We get bombarded with a huge amount of information about diets and nutrition, both in our everyday lives and also our sporting lives. One of the best ways of keeping body fat low is to develop practices which increase the metabolism. This obviously means moving around more – in other words, exercising – but it can also mean shifting the times of the day when we eat our food. Nutrient timing can be a very important factor, as these days the old-fashioned ‘calories in versus calories out’ paradigm is becoming less credible. The new advice by many sports nutritionists and coaches is to eat more meals per day, each of which of course needs to be smaller than your usual three square meals; and whenever possible, to eat within an hour of physical exercise. But does this give us carte blanche for snacking?
The answer to that question is ‘not necessarily’ but there will always be times of the day when we can’t just go and have a proper meal, especially if we are aiming to eat a higher number of smaller meals per day. Our society kind of programs us to have breakfast, go to work or school, have lunch, finish work or school, go home and have an evening meal, recreation, then bed. So to try and eat every three hours doesn’t really fit very well into this model. Having nutritious snacks to hand is a great way to ensure we can stave off hunger in a healthy way. Ideally they will all provide some kind of ‘fix’ for a particular craving, but also have those hidden gems which are actually really good for our well-being. Here is my top six runner’s snacks to keep you fuelled between main meals without forcing you to pile on the pounds.
The good news for chocoholics is that dark chocolate can be very good – in moderation – for reducing stress levels and helping with heart health. Aim for the highest cocoa content you can find for a larger hit of antioxidants, but try to avoid chocolate with a high level of vegetable oils. In the UK, the regular chocolate bars are much sweeter and so a transition to dark chocolate might be a bit of a shock compared to what most people are used to. A daily amount up to 40g (about 1.4 ounces) is fine, but remember this still counts as calories.
Remember I said the ‘calories in versus calories out’ argument is less important than when you eat your calories – this doesn’t mean calories are not important and that you can overdo them. Eating them at the right time means the energy is more likely to be stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen, than simply get stored in fat cells. If you go overboard and pig out on chocolate, you will just be taking on so many unrequired calories that you will inevitably gain body fat! So take it nice and steady on this snack.
Another unlikely contender as a healthy snack for keep-fit fanatics is popcorn. Thankfully, I’m not talking about the usual oily butter-drenched super-salty popcorn you might envision. In fact, popcorn can be a healthy snack and is often used by dieters because it is low in calories and high in dietary fiber. Ideally you will pop your own at home and there are plenty of cheap popcorn makers available (try Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk). This will enable you to control exactly what additives are used. For example, you can spice up yours with your own selection of herbs and spices rather than drowning it under a sea of salt.
One of the greatest benefits of popcorn is it has a high level of polyphenols which can protect us from cell damage, heart disease and even cancer. If you do decide to buy pre-packed products, look at the labels and make sure you get the lowest fat content you can find.
Bananas are one of my favorites because they are so easily transportable. They are great as a quick snack before running if you are pushed for time and do not have the time for something more substantial. You will normally need to let a proper meal settle for a couple of hours before exercising, but I regularly have half a banana just before a training session.
These sweet energy-rich fruits provide a great carbohydrate boost and also are high in potassium, which is crucial for athletes because sweating during exercise can cause a loss of this mineral. Any substantial depletion in potassium levels can lead to painful muscle cramps especially in the legs, so having a banana as a snack can make sure you keep your levels high enough to ward off any cramping problems.
And apart from these great benefits for runners, a banana can also provide you with fiber, vitamin C and iron, as well as a degree of hydration, so they are an incredibly versatile and healthy snack for your food armory.
Although eating a cereal with milk is popular as a breakfast choice, there is nothing to stop you grabbing some tupperware containers and taking this to work to eat whenever you feel hungry during the day. Choose a wholegrain cereal to get the most benefit and use skim – or low fat – milk. In one scientific study, cyclists who ate wholegrain cereal with zero-fat milk were able to replenish their energy stores just as well as those who used an energy drink. So this breakfast staple is a great post-exercise recovery snack. But just make sure you pick a cereal which has no added sugar or salt if possible, or find one where these ingredients are lowest.
Blueberries are often regarded as a superfood, and they are alleged to have all sorts of wonderful properties due to the high concentration of antioxidants contained within them. Apart from the great benefit of helping to reduce inflammation of muscles after exercise, these ingredients have been reported to decrease the risks of getting age-related health problems from dementia to cataracts, and also certain cancers. Blueberries are packed with vitamin C and other compounds which can give a general boost to the systems of the body and ward off colds and flu, which is obviously a benefit to runners who do not want to stop running during the winter. It has been shown that people who eat them regularly are able to get rid of belly fat more easily and this goes hand in hand with exercise, forming a virtuous circle for runners. After all, one of the best things you can do as a runner is to lose fat and reduce the amount of weight you have to carry around with you.
If you are also eating cereal, then just throw a handful of blueberries in as well for a really healthy and nutrient-packed breakfast. Or just keep a small tupperware container of them with you in case you feel like grazing on something healthy at work.
It is also important to stay well hydrated, not just for sports performance, but also for general well-being and life performance. It is very easy to feel run down and lose concentration when even just slightly dehydrated, so drinking enough water during the day is important.
But there are some other liquid options which can give you a turbo boost. Pomegranate juice is another highly beneficial option if you need to get a nice dose of antioxidants. So you can expect less inflammation and better recovery if you drink pomegranate juice every day, but also better heart health due to the ability of some of the ingredients to prevent the formation of arterial plaques and to deal with bad cholesterol which will ultimately lower blood pressure.
Another good alternative to pomegranate juice is tart cherry juice. In both cases, aim to avoid anything which is pumped full of sugar, and instead look for 100% fruit juice. Cherry juice has been reported to relieve muscle soreness as well as having the heart protective properties derived from a high dose of antioxidants.
Remember though, that any kind of restrictive diet is not going to be very good for you. So if you think you can live you life on a diet consisting of a block of dark chocolate and a bottle of pomegranate juice, then you are sadly mistaken. Always aim for a balanced and widely varied diet, and try lots of different colors for your vegetables. This will enable you to get the best possible nutrition from what you eat and drink. Then you can add in some of these runner’s snacks just for times when you are between your main meals and would otherwise reach for something decidedly unhealthy!
For more personalized nutritional information, especially if you already have some health issues, talk to your physician, who will be able to help you draw up a suitable diet plan just for you.