Thursday, May 14, 2015

Sports Nutrition Part 3: Tweaking Lunch & Dinner

(Again, I really hope it goes without saying that I am not a nutritionist or dietician or really any kind of expert at this stuff, and all of this is based on what ONE sports nutritionist explained to me about MY particular situation and needs. I'm happy to entertain questions if people have them--just know that I may not know the answer, and if I try to guess based on what I *think* I understand, I may get it wrong. But, I hope this helps provide some insight about sports nutrition to people who are interested!)

So originally I said this part would be about lunch/snacking, but honestly I think it probably just makes more sense to talk about the whole rest of the day because there were fewer changes to that stuff than to pre-lunch eating & the biggest change was the same for both.

Relevant bits from the first two posts include the facts that my body needs 2.5 g protein and 2.5 g CHO (carbohydrate) every hour just to stay alive and not feel hungry, and that when we eat carbs under normal circumstances (ie, not first thing in the morning or right after exercise), our bodies can only convert the carbs we eat into glycogen (muscle or liver storage, where we want it) at a rate of about 1 gram per minute.

Re: breakfast, my assignment was to have a glass of water (16ish oz), a little milk (4-6 oz), and a piece of fruit when I get up at 6, a granola bar (~100 calories from CHO) after finishing strength work around 7:45, and a slice of bread with sunflower seed butter & chia seeds and another glass of milk when I get to work around 8:30. (I can split the water up into half when I get up & half over the course of my drive to the gym, because my stomach was struggling with the volume.) In theory, this was supposed to meet all my nutritional needs at the right times, and if we got it right, I wouldn't be hungry again until lunch. (Though, if I found myself getting hungry, my instructions were to eat & report back so we could adjust, not stick to the plan and be hungry as hunger = low blood sugar = muscles tissue eating itself).

On to the rest of the day!


At work, my lunch is almost always the same--a can of chicken breast, half a can of black beans, half a can of diced tomatoes (I get the spicy ones with green chilis for extra flavor), and half an avocado. Mix it together in a bowl & microwave for a few minutes, & it's basically like eating burrito innards (and I luuuuvs me some burrito). Sometimes, though, if I haven't done my grocery shopping or run out of my normal lunch supplies at work, I'll end up going out to the local deli for a chicken or turkey sandwich. Then I usually have a snack right before I leave work so that I'm not heading out the door for a run or karate & suddenly starving. I also drink loose-leaf tea out of a press pot pretty much all day.

On karate days, dinner is almost always whatever we can get at 9:30 at night--pizza, burritos, Indian food, Thai food, Chinese food, burgers, shawarma, etc.--or maybe leftovers. On non-karate days, we might have leftovers, or go out to/get takeout from one of the 51,467 restaurants within walking distance of our house, or if we don't have evening plans and I'm feeling enthusiastic & not exhausted, I might cook something (usually chicken or fish with vegetables/salad and a starch). Honestly, I prefer to cook, but our weeks tend to be difficult to plan ahead, so it just depends on what we have or if I have the energy to walk the half-mile and back to our local market. (Boo hoo hoo. My life is sooooo hard. Not. This paragraph is practically dripping with food privilege & I hope we all know it. I just hate shopping & sometimes get sort of tired & lazy after a run.)


Thankfully, my usual lunch got the Dr. C seal of approval. There is plenty of protein from the chicken and beans, healthy fats from the avocado, plenty of carbs from the tomatoes and beans, and because beans are so fiber-rich, they will slow down the digestion of all those carbs so that I get a steady stream in that safe ~1 g/mt range over the course of the afternoon (meaning the CHO will get stored in my muscles & liver as glycogen, rather than as unneeded fat).

Re: sandwiches, I'd always figured that since I got wheat bread with spinach and sprouts and avocado (in addition to meat & cheese), this was a perfectly fine lunch for an athlete. Dr. C. said that it wasn't bad necessarily, but if the goal is to optimize for endurance performance, it could be improved. The issue is the carb content--not the amount, but the fact that bread digests quickly (whole grains only slow it down by ~10%, which is negligible), and a whole deli sandwich worth will very quickly take the rate your body is getting glucose well above the 1 g/mt safe zone and cause a bunch of it to get stored as fat rather than muscle/liver glycogen.

I mentioned before that I was sort of cringing at the thought of what he would say about my dinner habits, but maybe not for the reasons you think. Contrary to how it might sound, even our quick post-karate dinners are not all THAT terribly unhealthy. When we get pizza, we get the Mediterranean Chicken (grilled chicken, artichokes, red peppers, olives, and roasted garlic). When we get burritos, we get stewed or grilled chicken or pork with black beans and avocado on a whole wheat tortilla (no cheese, sour cream, etc.). Shawarmas are roasted chicken with eggplant, hummus, and cucumber yogurt sauce. Overwhelmingly, we tend to eat lean-ish meat and aren't too much with the less healthy condiments.

This post needs more pictures:

Chili verde chicken burrito with black beans & avocado on a whole wheat tortilla

Deep Dish Mediterranean Chicken Pizza

Chicken shawerma with extra eggplant

My main concern was that I was overdoing the carbs at dinner, particularly white flour-based carbs, at least more often than not. I was bracing for him to say, "Less white grains, less flour all around, actually, oh and also you should cook at home more because DUH, everyone knows that's better."

But this is not what happened. One of Dr. C.'s main tenets seems to be that people gonna eat what they love and it is the exceedingly rare human being who can change their eating habits that dramatically for more than a brief period of time. And change your cooking habits? Forget about it. Not most people. Not in the long term.

("Will power is utter bullshit," he said. Okay, I am paraphrasing, but that was the basic gist: People do not change their eating habits with will power, and anyone who says differently is selling something. The stuff is finite, and by evening it's more or less gone anyway.)

The problem with most of my dinners, he said, was NOT too much white flour naan and white flour pizza crust and white rice and white flat bread and whatever. The problem was--say it with me, now--the rate at which those particular carbs digest relative to how fast my body can process them at that point. Immediately after exercise? Not really a problem. 45 minutes to an hour later, though, and you get only some of it getting sent to your muscles & liver (which need those carbs) while the rest gets stored as fat you probably don't need.

Also, I wasn't particularly drinking water with dinner, which can be problematic since your body needs it for digestion, particularly if your meal is higher in salt (ie, pizza, burrito, Chinese food, etc.). Luckily my tea counts as the water I need for digestion during the day. (Dr. C. says you need about 1 liter of water per day per 1,000 calories, plus whatever you drink during exercise. More than that won't hurt you, but also doesn't accomplish anything. Clear pee doesn't make you extra-virtuous; really it just means you're wasting water.)


Thankfully, there was only really one significant change here, which applies to both my deli sandwich and my dinner habits, and it does NOT involve cutting down on my white flour/bread consumption. Again, my body needs those carbs! My muscles work hard and they need to be fed, and my liver is about to spend 8-12 hours single-handedly supporting my entire body almost solely on glycogen (read: stored carbs). But eating an entire naan and a serving of rice does me no good if half of it gets stored as unnecessary fat. So what to do?

The issue is that we have to slow down the digestion of all those carbs to within that 1 gram per minute "safe" zone, and the easiest way to do that is to take whatever volume of bread/noodles/pizza crust/rice/etc. I'm going to eat, and have double that in crunchy vegetables (or 3-4x if it's greens, since a lot of the volume in salad or whatever is empty space). He made a point of saying that 2-4x the bread volume is more than people think, and I have found that to be true. Even when I'd normally cook at home & have salad and/or veggies with my protein & starch, I probably was not eating that much.

Now, you may often hear people say, "Oh, eat a bunch of vegetables with your dinner and it'll make you full because of all the fiber and water content, so you'll eat less and feel fuller." According to Dr. C, this might happen, but just feeling full is NOT the primarily mechanism by which this practice helps people become leaner and metabolically healthier.

What happens is this: Because crunchy vegetables contain a lot of plant fiber and digest slowly as a result, having them before or with all the fast-digesting carbs will slow down everything. That way, instead of getting a bunch of CHO all at once, your body gets a slow, steady stream over the course of many hours, which means 1) more CHO sent to muscles & liver as fuel (glycogen), 2) less CHO stored as unnecessary fat, & 3) a longer period of time before you start to feel hungry again. Doing this at dinner also keeps blood sugar more stable over night.

There are some added bonuses here as well, some obvious & some maybe less obvious:

  • Crunchy vegetables and greens contain a lot of nutrition you can't get from the other food groups, and most of us already don't eat enough of them.
  • Because plant leaves don't want things to eat them, they contain mild toxins (phytonutrients) that kill off many bacteria, fungi, etc., which is another part of how vegetables boost our immune systems & generally make us healthier.
  • That whole free radicals thing. (It's science-y and complicated, but if you're interested you can read more about it here. Also some notes about why athletes in particular should care maybe more than non-athletes.)

So that was the biggest take-away for me in terms of how I can use my lunch & dinner to better support my running goals.

There were a few other smaller notes about my lunch/dinner/snacking situation, like:

  • My pre-run snack of Triscuits & yogurt/cereal & milk/fruit & milk/etc. were all fine as long as I pay attention not to eat more than I need. (Again, the carb issue, because although I do actually enjoy vegetables, I really don't want to have to eat a giant salad before running.) He said to make sure to always have protein (milk or yogurt, for example) with the carbs.
  • Drink another ~16 ounces or so of water with dinner. I'm getting around 2,000 calories a day, give or take, so ~16 ounces in the morning + a liter of tea over the course of the day + ~16 ounces night (plus whatever I drink during exercise) basically covers it.

So that's about it for lunch and dinner. Again, the point is not "EVERYONE SHOULD EAT THIS WAY!" or even "ALL RUNNERS SHOULD EAT THIS WAY!" It's just about how you may be able to tweak things a little to get the most out of your nutrition IF you want to and IF optimizing your performance for a particular time period or event is particularly interesting to you.

Next time, I'll discuss what we talked about re: fueling/re-fueling.


  1. Thanks for sharing all of this stuff. Super interesting.

  2. This has all been fascinating, although the idea of that many veggies is a little intimidating! (Also, full disclosure, I get so tired of forking the perfect bite when I eat salads that large ones are sometimes daunting.) Have I exposed myself as a fake adult yet?

    I suppose, it may also be effective to just eat smaller amounts across the day?

    1. My understanding is yes, if you can swing eating every hour or two & never more than ~100 calories of CHO at a time, you could theoretically get the carbs you need while keeping the absorption rate in the < 1 g/mt range. (If you do the vegetables, it's got to be before (up to 10 minutes) or concurrent to make a difference; you can't, say, eat 3 pieces of pizza and THEN a bunch of vegetables.)

  3. Interesting. When people ask me about weight loss, I always tell them to increase fiber with meals to slow gastric emptying. It's got that double whammy - makes you feel full; slows absorption rate.

    1. That's what it sounds like to me!

  4. Thanks for these posts, really interesting stuff. One question - I note that you're quite specific about crunchy vegetables. Does that mean that vegetables that aren't that crunchy don't have the same effect on slowing digestion? So having a load of raw carrot and red pepper sticks with your bread / rice / whatever would be fine, but if you cooked those same carrot and red pepper sticks, or had cooked broccoli or zucchini or eggplant, it wouldn't have the same digestion-slowing effect?

    1. Sadly, yes....I learned from him that cooking vegetables to the point that they're soft & squishy destroys the fiber, which is the part you need. (It also cooks out some of the nutrition, but I'm not sure how much or what exactly.) They don't have to be raw - a little light cooking is okay. (They should still have a good bit of crunch.) Also, apparently blending greens into smoothies makes the pieces too small to do anything, which was kind of a bummer to learn.

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  6. Really interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing!