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How to Eat a Healthy, Balanced Diet Without Overthinking It

Experts share their tips on what to consider when it comes to nurturing a healthy relationship with food.

Runner’s World

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Tracking macros, clean eating, the keto diet versus the Mediterranean diet, carb cycling, intermittent fasting—the breadth of nutrition-focused strategies for better performance and—often for weight loss—can be dizzying.

For some of us, the desire to get lighter becomes a driving motivation, with the belief that more weight equals slower speed. But while aiming for healthy body composition is important, we might find ourselves sprinting into a gray area. At what point does managing macros and calories veer toward unhealthy preoccupation?

The answer is different for everyone, but there are some general strategies that can help reframe your approach to eating so daily consumption feels more like nourishment and a balanced diet rather than restriction. Here, some experts share their insights on what to consider when it comes to nurturing a healthy relationship with food.

1. Rethink Weight Goals

Watching the elite runners cross the finish at Boston, it’s easy to believe that body fat is the enemy. But the mistake some make is aiming for the lowest fat percentage possible through food tweaks, and then finding themselves actually slowing down—even if they’re on track toward their weight goals, according to Mike Matthews, C.P.T., author of Bigger Leaner Stronger.

“Being lighter and leaner does improve performance to a point, which is why competitive runners and other endurance athletes will always strive to be lean,” he tells Runner’s World. “But there’s a point of diminishing returns. You want to be lean enough that you aren’t carrying too much extra body weight, but not so lean that you can’t stay healthy, feel good, and train hard.”

Part of the difficulty is that it’s tough to know where that point might be on an individual level. That’s when you might rely on perceptions of what you “should” weigh, says Matthews. A better form of goal setting? Performance. See fat loss as a potential side effect of your training, not as the end goal in itself. And then eat in a way that fuels those running goals, Matthews suggests.

2. Focus on All Food Groups Equally

When it comes to macros—carbs, protein, and fat—many endurance athletes prioritize only the first one on that list, and then tend to obsess about hitting a specific number, says Matthews.

“There’s no question carbs are important for athletes, but this single-minded focus can sometimes cause them to neglect other vital aspects of their nutrition,” he states.

For example, studies have suggested that endurance athletes need to consume around two to three times more protein than the recommended dietary intake, as a way to support performance, recovery, and muscle mass. Matthews adds that this is particularly important when trying to lose weight so you’re not shedding muscle instead of fat.

3. Pay Attention to Your Thoughts Surrounding Food

One sign that your eating may be a point of contention is that you think about what you’re eating often—as well as what you have eaten, what you’re going to eat, what you should be eating, and so on.

“Increased thoughts about food and planning your days around food are red flags when it comes to a potentially problematic relationship with eating,” Amy Gooding, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at the Eating Recovery Center, tells Runner’s World. “From there, it might progress to avoiding social situations because the ‘right’ foods aren’t available.”

In her work, she’s seen many athletes start new eating plans with good intentions, but then become consumed by compulsive thoughts around food. Even if they’re eating the way they think they should, they might implement even more restrictions or rules.

“This makes it very difficult to resume normal eating because they’re not satisfied, they keep pushing it,” she says. At that point, repetitive thoughts and behaviors can lead to injuries, and plenty of them. That can include stress fractures, injuries that aren’t healing, chronic wounds, joint inflammation, poor muscle recovery, and other problems. Fatigue is also rampant, Gooding adds.

“If you’re not fueling yourself in a balanced, healthy way, it’s going to show up eventually,” she says.

A good first step is to simply start noticing your thoughts around food, Gooding suggests. If it’s taking up most of your mental energy, you may want to consult with a dietitian who specializes in athletes to get a more workable plan, for example.

Matthews adds that another tip is to pivot thoughts gently toward what you enjoy instead. Think of it as the Marie Kondo style of mindfulness—try to identify what sparks joy, which might be anything from visualizing your last amazing run to replaying a movie scene you love. Like your body, your brain can be trained with practice, he suggests.

4. Avoid Labeling Foods as “Good” and “Bad”

Many dietitians suggest you shouldn’t label any foods as “good” or “bad” because that makes eating into a moral issue and also tends to drive cravings. That said, it’s worth taking a closer look at your relationship to ultra-processed food, believes Joan Ifland, Ph.D., nutrition researcher and author of the textbook Processed Food Addiction.

“We are living in a culture saturated with messages about ultra-processed food, tying consumption to rewarding yourself, seeing these foods as a treat, a comfort, or an indulgence,” she tells Runner’s World. “We’re told that it’s okay, because of the ‘everything in moderation’ message. But these foods are wearing us out. They increase adrenaline and then we crash afterward.”

For runners, there are some foods and beverages that boast a “health halo” and claim to improve performance, Ifland says, but they may still increase inflammation in the body. She says options like granola bars and some sports drinks can be packed with added sugars and simple carbs that can be problematic if you’re trying to veer toward healthier choices.

A beneficial approach would be thinking about addition rather than subtraction. That means instead of focusing on banning ultra-processed options altogether, lean into adding healthier choices—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, fish—so that there simply isn’t room for all the ultras, suggests dietitian Kara Hoerr, R.D.N.

“Restriction will almost always create the opposite effect of what you want,” she tells Runner’s World. “Once you give yourself unconditional permission to have all foods, and you load up on healthy choices, it tends to take the power out of those ultra-processed choices. You may even find that when you do eat them, they’re not as good as you remember.”

5. Don’t Compare Yourself to Anyone Else

Maybe most of the people in your running group swear by plant-based eating, but going days without animal protein is sapping your energy. Or you’ve heard intermittent fasting has tons of benefits—and there’s some compelling evidence to suggest that’s true—but having dinner at 4:30 p.m. has you making fridge raids in the wee hours. What’s wrong with you?

Absolutely nothing, says regenerative and sports medicine specialist Rand McClain, D.O., who says nutrition needs are highly personalized, particularly when your running schedule is thrown into the mix. For example, some people love fasted training while others try it and feel lightheaded and nauseated.

“We have a tendency to try different strategies based on what we think most people are doing, especially our belief about what the average runner does,” he tells Runner’s World. “But there really is no average runner. So, it doesn’t make sense to force yourself into doing something that’s obviously not working for you just because you believe it’s the norm.”

Instead, he suggests keeping a food log, but to expand it way beyond what you eat. Track other factors, such as energy levels, sleep, stress, mood, running performance, motivation, and even deeper potential effects, such as sense of purpose and sociability. Play around with different eating strategies to see what changes, he suggests.

“Look, we all have an Aunt Jenny in our family somewhere who lived to be 100 even though she smoked a pack of cigarettes and ate a pint of ice cream every day,” says McClain. “You’re not making your health choices based on that example. Similarly, don’t make your choices based on anyone else either, even the people you hold up as examples of perfect habits. Experiment, be open-minded, stay aware, and see it as an ongoing adventure.”

Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer focusing on health, wellness, fitness, and food.

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This post originally appeared on Runner’s World and was published February 25, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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