Runners know that the miles they log on the pavement, trail and treadmill are great for keeping them fit. But another thing that's high on the list of the sport's many virtues is that it's an amazing weight-control tool. But weight loss is a different story.
Runners often think they can eat whatever they want and still shed the pounds. Unfortunately, that's not true. Running is only half of the equation. You have to look hard at what you eat - and how you eat, too.
Leslie Bonci, author of Run Your Butt Off!, pinpoints eight crucial nutrition rules of weight loss. Bonci's advice can help any runner who wants to lose weight - whether it's five pounds or five stone. She'll show you how to track your food intake, space meals throughout the day to ward off hunger and honestly count the calories you consume.
These methods were tested by real runners who overhauled their eating habits and shed an impressive amount of weight over 12 weeks. And if they can do it, so can you.
Take really good notes
Writing down everything you eat may sound tedious, but it pays off: studies have shown that people who log their food intake regularly keep more weight off than those who don't take notes.
Bonci recommends recording everything you eat for at least one week (and then doing so again every few weeks after that), including important details, such as when, where, why and how much you eat. "Reviewing these details will help you glean important information about your habits and highlight ways you can make healthier choices," says Bonci.
Make it work
Keep a food log: a notebook will do the trick, as will an Excel spreadsheet or storing details on your mobile phone. Bonci suggests recording whether or not you're hungry when you eat and grading the day from 1 to 5 (1 being unhealthy and 5 being super healthy). "This can be a reality check, as in, 'I'm not doing so badly after all' or 'My diet is worse than I thought'," says Bonci.
Do not rush weight-loss
In Bonci's experience of helping clients lose weight, she's noticed the self-education process takes about 12 weeks.
You need three months to train your brain to make a habit of good consumption behaviour: getting used to reading labels at the supermarket, learning how to plan your meals and shop accordingly, and figuring out how to add in more fruit and vegetables.
Quick-fix or fad diets, like those that rely too much on one ingredient (remember the cabbage soup diet?) or exclude nutrients (like fat or carbs), are destined to fail because they're just that - a quick fix.
"You want habits that are sustainable for years, not a few days," says Bonci. And it takes time to develop these habits. Remember, you're a work in progress - as an eater and an athlete.
Make it work
One of the keys to slimming down for good is avoiding some of the common mistakes people make when trying to lose weight quickly. They're usually errors of deprivation: limiting options until your taste buds get bored, or holding yourself to impossible standards. Then when you fall off the wagon, all the bad habits quickly return.So remember to be flexible and don't be too hard on yourself.
Make your food taste good
"When people go into diet mode, all they eat is grilled chicken salad, day in day out," says Bonci. "Pretty soon their eyes, tongue and brain start begging for something else - like salty crisps or sweet ice cream."
She suggests trying foods with different textures, spices and flavours. The more variety, the less likely you'll experience cravings for less healthy items.
Keep fine-tuning your plan
Sometimes an injury throws your upcoming race out the window. So you re-adjust and come back stronger. The same holds true for your diet.
A good way to re-examine your strategy is to restart your food log. You might realise you've been hungrier on tough workout days and need an extra snack. Or you might see you've been rushing through lunch and should slow down.
Don't give up
Just because you had an extra custard cream, don't fall into the 'I've blown it' school of thought. "People set up such rigid guidelines," Bonci says. "Then it's, 'Uh-oh, I deviated, so I might as well continue eating until I go to bed.'
Get out of that 'good vs bad' mindset. Maybe it was more than you wanted, but it's not the end of the world. Move on. You'll be far more successful on your path to weight loss."
Picture credit: Jamie Grill/ Getty Images
Measure what you eat
Get out a cereal bowl and fill it as you normally would with your favourite brand. Read the label to find out the serving size and the calories per serving.
Now look at what's in your bowl. Is it more than a serving? Less? The chances are, it's more than you think, so use some kitchen scales or a measuring cup to find out.
"We measure with our eyes, and our eyes are terrible judges of portions," says Bonci. A study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found people serve themselves up to 53 per cent more ice cream when simply given a larger scoop and bowl than what they're used to.
And as research shows that people eat about 92 per cent of whatever is in front of them, it pays to know what an appropriate serving looks like. The only way to know that is to measure what you're eating.
Make it work
While it may seem like hassle at first, measuring out food can quickly become part of your daily routine. And after a few weeks of practice, you'll begin to train your eyes and brain to recognise what a serving should look like without having to actually measure it. But first, you need the right tools to get started.
Keep equipment handy
Leave some scales and a set of measuring cups and spoons on your kitchen counter so you remember to use them when you're preparing your meals.
Put a measuring cup in your favourite breakfast cereal so it's easy to measure during your morning rush.
Read the label on snack foods and divide biscuits, crisps and crackers into individual servings. Store each in an airtight bag or container.
Make your mark
Read the label on a block of cheese to find out how many servings are in the package, then score the cheese appropriately.
Beef up your protein intake
Protein is essential for a healthy body: it builds muscle and preserves lean body mass. Every day, runners need at least half a gram of protein per pound of body weight.
For an 11st person, that's 75g. Protein also plays a key role in weight loss, says Bonci. It takes longer to digest, so you feel fuller for longer, and it helps keep blood-sugar levels steady, so you don't get ravenous and feel the need to overeat.
But it's not just how much protein you consume, but when you consume it that's important. Studies show that you should spread your protein intake throughout the day, eating some at each meal.
"Doing so is better for bone health, muscle mass and satiety," Bonci says. "It's more beneficial than eating very little protein during the day, then at night having a huge piece of meat."
Make it work
Even if you add protein to every meal, it can still be hard to meet your daily needs. Bonci suggests getting more by adding it to your snacks. "
Many snack foods are high in simple carbohydrates that digest quickly and are low in protein so they don't keep you full for long," says Bonci. These weight-loss-friendly options offer a dose of protein to satisfy your hunger.
- Smoothie with low-fat chocolate milk and whey protein isolate (27g protein)
- 150g fat-free Greek yoghurt (15g protein)
- 110g cottage cheese with vegetables to dip (14g protein)
- 40g roasted soy nuts (13g protein)
- 70g edamame beans (11g protein)
- 35g bran flakes with 120ml skimmed milk (9g protein)
- Two tablespoons of peanut butter on a banana (9g protein)
- Two slices of reduced-fat cheese with an apple (7g protein)
Picture credit: Michael Rosenfeld/ Getty Images
Add colour to every meal
Eat red, yellow, orange, green and purple food - and Bonci doesn't mean red wine and Haribo Starmix. She's talking about packing your diet with fruit and vegetables.
They're low-calorie and loaded with the vitamins and minerals your body needs to keep your immune system working well and maintain strong bones and muscles. They're also rich in fibre, which is key for slimming down.
Researchers at Tufts University in the US have found that people who eat high- fibre diets are less hungry and lose more weight than people who eat less fibre."It takes longer to process fibre, so you feel full for longer."
Make it work
"Many people have good intentions and buy a bunch of fresh produce," says Bonci. "Then they forget to use it and find it later rotting in the bottom of their fridge." While fresh is great, it's not the only way to work fruit and veg into your diet.
"Frozen, canned and dried - those are all fine, too," says Bonci, who suggests filling at least one-third of your plate with vegetables. Use these ideas to colour every meal and you'll be on the path towards good health and weight loss.
- Add a sliced banana to cereal
- Add berries to yoghurt
- Have a glass of tomato juice
- Add salsa to scrambled eggs
- Top a waffle with canned peaches
- Put cucumber or shredded carrots in sandwiches
- Use hummus as a spread instead of mayo or butter
- Eat raw vegetables in place of crisps
- Blend frozen fruit with soda water for a refreshing drink
A few years back, the idea of 'grazing' came into vogue in dieting circles. The idea was that instead of eating three meals a day, you'd eat six or so small meals.
It seems logical: you'd never get hungry, so you wouldn't eat too much at any one meal. But a study in the journal Obesity found that people who eat low-calorie diets feel more satisfied when they eat three times a day compared with six times a day.
People also tend to graze on unhealthy foods such as biscuits, says Bonci. "Most people don't graze on vegetables." Eating constantly throughout the day increases salivary secretion and the production of digestive enzymes that stimulate the gut, explains Bonci. "You can't know if you're hungry or full if you're constantly exposed to food. Cows graze. People shouldn't."
Make it work
Divide your calories around three meals and one or two snacks, going at least three hours and up to four or five without eating. The goal is to eat when you're hungry but not starving, which reduces the risk of overeating. It will take a few weeks to find the timing that works best for you, but here are two plans to get started.
10am Small snack
Always have a plan
Runners - like anyone else - encounter trouble when there's nothing healthy to eat at home. What's for dinner? Nothing? Might as well have a takeaway.
"You can cut out a lot of calories by creating a menu and making a meal plan and then shopping ahead of time for the ingredients you need to execute that plan," says Bonci. That doesn't mean you have to be rigid about your menu if, say, you get held up at work. But you should have a sense of what you're going to eat over the next seven days.
Make it work
Set aside one hour every weekend to map out your meal plan for the upcoming week. Then create a shopping list for the ingredients you'll need. Stock up on quick and healthy staples, such as tomato sauce and wholewheat pasta for busy days.
You'll notice when you take the time to plan meals, one thing will be missing from your supermarket trolley: junk food. "If you've got fruit, veg, dairy, lean meat and grains in there, the crisps, biscuits and fizzy drinks become the top-off instead of the major component," says Bonci. "There just isn't room for the bad stuff."
A week of good dinners
Slice leftover steak and wrap in a wholewheat tortilla along with pepper strips and salsa.
Roast a chicken (or buy one already cooked). Eat half with a baked sweet potato and steamed broccoli.
Cook rigatoni and one bag of frozen vegetables. Combine with a pasta sauce and some leftover chicken.
Bake halibut topped with onion and seasoned, diced tomatoes. Serve with quinoa and salad.
Cook instant wholegrain brown rice. Top with greens, prawns, pineapple and sesame dressing.
Grill beef and vegetable kebabs. Slice a baking potato, toss with olive oil and salt. Grill on foil.
Grill marinated steak. Serve with roasted asparagus and brown rice (stir in raisins and pecans).
Picture credit: John Slater/ Gettty Images