My Food Journey…The Middle Miles

Great. You’re still here. Let’s continue.

So I’m a vegetarian. This was pretty easy for me…and I kept it up for five years. Granted, at the start, I wasn’t the best at it…I did what most people do: I subbed meaty things for fake meaty things and ate the same way I always did.

Note: I understand that many people become vegetarian or vegan because of the cruel way animals raised for food are treated. I understand and respect that position. This didn’t play into my initial decision at all. Sure…I love animals. Sure I wish they could all be treated nicely. I didn’t stop eating them because they weren’t though. Over the years, my opinion of this has changed. I’m still not an activist, and I don’t ever plan on becoming one. But I am more sympathetic to the animal rights cause. Maybe it’s because I’ve just been more exposed to the facts and people who are more involved. I’m not sure. It is true that those people you surround yourself will influence you.

As you read in my last post, I started running again. First that 5k, and then a Half Marathon later that year with Team and Training. 20131028-150122.jpg
I was satisfied at that distance…for a time. I ran the half a few more times, and in 2011, I toed the line at my first marathon…crazy. 20131028-150307.jpg
I was still eating my mostly healthy vegetarian diet, which included eggs, milk, and cheese. Occasionally I’d crave a good meatball like my Grandma used to make, but most of the time I didn’t miss meat. Not even bacon.

My weight hovered around 150 lbs…my Army weight. I had just trained for and ran a successful marathon. Maybe this was my “natural weight.” Where I should be. I was in the best shape of my life (so far), but I wanted more. Becoming a vegetarian was never about losing weight for me…it still isn’t. Honestly, neither was running. I just wanted to feel good. To be my best “me.” And I wasn’t…not yet.

I ran another marathon in the spring of 2012, though I had a nagging injury. If the race didn’t include a trip to see my parents in Utah and the fundraising for the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, I might not have done it all. But I did. The race brought it’s own challenges, but I didn’t feel any better. And I knew the problem was still my diet…but I was in denial.

It was soon after that I found ultra. None of my friends at the time were doing anything like this. (Oddly enough, most of my friends now are! Surround yourself with greatness, right?) And that’s when healthy eating really started making an impact. You mean I don’t have to count calories? Or suck down those nasty gel things? I can eat real food while I’m running? No way! Trust me…it’s true.

In 2012, in addition to 2 marathons and countless shorter races, I ran my first trail race…a 60K ultramarathon. I had no idea what I was doing.

All I knew was this: Keep drinking water, keep eating, keep going!

That was my whole plan. And it worked. I left that race, one of only a few finishers and with a First Place AG award. What? A month later I ran the Columbus Marathon for a second time, with a 27min PR. Hmm…maybe there’s something to the healthy eating thing after all. 20131028-153144.jpg
What changed? I started reading food labels. Granted, in the beginning this was time consuming. I quickly learned which products were worth buying, and which things I was better off making myself. I experimented with making my own bread, tomato sauce and salsa. And then I started buying more things that didn’t come with labels…namely a lot of fresh produce. Whole foods. That was the key. I didn’t own a scale (I still don’t), but my clothes started feeling looser. I went to the store where I always get my jeans. Instead of the size 8s I always bought, I could comfortably fit in a size 4. A 4? I didn’t wear a 4 in high school! I took my son to the doctor shortly after that, and stepped on their scale. 135lbs. I was shocked. I wasn’t trying to lose weight. It was a natural result of treating my body well. I could get used to this!

To finish out the season, I took on the Goofy Challenge in January of this year. You can read about in an earlier post. I ran both the half and full marathon while eating real food, and felt fantastic after each. 20131028-151801.jpg
So is that the end of the story? Not exactly. I still wanted more. I read about many vegan athletes and wondered about how much influence their diet had on their performance. Then I quickly dismissed the thought. I’m Italian. I LOVE cheese. I can do without eggs and milk, but cheese? That would be torture. Or would it? I guess you’ll have to wait and see…

My Food Journey…The Early Years

If you’re following me on twitter, you’ve probably noticed I’ve been talking about food more than usual. I know…is that really possible? Yes…yes it is.

You see…11 days ago I made a significant change in my diet. 100% plant-based. That’s right. I quit dairy cold tur…tofurky? Whatever. The straw that broke the camel’s back was meeting Matt Frazier: Boston marathoner, Burning River 100 finisher, author of No Meat Athlete, and all-around cool guy. But I’ll get to that in an upcoming post.

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about this decision. Most people know that I was a vegetarian for the last five years. It’s been great…mostly. I still had some dairy sensitivities, but I was happy. Maybe I should start there. 20131023-095451.jpg
My third child, a daughter was born five years ago this past July. I wasn’t running…at all. I weighed 190lbs. My diet was a train wreck. And I didn’t care. What I did care about were these terrible migraines I was getting everyday. I visited my primary care doctor (then my OB/GYN), who referred me to a neurologist. I was scared. A neurologist? Something is wrong with my brain? Great. Panic settled in. I was convinced I had a brain tumor. Now I’m not sleeping and the migraines are getting worse as a result. He tried a bunch of pills: pills as a preventative, pills to take when you think you’re getting a migraine. Really? When I think I’m getting one? I have one now just thinking about what that feels like. Pop. Pop. This is not working.

Next step: MRI. See…I told you I have a brain tumor. We’ll see it on the scans.

Side note: Have you ever had an MRI? Of your head? I had one of my legs while I was in the Army. This was WAY more terrifying. They put your head in this cage and tell you not to move. That loud noise…is right by your head! I’ve seen enough sci-fi movies to know what happens next. Start panicking…but don’t move. And another migraine.

As if something could be worse, I now had to wait for the scans to be read. “If you could just point to the tumor…” Ok…there was no tumor. Everything was normal. But I didn’t feel any better.

Next! Elimination diet. We started with red meat (which I almost never ate) and pork (bye, bye bacon). Then seafood. And chicken. Dairy wasn’t even considered. I mean…I’m Italian, and you just took away half of my plate. There was no way you were taking my cheese.

I felt better, but not perfect. He suggested exercise, and I laughed. This was post-Army. I was on an exercise ban. I was told I would never run normally again after injuries sustained during my service. (Good thing runners are NOT normal!) So I started walking. Then a jog around the block. And the next one. I fell in love.

This is me after running my first 5k in 2009. Scary. Good thing I didn’t stop there!
I’m not certain any one food was responsible for the headaches, and I could have easily gone back to eating meat. But after 6 months it was my new normal. After a year I decided I wasn’t going back. I was down to my Army weight again…although I had three kids since then…and bodies change. I still hadn’t run my first half marathon. It was barely a thought in my mind at this point, but I would…just a few months later. And even bigger changes were coming. But we’ll get to that in the next post. I think that’s enough embarrassing photos for now. ❤

Real Food on the Run

I need to apologize. I wanted to get this out yesterday, but I was a little preoccupied. You may (or may not) know that I’m training for a 50 mile race…and it’s just under three weeks away. Three weeks? Eek! So my mind is consumed with doubt and running. Did I mention doubt?

Anyway…here’s the post I promised, though not as in depth as I hoped. We’ll continue this discussion throughout the summer, and I do have a few product reviews and recipes that I’ll be sharing…but I’ll likely reference them here. Again…my apologies.

Running fuel manufacturers…I’m not pointing fingers or naming names here…will all tell you the same thing.

You need to replace calories while running…especially on the long run and during races.

This is true. Naturally…or not so naturally…they are hoping you’ll use their product…gels, chews, electrolyte replacement drinks, fizzy tablets, and pills. Go to any half or full marathon, and you’ll see a race course littered with foil packets and and a sticky mess surrounding the water stops. These products seem to be the staple around such events. They all use primarily sugar, and sometimes honey, to fuel the body until…the next gel. They spike your blood sugar, which is great for a surge in energy.

The problem is two-fold. First, you need to keep adding sugar to maintain that surge. And second, the after-effects can range from a serious post-sugar crash to GI issues both during and after the event. Yuck!

I find it funny. Many of these athletes wouldn’t indulge in such sweetness in their regular diet, but while running, they down these products like…well…candy. And I was no different. It wasn’t until I was training for my second marathon that I realized this fuel wasn’t going to cut it. The feeling would creep in around mile 16. I was HUNGRY! And I wanted more than that sloshing stomach and the immediate trip to a portable toilet after the race. I wanted food. Real food. Something I could chew. And something that tasted good.

So I started doing some research.

This will likely come as no surprise to my trail-running readers.

You can eat real food while running.

I know. Shocking. It’s true. But what? And here’s the problem. Almost anything will work…but you are what you eat, right? And you get out what you put in? I know this local doc, and he says something like this…

If you want muscles like Twinkies, go ahead and eat Twinkies. I’d rather have muscles like broccoli. So I’m going to eat more broccoli.

And, of course, he’s right.

I started with prepared foods because it was the easiest. Convenience isn’t always bad…but you have to be careful. Fig Newtons (yes…cookies) have a similar nutritional content to a gel. They have a few more calories and carbs, but they still have potassium which is necessary for runners. The main source of energy is still sugar, but it was a good start. Cheaper too.

I need to mention timing before we go any further. Gels and chews are mainly carbohydrate. The one benefit of their composition is that digestion starts in the mouth, so you feel that surge quickly. When you start eating real food, you will need to allow for some digestion time. That means eating early and often. A few bites, here and there. Practice. That’s the only way you’re going to learn how soon to start and how much you can keep down and still move. It’s an adjustment, but its worth it.

Ok…back to food. Cookies are great. I still have dreams of Pringles and peanut butter chocolate chip cookies I found in an Aid Station box during a group run once. Yummy! Trail runners will eat anything…but I digress.

The thing is, I’m not going to tell you what to eat. Remember, I’m not a nutritionist or a dietician. I am going to suggest a few things to try, but please, do some research on your own. Don’t take my word for it. You should know what you’re putting in your mouth!

Real food running fuel as used by myself or other experienced runners:

Bananas – harder to carry, but easy at aid stations. Also great in cookies (recipe in a later post) Potassium!

PB&J – you ate it as a kid…and it’s just as tasty on the run. Whole grains can be tough for some to digest while running, so experiment with bread choices.

Raisins, Dates & Figs – easy to carry, natural sugar.

Nuts – Protein! I like almonds best, followed by peanuts…get the unsalted unless you are the kind of person that gets cramps. I’m a salty sweater and get plenty of sodium!

Pickles – tested cramp preventer! Even mid-cramp pickle juice can help release the muscle. I start eating them during the taper, and always have them on hand during a race.

Potatoes – a favorite during ultras because they have MORE potassium than bananas. Often served boiled and salted. Sweet potatoes are ok, but they do have more fiber and significantly more sugar. White potatoes are NOT bad for you…just don’t fry them…or load them up with butter, cheese, sour cream, and bacon! Pringles are good too (stick with plain since the flavored have MSG)!

I said I would talk later about a few products that I do use, but I wanted to mention them here.

ENERGYbits (Spirulina) – a great vegan source of protein, vitamins, and energy without caffeine. Low calorie, so make sure you’re eating other foods too. You can read my review of this product in an earlier post.

AMRITAbars – vegan, raw, gluten-free, soy-free, peanut-free. These bars taste amazing. Energy bars in a variety of flavors for use during exercise filled with fruit and seeds, and a recovery bar that tastes like a fudge brownie! Review coming soon!

Try something. Try everything. Just make sure you’re reading the labels. Isn’t your performance worth the research?

So tell me…what are you eating?

Labels…they’re not ALL bad

I’m in the middle of a huge training weekend, so I’m just going to leave you with a quick post today.

I cheated. I ate a doughnut. Two actually. It IS National Doughnut Day…and I am running 40mi this weekend. Those are not excuses. I refuse to feel guilty. The extra sugar did make my stomach feel terrible, and I could use a nap!
Lesson learned.

Back to today’s point…labels.

Everything has a label.

Produce has labels…do you know the difference? Here’s a quick cheat sheet:
Definitely avoid that last one…but these are not the labels I’m worried about.
Have you ever read the labels on prepared foods? That’s what I want you to start doing. If you don’t know what an ingredient is, look it up. Better yet, don’t buy it! I want you to decide which ingredients are unhealthy. But I’m going to give you two to start with.

Artificial sweeteners: Yup. Fake sugar. Do we eat fake food? Not any more. I’m not going to debate whether these products cause cancer or other health problems. I’m eliminating them because they are artificial by definition. Here’s where you’ll find them, but read food labels. All of these must be listed on the label per the FDA.

NutraSweet® and Equal® are brand names for aspartame.
Other artificial sweeteners on the market include sucralose (Splenda®), acesulfame K (Sweet One®, Sunett®), and saccharin (Sweet’N Low®, SugarTwin®).

Monosodium Glutamate: Good old MSG. It’s a “flavor enhancer.” More flavor can’t be bad! Here’s a thought…if your food tasted good to start with, why would you need to “enhance” it? You’ll likely find this in food items that should be avoided anyway…and almost anything with “cheese flavoring.” If you want the flavor of cheese, just eat cheese. Don’t eat cheese-flavored chips! Maybe if our taste buds weren’t overloaded by the amount of sugar we eat, we could taste the natural flavors without enhancing them.

Don’t get me started on sugar. Another day…

So that’s it. Just start reading labels. I find the food that tastes the best has the least amount of ingredients anyway. I just want you to know what you’re putting into your mouth.

On Tuesday, I’ll have a special post for runners…How to fuel on Real Food. Don’t miss it!

A note on drinking

I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of diet plans and products that promote quick weight loss. And, by now, you know how they accomplish that.


Most of us are carrying around excess water that can easily mean 2-5 extra pounds (maybe more) that we can drop at a moment’s notice and poof…the diet works! Right?

Wrong! Resume normal eating and drinking habits and the pounds are right back. But do they have to be? Is it possible we are over-consuming water and other beverages, and carrying that weight for no reason?

I used to drink soda…specifically Coke…every day. Two cans. The year I stopped, I lost about 10lbs easily. This was mostly because of the sugar I now wasn’t consuming, but I quickly put back a few of those pounds drinking my eight, 8oz. glasses of water each day.

Diet soda is an even worse offender. But it has the word “diet” or “zero” in the name! It can’t be bad for you! Think again. It’s a beverage with ingredients that have zero calories? It takes some magic to conjure that…usually in the form of FAKE sugar. And since this is the Eat REAL Food Challenge, we’re not going to touch that stuff. Sure…Stevia comes from a plant…and if you need to add sugar to your coffee, I’d much prefer you add that over white, processed sugar. More on that later…this is about drinks.

Most days I stick to two liquids: water and coffee. Sure…I’ll enjoy a beer or two after a good run, and I won’t turn down a glass of wine with friends. But no commercial juice and no soda. There are a few exceptions…if you’re a distance runner please drink what your body needs…but don’t miss the following article.

Tim Noakes, MD wrote this great book last year entitled Waterlogged. If you haven’t read it, you should. I’ve included a link to an extensive review on the blog which discusses the main points. Warning, it’s long and somewhat scientific, but it addresses the main myths about hydration, specifically for runners.

So drink up! Just keep it REAL!

Eat More Often

Ready? I said the first challenge would be easy. You can do it.

Eat More Often

I making an assumption here about the people taking on this challenge. Remember, I said its mostly for me.
I’m assuming you are “fairly active.” What does that mean? You do SOMETHING every day. It can be as little as a 15 minute walk. But it’s something. You walk up the stairs in your house a few times a day. You walk from your car to the office…grocery store…park…something! I guarantee that even on a “rest” day, you probably walk about a mile. That’s what I mean.

Three “square” meals don’t cut it for most people. You’re going to cheat. Trust me. You will snack…and the worst offense will be right before bed. THAT is the one that’s going right to your you-know-what!

Why not try this:

Eat 3 “meals” and 2-3 PLANNED snacks.

Use a smaller plate for your meals (smaller plates hopefully means smaller portions), and try to eat every 3-4 hours. You should never feel “stuffed.” If you’re hungry 3 hours after dinner, eat again. Just because it’s nighttime doesn’t mean you have to eat ice cream! At this point I’m not going to suggest what those snacks should be. We’ll get to that.

I know there are conflicting studies out about whether eating more frequently helps you lose weight. And that’s fine. Weight loss isn’t the ultimate goal here.

Remember, this is not a diet.

I want to feel better, with more energy. That will make me want to be more active, and THAT, coupled with eating clean, will keep me at a healthy weight for me. If you want to temporarily drop pounds for some timed challenge, go for it. I’m not interested in weighing myself. Ever. I don’t even own a scale. Eating more regularly will keep your blood sugar at a more even keel, and that can’t be bad. It certainly should help with some of those cravings!

If you’re already doing this, no problem. You’re a step ahead. I just want us all on the same page. I want to hear about your snacks this week. Post pictures on twitter with me! And don’t forget to tag them with #EatRealFood. What are you eating?

Next Challenge is coming up on Tuesday!

A Summer Challenge

It’s been forever. I know. As it is, I’m typing this with one hand. Don’t ask.

Tomorrow is June 1st. It finally feels like summer weather might stick around. School is out (or just about) and we’re deep into picnic and grilling season. Ah…the foods of summer…fresh fruits and veggies, farmer’s markets, and tasty beverages. Oh…and race season.

I love to eat as much as anyone…but hotdogs, potato salad, and apple pie go right to my you-know-what. I decided my food choices needed a revamp…and some of you thought that yours might need that too.

Here’s a snippet of where I’m coming from…
I’ve lost 50lbs since I started my journey, but plateaued about a year ago at what I thought was my “meant to be” weight. I was regularly training for yet another marathon, so I MUST be healthy. Hardly. They say “abs are born in the kitchen,” and they aren’t lying. And no…you can’t see mine…I’m still working on them. When I started training for ultras, I had to change some things. First, that processed fuel…that’s not going to work for me. And this “rungry” all the time…something’s not right. I was eating all the wrong things, and getting nowhere. I had zero energy. I wasn’t sure I could stay awake for 24hrs, forget running for that time…still untested…but approaching fast. Eek! Then I started eating better. And I lost 20lbs. And it stayed off!

Hence the #EatRealFood Summer Challenge. I’m doing this mostly for me. You’re welcome to follow along, and of course, try any of my suggestions. Some will pertain specifically to running, as that’s what I do, but most, if not all, can easily be applied to anyone. And please…share with me your ideas, wins, and losses. Post pictures of your food. Recipes. Anything.

This is not a diet!

*I am not a nutritionist. Please don’t send me your food journal and ask me what you’re doing wrong. Although I’m happy to suggest small changes that work for me, I cannot “advise” you in any way. I will offer suggestions from people who can, and their writings. I’ll reference those articles and books here on the blog and on twitter.

At first I thought this would be a 30 Day challenge, but my health, and yours, is more important than just 30 days. So I’m shooting for 90…June, July, and August, which should set us all up for fall racing. I certainly hope you’ll feel better as we go, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll drop a few pounds if that’s your goal.

I’ll post a challenge twice a week…something small, and something I’d like you to continue throughout the challenge. Sometimes it will be something to “do,” and sometimes just something to read or think about.

A few ground rules:

I will never ask you to do something I won’t do.
You can join in now, or at any point. I’ll make a tab on the blog where I list all the challenges.

You can stop at any time. There is no failure in this challenge. Making better food choices is always a win, no matter how small.

I will never ask you to throw out food, you’ve already purchased. You might re-think buying it again, but I don’t have the money to resupply my fridge and pantry either. Baby steps.

Please share any thoughts about the challenge, or what you’re finding on twitter using the hash tag #EatRealFood. Tag me @RisenBird. Or comment on the blog.

Challenge #1 is coming tomorrow. You can do this!