Food as fuel is a common concept among athletes. You have to eat to have the energy to perform at your best.
More and more athletes are also focusing on the quality of the calories they consume based on the belief that smart food choices may help to reduce some of the pain and inflammation generally associated with pushing our bodies. In fact, science has proven that poor food choices actually cause inflammation and illness. Turns out Hippocrates was onto something when he said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”
Tawnee Gibson, MS, CSCS, switched to an anti-inflammatory diet to see if it would help her body heal from overtraining, gut issues and a steady string of injuries. It did. Now the triathlete promotes an anti-inflammatory way of eating for the clients she coaches.
“Early on in my triathlon career, before I knew better, I was still eating high amounts of sugar and refined carbs and not enough fats, which only served to worsen my gut, injury rate and total-body inflammation,” says Gibson, who hosts the Endurance Planet podcast. “A cleaner, anti-inflammatory diet helped me recover fully and get my health and energy back to a good place—free of injury and all signs of autoimmunity. I also did a ton of work on stress management, recovery, less intense training and so on.”
According to Gibson, everyone, not just athletes, would benefit from reducing chronic inflammation (as opposed to acute inflammation, which is the body’s natural response to normal stressors, such as a big workout, and signals it to repair, recover and build back to a stronger state) in the body. Chronic inflammation leads to a host of common illnesses. Allergies, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and autoimmune diseases are all linked to chronic inflammation. Yes, stress and high training loads are contributors to inflammation. But so is food. Quality calories are essential, all the more so when you are in training mode and taxing your system. A common belief among athletes is “I’m training, so I can eat whatever I want because I’m just burning it off,” but that’s not really the case. To perform well, you need to eat well.
Champion ultrarunner and clean-eating proponent Timothy Olson agrees. The Boulder-based athlete switched to a more primal and mostly grain-free diet (focusing on healthy fats, meats, fruits and vegetables, while avoiding processed foods) in 2011.
“When I changed my diet is really when my running career started,” says Olson, who set the course record time of 14:46 for the Western States Endurance Run in 2012. “It has helped me sleep better, while experiencing more efficient recovery. I have less overall fatigue and inflammation, which allows me to train harder without the pain, unlike what I experienced with a ‘normal’ American diet.”
However, many runners have come to rely on the quick energy of chews and gels. Gibson, who believes it’s a myth that endurance athletes need processed carbs to compete, says the practice is fine in moderation.
“If you need the sugar and carbs to perform well in racing, practice with these products a few times in training so your gut adapts and you can hit your workout goals and also use them on race day, but otherwise try to keep the high sugar and carbs to a minimum.”
You can also try fueling whole-food sources during training. Examples are baked sweet potatoes, nuts and dates. Olson, however, does use sugar when he races.
“Not that I like lots of sugar, but when I’m competing at my highest level I appreciate the quick energy it gives me,” says Olson, who eliminates all sugar, grains, dairy and alcohol from his diet for a month or two each year.
This isn’t to say you can’t perform on a junk food diet. You can, but it may be detrimental to long-term health and potentially limiting when it comes to reaching peak performance. What about the occasional cocktail or sweet treat? Gibson, who is against severe diet restrictions, is a big believer in the 80/20 rule where 80 percent of food is high quality and anti-inflammatory, and the other 20 percent is more flexible. According to Gibson, not only is this approach more realistic, it helps to prevent an unhealthy fixation on clean eating. The point isn’t to be punitive, it’s to be the best version of you.
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Gastrointestinal issues are a common complaint among runners. Now it’s been proven that an anti-inflammatory diet may help establish better gut health, something Olson experienced firsthand.
“Changing my diet eliminated GI distress,” he says. “I take probiotics, drink kombucha every morning and enjoy bone broth and other fermented food regularly. My stomach, mind and body really appreciate my efforts.”
The question for those of us entrenched in a standard, processed-carbohydrate-rich diet is how to begin. Gibson recommends taking it one step at a time.
“Don’t feel like you need to do a diet overhaul overnight,” she says. “Make it a transition and start to understand more about what’s in the foods you eat.”
Your Anti-Inflammatory Shopping List
If you’re ready to try an anti-inflammatory diet, you should focus on consuming healthy fats, nuts, vegetables, leafy greens and fruits. These are some of the specific foods Gibson recommends “eating in abundance.”
Take a high-quality fish oil supplement or eat fatty, wild fish two to three times a week. Smaller, cold-water fish like sardines and salmon are best. Avoid eating too many large fish, like tuna and swordfish, which can be high in mercury and other toxins.
There is a ton of research that supports turmeric’s ability to decrease inflammation in the body via curcumin, which blocks the inflammatory chemicals.
In addition to fighting inflammation, ginger is good for athletes because it may increase blood flow, boost recovery, improve digestion and sooth the stomach (like during long training runs and racing).
Extra virgin olive oil
Put it on salads, in sauces and marinades and use it for cooking at temperatures up to 375 degrees (but not high-heat cooking). The monounsaturated fats in extra virgin olive oil are strong anti-inflammatories.
These are versatile, tasty and healthy.
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What to Avoid
You may be wondering what counts as inflammatory. Processed foods, refined sugar and feedlot meat top the list. These are Gibson’s top foods to avoid.
Canola and vegetable oils
Stop using canola oil. It is not healthy. It is just another inflammatory vegetable oil, often genetically modified and partially hydrogenated, making it a culprit of inflammation and heart disease risk. Other vegetable oils to avoid are sunflower, soy, safflower, corn and cottonseed.
Anything with added sugar or refined sugar is not going to help your inflammation status. Natural sugars found in fruits, whole foods and even small quantities of honey or maple syrup are okay.
Wheat and refined grains
Foods with traditional white flour and gluten, “white foods,” processed breads and cereals all have wheat, which is highly inflammatory. It’s okay to have grains in the diet, but try to consume the least processed, clean, organic sources and do so in moderation.
We all know athletes love to celebrate with a beer or a little booze. There’s nothing wrong with that, but too much alcohol can promote inflammation in the body among other negative effects.
Most fast food is pro-inflammatory, especially food fried in vegetable oils, which contain advanced glycation end products that contribute to inflammation and premature aging.