 11.3 percent of his or her calories from fast food. But normal-weight persons tend to eat less fast food while fat people eat more. For every 100 calories a normal-weight American gets from fast food, an obese American gets 125.
Longitudinal research demonstrates that this association is not coincidental but causal. A 2005 study from the University of Minnesota reported that, over a 15-year period, people who ate fast food two or more times per week gained 10 more pounds than did people who ate fast food less than once a week.
Most fast foods have a very high fat content. A Burger King Whopper contains 37 grams of fat and gets 333 of its 650 calories from fat. A medium order of french fries at Burger King contains 18 grams of fat and gets 162 of its 410 calories from fat. It would be a mistake, however, to caution against eating high-fat foods in general rather than fast food specifically. After all, nuts and yogurt are high in fat, but people who eat lots of these foods tend to be slimmer than those who eat less of them.
It would also be a mistake to steer weight-loss seekers away from only high-fat fast foods. There are low-fat foods that are just as fattening—or one, anyway: soft drinks. Adults who drink at least on soda per day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight or obese than are those who never drink soda. As you know, all of the calories in most soft drinks come from sugar. But it would be a mistake to caution dieters against consuming all foods high in sugar. Many fruits are high in sugar, but people who eat lots of fruit are leaner than those who eat little fruit.
In fact, it’s not even necessary to include candy on a list of foods forbidden to the weight-loss seeker. Fat people do not eat more candy than the general population. Because candy is energy dense and not terribly satiating, in principle it has the potential to be quite fattening. But in practice candy is seldom the main culprit in individual cases of weight gain because candy doesn’t invite gorging the way fast food meals do. People routinely consume 1,000-plus calories of fast food in a single sitting. People do not routinely eat four and a half bags (i.e. 1,000 calories’ worth) of Skittles in a single sitting, or even in a single day.
Fried foods and snack chips, on the other hand, are even more energy dense and even less satiating than candy and they do tend to be eaten in larger amounts. Unlike candy, fried foods and snack chips are eaten most frequently by the fattest people and therefore they are much better candidates for inclusion on our sensible lost of foods forbidden to the weight-loss seeker.
A 2013 study by Spanish researchers found that, within a population of 9,850 adult males, those who ate fried food four or more times per week were 37 percent more likely to be overweight or obese than were those who ate fried food two or fewer times per week. A well-known 2011 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that potato chips were associated with more weight gain in a population of nearly 120,000 American adults over a 20-year period than was any other food or food type. Doritos and other snack chips were not looked at in this particular study, but I’m confident they have similar effects.
There are many successful dieters—not to mention people who have never been overweight—who don’t forbid themselves anything. They just don’t eat much of whichever foods they consider most fattening. I am one such person, and there are no forbidden foods in the “agnostic healthy eating” approach I recommend to others. But I’m aware that declaring certain foods completely off limits works for some people. If you belong to this psychological type—if you insist on not eating certain foods—then I encourage you to select these four: fast food, soft drinks, fried food, and snack chips.
There are plenty of items not on this list that you should not eat often—e.g. sweets, refined grains, processed meats—but both real-world and scientific evidence suggest that complete abstinence from these foods won’t aid your weight-loss efforts any more than moderation. As eaters, it’s easier for us to say “yes” than “no.” So keep your “no’s” to a minimum. If you can avoid fast food, soft drinks, fried food, and snack chips for the rest of your life without going crazy, great. But focus the rest of your attention on saying “yes” to foods that make you leaner when you eat more of them, such as vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, whole grains, yogurt, and fish.
Everyone knows Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes. A fox is walking along in the forest when he spots a juicy bunch of grapes hanging from a branch. He leaps upward and tries to snatch the fruit between his teeth but he misses. He tries a second time and misses again. After a third miss he gives up and slinks away, muttering, “They’re probably sour anyway.”
Psychologists have a term for what the fox was experiencing: cognitive dissonance. The term refers to any situation where reality contradicts one’s preferred self-conception. The natural response to such situations is to change one’s beliefs about reality in such a way as to preserve one’s self-conception. In Aesop’s fable, the fox decided he never wanted the grapes in the first place so that he would not have to admit he couldn’t jump high enough to get them.
There is an epidemic of “sour grapes syndrome” (as I call it) in endurance sports today. Its victims are endurance athletes who cannot cope psychologically with being slower than they would like to be and who resolve this cognitive dissonance by replacing the goal of doing their sport well with that of doing it “right.” The syndrome is being spread by various movements that promote alternative methods that are contrary to those practiced by the most successful athletes. Examples include barefoot running, interval-based training, and high-fat diets.
By latching onto one of these methods, athletes can claim a kind of victory over superior competitors. “You may have finished the race ahead of me, but you were heel striking whereas I was forefoot striking, and since the real objective of racing is not to finish as quickly as possible but to exhibit the best form, I actually beat you.” That sort of thing.
It sounds infantile—and it is—but it’s a widespread mentality. I hasten to add, though, that the vast majority of slower endurance athletes are perfectly okay with being slow. They are focused on improving their own best times and couldn’t care less how many people finish in front of them. It’s only a small minority that is eaten alive by its slowness to such a degree that it feels compelled to change the rules of the game. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, most endurance athletes who suffer from sour grapes syndrome are male.
Elite athletes never go in for the alternative methods, for a couple of reasons. The first is obvious: As the fastest athletes, the elites do not experience the gnawing envy of faster athletes that is at the heart of sour grapes syndrome. The second reason is that the alternative methods don’t work as well as the dominant best practices. Athletes whose livelihood depends on being as fast as possible can’t afford to fool around with inferior methods the way slower athletes with alternative goals can.
I try not to judge athletes with sour grapes syndrome, but I do feel compelled to speak up when a particular movement becomes visible enough that it begins to win converts among athletes who are not, in fact, wracked with jealousy of faster athletes but who simply don’t know any better. There are signs that the high-fat/low-carb diet trend has passed this tipping point. I’m hearing from more and more athletes whose training has been ruined by a switch to a HFLC diet that was precipitated by an earnest wish do get faster and not by a desire to have something to hold over faster athletes who eat lots of carbs.
So I’m standing on my soapbox and putting a bullhorn to my lips to spread the message that HFLC diets are not good for most endurance athletes. They reduce tolerance for high-intensity training and impair performance in all races except perhaps ultra-endurance events such as 100 km trail runs.
The latest scientific proof of this already well-proven fact comes from a new study published in the journal Nutrients. Polish researchers placed eight mountain bikers on each of two diets for four weeks in random order. One diet was high in fat and low in carbohydrate, consisting of 15 percent carbohydrate, 70 percent fat, and 15 percent protein. The other diet was balanced, consisting of 50 percent carbohydrate, 30 percent fat, and 20 percent protein. At the end of each dietary intervention, the subjects underwent three days of physiological testing that culminated in a 90-minute stationary bike ride at 85 percent of lactate threshold power followed by a 15-minute time trial.
Before I share the results, let me pause to note that the founding principle of HFLC diets for athletes is that carbohydrate does nothing good for the body either at rest or in motion. Proponents of these diets believe not only that eating carbohydrate is fattening and otherwise unhealthy, but also that burning carbohydrate during exercise hurts performance by hastening exhaustion. The rationale for prescribing HFLC diets for endurance athletes is that they increase the reliance of the muscles of fat and decrease their reliance on carbohydrate, thereby enhancing performance.
The Polish researchers who conducted the study in question found that the HFLC diet did everything it was supposed to do physiologically. For starters, it made the subjects leaner. After four weeks on the balanced diet, the subjects’ average body fat percentage was 14.88. After four weeks on the HFLC diet it was 11.02. The HFLC diet also increased fat burning during exercise. Scientists use a measure called respiratory exchange ratio (RER) to quantify the relative contributions of fat burning and carbohydrate burning to muscle work. The higher the number, the more carbs are being burned relative to fat. On average, the subjects’ RER during exercise was 6 percent lower on the HFLC diet than on the balanced diet.
There was only one problem. All of these “favorable” physiological changes were associated with a significant loss of performance. On the balanced diet, the subjects generated 257 watts at lactate threshold intensity and 362 watts during the 15-minute maximal effort. On the HFLC diet, these numbers dropped to 246 watts and 350 watts. According to the study authors, the cause of the loss of performance capacity on the HFLC diet was impairment of the muscles’ ability to burn carbs. Oops!
So that’s the science. But what about all those social media testimonials you see from athletes who have made the jump to HFLC diets? Let me answer this question by asking another: How many times have you seen testimonials for weight-loss pills and muscle-building supplements that don’t really work? I’m not one to dismiss all anecdotal evidence out of hand, but when anecdotal evidence contradicts the results of formal scientific inquiry, it should be given very little weight.
When the barefoot running fad was raging a few years back, many runners who ditched their Brooks Beasts for Vibram Five Fingers reported that going natural had made them better runners. But I never encountered a single barefoot runner who, when pressed, could point to a big new PR that was set soon after the switch. It became clear to me that what these runners really meant when they said that barefoot running made them better was that it hadn’t made them worse.
I do believe there is a minority of endurance athletes who don’t get worse on HFLC diets. I don’t believe there are any who get better. And I believe that most runners who try HFLC diets don’t really do it for the sake of improving, although they convince themselves otherwise. If you really care about your performance, don’t go on a high-fat/low-carb diet… or run barefoot, or switch to an interval-based training approach, or do anything else that race winners don’t do.
Meredith Kessler took an unusual path to the top of the sport of triathlon, competing as an amateur for many years while working full-time in downtown San Francisco before finally turning pro in 2010 at age 31. Since then she has won a number of big races, including Ironman Canada (2010), Ironman Coeur d’Alene (2012), Ironman New Zealand (2012, 2013, 2014), and Ironman 70.3 St. George (2012, 2013, 2014). She also earned a bronze medal at the 2011 ITU Long Distance World Championships and finished seventh at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii last year.
Coached by Matt Dixon of Purplepatch Fitness, Kessler coaches a handful of athletes herself under the PPF umbrella and teaches spin classes at Shift in San Francisco. Learn more about her here and follow her on Twitter.
What is your racing weight?
My typical racing weight is about 130 lbs, however, this will organically fluctuate, hopefully downward a little, as Kona rolls around!
What are your personal dietary “rules”?
I would have to say that I typically don’t focus in on any personal dietary rules, meaning I generally consume most foods. One rule I do adhere to is that everything is fine in moderation—variety is king—meaning I can have that piece of dark chocolate after dinner yet not 10 pieces. I can eat that cheesy appetizer at dinner yet no need to gorge myself. This allows the mind to stay sane and prevents any potential cravings.
In addition, I eat when I’m hungry and I don’t eat when I’m not—I have always been like this and often for my profession, this isn’t always the best mindset. For example, most of us aren’t extremely hungry (myself included) after a tough workout. Yet it is most important to really eat in that fueling window within 15-20 minutes post workout. I have tried to be better about getting that protein-packed recovery shake or that Greek yogurt in as soon as possible, whether I am ‘hungry’ for it or not. I am well aware that by doing so, it aids in proper recovery in repairing the muscles and providing needed fuel.
Also, I aim to drink 1 oz of water for every lb I weigh, so usually 130 oz (not inclusive of what I have during training sessions) a day as much as I can muster, not all of which is just plain water. I drink 12 oz of water with a packet of emergen-C in it every morning when I first wake up. I drink a LOT of sparkling water (sometimes with a hint of OJ in it) because I find chugging carbonated water so much more satisfying!
What’s a typical breakfast for you?
A typical breakfast is Fage yogurt topped with blueberries, raspberries, a banana and Bungalow Munch granola. After a workout, I usually eat four scrambled eggs with sliced avocado on top, toast (or Van’s waffles) with almond butter and maman raspberry preserve jam, and sometimes more Greek yogurt. As I mentioned previously, this should be consumed in the fueling window as much as possible. I diagram this in extensive detail in my upcoming manuals, Life of a Triathlete.
A typical lunch?
A typical lunch (sometimes the egg meal is the lunch) would be a smoked turkey panini with a slice of pepperjack cheese, pickles, avocado, hummus and carrots and a handful of almonds. Usually a protein shake too is consumed between breakfast and lunch right after the first or second session of the day.
A typical dinner?
We eat a lot of salmon in our household. My husband makes a mean miso marinade and grills the salmon on cedar planks, which tastes amazing. We usually have this with a sweet potato, brown rice mixture or quinoa salad dish as well as a house salad with all the toppings and our homemade salad dressings we like to make. Of course, I would follow up this meal with two pieces of dark chocolate.
What’s the biggest change you’ve made to your diet since college?
The biggest change I have made to my diet since college is keeping everything fairly even throughout breakfast, lunch and snacking. While I may not deviate too much from my staples, I still stand by variety and moderation. Dinner is where I do get a little bit more adventurous so that my diet doesn’t get too predictable and boring.
I have to say, my weight is pretty much the same 365 days a year—whether I’m racing or not racing, training more or training less. Could I trim the fat more especially when racing? Absolutely. Yet then I personally feel that I would be sacrificing (a word I do not like to use in terms of my profession) “life” things that I’m not willing to sacrifice as it’s important to me to be able to celebrate normal life things with my friends and family regardless of what I do for a living. This includes pizza night with the girls, date nights with my husband pairing wine with food, having that cupcake at a two-year-old’s birthday party, and so on, and in December, October or June I like to keep things consistent in this capacity. Again: Everything in moderation. The second I make things complicated in terms of nutrition is when I start to perform poorly in races. I like to also go by feel—I feel happier when I don’t worry about a specific race weight number, and being a happy racer is what fuels me to the finish.
Confirmation bias is one of the great enemies of good science. Wikipedia (I know, I know) defines the phenomenon as “the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses.” Most of the confirmation bias that exists in science is perpetrated unconsciously. What makes it so insidious is that our brains are hardwired to reinforce existing beliefs. Unbiased thinking does not come naturally to humans. Scientific methodology is fundamentally nothing more than a set of procedures designed to overcome confirmation bias in the search for truth.
Outside of science, confirmation bias is generally ignored and often even embraced as “faith.” In the late 19th century, for example, some Christian theologians explained away the discovery of dinosaur bones by suggesting that God had planted them in the earth to test the faith of those who believed in the literal truth of the Bible’s take on history.
Rarely are scientists ever so shameless in their efforts to preserve their existing beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. Most scientists make honest attempts to account for and overcome their biases in their research. But there are exceptions, and for some reason (actually, I know the reason, which is explained here) these exceptions often involve scientists who hold strong beliefs about what people should eat.
Whether it concerns diet or anything else, confirmation bias is classically expressed through a double standard for evidence. A nutrition scientist who is in the grip of confirmation bias has very high standards for evidence that supports ways of eating that defy his preferred diet and much lower standards for evidence that validates his preferred diet. Put another way, the same kind of evidence that is judged weak when it contradicts a biased scientist’s favored dietary prescription is considered strong when it supports the doctrine of his chosen “diet cult.”
I’ll give you an example. On June 11 of this year, James Allan Davis, a runner from Cape Town, South Africa, tweeted out a link to a BBC News story about a new Harvard study indicating a link between red meat consumption and breast cancer. The next day, Tim Noakes, an exercise scientist at the University of Cape Town and a staunch advocate of a high-fat/low-carbohydrate diet, tweeted this reply: “All evidence against meat and pro veg is based on associational studies which cannot prove causation. Need better evidence.” Minutes later Noakes tweeted a second reply that included the remark, “Associational studies prove zero.”
What Noakes said is true: Every scientist learns on day one of Statistics 101 that “correlation does not equal causation.” But as a practical matter, when a strong statistical correlation exists between two phenomena, it is very often precisely because they have a causal relationship. As the saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and evidence from associational studies frequently turns out to be the first smoky clue pointing toward a fire of causality.
In the last century, for example, scientists representing the cigarette industry continually reminded the government and the public that “associational studies prove zero” in reference to evidence of a link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer. While these bought-and-paid-for PhD’s acknowledged that tobacco smokers were much more likely than nonsmokers to develop lung cancer, they argued—fairly—that cigarettes themselves might not be to blame. It was possible, they contended, that for some reason individuals with a predisposition to develop lung cancer were attracted to smoking. Better evidence was needed, they said, knowing full well that no scientist was ever going to turn a bunch of volunteer nonsmokers into smokers and track lung cancer diagnoses within the cohort for 20 years in order to get definitive proof of causality.
Today it is universally acknowledged that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, but not because such interventional studies were ever done. Rather, it is because the associational evidence is extremely strong, and because there is a highly plausible mechanism to explain causality—tobacco smoke goes into the lungs, after all—and because whistleblowers exposed documents revealing that tobacco industry executives themselves privately believed that tobacco smoking caused cancer despite publicly denying it.
The associations between high vegetable intake and positive health outcomes and between high red meat intake and negative health outcomes are not quite as strong as those between tobacco smoking and lung cancer, but they are significant and consistent and, what’s more, there are plausible causal mechanisms for them. For example, high intakes of red meat are associated with elevated risk of colon cancer. Research has shown that increased red meat consumption results in an almost immediate spike in DNA damage to colon cells, and DNA damage is where cancerous tumors get started. The dots are pretty well connected.
Suppose that ten reasonable people who remembered what they had learned on day one of Statistics 101 but who somehow had no preexisting beliefs about healthy eating were presented with a summary of everything science currently knows about the health outcomes associated with high levels of vegetable consumption and red meat consumption and were then asked to adopt either a high-vegetable/low-meat diet or the opposite. Probably nine of these intelligent, unbiased persons would consider the former a safer bet, if not quite a sure thing; the tenth would be Tim Noakes (i.e. not unbiased after all).
In any case, my point is that Noakes has very high standards for evidence supporting a high-vegetable/low-meat diet, which is a de facto high-carb/low-fat diet. Does he have equally high standards for evidence that appears to support a high-fat/low-carb diet? Alas, he does not.
Exactly one week after Noakes claimed via Twitter that “associational studies prove zero,” a gentleman named David Gillespie tweeted out a graph that showed changes in per capita daily sugar consumption in the United States between 1822 and 2004 alongside changes in the percentage of the U.S. population that was obese between 1882 and 2004. Both trend lines were generally upward sloping. Although everyone agrees that correlation does not equal causation, Gillespie captioned the graph with these words: “The cause of obesity in 1 simple chart” (emphasis added). And what did Tim Noakes do when he saw this tweet? He retweeted it without additional comment.
What’s funny is that the correlation between the two trends is not particularly strong. Most of the growth in per capita sugar consumption in the U.S. occurred before 1930, whereas most of the growth in the rate of obesity occurred after 1978. It is apparent that neither Gillespie nor Noakes studied the graph very closely. When you believe what you want to believe, you see what you want to see.
This post consists of three observations that may or may not be related to one another.
The Paleo diet is built on the premise that all animal species, humans included, are rigidly dependent on the foods that have been in their diet for the greatest amount of time. The genome of each species is like a lock that only one key will open, and that key is the specific food or set of foods that the species has evolved to depend on. Any other foods are like non-fitting keys that not only lack the ability to open the lock but destroy the lock when one tries to jam them in anyway.
In other words, animals are not very adaptable dietetically.
It was on the basis of this belief that Loren Cordain asserted in his book The Paleo Diet that the “333 generations [that] have come and gone” since the dawn of the agricultural revolution have offered “scant evolutionary experience” for the human body to adapt to “new” foods such as cow’s milk, and therefore these foods must be killing us.
The quino checkerspot is a species of butterfly that is native to Mexico and California. Since time immemorial it has eaten only one food, the dwarf plantain. Unfortunately, global warming has created climatic conditions in its native habitat that are too warm and dry for the plant to survive in. In the 1990s, biologists began to warn that when the dwarf plantain went extinct, the butterfly that was completely dependent upon it would disappear with it.
But then a funny thing happened. The two surviving colonies of checkerspots spontaneously migrated from their natural, sea-level habitat to a new habit at higher elevation. When biologists discovered this relocation they also discovered that the checkerspot had chosen a completely new food source—a flowering plant that has little in common with the dwarf plantain. Far from ruining the health of the species, this sudden and total transformation of the species’ diet has caused its population numbers to rebound dramatically.
Last year, Lawrence David and colleagues at Duke University conducted an experiment that was designed to study the effects of radical changes in diet on the microbiome in human subjects. The term “microbiome” refers to the large and diverse populations of bacteria that live in the human gut, and without which we would be incapable of properly digesting food.
The Duke researchers recruited 10 healthy volunteers (six men and four women between the ages of 21 and 32) and placed them sequentially on two different diets for five consecutive days. One diet consisted entirely of plant foods (grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables), while the other diet consisted entirely of animal foods (meat, cheese, and eggs). As you would expect, the nutritional compositions of the two diets were divergent in the extreme. For example, on the carnivorous diet, subjects got 70 percent of their daily calories from fat and consumed zero fiber, whereas on the herbivorous diet, subjects got only 22 percent of their calories from fat and fiber intake increased nearly threefold from baseline levels.
After just three days on each diet, significant changes were seen in the composition and functioning of the microbiome in all subjects. On the carnivorous diet, subjects exhibited a marked increase in the presence and activity of bacteria that thrive in a bile-rich environment, which makes sense, because the gut produces more bile when digesting animal foods. In contrast, on the herbivorous diet, the subjects exhibited a large increase in the presence and activity of bacteria that metabolize polysaccharides from plants.
The researchers even noted changes in gene expression within certain strains of bacteria in response to the disparate diets. So not only had the human subjects rapidly adapted to changes in diet through their gut flora, but the flora themselves had adapted epigenetically.
Among the more absurd ideas being peddled by certain diet cults these days is the idea that mainstream guidelines for healthy eating are directly responsible for the ongoing American epidemic of metabolic syndrome. If you know a hardcore Paleo dieter or a high-fat/low-carb eater, then you probably know someone who believes this astoundingly ridiculous notion, having learned it from Denise Minger’s book Death by Food Pyramid or from Paleo guru Robb Wolf’s blog ravings or from some other mouthpiece of Paleo or HFLC dietary doctrine.
The logic of the argument is well summarized in the promotional copy for Minger’s opus. Here’s a sample: “Shoddy science, sketchy politics and shady special interests have shaped American dietary recommendations—and destroyed our nation’s health—over recent decades. The phrase Death by Food Pyramid isn’t shock-value sensationalism [no, of course not], but the tragic consequence of simply doing what we have been told to do by our own government—and giant food profiteers—in pursuit of health.”
If your IQ is higher than 85, you don’t need me to tell you that this line of reasoning depends on one very big and very false assumption: namely, that most Americans actually obey mainstream dietary recommendations. In fact, the diet of the average American is very nearly the opposite of what is recommended in official resources such as the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Among these guidelines is the familiar recommendation to consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Only 11 percent of Americans meet this requirement. The American Heart Association recommends that adults consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar each day. The average American consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar each day. The USDA’s MyPlate program advises people to get at least half of their grains in the form of whole grains. Forty percent of Americans never eat whole grains. The American Heart Association recommends that fish be eaten at least twice a week. Only one-third of Americans eat fish even once a week. And so on.
Not only do most Americans fail to follow mainstream dietary recommendations, but they also don’t even know what these recommendations are—or that they exist at all. According to a large scientific survey conducted a few years ago, fewer than half of American adults have ever heard of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and less than 40 percent are aware that these guidelines include the recommendation to eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
Blaming mainstream dietary recommendations for the high rates of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes in America is logically equivalent to blaming dentists for the high rate of tooth decay among our citizens. The American Dental Association recommends that people brush their teeth at least twice a day and floss at least once a day. Only 53 percent of Americans follow the first of these recommendations and even fewer of us follow the second. Ninety-two percent of American adults have decayed teeth, despite almost universal exposure to the ADA’s recommendations for dental hygiene. So do we blame the dentists? That wouldn’t make much sense, because the incidence of tooth decay is much lower among those who actually do follow ADA guidelines. Similarly, only a fraction of Americans follow mainstream dietary recommendations, but those who do are much healthier than those who don’t.
Proof that following mainstream nutritional guidelines results in much better health than does eating like the average American is piling up rapidly. Some of the best recent evidence comes from a study associated with the ambitious Dietary Patterns Methods Project. This project is investigating the health effects of various eating patterns that are consistent with mainstream dietary guidelines. The first study to issue from the project measured the degree to which the diets of 424,000 older men and women conformed to each of four indexes of healthy eating—the Healthy Eating Index 2010, the alternative Healthy Eating Index 2010, the alternative Mediterranean Diet, and the DASH diet—and correlated this data with death risk over a 15-year period.
The mortality rate for those whose eating patterns conformed most closely to each of these indexes was significantly lower than it was for those whose eating patterns conformed least closely. Since the subjects were American, it is safe to assume that the men and women who had the lowest scores on these indexes tended to eat the typical American diet. According to this study, the people whose eating habits fell furthest outside official recommendations were up to 28 percent more likely to die of cancer or heart disease between the ages of 62 and 77 than were those who ate according to mainstream dietary guidelines.
Despite such evidence, Paleo and HFLC diet advocates continue to conflate mainstream dietary recommendations with the typical American diet. They do this most insidiously with their use of the term “standard American diet” (or SAD—get it?) to refer to both the way the average American eats and the way mainstream nutrition scientists advise people to eat.
Consider these sentences from “Paleo Runner” Aaron Olsen’s review of my book, Diet Cults: “Considering the fact 2/3 of Americans are either overweight or obese, I fail to see how mainstream recommendations such as the SAD should be used as a template for an optimal eating strategy. The reason diet fads are so popular in the first place is because the SAD has failed us so miserably.”
Here we have an egregious misrepresentation of the “agnostic healthy eating” guidelines I present in the book, which are based on mainstream nutrition science, not on what the average American eats. But is this misrepresentation deliberate or merely a consequence of the reviewer’s own prior brainwashing? I won’t hazard a guess, but it is evident that some high priests of the Paleo and high-fat/low-carb diets choose to conflate mainstream dietary guidelines with the standard American diet despite knowing full well that the two are worlds apart. In so doing they betray not only a startling lack of intellectual integrity but also a troubling assumption about the intelligence of the eating public.
Here, in essence, is what these folks expect you to believe: that if a typical American eater, who spends $1,200 annually on fast food, were to hire a registered dietitian to help him get healthier, the R.D. would make no changes to her client’s diet.