It may seem like there is a new diet trend popping up every few weeks. What if one of the best for runners is actually a way of eating that has been around for decades? According to new research, that actually may be the case.
Here is how one group of researchers tested the boundaries of the Mediterranean diet — and what it can teach us about what we eat during training cycles.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET
Of course the Mediterranean diet is termed such because it is inspired by foods eaten in the Mediterranean — mainly Spain, Greece and Italy — such as olive oil and fish. It is known to be plant-heavy, as well, and emphasizes those fats (again, olive oil). Unlike a typical diet in the United States, you won’t find as much red meat; for us, it definitely follows the adage of shopping the perimeter of the grocery store where you’ll find whole foods versus venturing into the aisles for boxes and cans.
“The Mediterranean diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes and healthy fats,” says Katie Hake, RDN, a dietitian and personal trainer. “It tends to be lower in animal proteins and processed foods.”
Studies have found the Mediterranean diet to be a gold standard, specifically noting the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of many of the foods. It has been referred to as a heart-healthy diet, though the American Heart Association is careful to point out the diet isn’t completely synonymous with its dietary recommendations (due to the percentage of calories from fat). When compared to the traditional Western diet, however, they definitely recognize the health benefits.
“Beans and lentils are a great source of fiber and are included in many dishes,” notes Hake. “Fish is a highlight, and is a great source of heart-healthy and brain-friendly fatty acids. The use of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can also contribute to heart health and decreased risk of disease.”
WHY A RECENT STUDY SAYS IT’S IDEAL FOR RUNNERS
One study recently published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition and performed by Saint Louis University (SLU) found the Mediterranean diet had positive, measurable effects on endurance exercise in as little as four days. In the study, seven women and four men underwent testing after four days on the Mediterranean diet and four days on the Western diet (with roughly two weeks in between the two diets). The test included a 5K time-trial performed on a treadmill. Participants completed the 5K 6% faster after time spent on the Mediterranean diet, even with similar heart rates and perceived exertion.
“We chose the Mediterranean diet as one representative diet among several that are (A) based on sound nutrition principles, (B) have been established as having health benefits and (C) are focused on whole-foods and are largely plant-based (especially vegetables and fruits, as these have many ‘phytochemicals’ which have been linked with performance benefits),” explains senior researcher Edward Weiss, PhD, a professor of nutrition and dietetics at SLU. “Other diets that we considered were the DASH diet and the myplate.gov diet, as these fit the same requirements.”
The study notes further testing is needed to see if a longer amount of time spent on the Mediterranean diet yields even greater benefits. Hake says the diet can be a great option for many runners, however, especially as there is no calorie cutting or omittance of any food groups. “The many colors and variety of foods have antioxidant properties which may promote recovery and overall health,” she adds.
What do the researchers hope runners take away from this? Weiss specifically points to the suggestion that diets that are good for health are also beneficial to exercise performance. “This is important because exercise is often used as an excuse to eat junk food, desserts, etc., but those foods may be doing harm for performance,” he explains.
Hake notes the best diet is one that makes you feel and perform your best, while it’s not so complicated that it pushes your limits. She encourages experimentation, adding that if you read about a diet or trend that sounds interesting, by all means give it a try (just not too close to race day, of course).
“I do similar research on health outcomes — diabetes risk, in particular — and have demonstrated that a healthy diet provides health benefits that exercise cannot provide (of course, the opposite is true too!),” Weiss adds. “So, just because you exercise doesn’t mean that an unhealthy diet is harmless (for health or performance).”