If you're like most runners, you probably resolved to shed a few pounds this year, which is a great goal, since losing extra flab will make you a healthier, fitter, and faster runner. But doughnuts and French fries aren't the only obstacles to your target weight. Bad nutrition habits you may not even realize you have make it hard to drop excess pounds, says Lisa Dorfman, M.S., R.D., director of sports-medicine nutrition and performance at the University of Miami. Nutrition missteps, such as disregarding food labels and eating while distracted, can sabotage your diet. Here's how to pick up healthy habits that will get your weight-loss and running goals on track.
Diet Downfall: Venti Mocha Frappuccino
In a study published in 2009 in Preventing Chronic Disease, researchers analyzed purchases at Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts in New York City over 11 weeks. They found two-thirds of purchases at Starbucks and one-fourth at Dunkin' Donuts were "blended coffee drinks" that average 239 calories. The researchers warn that 200 extra calories a day can lead to a 20-pound weight gain in one year.
New routine: Switch to plain brewed coffee, which is nearly calorie-free. If you love specialty drinks, choose a smaller size with nonfat or low-fat milk and skip the whipped cream and syrups. Add sugar yourself: Presweetened drinks can contain 20 teaspoons of sugar, says sports nutritionist Deborah Shulman, Ph.D., who notes you should only have about 10 teaspoons of added sugar a day. If you want to splurge, do so after a hard run; the sugar sparks an insulin response, says Shulman, "which stops protein from breaking down and builds up energy sources."
Runners understand it's important to hydrate before a workout, but many don't realize they should also drink before sitting down to eat. According to a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who drink two eight-ounce glasses of water before meals lose more weight than those who don't drink. "It's the fullness factor," says Dorfman. "You eat less because your stomach feels full," which helps reduce your calorie intake and spur weight loss.
New routine: Before meals, drink a glass or two of water or a cup of tea. A bowl of soup will have a similar effect, says Dorfman. Do the same before reaching for that midafternoon snack. "Runners often think they're hungry when they're actually thirsty," says Dorfman, so drinking water may relieve what you thought was hunger.
Diet Downfall: Too Much Meat
A recent study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined the diets of more than 300,000 adults and found that those who eat the most meat gain more weight (about four additional pounds) over five years than those who eat less meat. "Meat is a very important source of protein and iron," says Shulman. "The problem is we eat too much of it and eat it in place of plant foods."
New routine: If you're trying to lose weight, "a plant-based diet with a little meat is best," says Shulman. "Fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and beans have fewer calories per gram." She suggests making meat one ingredient among many, like shrimp and vegetable stir-fry, beef and bean burritos, and chicken curry with rice.
Nutrition-fact panels and ingredient lists on packaged foods will help you determine a product's relative merits, says Shulman. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs found adults who read nutrition labels are more likely to lose weight than nonreaders.
New routine: Focus on the nutrition facts panel for key nutrients to limit, such as calories, unhealthy fats, and sodium, and review the ingredients. "If you want whole-grain bread, but the first ingredient is 'wheat flour,' you know more than half the flour is not whole grain," says Shulman. Beginning early this year, some companies are planning to add labels to the front of packages. And remember to check serving sizes, which are often unrealistically small.
Diet Downfall: Eating While Distracted
The amount of time Americans (including runners) spend eating while multitasking has risen sharply over the last three decades, according to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs. This behavior makes it more difficult to monitor calorie intake. "It's like reading on the treadmill," says Dorfman. "You don't do either well." She notes you end up eating faster, which leads to overconsuming calories and weight gain.
New routine: Turn off the TV, put down the newspaper, and focus on your food. "It's important to have an eating place," says Dorfman. "Set the table wherever you are and remove all distractions." If you usually eat lunch at your desk, stop scrolling through e-mails between bites. If you're at home, don't eat on the couch--sit at the kitchen table. Make eating an event, and enjoy it.
Common nutrition mistakes that trip up runners
Eating too close to a run
Fifteen minutes after eating, insulin levels rise, says Deborah Shulman, Ph.D., leaving you feeling sluggish. So eat one and a half to two hours before a run. The exception? "Your body doesn't release insulin midexercise," says Shulman. A snack just before a run will keep you energized.
Making energy bars a meal
High in sugar and low in fiber, energy bars are perfect on long runs, but not ideal for weight loss, says Shulman. They won't keep you full long, making it likely you'll overeat at your next meal.
Overdoing sports drinks
Sports drinks are high in calories and meant to provide fuel for running an hour or longer, says Lisa Dorfman, M.S., R.D., or if you're working out at a high intensity for at least 45 minutes. Otherwise, water or a low-calorie sports drink is your best option.
Not fueling up midrun
"You have 90 minutes of carbs in your system," says Shulman. Run longer without midrun fuel and you'll bonk, which won't help you lose weight. Consume 30 to 60 grams of carbs (try a sports drink or dried fruit) for every hour you exercise to keep energy high.
Runners know they need recovery fuel after a workout, but they often overestimate how many calories they burn, which leads to overeating. "If you do an easy workout that's 45 minutes or less," says Dorfman, "100 calories is sufficient for recovery."