THANK YOU to everyone who submitted such great questions on Instagram for our nutritionist, Will, to answer! There were so many awesome questions that we can't answer them all in one newsletter, so I've decided to keep this going in future newsletters with an ongoing "Ask the Nutritionist" column. If we don't answer your question today, we will try to cover it in this column of the Steeple Squigs Update in the future... Stay tuned!
Who is the Nutritionist?
While I studied dietetics at Florida State, Wilfredo Benitez is the real expert here. Will is a nutritionist living and working in Portland, Oregon. Besides having a Master's in Education and Master's in Nutrition, Will is also a USATF Level 1 Certified Running Coach. This is pretty much the killer combo for us athletes! Will understands what athletes need to perform better, recovery from injury, peak at the right time, and optimize overall health and wellness.
Don't live in Portland? Not a problem! Will offers remote services for his nutrition coaching, dietary analysis, running coaching, and training plans via email, phone, Skype, Facetime, etc. He also offers seminar presentations at your workplace, gym, school, camp, or retreat. Check it out!
I'm so happy to have Will's expertise on this topic and am excited to help share some of his knowledge with you all.
Ask the Nutritionist
QUESTION: How to lose weight in a healthy way and reach "race weight?"
Will: There is one way to lose weight: burn more calories than you take in. And there are two ways to achieve this: 1) Exercise so that you do in fact burn more calories than you would take in; or 2) Adjust your nutritional intake so you consume less than you are burning. Either strategy can work, but achieving race weight in a healthy way is what is key, and losing that weight might look different from person to person. For some, desserts or even salty snacks is their kryptonite, and so reducing the intake of these foods might help reduce overall caloric intake. You also don't want to ignore beverages as alcohol and soda can easily and quickly lead to weight gain, as can fruit juices and sweetened ice teas.
Because some people swear by high fat diets and others achieve amazing results by greatly reducing fats, I propose an alternative and less extreme strategy: make sure that your meals are properly balanced. Carbohydrates will likely have a greater presence on your plates or in your bowls, followed by fat then protein, or at times, protein then fat. The key here is to make sure that your overall intake isn't too high. Anything in excess, even the healthiest fats or the cleanest carbs, is eventually going to be stored as fat for later use. If this is a long-term way of eating, then that stored energy just keeps on accumulating and thus we see weight gain occur.
The final strategy that I often highly suggest is to focus on one number: 40. That number pertains to the minimal amount of grams of fiber that I recommend adults get on a daily basis. If you are consuming 40g of fiber per day, and without use of supplements, then you are doing so by eating whole foods rich in nutrients and antioxidants to keep the body functioning optimally, and you are also likely getting quite full from these foods so that there is less room for low or no-value foods.
Colleen: Personally, I never count calories, never have, and probably never will. I focus on eating as much whole, unprocessed, fresh foods a I can. That means not buying pre-made or pre-packaged meals and instead buying whole, fresh ingredients that I cook with to create meals that make me feel good. I try to fill my plate up with half vegetables, a quarter meat, and a quarter grain. I don't change my diet all that much during the season vs. the off-season because I genuinely enjoy eating this way. One thing I do change: sweets! I have a HUGE sweet tooth, so during the off-season I definitely let myself indulge in some treats and when I'm in the season trying to get to "race weight" I cut out most all sweets (and alcohol) except for some dark chocolate when I need it. One more thing: I really don't weigh myself. Instead I let the results speak for themselves. If I'm running fast, feeling fast and strong, then who cares what the scales say? The only numbers I really care about are on the clock.
QUESTION: Iron deficiency and supplementation- how to avoid athletic amenorrhea or deal with it and avoid the long-term affects of iron deficiency anemia.
Will: The first step to avoiding or reversing secondary amenorrhea is to make sure you are getting sufficient amount of calories. Be especially aware that as your training progresses and mileage increases and workouts become more frequent, energy demands will increase and so should your nutritional intake. The next consideration is to make sure that neither carbs nor fats are low in your diet. Carbohydrates are important for thyroid health, keeping the adrenal glands healthy, being satiated, and for energy production, especially for athletes. Fats are necessary for the production of many hormones, but especially sex hormones including estrogen. Fats are also necessary for the proper absorption of some nutrients such as fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Making sure you are getting enough calories and improving the metabolism and digestion of those nutrients will also help avoid iron depletion. It's not enough to make sure iron is sufficient in the diet. You also need to make sure iron is being absorbed properly, and optimal digestive and gut health is important for this. Including foods rich in fiber, reducing sugars ans saturated fats in the diet, and sometimes including healthy herbal supplements to address any gut integrity issues, all may help to optimize iron levels in the body.
Colleen: Runners tend to run low in iron, so I regularly take an iron supplement in the form of ferrous sulfate. Red blood cells contain hemoglobin which contains iron and transports oxygen to your muscles- hence making iron very important. Especially since my team and I spend so much time training at altitude, where we need all the oxygen we can get, I make sure to do anything I can to keep my iron stores high. At times, I have supplemented my diet with liquid iron as well. Best iron-taking practices are to take in the evening before bed on an empty stomach, with vitamin C (helps absorption), and without calcium (inhibits absorption).
QUESTION: What to eat before a race or hard workout and how far out from the workout/race should you eat it? Is it okay to fuel during practice? With what?
Will: When pre-fueling for a race or hard workout, it is best to have your intake be almost entirely of simple or easily digested carbohydrates. If focusing on carbohydrate-rich foods and if fueling within the hour, only about 100-200 calories worth should be consumed. The emphasis is on carbs because they are much more easily digested and converted into energy than protein and fat. Foods that I recommend during this time include energy gels or chews, fruit (especially citrus), dried fruits (especially dates), and pretzels, due to this food's high glycemic effects.
If 2 hours or more out, then it becomes more okay to include foods with a bit more protein and fat such as some nuts, seeds, or nut butters; oils, avocado, or butter (nondairy or regular); or nondairy milks (I like the idea of nondairy milks more because there will be less saturated fat, unless you're choosing coconut milk). Also, foods with more carbohydrates such as a slice of bread/toast, half a bagel, oatmeal, and rice, become more okay with 2 or more hours before race time.
Ideally, you are already prepared for a hard workout session before the workout begins. That being said, if necessary, fueling during practice can be okay, but should only be done if you are feeling low in energy. I would only recommend you consume simple carbohydrates and my recommended options are similar to the fuel choices for within an hour from race day: energy gels or chews, dates (perhaps salted), pretzels, or liquid energy coming from diluted Gatorade/Powerade, coconut water, or an electrolyte tablet or powder. And be sure to hydrate if you are ingesting nutrients.
Colleen: My go-to pre-race/pre-workout fuel is oatmeal because it is easily digestible and even when I have pre-race nervous jitters I can usually get it down okay. I pack my oatmeal with goodies to make it more sustainable and tasty. Check out my recipe here. During a workout if I need a little sugar pick-me-up I usually get it via liquids so that it doesn't sit in my stomach and can be used quickly as fuel.
QUESTION: Plant-based diet- is it good for athletes? And Why do you (colleen) eat meat, especially red meat?
Will: In short: Yes. Any way of eating that is consisting mostly of plant foods is going to be optimal for the body. Even eating only plant-based foods can be perfectly fine for the body, if done right and appropriate to the individual's needs. There have been many people who tried to abide by a vegetarian or vegan way of eating, yet they didn't feel great and so they stopped. If not done properly, just like any way of eating, health issues and other non-desired effects can still occur. However, if you are eating a plant-based diet that still includes the proper balance of macronutrients that is best for your lifestyle, and that is rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, then a plant-based way of eating would be great for anyone. I also advise that people address any possible digestive or gut issues, to ensure proper absorption of iron and other nutrients that vegetarians and vegans need to be more aware of.
Colleen: I eat meat as a standard part of my diet in 1-2 meals per day. I eat a variety of different meats (chicken, beef, bison, fish) as well as some meat substitutes (tofu or tempeh). As an athlete, I feel it is important to make sure I am getting enough protein and B vitamins in my diet so that I can recover properly and be ready for my next workout. Especially since my team and I train so much at high altitude, we need to make sure our iron stores are high (for oxygen-carrying capacity). I make sure to eat a serving of red meat at least once per week and whenever possible I try to eat grass-fed, organic meat.
PHOTO CREDIT: Banner photo and Instagram photo by David Bracetty