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The Endurance Dietitian: 3 Things a Master’s Nutrition Degree Did Not Teach Me About Food

By Kim McDevitt, MPH RD on January 8, 2015, categorized in Health, Plant-based Nutrition

The Endurance Dietitian: 3 Things a Master’s Nutrition Degree Did Not Teach Me About Food

Welcome to The Endurance Dietitian! If you’re like me, and define a large portion of your life with training plans, run clubs, “long-run-Sundays,” and chasing PRs, you’re in the right place. It seems daily we’re reading about the next best ingredient or trend we should be including into our running lifestyle. I’m here to share my passion for sports nutrition by breaking down the technical jargon of the current trends, weeding through the research and explaining what you need to know. Think of this as our runner girl talk (don’t worry—boys can still eavesdrop).

It pretty much goes without saying that food is engrained in just about everything we do. It rounds out social gatherings, it brings families together on a nightly basis, it comforts us when we’re sad, it fills a void when we’re stressed, and of course, it nourishes us. I love food. And I don’t just mean the literal, tangible thing (but I love that too). I love everything that comes with it. I’m fascinated by the components—the micro- and macro-nutrients. The science behind just how they keep us healthy or can make us sick And I love its power; as an athlete, a seemingly innocent food choice can be a great decision or terrible one depending on how you time it.

Food matters.

I think my passion around food started with cooking but rapidly magnified as my interest in running grew. I suddenly became so interested in how food affected the body, the best foods to eat for sport, that after four years of work in advertising I put myself back through school with the goal of becoming an expert in nutrition: a registered dietitian Sure I know how a bagel is broken down and metabolized in the body, down to the exact systems within the process. I know how to calculate energy expenditure, body weight ratios, and more. I can rattle off lots of facts around nutrients that make up a food, and I can read a nutrition label in my sleep. But when it comes to nutrition, I’m not perfect. Nutrition and health is a continuum. It’s a squiggly line that shifts from day to day. And I’m riding that line with the rest of you. So while I’ve learned a great deal about food, when it comes to nutrition I’m working to unlearn a few things:

1. Calories are calories, but real food matters.

Calories equal energy. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or woman, a teacher or PR specialist, the calories you put into your body will fuel you. And, if you don’t need it they will turn to fat. This is science. Some of us don’t think twice about the amount of calories in our food, let alone what a calorie is. Others of us (I’m looking at the RDs and health nuts out there) can fall into the trap of scrutinizing and calculating every calorie we put into our body. Instead of focusing on numbers, free yourself from being glued to your calorie-counting app and focus on quality of the food choices you’re making. Choose whole foods over processed, and work to build your plate, fill your bowl, or blend your smoothie with foods from all major groups. Try starting with a base of veg (the greener the better) and make that half the portion, from there add protein, carbohydrates and good fats in proportion that will make up the other 50% of your plate.

2. You can’t exercise away a bad diet.

If calories equal energy, that means you can burn that energy (the calories) away via exercise. Ever heard the phrase “calories in, calories out”? I think runners (myself included) often suffer from run-far-eat-anything syndrome. We run a lot, which means we burn a lot of calories, and are in turn quite hungry. But a long run doesn’t always give you license to eat all the candy and junk food in sight. Focus on foods that will fuel you before and refuel you after sport. Try reaching for whole foods, such as complex carbohydrates such as oats or sweet potatoes, protein coming from simple sources such as beans, nuts or protein powders, fruits and vegetables, such as berries, bananas and greens.

3. You don’t always have to be the expert.

“Oh you’re a dietitian? Then let me ask you about every ailment, food question and concern myself, my mother and my grandma all have.” As soon as people find out I’m a RD the questions come. And while I don’t mind this at times, there are still questions I don’t know. And I’m certainly not an expert when it comes to my own diet. Our diet is a constant work of progress and improvement. Give yourself a pat on the back for what you do know, the good food choices you’re making, and remind yourself that you’ll always be learning “the rest.”  Wherever you are on your dietary journey, acknowledge how far you’ve come and that there will always be more to learn.

What do you focus on in your personal nutrition? How do you balance your daily nutrition intake and keep a healthy relationship with food? What are your nutrition goals?