Thanks to advances in medicine and food science we now know the specific nutrient density of food as well has how our bodies react to those foods. It is an amazing time to be an athlete with this wealth of information at our fingertips.
What Exactly Is Nutrient Density?
For years we have had the calorie counts of foods driven into our heads. Then the focus was on macronutrients and keeping our ratios within specific percentages. Now, we know better because we know nutrient dense foods are those which deliver high levels of micronutrients—vitamins and minerals—in relation to the amount of protein per serving. For example, we now know whole eggs are nutrient powerhouses. The egg white is a great source of protein and for years the fat of the yolk was maligned and therefore discarded even though it also contains protein. Nature’s bioidentical vitamins went straight down the drain. Egg yolks are chock full of those energy suppling B vitamins along with healthy doses of A, D, and E which need the special fat of the yolk for maximum absorption by the body. Then nearly 13-percent of the egg is solid protein in a compact package which for distance runners is an important consideration.
Oh Man, Carbs Are Getting So Confusing!
Here’s the simplest guide to carbs: if they has been processed do not eat them. Ditch the worn out ‘good carb, bad carb’ thinking because you’re right, it can get confusing. If you can pull it out of the dirt, pluck it off a vine or stalk and it is the color of any part of the rainbow, enjoy because these are smarter carbs. The more colorful your carbs the more nutrient dense they are despite their lack of protein. Colors are vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Of course, they are best consumed raw or lightly cooked to preserve keep those nutrients alive. However the super grains like quinoa or amaranth might throw you for a loop unless you look at their colors and full amino acid profile. They’re not quite on the rainbow spectrum but they’re also not white like rice. On top of being nutrient dense they contain all of the essential amino acids which make them a complete protein. You cannot ignore the nutrient density of quinoa.
Using Nutrient Density To Fuel Your Runs
Regardless of your distance, nutrient dense foods are like high octane fuel. They provide your body with high levels of macros and micros for you to put together to best match your training schedule. Obviously shorter distances for speed need the quick release of carbohydrates for maximum performance while longer distances beg for slower, sustained release energy for endurance. Aside from distance as you fill your plate your own personal weight loss, gain, or maintenance goals should be a part of the equation. Higher protein will help you lose while higher carbs will help you maintain or gain.
Nutrient Dense, Low Carb Foods
Regardless of your preparation method, nutrient dense, low carb foods are compact sources of energy to fuel your next run. In the past, the focus was also on low fat sources of nutrition but fat has an interesting advantage for distance runners in that it not only is a compact source of energy but it is slower to digest than other foods. The slower digestion equates to timed released energy. For this reason, full fat versions are preferred. There is also a growing body of research showing full fat dairy actually helps reduce and/or control body fat. Besides, skim milk is bulky and scarcely more nutrition dense than water so it is not a good choice for fueling distance runs.
Here’s a list to get you started for the next time you meal plan or go to the grocery store:
- Avocado – Throw this into your salads or spread it on whole wheat toast with salt and pepper.
- Greek yogurt – Have this in overnight oats, yogurt parfaits, or add it to your smoothie/protein shake.
- Fatty fish such as salmon – Great by its self, in salads, or over quinoa or wild rice.
- Eggs – I enjoy them boiled. They store well in the fridge and pack easy for a work snack.
- Nuts or seeds – Grab a handful for a snack or add them into just about any meal.
- Greens – If it’s green and grows out of the ground, it’s good. Raw is the best way to eat it but steaming with salt and pepper and a tiny bit of lemon juice is my favorite.
Fat Fires Up The Mitochondria
In addition to the recommendation for full fat dairy, healthy sources of fat helps fuel your intense training sessions. Long training sessions actually boost the size and energy production of the mitochondria. Since their preferred fuel source is fat you can eat these nutrient dense fat sources with little chance of weight gain. Additionally, as your leg muscles are depleted of glycogen the body increases fat metabolism so you actually need some extra fat for optimum performance.
Food Is Fuel
When training for long distances, including ultra-marathons, some runners have a fear of food. But, food is fuel. You cannot expect to train at that level for very long if you are not supplying your body with what it needs to give you the best performance. Training without the proper fuel is self-destruction. Crossing the finish line starts in your kitchen. Your individual calorie needs can be up to 4,000-calories or more a day. Yes, that is a large number of calories however if you are choosing nutrient dense foods it is not as much as it seems.
With the focus on nutrient density gone are the days of ‘carbo loading’. Today you have so much more information at to use to customize your nutrient intake to maximize your performance and meet your goals. Eat! It’s good for you.
Kevin Jones is a freelance writer and fitness instructor/consultant. He had helped hundreds of people find ways to become more fit and healthy through an individualized approach. In addition, Kevin has written extensively in the fitness and health industries, including writing for companies such as ICON Fitness for both the NordicTrack and ProForm brands. Connect with Kevin online via LinkedIn or Twitter.