Is the Mediterranean Diet a Good Fit for Runners? The Mediterranean diet is having a moment, as the kids like to say. More accurately, it’s having yet another moment. As far back as the 1950’s, researchers picked up on the health benefits of how people in these regions ate. By the 1990’s, the Mediterranean diet was widely known – and wildly popular – while still sharing the spotlight with talk show and magazine fodder like, the Ornish Diet, the South Beach Diet, the Atkins Diet, and the cabbage soup diet. Yeah, that was a thing.
“The Mediterranean diet is really a just general term to describe the eating habits inspired by the countries bordering the Mediterranean sea,” said Matt Dengler, a Registered Dietician, and owner of RxRD Nutrition. “Think Greece, Italy, Spain, and Southern France.”
It generally includes a high consumption of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean protein. Additionally, intake of red meat is limited and wine may be consumed in low to moderate amounts usually during meal time, added Dengler. This style of eating is generally looked as beneficial due to its emphasis on more nutrient-dense whole-foods and limiting processed foods.
“Like most diets, people have a hard time subscribing to a strict list of ‘allowed’ foods and ‘restricted’ foods,” said Chef Rhonda Stewart, Senior Instructor at the College of Culinary Arts atJohnson & Wales University. “The Mediterranean diet takes a more holistic approach by incorporating diet into a healthy lifestyle.”
It’s not just about the food, but about how you live AND eat, said Stewart, including getting plenty of fresh air, exercise, sleep, as well as nutritious meals. The focus remains on the food even though the concept is so much more than diet.
By comparison, the American or Western diet, is higher in added sugar, saturated fat, larger portions, and red meat. Western dietsalso include a larger amount of processed foods such as chips, crackers, cookies, baked good, sweets, etc. Those eating a Western diet tend to eat lower amounts of fruits and vegetables, meaning they’ll also get lower amounts of fiber, phytochemicals, and antioxidants; all of which are beneficial for overall health and longevity.
What’s in it for runners:
Runners can benefit from following a Mediterranean diet in several ways, said Dengler. The Mediterranean diet includes carbohydrates such as whole-grains, fruits, and vegetables which provide sustained energy while running. It also includes healthy fats, such as fatty fish and olive oil, which can reduce inflammation and aid in recovery. Additionally, the abundance of fruits and vegetables provides antioxidants which can combat oxidative stress placed on the body during bouts of intense physical activity and also help with recovery.
The principles of the Mediterranean diet apply throughout training, too. When preparing for longer runs, healthy carbohydrates such as oats and brown rice can provide energy and help fuel performance. For shorter runs, fruit is a quick-digesting carbohydrate which can provide immediate energy. Runners can optimize recovery by consuming omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fatty fish, nuts, and seeds.
Here’s how to make it work: You don’t have to work hard to reap the benefits of a Mediterranean diet, added Chef Stewart. And it doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive.
-Think clean and lean. Proteins can be grilled or roasted, with a pregame marinade in some garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. Same treatment for the vegetables.
-Plan ahead. Think fresh and simple. If your life includes a typical work week, grill extra protein on Sunday. Use this for quick meal prep during the week. The Sunday grilled/roasted chicken can then be Monday’s chicken salad with a lemon vinaigrette.
-Avoid commercially-packaged products such as rice mixes or sauces. They may be easier but they also have unwanted added ingredients such as preservatives or unnecessary sugars. Use olive oil, garlic, fresh herbs, and spices to liven-up any dish.
-Make your own salad dressings. These can then also be used as a quick marinade or added flavoring to your rice or quinoa.
-Make extra grains for dinner and save “planned-overs” to create a take-to-work lunch salad with your homemade vinaigrette.
-Keep whole grains and legumes on hand. Animal-sourced protein is not required. A can of chickpeas, cannellini beans, or black beans can be a good start to a delicious meal. If available, choose the “low-sodium” version.
-Be creative. When you think Mediterranean, don’t limit yourself to these countries. You can easily incorporate these healthful concepts of more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based proteins into the cuisine of your culture.
You don’t necessarily need to follow the Mediterranean Diet, or any diet to be healthier and fuel your performance. Incorporating a wide variety of healthy lean meats or plant-based proteins, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fats, fruits and vegetables onto your plate benefits your overall health and your running.
What works best for you is eating the healthy foods you love that make you feel good and run great, too. The Mediterranean Diet can provide the structure and guidance you need to get started. # # #