Learning to eat clean and get lean

I have often been asked which diet I would recommend for runners and triathletes, or if there is a special supplement that should be taken to help improve performance.

My answer is and always will be that there is no special formula, diet, and/or supplement that will help you achieve that perfect body, reach a certain number on the scale, or miraculously turn you into a pro triathlete or runner.

My background is in nutrition, graduating with my bachelor's degree in dietetics from Southeast Missouri State back in 1991.

I have worked in a number of nutritional arenas over the past, having worked in the hospital setting, outpatient setting, and working with those with eating disorders.

Along with my degree in dietetics, my background competing in high school and college sports and my endurance sports experience in my adult life, I have gained a lot of nutrition knowledge along the way, especially in how it impacts athletic performance.

If I had to give a suggestion on what type of "diet" that should be followed for optimal athletic performance, it would be one where you attempt to eat "clean."

What do I mean by eating "clean?"

I encourage a diet full of foods that work to fuel your body for performance. Just as when you go to the gas station to fill up your car with the proper type and amount of gasoline to fuel your car so that it can run properly, you want to accomplish the same when it comes to fueling your body for performance.

How would your car function if you failed to put enough gasoline into the tank, or perhaps if you filled it with the wrong type of fuel- such as putting diesel into a car that required unleaded gasoline?

It wouldn't run well at all!

When choosing a diet or way of eating, choose foods that are nutrient-dense.

This means that for each food you eat, it should have a high proportion of nutrients (vitamins, protein, iron, calcium) in comparison to how many calories it provides.

An example of poor nutrient dense foods would be soda and chips. Neither of these provides much in the way of nutrients to help your body function and both are calorie packed.

An example of a nutrient dense food would be vegetarian pizza. The crust provides complex carbohydrates (whole wheat crust would be even better, providing B vitamins and fiber).

The cheese on the pizza provides both high quality protein and calcium. The vegetables would provide Vitamins A and C.

Take two people that both consume 1,500 calories in a day. One eats a cereal bar for breakfast; popcorn and soda for lunch; and macaroni and cheese for dinner.

This diet would provide little in terms of high quality protein, fiber, or vitamins and minerals, but instead provides a high intake of sodium and saturated fats.

On the other hand, the person who ate a high-quality protein 1,500 calorie diet would consume two slices of whole wheat toast with peanut butter for breakfast; a spinach salad with chicken breast, tomatoes, onions, and peppers for lunch; some low fat yogurt and an apple for a snack; and fish, a sweet potato, and asparagus for dinner.

The nutrients you consume are used to help maintain a proper metabolism (your body's ability to burn calories) and help you feel optimal during workouts.

A nutrient rich diet also helps in tissue repair (essential for muscle repair during training.)

Eating a nutrient dense diet also helps provide satiety, a feeling of being full. Think of eating a nutrient dense diet in terms of getting a higher rate of return on the money you invest. For the same amount of calories, you get more nutrients in return.

Also, as athletes, and especially athletes who are trying to go out and run and bike for over an hour, you can't skimp on complex carbohydrates or protein, both are essential to performance and recovery.

Carbohydrates provide the fuel for our body to function, as well as help to replenish and build glycogen stores. Glycogen stores are stored carbohydrate found in the muscles and the liver and we utilize these glycogen stores in longer events once circulating glucose in the blood is depleted.

If you lack glycogen stores, you risk the production of lactic acid which leads to muscle fatigue and "bonking."

Intake of sufficient protein is also important in muscle repair and performance. When you work out you break down muscle tissue.

Protein rich foods provide the building blocks for repair of those same tissues. Also, your body requires protein for cellular repair.

If you aren't taking in enough protein, you will experience a lack of satiety, leaving you constantly hungry after meals, which can lead to overeating and poor snack choices later in the day.

As a triathlete or runner you need approximately 0.6 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. So for a 130 pound woman this equals about 78 grams of protein.

The best sources of protein are meats (beef, pork, poultry, and fish), eggs, peanut butter, and dairy products.

As an athlete, whether you are a recreational adult athlete or a teenager who competes in high school sports, proper nutrition is essential to good performance.

Furthermore, it's not about a number on the scale or what size of clothing you wear. A number doesn't really matter if you are so underweight that you have no stores to rely on when it comes to a longer endurance race.

If athletic performance is what you are striving for, it doesn't really matter that you wear a smaller size in clothing or weight a certain weight, what matters is that you have the strength and training to go fast and finish strong.

Working to get lean and gain muscle mass in place of body fat is what is optimal for performance, not striving for a irrational number on the scale that may in fact harm your body and lead to poor performance, sickness, and injury.

Each of us has a "set point" weight, a weight that our body tends to go back to time and time again. Fighting nature and genetics will only lead to frustration and ultimately affect your athletics in a negative way.

So the next time you head to the grocery store, stick to the outer aisles filing your cart with vegetables, fruits, sweet potatoes, lean meats and fish, and low-fat dairy products.

Try to limit your time in the middle aisles that are typically full of highly processed foods that are nutrient deficient.

Once you begin eating a more clean diet you will feel better during your workouts, as well as begin to see a more lean and athletic you!

Missy Janzow owns Fit4U, a personalized coaching and nutrition service. You can reach her with your questions at janzowml@yahoo.com.