Sunday, September 4, 2011

Food as Fuel: Food Beliefs of Triathletes & Marathoners

The post-race party has started

With the current healthy eating food movement extolling the benefits of whole foods, organic foods, slow foods, gluten-free, fat-free, bad-stuff-here-free and 100% natural foods, I thought it was interesting that many endurance athletes–self-described health nuts to the extreme– regularly consumed not only processed foods, but sometimes binged on junk food.

Instead of eating meals and snacks made of local farm fresh ingredients, the marathon runners and triathletes I interviewed in the Fall of 2008 for a graduate research project regularly gulped down processed and packaged convenience foods chock full of artificial ingredients known by name only to food chemists with PhDs. And, forget about sitting down to a home cooked meal served on china with friends or family around the dinner table. Many of the athletes I surveyed frequently ate alone and took their meals in the front seat of a car, under a tree on a running trail or pulled out of their jersey’s back pocket while riding a bicycle. Finally, the competitive triathletes and ultra runners I surveyed didn't even think of a meal in the same way that "normal" people did. Instead of dining on a meal made up of a variety of ingredients found in nature with a glass of wine, they were computing food calories and ideal proportions of macronutrients to optimize their athletic performance and "hydrating". What was going on here?

By looking at the dietary habits of nearly 150 triathletes and marathon runners in my area—what they eat, when they eat, how they eat and their food-related rituals and beliefs—I hoped to discover why competitive endurance athletes are “a little different” when it comes to their eating habits. The following report is an edited down version of a research project I did for a food anthropology class in the Fall of 2008. I edited out most of the social science lingo, methodological details and references to old dead French social theorists to spare you some suffering.

To figure out why many triathletes and marathon runners were preaching, but not necessarily practicing the healthy whole foods/slow food trend, I surveyed 108 marathon and ultra runners of two local running clubs and 33 members of a local competitive triathlon club called Inside Track. In addition to interviews, setting up a "MultisportMama" twitter account ( and this blog, and online surveys, I did participant-observation by doing training rides and open water swims with the Rincon triathletes and marathon training runs with the Inside Track Runners. I also raced the Carpinteria Triathlon on September 28, 2008 and Santa Clarita Half-Marathon and Marathon  on November 2, 2008. This research was very tiring.

 My sample of respondents was convenience-based. I found my survey respondents from friends-of-friends, the athletic club memberships and MultisportMama's Twitter followers. However, they did represent “typical” triathletes and marathon runners according to the demographic information from online media kits for Triathlete and Runner’s World magazines (Triathlete 2008; Runners World 2008). I asked my survey respondents to  self-report their eating habits while training for and during their last “important” triathlon or marathon race. Their self-reporting may not be totally accurate but I tried to account for that with some of my survey and follow-up survey questions. For example, my eight-time Ironman triathlete and personal trainer friend may not have come clean about his weekend beer and gummy bear consumption. In other words, the results should be taken with a grain of salt.

The eating habits and dietary beliefs of the interviewed athletes seemed to mimic the ideals of sports nutrition within both sport sub-cultures of triathlon and long-distance running.  These ideals are represented in sports nutrition articles in both peer-reviewed research journals and popular triathlon and running magazines such as Triathlete, Runner’s World and Marathon and Beyond.

However, this is with the one significant exception: post-race binging. Very often, after a major race, my surveyed endurance athletes threw out everything they knew about performance enhancing nutrition and recovery and did the exact opposite. Basically, it seems that these normally sports nutrition disciplined and solitary eaters found their inner post-finals college party selves and went crazy–dietarily speaking. Many of the triathletes and marathon runners surveyed went on a post-race communal consumption binge: drinking enough beer or margaritas to make a fraternity guy (or sorority girl) wobbly, and happily consuming normally what they considered to be "bad foods" foods such as burgers, French fries, pizza…But I am getting ahead of myself.

Research Results:

The "good foods" and "bad foods" according to triathletes and marathon and ultra runners

The surveyed and interviewed athletes generally categorized foods as either “good foods” or “bad foods” most consistently by their digestibility (important for consuming foods while training and racing), their functional ability to increase the athlete’s endurance, and their perceived healthfulness. When asked to name “good foods” and “bad foods” triathletes and marathon and ultra runners athletes alike seemed to categorize most foods by the foods’ perceived health and athletic performance enhancement functions.

“Good foods”

Good foods were described as “healthy”, “nutritious”, “high carbohydrate”, “anti-oxidant”, “fresh”, “whole grain”, “organic”, “non-processed”, “vegetarian” and “raw”. Some of the descriptions they used for good foods seemed to be symbolic of the body image ideals of these sport cultures such as “lean”, “in moderation”, “light”, “low fat” and “whole”.

Believing that they are what they eat, triathletes and marathon runners seem to prefer eating “light”, “low fat” and “whole” foods and thereby would imbue their bodies with those qualities and thus they, in turn, would seem to embody their sport cultures.

Moderate amounts of high carbohydrate and micronutrient rich foods were uniformly cited as generally “good foods”, a category which matched the prevailing sports nutrition discourse (Ryan 2007; Maughan 2002 ;USDA 2008). What I didn’t see that surprised me were foods being categorized “good” because they were “organic” or “natural.” Perhaps the mainstream acceptance of those labels have made them no longer differentiating or meaningful or perhaps these are just not as important to these athletes as the foods functional qualities in regards to one’s athletic performance. Though a few respondents did say that they preferred vegan or vegetarian foods.  Also, many foods that were good were noted as “lean” which reflects the dominant fitness trend and embodied culture of runners as lean and athletic (Bourdieau 1984: 214).

 Representative examples of “good foods” from surveyed triathletes are:

“carbohydrate foods like bagels, oatmeal, energy gels, bars like PowerBar.”
 “I find whole foods are best and I also try and avoid a lot of dairy …”
“high carbohydrate foods like bagels, oatmeal, energy gels, bars like PowerBar”.
“fruit and vegetables and juices. Yams/sweet potatoes for high carb content.”

Representative examples of “good foods”  from surveyed marathon and ultra runners are:

“lean protein sources, wild salmon, grass-fed beef, veggies, fruits, nuts, fish oil, olive oil, coconut oil, protein supplements, maltdextrin for recovery.”
“whole grains, fruits & veg[ie]s”
“skim milk, yogurt, whey protein, bananas, apples, berries, oatmeal, lots of broccoli, olive oil, chicken breast, salmon, … wheat breads. Water”
“Chicken, fruits, oatmeal, salads, beans, pasta, seltzer water! … fresh, stuff that is lower in fat content, stuff that will fill me but not fatten me…”

“Bad foods”

Bad foods were described as the very qualities triathletes and marathon runners eschew with their active life styles. Symbolic of these “bad foods” qualities are their negative descriptors such as “fake”, “processed”, “high fat”, “fried” (“fried” is also a slang term for “tired”—a state these athletes try avoid when training and racing), “preserved,” “fat” (race times are slower generally the heavier one is), “heavy,” “artificial” and “junk” (term for over-training without a specific performance goal is called “doing junk miles” in the lingo of both of these sport cultures).

The categories of foods are based on their functional role of health and athletic performance enhancement. These functions are based on what many of the athletes believe is scientific research on exercise physiology and sports nutrition as well as the health and fitness trend in American culture. This is a significant departure from food choices based on religious beliefs, flavor and family customs or traditions.

 These “bad foods” generally mirrored the same foods categorized as “bad” in the American media lately. Foods that contain high fructose corn syrup, MSG, too much salt, and trans fats are “bad”. These athletes usually consider fried foods and “drug foods” such as coffee, alcohol and refined sugar are as “bad”. Also, considered “bad” are red meat, processed foods, fast foods.

Representative “bad foods” from surveyed triathletes are:

“simple carbs, alcohol, processed food”
“Alcohol, preservative laden foods, ice cream”
“fried foods, lots of meat, lots of alcohol, soda!”
“anything with fake sugars desserts fast food of any kind”

Representative “bad foods” from surveyed marathon and ultra runners are:

“French fries, alcohol, sweets”
“Anything that takes a while to digest or impedes digestion. I tend to avoid: meat, friend foods, especially fried meat, cheese, anything ‘heavy’”
“Liquor, fast foods, red meat, salt, processed foods”
“Too much fat”
“Processed foods tell me ‘evil’. Although I used soda in ultras, just consuming them (my big vice) is not good at all. Dairy products…Eating too much puts on fat. Take out food. Coffee…”

Post-race celebrations: Reversal of food categories

Something interesting happens to the endurance athletes’ categories of “good foods” and “bad foods” after they finish an important race. At many a post-race awards dinner or party the categories of good and bad foods seem to get reversed. What is normally a  “bad food” is now a  “reward” or a “treat” and consumed with gusto. Once these athletes cross the finish line many of them seem to ignore their food prohibitions and, basically, go nuts. Post-race celebrations seem to function as a rite of reversal (a socially acceptable way to blow off steam) for triathletes and marathon runners who normally abide by their strict dietary and training regimes each day (Turner 1964). Many triathletes and runners stay up late after they finish a race (or try to anyway) and celebrate in an un-characteristicly  hedonistic fashion over-indulging in normally forbidden and unhealthy or "bad" foods, beverages and other activities... By purposely breaking their dietary rules in a post-race ritual of (food and lifestyle rules) reversal, they are reinforcing their fealty to these rules. Or, in other words, like your writing teacher taught you in high school or college, you have to know the rules, before you can break them.

Some representative "broken rule" responses of what triathletes said they ate after they raced on race day include a lot of "bad foods":

“anything/everything and beer”
“love burritos and margaritas!”
“French fries, burger, salty foods. Wine or beer. Treat foods.”
“whatever I'm craving at the time, frequently something full of fat and salt (like pizza) after a long race.”
“A big fat steak!”

 The marathon and ultra runners I surveyed had similar food category reversals. Here are some of them:

“… ice cold Sierra Nevada beer, big salad, maybe even some nachos. Mostly salty cravings and fat cravings”
“very much so, often I will eat a very large, fatty, high protein dinner, like a gigantic cheeseburger, or fried chicken.”
“1 or 2 beers, some sort of red meat. This is very different from my normal diet which is primarily vegetarian.”
“Beer and Mexican food. Spicy.”

I like to think of these crazy post-race binges of triathletes and marathon runners as  their to equivalent of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Competitive triathlete women, normally never seen by their training mates in anything other than lycra with their hair bound up in a pony tail, are dancing in high heals (or barefoot) in some kind of feminine dressy thing, hair flying free and beads optional...and eating anything and going for the cold beer and nachos. Post marathon race men, usually decked out in some form of sweaty running shoe, tank and shorts ensemble, are showered up and jeans clad at a hotel bar chowing down ice cream and pie, after re-hydrating with a chilled bottles of their favorite beer and, maybe, tequila shots.  Normally devout and disciplined, once a year (or on this case after a milestone race), the triathlon and marathon faithful relax and party like it's 1999.

Life is full of contradictions isn’t it?

In about a month I will publish Part II: “Food As Fuel: Eating Habits of Triathletes and Marathon Runners: How They Fit Food in Between Work and Working Out” of my research. This will include what triathletes and marathon and ultra runners to told me about their mealtimes: how many meals a day (usually more than three), when they eat (lunch is rarely at noon), how much they eat and the structure of a “perfect” endurance athlete meal.

Following that post, will be Part III: “Food As Fuel: Why Triathletes and Marathoners Eat so Weird According to Old Dead French Social Theorists”. That’s my working title for Part III for now anyway.

In the meantime, here are some healthy un-processed meal ideas from Opra Winfrey's ex-chef and marathon runner Art Smith in the October issue of Runner's World:

Comfort Fuel (Runners World, October 2011)

Happy trails and, if you just finished a race,  "Cheers!"

Note: I don't benefit from mentioning or linking to any products or brand names mentioned in this post.


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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

USDA's MyPlate Challenge: How do we get enough time to eat healthy?

 I like to eat about as much as I like to workout so, you could say, food and foodways (the study of the norms and traditions of eating and meal taking) really interest me. This is not just because I'm a nerdy anthropology graduate student, but it's also because I'm a parent of two school-age kids and the primary "food production specialist" in our household (e.g. I do the cooking). Since I work and workout nearly everyday, I don't have a lot of "extra" time to prepare the family meals from scratch. When I worked full-time at a local company, I had even less.

In June of this year, the USDA replaced it's MyPyramid icon on healthy nutrition with a strikingly better icon based on a dinner plate called MyPlate according to an informative and well-written article on The MyPlate icon, using the familiar symbol of a dinner plate, is a such better way to explain nutritious proportions of macronutrients to kids and adults than the previous symbol that I wonder that they didn't think of it before.

With MyPlate (see graphic on the left) it's easy to visualize that 50% of a meal should be veggies and fruits, 25% protein and so on. The icon of the glass of milk I don't agree with as there are better sources of calcium than dairy, but I figure the folks at the USDA  had to give in on something to appease dairy industry lobby. What is noteworthy is that "Grains" are no longer the staple macronutrient. They are no longer the base of the traditional food pyramid, so to speak. For most Americans, this nutritious diet plan will be easy to understand but difficult to employ.

The hard part of the MyPlate nutrition plan will be getting the time to cook healthier meals in our industrialized, dual-earner-families-are-the-norm culture where more often than not, families are eating out.  In the United States “restaurant bills account for 48 percent of spending on food” in 2008 according to National Restaurant Association (Bunker 2009).

How will we translate the healthy precepts of MyPlate's nutrition recommendations into a practical plan for the typical busy professional who doesn't have the time to cook every meal from scratch and relies on prepared or fast-foods?

“Today the average American spends a mere 27 minutes a day on food preparation (and another four minutes cleaning up),” according to nutritious food advocate and professor of journalism Michael Pollen (Pollan 2009). That is less than half the time spent cooking and cleaning up forty years ago (Pollan 2009).

Obesity rates are inversely correlated with the amount of time spent on food preparation according to a cross-cultural study led by Harvard economist David Cutler in 2003 (Pollan 2009). Some people guess this has to do with women entering the work force in the United States. However, food preparation time has also declined in households with stay at-home wives due to the increased availability of convenience foods (Pollan 2009). In the industrial economy, affordable fast food outlets provide calories for busy working people who don’t have enough time to prepare meals at home from scratch. Processed convenience foods are marketed to women, the traditional home meal specialists, as emancipatory.

What we will need is a huge cultural and economic shift towards restaurants and markets selling healthier prepared meals with a higher proportion of fruits and vegetables. We can market the dietary shift to Americans as emancipatory and healthy.

All civilizations have been based on surpluses of grains or starches. Even the ancient civilizations such as the Mesopotamia, Maya, Chinese, Yoruba, and Inca relied on either a surplus of wheat, cassava, rice or corn to feed the masses as well as to provide wealth to finance for their civilization's growth (Trigger 2003). The United States, socially and economically, is no exception. “Grain is the closest thing in nature to an industrial commodity: storable, portable, fungible, ever the same today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow,” says journalist and food activist Michael Pollen. He adds that, “Since it can be accumulated and traded, grain is a form of wealth…throughout history governments have encouraged their farmers to grow more than enough grain… (Pollen 2006:201).” It's no accident that most fast food and packaged snack foods are based on corn, wheat,  and rice. These grains are the foundation of many an American's diet and are also government subsidized, inexpensive (e.g. highly profitable for food manufacturers). They are also the pillars of our economy as well as our diet.

But it is these pillars that are also making us sick. The cheap processed grain-based foods are contributing to the epidemic of chronic diseases (diabetes, heart disease, some say cancer from processed grain-based foods) and the epidemic of obesity in this country.

“Chronic diseases—such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes—are the leading causes of death and disability in the United States. Chronic diseases account for 7 out of 10 deaths among Americans each year,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (Centers for Disease Control 2009). Today, heart disease is leading killer worldwide but was rare in ancient societies other than in the very elite upper classes who had access to high sodium preserved foods, more sweets and more calories in general (Winslow 2009:A5). As the most lethal chronic disease, some believe it is an unavoidable consequence of the modern diet.

Happy Meal Makeover: First Lady Michelle Obama praised McDonald's reduction of fries (from 2.2 oz to 1.1 oz) and the addition of a side of fruit in their iconic Happy Meals as "first steps."on the Obama Foodorama blog.  The First Lady has been advocating for more healthful foods served to children in restaurants in her Let's Move! campaign to end childhood obesity. The USDA tries to tackle the junk food preference of many children with their "Ten Tips Nutrition Education Series.

I hope these initiatives work but it will take time for both kids and their parents, raised on french fries and junk food, to develop a taste for more veggies, fruit and other healthier choices. Food gurus such as English chef Jamie Oliver realize how difficult it is to change culturally bound eating habits on both sides of the Atlantic. He is trying to get American kids to eat a healthier diet that will make them smarter and more slender by taking on the food lobby controlled lunches in the American school system in his television show Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution (Gordinier 2011).

Our biggest hurdle to clear towards healthier eating in this country will be more than just educating people on nutrition and getting nutrition information posted in fast food restaurants. It will making nutritious foods available to Americans more cheaply, already prepared and available virtually everywhere. Especially since so many meals are eaten in the front seat of a car these days.

We may need another icon for that campaign. MyBag anyone?


Cited Non-Linked Resources:

Bunker, Katie (2009) “ On the Menu: Nutrition Facts May Be coming Soon to A Restaurant Near You,” Diabetes Forecast, Pp. 72-75.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2009)  “Chronic Disease Prevention and Promotion,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site,retrieved on November 24, 2009, from:

Gordinier, Jeff (2011) "Will Work 4 Food," Outside Magazine, September, pp.66-68.

Pollan, Michael (2006) The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc., Pp. 450.

Pollan, Michael (2009)  “Out of the Kitchen, onto the Couch,” New York Times Magazine, August 2, 2009, Pp. 26-47.

Trigger, Bruce (2003) Understanding Early Civilizations, Cambridge University Press, MA, pp.757.

Winslow, Ron (2009) “Curse of Heart Disease Is Found in Mummies,” The Wall Street Journal, November 18, 2009, P. A5.