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I love food. Eating is on an unprecedented streak of thousands of days on my life podium. I love big, filling meals full of vegetables and fruit. I also love potato chips, chocolate, cereal, and ice cream. The Patrick Swayze pottery scene from Ghost? That’s me and Salt and Vinegar chips, four times per week.
So yes, I love food. But it wasn’t always that way.
Sorting Food into “Good” And “Bad”
You probably think I’m exaggerating my love of food, but I’m being real with you. I was born this way. I was told that, when I was a toddler, I would never want to stop eating. The only times I got angry involved dinner being delayed five minutes. I’d ask my dad when he’d have dinner ready, and he’d say “soon.” I’d cry back, “soon is too long!”
Like your neighborhood lab retriever, that kid with no off-switch had a predictable trajectory. I was bigger than my classmates. That’s a sensitive thing to talk about since all bodies are beautiful, but I think it’s important for context in this discussion given the messages I internalized when I was young. My body size filled up my thoughts, just like it filled up that extra-large T-shirt at a friend’s pool party.
My body was fine – I was healthy and strong. But I was deeply self-conscious. And that self-doubt was fertile soil where something a lot more sinister could grow. All it needed was a seed.
In retrospect, I’m not sure what exactly planted that seed. I read Men’s Health magazine and plenty of internet sites about “clean eating,” “low-fat diets,” or whatever else was the rage in the late 90s. I also remember some passing comments from bystanders at my first fun run 5Ks.
Whatever the cause, I internalized my love of food as a problem to be solved, and I solved it by turning something I loved into a source of shame and judgment. I demonized “bad” food with the goal of chasing the health fads and washboard abs I saw in the magazines. My abs didn’t come in, but I did lose a solid chunk of the hair on the top of my head from some sort of nutrient deficiency. Even as I reestablished a better relationship with food (there was nowhere to go but up), I still put foods into moral categories based on some distorted perception of nutritional quality. That perception had evolutionary tendrils that persisted until I was in college.
That’s when I rediscovered long-distance running.
The Good And Bad of Running
For me, running was a salvation. I had firsthand experience about the pitfalls of underfueling, and I connected low energy availability to injuries and underperformance relatively rapidly.
Gradually, “health” foods got supplemented by french fries, and those old thought patterns faded away (with periodic reappearances). Food is not a moral decision between good and evil. Food is fuel, and most of all, food can be so fun. In rediscovering that love of all food, tons of joy got added back to life.
All too often, though, running and mentors within the running community contribute to athlete trajectories taking the opposite path. I am writing this article today due to recent comments within the community that seem to sort food into “good” and “bad” categories, which can be negative for performance and health for some athletes. I’m not going to link to those here, because we don’t need to signal-boost outdated and potentially risky perspectives. But you have probably seen or heard those types of comments at some point, implying there are right choices and wrong food choices, with performance and health on the line.
Let’s talk about why those statements are not generally applicable to athletes.
Running creates a hyper-awareness around fueling patterns, and comments can become like those Men’s Health magazines I read in 1998. Thousands of lives have been negatively altered by conversations that lack individual nuance by supporting generally restrictive practices.
A harrowing story from an athlete I coach described a dinner table the night after a big race. The coach said something that is both wrong and dangerous: “Champions don’t eat bread,” as he removed the basket from the table. Of the athletes at that table, only one is running today, and they are still dealing with the emotional shrapnel from being wrongly told to connect restrictive food choices to athletic outcomes.
The research is unequivocal–eating enough is one of the most important parts of long-term athletic growth. A 2019 review article in Current Opinion in Endocrine and Metabolic Research described how failing to eat enough food can cause a cascade of negative physiological effects that torpedo long-term health (breakdown here). A 2021 review article in Sports Medicine found that overtraining and underfueling might be two sides of the same coin (overview). Chronic underfueling can create a negative physiological shitstorm unlike almost anything else seen in the literature, and as outlined by a 2020 review article in Sports Medicine–Open, it can affect every part of what makes us happy and fulfilled humans from the cellular level on up.
Yet still, even with all of that research and all of the personal horror stories, voices in the community still sometimes sort food into moral baskets of good nutrition on one side and bad diet on the other. Scientifically, based on the research, that is just not the way it works. All food can be good food, within self-evident frameworks at the excessive extremes.
My take: people should eat foods that they enjoy to fuel the work they are doing in order to find their personal definition of “strong,” whatever that means for them. Eat enough, always. Eat too much, sometimes. Eat too little, never.
Finding Your Strong
Obviously, those statements are super general and don’t give easy guidelines to apply to individual nutrition choices.
“To fuel the work they are doing” and to “eat enough, always” are clauses that are doing a lot of heavy lifting that is best done with an understanding of individual health context, ideally alongside a health professional. But the generality of starting from a place of non-restriction is the point, because the science on athlete fueling supports primary goals of nutritional openness and long-term sustainability.
The perils of underfueling are well-documented: endocrine and metabolic disturbances, injuries, reduced adaptation, nervous system problems, immune function decreases, sex function problems, and seemingly half of the other calamities you can find in medical textbooks. In contrast, the perils of athletes eating potato chips for some of that energy availability are not documented whatsoever. However, whenever I or anyone else tries to celebrate loving all different types of food, there’s always someone out there ready to yell “poor nutrition kills people and it’s not good for athletes!” Simply put, that argument is complete bullshit in this context.
The research is unequivocal — eating enough is one of the most important parts of long-term athletic growth.
Yes, for a sedentary person, consuming excessive amounts of highly processed foods can be correlated with heart disease and negative health outcomes. But those population health outcomes are not relevant for athletes who are being active and practicing any sort of overall moderation.
It’s not a choice between only eating potato chips or not eating them at all. When I say all food is good, I mean that achieving healthy energy availability allows for any food in moderation, and that is absolutely essential to avoid the scientifically certain outcomes of underfueling during an athletic life.
Given the scientific certainty of what happens when athletes don’t eat enough, I talk a lot about my love of food. Last week, when documenting my snack food top-10 list, I was validly challenged. Doesn’t heavily processed food affect adaptation and recovery? Implied: so wouldn’t it be optimal to avoid them altogether?
I replied that there is a false equivalency when celebrating eating enough and having fun with food on one side is pitted against encouraging people to only eat processed foods on the other, since that dismissal has been used by bad mentors in ways that distort perspectives of body-acceptance. Underfueling is a deep scourge in the running world, especially for young people, with numerous studies backing that up. Yes, a person that only fuels on Cheetos may face some issues, but Cheetos are good in moderation, along with everything else. So many runners are taught to exert unnecessary control over what goes into their body, and in the process, they lose sight of the goal of having fun and joy in life.
In other words, heart rate variability or any other recovery metric after Cheetos and a BLT sandwich won’t be different for an athlete, but if the Cheetos helps an athlete avoid underfueling (while loving the process more), than a hearty “F*CK YES” for Cheetos.
Love And Joy With Food
There is individual nuance around everything involving nutrition that makes these discussions difficult to have in a general way. Everyone should work with a registered dietician, doctor, or other nutrition expert for individual guidelines. But unless you have a pre-existing health condition, all food that you love can be a part of balancing your energy availability equation.
My co-coach Megan and I have seen thousands of pages of blood work for athletes over the years. Whenever a high cholesterol reading comes back, we ask for the athlete to talk to the doctor. And the most common time we see that flag for athletes has nothing to do with cheeseburgers–in fact, many of the athletes eating whatever they love have the most optimal blood work of all. Instead, those high readings are often for athletes with a history of eating disorders.
Eat enough, always. Eat too much, sometimes. Eat too little, never.
Called “hypercholesterolemia,” it’s somewhat uncertain why this condition can be associated with eating disorders, but it shows one of the shockingly unexpected ways that chronic underfueling can affect long-term health. I’ve seen underfueling mess with liver enzymes, kidney function, insulin responses, and nearly every other blood value. I have yet to see an athlete who sometimes eats Cheetos and cheeseburgers have issues explained by those choices. Given the energy demand of athletics, severely negative health trajectories would likely take a ridiculously unbalanced nutritional approach where intake is disconnected from work and/or they exclusively eat fried foods that are Flamin’ Hot.
I’m far from a nutrition expert, so please listen to your sports dietician. But I am a coaching expert, with windows into the journeys of dozens of national championships and similarly exciting personal breakthroughs. I promise: an athlete can only achieve their performance potential by stacking up years of consistency, and those years of consistency require eating enough food.
Balancing that energy availability equation does not require potato chips. But if you’re like me and life is more fun with some Salt and Vinegar, then some of that crunchy goodness can be part of your champion’s blueprint.
To young athletes out there, fueling your life and training can be an act of love and joy.
To older athletes, or those with preexisting health concerns, the same principle applies … but check in with your doctor and your blood work to be sure.
To everyone, let’s encourage a culture of celebration of food in the running community. Yes, even food that’s fried and greasy.
Every physical accomplishment starts as a dream. But the biggest, longest-term dream can only become a reality because of a satisfied stomach.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they answer training questions in a bonus podcast and newsletter on their Patreon page starting at $5 a month.