I have been eagerly anticipating Shalane Flanagan’s Eat Slow, Run Fast cookbook since it was first announced early last year. Not only is Flanagan one of the United States’ most talented female marathoners, but she also looks incredibly strong and healthy. She is not the underfed, skinny-fat stereotype of a female distance runner.
I know that Flanagan’s cookbook will not make me as fast or lean as her. But one of the reasons I’m eager for its release next week is because of Flanagan’s food philosophy: minimally processed foods and plenty of healthy fats. Not only does her cookbook include foods that runners should eat, it features recipes that runners want to eat.
Flanagan explained in an ESPNW interview: “For me, I noticed that I’m not consuming as much sugar because of the added good fats in my diet. Those healthy fats are a healing agent and help me absorb the nutrients I’m consuming. Overall, I feel more satisfied; I don’t have these massive cravings anymore.”
Her co-author, nutritionist and Shalane’s teammate at Chapel Hill Elyse Kopecky, even cured athletic amenorrhea and overcame a series of stress fractures when she lived in Switzerland and starting eating a higher fat diet.
As someone who grew up in the 1990s (I was just barely an 80’s baby, born in September 1989), I used to perceive all fats as bad. I remember learning in health class not to eat any foods that had more than 30% calories from fat. I used to avoid avocados and nuts because I thought they were unhealthy because of how high in fat they were.
Instead, I ate sugary fat-free yogurt, skim milk, and egg whites, all while missing out for years on the deliciousness that is guacamole.
Now, my diet is comprised of approximately 30% of my daily calories from fat – from healthy, mostly unsaturated fat sources such as olive oil, whole eggs, chia seeds, avocados, pepitas, tahini (sesame seed paste), natural peanut butter, and fish.
Research and anecdotal evidence from athletes even indicate that the saturated fat in dairy and meat is beneficial for athletes.
I’m sure many of you eat plenty of healthy fats in your diet. But for those of you who do not, today I want to share with you the benefits of healthy fats for runners as part of a balanced, nutritious diet geared towards optimal athletic performance and overall health.
Four Benefits of Healthy Fats for Runners
1. Eating Enough Fat Controls Sugar Cravings
I will admit that I try to minimize my processed/refined sugar consumption. I let myself have treats such as a donut or a cookie from time to time, because I do not believe in restriction. Most days my sugar comes from 85% dark chocolate, fruit, and unrefined sources such as maple syrup and honey ( in small portions).
(I do drink alcohol, but most alcohol actually contains barely any sugar unless you add a mixer. The fermentation process eats up most of the sugars.)
Part of this is because of my health: I have been diagnosed with both lean PCOS and endometriosis-like symptoms and one of the best alterations to one’s diet for these health issues is through diet, particularly minimizing sugar and simple carbohydrate consumption.
By eating the full-fat, real-food version of foods (plain vs. fat-free yogurt, eggs vs. egg whites, full fat nut butters vs reduced fat peanut butter), you can eliminate unnecessary added sugar. Most lower fat versions of foods have sugar added to them to compensate for flavor).
One surprising thing I noticed since I starting adding more fats into my diet over the past couple years: my sugar cravings significantly decreased. Maybe it’s because fat helps me feel fuller longer, or maybe it’s because since I wasn’t eating enough fat, my body wanted it in a quick form – such as baked goods.
2. Foods with Healthy Fats Contain More Nutrients than Low-fat Alternatives
Take eggs, for example. Egg whites may leave out the fat and calories, but they also leave out the nutrients. Essentially, egg whites are pure protein. The egg yolk contains vitamin B-12, vitamin B6, omega 3 fatty acids, folate, and many other vitamins and minerals. Especially if you do not eat a lot of meat (or any meat at all), you need these nutrients in your diet.
Additionally, many vitamins are fat-soluble – which means you need to eat fat for your body to fully absorb them.
3. Better Fuel Efficiency during Long Runs
I do use Hammer gels for very long runs and races, but for long runs under 12 miles I skip the gels unless I’m practicing race day fueling for the half. I’m hoping to push that to 14-15 miles over the course of marathon training (I’ll share more about my training low/racing high fueling plan next week). I fatigue less quickly and feel less reliant on gels during long runs than I did a couple years.
I don’t know if this is exactly a consequence of eating more fat/less sugar and becoming a better fat burner, or simply gaining more experience as a long distance runner – metabolism is a very complicated subject. But I do know that the more fat I eat, the less dependent I feel upon gels during long runs and the less ravenous I feel after a long run.
4. Better Running without Injury
Lower injury risk and more energy during workouts – that’s every runner’s desire, right? A 2003 University of Buffalo study concluded tht female athletes (particularly endurance athletes) who restricted their dietary fat intake had a higher risk of injury and higher levels of fatigue during training.
What’s most interesting is that the low-fat diet athletes and high-fat diet athletes ate the same amounts of carbohydrates, fiber, protein, magnesium, calcium, B vitamins, and iron. For the group that did not eat enough fat, they suffered from both low energy availability and poor nutrient absorption.
If that’s not enough to convince you to eat healthy fats in your diet as a runner, I don’t know what is.
How to Add Healthy Fats to Your Diet
Of course, consult a registered dietician or certified nutritionist if you want to make drastic changes to your current diet. Most people can safely add in healthy fats by incorporated them into balanced meals (meaning meals that also include complex carbohydrates and lean protein).
Excellent Sources of Healthy Fats for Runners Include:
- Eggs (with the yolk!)
- Seeds: chia seeds (great vegetarian source of omega-3s), flax seeds, pumpkin seeds
- Fish: salmon, tuna, trout
- Nuts/nut butters: almonds, cashews, walnuts
- Peanut butter
- Full fat dairy
Disclaimer: I am not a certified nutritionist or registered dietician. I am a certified running coach, which involves brief training on nutrition, but you must find a way of eating that is best of you and your overall health. Please consult an RD or nutritionist if you need specific help improving your diet.
Linking up with Coaches’ Corner!
What benefits have you noticed from adding more fat into your diet?
What’s your favorite source of healthy fat?