Is Clean Eating Hurting Your Performance??

Eight years ago my college swim coach talked me into seeing a sports nutritionist, convinced that my inability to make it through a practice without "having a wheel fall off" (direct quote) had something to do with the way I was eating.  I agreed to go--anything to help me perform better. Plus, although at the time I was on my way to an accounting degree, I was fascinated with nutrition.

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Sadly, part of my interest in nutrition had to do with the diets I'd already dabbled with in high school, but the other part of me just wanted to "figure" out this healthy eating thing and how it could help me be a better athlete. At the time, I was doing my best to fuel with "clean foods", but thought maybe this nutritionist would have some info I didn't. 

I can remember being pretty drowsy from my mid-morning nap on my way to the appointment (I was constantly napping - another clue I was under-fueled). I walked into the nutritionist's office and we chatted briefly about my diet and practice schedule. She said she didn't think I was taking in enough energy or protein and sent me on my way with a detailed fueling schedule along with different meal & snack ideas -- some of those ideas contained foods that weren't on my "clean eating" list.

It wasn't what I was expecting, but hey, I was desperate for more energy and faster times, so I did what she said. I ate more and I stopped worrying so much about "clean" eating in favor of meeting my body's nutrient needs. Guess what- it worked! So much so that the next semester I switched my major to nutrition & dietetics and went on to graduate with a masters in nutrition for physical performance, determined to help other athletes "fuel to perform."

My story is not so different from lots of other athletes. Tons of people who compete in competitive and recreational sports are told that the quality of the "fuel" they put in their body determines their performance. This comes from the classic athlete, sports car metaphor -- can't tell you how many times I've heard it.

It goes like this: sports cars take quality fuel and so they perform well, like sports cars.  Athletes too, should eat quality or "clean" fuel so they can perform like sports cars.

That metaphor is great and all, but there's only one problem, we aren't cars. Also, isn't it better to put regular gas in the tank when you're running on empty than it is to keep driving in search of "cleaner" fuel? The latter usually ends with running out of gas along the side of the interstate.

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Clean eating is not a new phenomena. It's been all the rage for at least 8 years, if not more. The definition is tricky and means something different to everyone. In general though, clean eating is eating minimally or completely un-processed whole foods. A lot of athletes (and people in general) take clean eating even further, refusing to eat anything that isn't organic, GMO free, pasture-raised, etc. And some are under the impression that entire food groups are "unclean". Meat, dairy, grains, beans and soy come to mind (to name a few).

At some point clean eating turns into orthorexia nervosa, a medical condition in which the sufferer systematically avoids specific foods in the belief that they are harmful. Although not formally recognized as an eating disorder, research on orthorexia nervosa is piling up.

What we know about this behavior is that it often starts as a genuine desire to eat healthy, but turns into an obsession with only eating "pure, clean" foods. If left untreated, the effects of orthorexia nervosa mimic those of anorexia and include osteoporosis, difficulty with cognition, lowered immune function, malnutrition, social isolation, emotional instability, infertility, kidney failure, low self-worth, anxiety and stress, and heart disease.

Not exactly the things athletes and health conscious folks are looking to add to their lives.

Even if your version of clean eating isn't quite so extreme, but you focus on eating a 100% whole foods diet, it could still be harming your athletic performance. Processed foods, simple carbohydrates and highly palatable energy dense foods would not be considered clean and yet, all of them have a place and a purpose in a an athlete's diet.  Here are a few reasons why:

Simple carbohydrates are digested and released into the blood quickly. This is perfect when you're in the middle of racing or competing and in need of quick energy. You can choose to consume a fibrous whole banana in the middle of a race, but the work of chewing and digesting it may divert more energy, take more time and deliver less fuel to your muscles than simple sugar from dried fruit, sport goos, energy blocks or a sport drink would. Aside from this, simple sugar consumption immediately following a workout helps create the necessary insulin response for muscle repletion and repair. This allows more fuel to reach your muscles in a timely manner, which if you have another workout within 4 hours, is paramount for recovery--bring on the chocolate milk please!

Eating only whole foods may fill you up before you're able to meet your energy and macronutrient needs for recovery. Whole foods, especially in the form of veggies, whole grains, lean protein and fruit contain a lot of fiber and water which are known to increase the sensation of fullness. The problem with this is that you may be unintentionally under-fueling, and thus inhibiting recovery, eating away at lean muscle mass and putting yourself at risk of fatigue, injury and illness.

Allowing yourself to have highly palatable, energy dense foods when you are hungry for them (i.e. cookies, brownies, ice cream, fattier meat) will help you meet the energy demands of your body. And in the long run, being chronically under-fueled is far more harmful than eating any one food, clean or not. In other words, your car could be up there with the rest of them or stranded on the side of the road - your choice. Besides, highly palatable foods usually contain much needed fat, an essential nutrient that when low is associated with greater risk of sport injury. 

Of course, as an athlete, knowing what type of food to eat and when throughout the day can be extremely helpful for recovery. If this is something you want to learn more about, I'd encourage you to download my free guide to fueling recovery

If you're serious about fueling your body for better performance, but you need help renewing the way you eat and think about food,  I'd love to work with you! 

The desire to eat nutrient rich whole foods is not a bad thing! But ask yourself, is "clean" eating really helping your performance, or is it holding you back from being the best that you can be?? 


In Defense of Whole Grains

Search “whole grains and health” on google and you’re sure to find opposing views within the first two articles. One person swears “research” supports that whole grains are inflammatory and damaging and another claims that eating whole grains with every meal is the only way to be healthy. Neither extreme is accurate.

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Hopefully by now you know I don’t agree with labeling any food good or bad. Food is food. And it’s my job to teach people how to eat in a way that’s satisfying, enjoyable and nourishing. For this to happen, all food must have a time and a place. Sometimes “fun”, highly palatable foods help satisfy us and bring enjoyment to eating. And sometimes incorporating nutrient rich whole foods helps us feel our best as we power through our day. All of these foods play a role in our overall health and well-being.

As a dietitian, it's my ethical obligation to provide evidence-based nutrition recommendations; to look at the research and separate supported nutrition claims from anecdotal food rules. That’s not to discount the individual experience with eating. If a certain food is shown to have health promoting factors, but makes you feel poor or just isn’t appealing to you – you don’t have to eat it! But to be honest, there is a lot of food out there that we've convinced ourselves is“bad”. We eat that food in fear and stress, certain that the resulting stomach ache is from the food, when maybe it has more to do with the anxiety produced by eating it and the very real physiological stress and inflammation that the anxiety brings. There are of course other reasons why food might cause digestive distress and inflammation for certain people. And if this is something you struggle with, I would encourage you to seek care from a non-diet dietitian who specializes in digestive issues.

But first, let’s seek to remove fact from fiction, evidence from anecdote, truth from fear. Today, I’m putting on my dietitian hat to present the evidence for and against whole grains, to dispel the myth that whole grains are harmful for everyone and to provide recommendations for incorporating (or not) whole grains into your diet.

What is a Whole Grain?

A whole grain is the unrefined grain seed. It's made up of the endosperm, germ and bran, whereas refined grains simply contain the endosperm. The bran in whole grains is a good source of fiber, B vitamins and trace minerals iron, magnesium and zinc. The germ contains antioxidants, vitamin E and some B vitamins, while the endosperm provides energy from carbohydrates and protein. It's important to note that the processing of whole grains to make cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded or cooked grains does not remove the germ and bran and should result in the same nutrient profile. Whereas refining grains does remove germ and bran.

What does the research say about whole grains?

The vast majority of research studies provide evidence that whole grain consumption supports a healthy lifestyle. According to a recent review of whole grain consumption and disease risk published in the British Medical Journal, whole grain consumption is associated with decreased risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illnesses, infectious diseases and type 2 diabetes mellitus, as well as with decreased risk of all-cause mortality. Whole grains and the fiber they provide have also been found to decrease the risk of colorectal cancer. The authors of this review note that there is not enough evidence to support a specific dose recommendation of whole grains.

Proponents of avoiding whole grains, claim that they are inflammatory. Yet research shows the opposite-- whole grain consumption is inversely related with inflammatory markers. Again, whole grain opponents state that whole grains are not as nutrient dense as other sources of carbohydrates. While this may be true, I’d argue that just because a food contains a larger ratio of calories and carbohydrates to micronutrients, does not mean it shouldn’t be eaten.

For people who lead busy active lifestyles, or for those with increased energy and carbohydrate needs, like athletes, pregnant and breastfeeding women, and people with diseases that increase their metabolic rate, it’s impractical and sometimes impossible to meet nutrient needs without foods that are dense in carbohydrates and calories. Consuming fruits, vegetables and beans may meet the carbohydrate needs of a person with low to moderate energy needs, but likely won’t be enough for the above people groups.

Overall, the research supports the consumption of whole grains as a part of healthy diet and negates the idea that whole grains are “bad” for your health and should be avoided.

On top of this, consider that  grains are a more economical option than many other carbohydrate sources. Dry grains keep for a long time ( 6 months to a year ) and are extremely affordable. For example, on average brown rice only costs  $0.50 to $1.00 a lb. And like I alluded to above, grains provide significantly more energy and carbohydrates per pound than vegetables, which means they go further in feeding a family. It would be a shame if a family with limited finances avoided this economical and nourishing food group just because somebody instilled in them a misplaced fear of whole grains.

My Recommendation

If you enjoy whole grains, and/or suffer from or have a family history of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer or respiratory disease, by all means, incorporate them into your diet! Whole grains fill the carbohydrate role on your plate. There is no specific quantity of whole grains that you have to eat. In fact, you are still free to not eat whole grains at all – this is your party after all. You may like whole grains with every meal. Or you might eat them occasionally and choose to have potatoes or fruit or beans in place of whole grains for your carbohydrate. The moral of the story is that there is no reason to fear whole grains and they could serve to make meals more satisfying, enjoyable and nourishing!

How To Eat Whole Grains

Americans eat most of their whole grains from whole wheat bread and whole grain cereal, but there are countless other varieties of whole grains to try. Brown and wild rice, whole oats, barley, millet, quinoa, rye, buckwheat, bulgur, couscous, and corn are all whole grains, and each has a unique nutrient profile, texture and flavor.  So like I mentioned above, if you’re someone who really doesn’t like whole wheat bread and pasta, you don’t have to have it! You can still incorporate whole grains by trying one of the many other variations.


Most whole grains in their raw form require boiling and softening in water. For example, if you are cooking, quinoa, oats, couscous, or rice, You're typically going to boil the grain in water (or broth) with a 1:2 ratio of grain to water (look up individual grain cooking instructions for variations) until the grain has absorbed all the water and is tender and fluffy. A lot of people will have no issue eating grains prepared this way. For those who experience gas and bloating, you might consider soaking grains like you would beans before cooking. This process helps break down the antinutrients in grains which makes digestion a little easier for some people. I did this with the black rice above before cooking it in my pressure cooker the next morning. You can find more info about soaking here and pressure cooking instructions here

You can add cooked whole grains to almost any recipe. They absorb flavor well, giving you the option to make them savory, spicy or sweet, and serve them warm or cold. If you’re buying whole grain products like bread or cereal,  ensure you're getting the most whole grains for you buck by looking at the ingredient label. If the first ingredient is 100% whole grain ____, then you're getting a dense source of whole grains.

This doesn’t mean that grain products that aren’t 100% whole grain are bad or off limits. Actually, for some people, the extra fiber of whole grains may not be tolerated. For example, athletes eating right before a race may need energy that is quick and easy to digest, so a refined carb would be a better choice. Or someone who has just had bowel surgery might benefit from laying off the fiber until they  heal and so should stick to refined carbohydrates.

Again – All foods fit and have a role to play for someone at some point! Honoring your body with gentle nutrition that makes you feel and function your best is an important part of caring for your health, but we are ALL individuals and making sweeping nutrition recommendations for everyone based on what foods work for you is a dangerous business.

As a nutrition professional it’s my job to publicly present the recommendations that are WELL supported by the research and to privately work with people on an individual basis to find the specific pattern of eating that is most appropriate for them.

Hopefully this serves to clear the air a little bit for whole grains. If you enjoyed this, I would love to hear from you; what nutrition topic are you confused or curious about? I might just do a post about it. Until then, happy fueling, and stay nourished!

Lessons on Running Slower and Faster

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I realize I haven't shared anything about fitness in a while. So, in true blog fashion--I'm just going to talk about what I've been up to.

I've been running...slower...and also faster. 

The Route66 Half Marathon was quite an eye-opener for me. Let's just say it was not an easy course (hello hills). But aside from that, it was the first race I ran in where I actually wanted to quit halfway through (somehow I didn't, but still). 

The reality of the situation was that I did not train consistently (maybe ran 2 or 3 days a week) or properly (longest run was 8 miles like 6 weeks before the race)---so was I surprised? Not really. After all, you can't reap what you did not sow.

The question remained: why wasn't I motivated to train consistently or properly? I started asking myself if I actually liked running, or if it was just a guise for maintaining a particular body type.

I know I used to love running, I loved training, pushing my pace, the experience of racing and the camaraderie of the running community. So I did some deep diving. I researched training styles -- I couldn't shut out the idea that I was just approaching training the wrong way--making recovery more difficult and running less enjoyable.

BY FAR the best part of running the Route66 race was getting to be a part of this relay team :) Thanks to Dr. Chris Barnes for this sweet jumping picture!

BY FAR the best part of running the Route66 race was getting to be a part of this relay team :) Thanks to Dr. Chris Barnes for this sweet jumping picture!

I looked into different low heart rate styles of training and came across the 80/20 method. This training philosophy involves training at an easy (low heart rate) pace 80% of the time and training at a higher intensity (race pace or faster) 20% of the time. Scientifically speaking this makes total sense and is evidence-based. But yet, I know I wasn't training this way.

Like most amateur runners, I was guilty of running most of my mileage somewhere in between an easy comfortable pace and my goal race pace. Which, if you're familiar with running training, means I was training too hard to recover well between runs, but too slow to get any faster.

So, I set out with my new, roomy altra running shoes (nothing motivates you to run more than a new pair of kicks) and went for an easy run, sans my tunes. I wanted to determine whether or not I actually enjoyed running. I determined that, yea, when I don't kill myself to stay at an uncomfortable pace for every single mile, I do in fact enjoy running, a lot. Once that was settled, I nerded out and drafted myself a flexible* training plan. 

*flexible because no one can say what life will bring. Whether it's holiday parties, sick kids, inclement weather, or just a change in what my body needs, it's important to be flexible and accommodating of changes with any exercise "plan". 

I planned my goal race and determined how many weeks I have from now until then. Next, I decided how many runs were realistic for me to do each week. From there, I planned for 80% of my runs to be at an easier pace (a pace where I could still talk, or if you like HR--where my HR is no higher than 75% of my max HR, using 220 - age to determine max HR). I also planned for 20% of my running to be at race pace or faster.

For me, this translated into including 1- 2 speed work days during the week, one long run day, and the 2-3 easy, recovery runs. Of course, like any endurance plan, mileage will have to increase (slowly) as the weeks go on. 

The results -- so far, so good. I haven't felt the need to stop training or take a 5 hour nap two days into the week, so that's progress.

I don't think that practicing gentle, respectful, intuitive movement and training for an athletic event are mutually exclusive. In fact, while it may feel like it's taking longer to build up my mileage and get to my goal pace with this method, research seems to show that it's a more effective method for performance improvement.  Training harder is not always better, and pushing past your body's signals for rest is not always healthy.

Whether you're a runner, a cross country skiier, or a self-proclaimed couch potato, listening to your body's need for movement AND it's signals for rest is a beneficial practice. Read more about it in this post.

I'm interested to hear from you guys--have you ever hit a rut in your exercise routine or sport? What did you do about it to turn things around? And to the runners: any tips on/experience with this training method?

Thoughts on Eating Style and Athletic Performance

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A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about intuitive eating and it’s potential to positively effect the health of female athletes and workout enthusiasts. Since then I’ve been deep diving into the topic of intuitive eating for athletes.

Unfortunately it feels like I’m deep diving straight into the abyss – I’m anticipating an attack from giant squids, 20,000 League’s under the sea style, anytime now. Because the truth is, while there is some research regarding the psychological effects of intuitive eating among current and former female athletes, there’s pretty much ZILCH on how normal/intuitive eating effects sport performance, rates of injury, etc.  If you know of some such research CONTACT ME. And if you are in a place to perform a research study, please CONTACT ME!

But, regardless, at this point what I’m about to write is mainly extrapolation from what I do know to be true based of research but also a little conjecture based off of my own experiences and observations as an athlete. Mainly it’s a compilation of thoughts from my crazy, curious brain. But hopefully it’ll help raise a few thoughts of your own.

Let’s start with some observations:

  1. Athletes are told that in order to perform at their best they need to really focus on good nutrition: pre, during and post workout fueling, along with an overall balanced, health promoting diet.
  2. Many athletes are encouraged to lose weight in the name of improving performance: i.e. runners, swimmers, divers, high jumpers, dancers, gymnasts, wrestlers. Weight loss goals permeate nutrition discussions in each of these sports
  3. Athletes, both female and male, are at a higher risk for eating disorders and disordered eating
  4. Characteristically, elite athletes are high performing, perfectionistic, rigid, earn what you work for types

Taken together, these form a perfect storm for athletes to be what we term ‘controlled eaters’. Controlled eaters are individuals who eat based off of a set of rules, utilizing willpower to decide what, when, and how much to eat. This includes athletes who count calories, follow a strict meal plan, eat only certain foods that they deem ‘clean’ and those that restrict foods in the name of weight loss or ‘performance’.

A recent research article published in the Eating Disorders: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention surveyed former collegiate athletes, asking whether their eating habits had changed since college, and if so, how.  Participants reported increased freedom and decreased anxiety with eating since stopping their sport. They reported eating based off of their hunger and satiety cues as opposed to the rigid format with which they ate as athletes. Beyond this, they reported decreased binging and feelings of being out of control with eating (1).

In essence, the female athletes in this study, who by the way were all former gymnasts or swimmers/divers (both weight conscious sports), were experiencing binges and ‘out of control’ eating while they were collegiate athletes. Also during their time as collegiate athletes, they were eating in a controlled, rigid manner that resulted in higher rates of anxiety.  This doesn’t really come as a surprise. It’s well known that rigid eating and diets often lead to disordered eating, binges, and feelings of anxiety and being out of control around food.

This information alone should be enough motivation to stop the controlled eating amongst athletes, but as a former collegiate swimmer, I know that it’s not. We need to be able to say that normal/intuitive eating results in better sport performance than controlled eating. Because sadly, for many of these kids long-term health isn’t really on their mind, but performance definitely is.

Until we have research to definitively support that intuitive eating athletes perform better, have decreased rates of injury, recover better, etc. than controlled eaters we have stories, case studies and hypotheses. But just because these things aren’t double blind randomized control trial (RCT) studies, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take them into consideration. So, here are some things to think about in the mean time:

We tend to believe that a lower body weight will translate to better performance in certain sports (running, high jump, swimming to name a few).  But what are we basing these beliefs on?

Let’s take high jump for example. My husband was an All-American high jumper, so I’ve watched my fair share of ‘Fosbury flops’ over the years.  It is true that many of the elite college high jumpers were tall and skinny. Because people with this body type tended to perform well at high jump, the athletes who weren’t already naturally tall and skinny did everything to get there and the ones who had this body type tended to did all they could to prevent weight gain. In essence, there was a lot of restricting calories among high jumpers in an effort to emulate the best athletes in the sport. But this thinking has a major flaw. Correlation between lower bodyweight and performance is not the same as a lower bodyweight causing good performance.

In fact, I remember one athlete who jumped around the same time as my husband. He was a fair bit bigger than the ‘typical’ high jumper. And by bigger I mean he met normal weight standards for a man his height while most high jumpers toed the line between underweight and normal weight. But you know what, that kid’s name was Erik Kynard and he ended up winning silver in the high jump at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Although one example does not make a case, there are countless similar examples out there of athletes who don’t follow the expected strict weight and diet rules or their sport and yet succeed. I mean look at Rich Frohning, four time CrossFit Games champion. While most of the sport of CrossFit restricts foods that don’t fit into the ‘paleo’ framework, Rich Frohning is famous for eating what he wants (sounds like an intuitive eater to me). What if we didn’t force our bodies or our athletes ‘bodies to be something they weren’t designed to be by means of restricting calories and overworking? What if instead we fueled them well, eating when hungry stopping when satisfied, giving permission to enjoy food and discover foods that make us feel good? What if instead we had well fueled athletes who used their unique strengths to excel at sport in their own way?

Personally, I think we’d have a lot less injury and a lot less burnout. Beyond that I know we’d have less eating disorders and healthier, stronger people who would be able to leave their sport behind and step into a nourished life with a few less scars and a better relationship with food.



1. Carolyn R. Plateau, Trent A. Petrie & Anthony Papathomas (2017) Learning to eat again: Intuitive eating practices among retired female collegiate athletes, Eating Disorders, 25:1, 92-98, DOI: 10.1080/10640266.2016.1219185