Eating Clean for Runners-a good idea?

One of the current nutrition trends among runners today is known as “Eating Clean” which usually means eliminating highly processed foods andfocusing on consuming whole or natural foods.     There are many of good ideas in the Eating Clean program but many bad ideas as well.  So, as a runner wanting to improve your performance, should you, and can you “Eat Cleaner”?


One popular approach to clean eating is presented in the book "Eating Clean for Dummies" by Jonathan Wright and Linda Larsen, published in July 2011.  Let’s focus on the Six Principles of Clean Eating presented in this book and how I would modify them (presented in italics) to truly enhance your performance.

1)      Eat whole foods-Whole foods are foods that haven’t been tampered with, in the lab or the manufacturing plant. The foods you eat on this plan are straight from the farm: whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, grass-fed and free-range meats, low fat dairy products, unsalted nuts, and seeds. I agree that eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables is what most runners need.   This may be reasonable for the average runner, but for collegiate runners, elite runners and ultra-distance runners, this type of eating may not provide the calories or sodium needed to sustain training.  I have worked with runners who have reduced their eating to whole foods and are coming to me in a walking cast because they have sustained an injury that has disrupted their training! For these athletes, calories do matter most and athletes need to be willing to consume the lower nutrient dense foods in the form of refined sugar and sodium to provide the sports nutrition they require. 

2) Avoid processed foods: Processed foods are any food that has a label. A label means that more than one ingredient was used to make that food. You don’t have to eliminate all processed foods (like whole grain pasta or natural cheeses), but if you can’t pronounce an ingredient on a label, don’t put that food in your shopping basket.

  • Believe it or not, almost all the food that you eat, even the foods “made from scratch," have been processed.  Any food that has been washed, cleaned, milled, cut, chopped, heated, pasteurized, blanched, cooked, canned, frozen, mixed and packaged will alter the food from its natural state and is considered a “processed food.” 
  • Processed foods can also include the addition of substances, such as vitamins, salt, and preservatives that can improve, reduce, or leave unaffected the nutritional characteristics of the raw food.  For example, since 1998, the enrichment/fortification of grains with folic acid has helped reduce the incidences of spina bifida (neural tube defect that causes incomplete formation of the spinal cord) by more than 25 percent. 
  • It is not possible to avoid processed foods or chemicals in your diet, chemicals ARE your food.   The same can be said for preservatives, salt is a preservative and runners can lose up to 1500 mg of salt in 1 hour of sweating.  Eliminating salt could cause cramping for long distance runners.  Added ingredients need to be evaluated for their own properties, not eliminated altogether.  

3) Eliminate refined sugar. Refined sugar provides nothing but calories. Other sweeteners can be used such as maple syrup or honey, but with all the good foods you add to your diet, refined sugar really has very little place in the eating clean plan.

I am a huge supporter of avoiding low-nutrient beverage calories such as sodas.  However, banning sugar is very restrictive.  Sugar can be beneficial to athletes when used correctly.   The human body requires sugar; all carbohydrates are broken down into glucose which is technically “sugar”.  Glucose is then used to provide fuel to your brain, central nervous system and provides integrity for red blood cells.  Many eating clean programs suggest that honey and maple syrup are acceptable substitutes for sugar, however from a nutritional perspective; they are equivalent to white table sugar. 

4) Eat five or six small meals a day. By eating smaller meals throughout the day you can help rev up your metabolism and reduce the chance that you’ll eat some potato chips rather than that whole grain cracker with nut butter and strawberries. You never get so hungry on this plan that you’ll feel deprived or feel the need to cheat.

There is nothing wrong with this recommendation, but there is no strong evidence to say it is  necessary.  Meal patterning is very individualized and for many people it does make sense that eating smaller more frequent meals will help to reduce cravings and control hunger.  In the end, the best meal schedule is what works for you. 

5) Cook your own meals. Instead of buying meals in a box, cook meals from scratch. That’s not as hard as it sounds! Clean, whole foods need little preparation beyond chopping and sautéing to make satisfying, delicious meals your family will love.

 I love this recommendation!  I think this can be a good goal for many athletes.  BUT, there can be a few shortcuts.  There are a lot of “processed” foods on the shelves or in the freezer that can be used to make wholesome meals.  Examples are:  using frozen vegetables , canned beans or canned tomatoes to make soups,  frozen spinach instead of fresh (retains nutrients well and may help to avoid waste), canned pumpkin in oatmeal, instant potatoes as a side, breakfast cereals that contain 5 grams of fiber or more such as shredded wheat, raisin bran, wheat Chex, Kashi cereals.   

6) Combine protein with carbs. When you do snack or eat a meal, make sure that meal is balanced. For the most satisfaction from your diet, and so you’ll be less tempted to eat junk food, combine protein with carbs or carbs and fat. This simple act will fuel your body and quash hunger pangs. 

 I think this is good advice and one that I often use.  My recommendation is to consume a minimum of 2 food groups (carbohydrate + protein=apple + 1 oz cheese) for a snack and 3 food groups for a meal (carbohydrate + protein + fruit or vegetables=brown rice + lean meat + broccoli).   Fiber (found in whole grains, fruits and vegetables also works to help manage blood sugar so including that in each meal or snack is a good plan.

SUMMARY:  There are many good points to the Eating Clean diet but my biggest issue is the concept of promoting good food vs bad food.  When we look at food as being good or bad for us, then we become good or bad when consuming it.  This message can also be passed along to our children.  Eating Clean promotes a restrictive mindset in eating.  I am all about discipline when it comes to eating, but not negative discipline.  It takes discipline to set up regular and predictable mealtimes, to plan the grocery list, shop for the food, prepare it, cook it and clean up.   If there is no discipline, there is chaos, so make sure to keep the discipline positive and not negative.  If you are not enjoying the food you are eating, you will not stick with any dietary change!