HEALTHY FATS FOR RUNNERS

Elyse's Real Food Story 

Changing My Diet, Changed My Life. 

This story originally appeared in Women's Running Magazine special Mother's Day issue.

 

I started running competitively in 7th grade. I was a scrawny, pre-pubescent 12-year-old with a competitive spirit that enabled me to beat most of the boys on my middle school cross-country team. The more the boys picked on me, the faster I ran. The coach noticed my talent and boundless drive and moved me to Varsity. In running and competing, I found my true passion. But as I happily logged more and more miles and fueled my running with what I thought was nutritious food, my health began to suffer. At 14 I developed stress fractures in both my knees. By my 16th birthday I was just as scrawny as I was at the age of 12 and when I turned 18 I feared I was the only teenager in the world without her period. It wasn’t until I joined the cross-country team at UNC Chapel Hill that the team doctor red flagged my absence of menstruation as a concern.

My bone density was low and they suggested I go on birth control pills to help my estrogen levels. This resolved the immediate issue, but the root cause was not addressed.

After college, when I was no longer running competitively, I tried several times to go off birth control to see if I would get my period naturally. I waited, anticipated, cried, switched doctors, stopped running, but all to no avail. I ended up back on hormones for fear of continual bone density loss. Not once did a doctor suggest dietary changes to assist with combating “athletic amenorrhea,” the term I learned many years later that described my condition. It never crossed my mind that the low-fat “health” foods that I consumed regularly were causing more harm than good. 

 

A decade after graduating from college, my husband Andy and I had the chance to move abroad to Geneva, Switzerland. When we moved to Switzerland my diet changed drastically. I was no longer eating low-fat yogurt for breakfast followed by a lean turkey sandwich for lunch and a processed veggie burger and plain pasta for dinner. The packaged products I was used to buying in the United States didn’t exist, so I began cooking everything from scratch. My new diet was hearty (and satisfying!). For the first time in my life I was devouring foods rich in healthy fats including traditionally made cheeses, full-fat grass-fed red meat, butter and farm fresh eggs. The whole milk yogurt I ate every morning was rich, creamy, and pure, not stripped of fat and flavor.

 

My perspective on healthy eating changed. I happily discovered that food could be indulgent and nourishing at the same time. My weight did not change but I felt stronger and healthier than ever before.

Embrace “indulgent nourishment” to improve your relationship with food. Watch my Recorded Culinary-Nutrition Class: Intuitive Eating for Hungry Athletes

 

After living in Switzerland for a few months, I decided it was time. I tossed out my last package of birth control and never renewed my prescription. To my surprise, a month later, and for the first time in my life, I got my period naturally without the use of hormone pills. When we returned to the US, I was inspired to learn more and went to New York City to attend a nutrition-focused culinary school.

 

Once back in my home state of Oregon, we decided we’d get a dog and then start trying for a baby, though doctors told me pregnancy wouldn’t be quick or easy for someone with my history. My husband and I thought we’d have at least a year with the puppy before I got pregnant. We were surprised and thrilled to discover that I got pregnant immediately (the same month we brought home our rambunctious pup!).

 

The doctors had been wrong. I didn’t need hormone therapy, IVF, or other medical interventions in order to get pregnant—all I needed was a hearty, whole foods diet AND butter.

 

Lily, our daughter, has truly transformed my life: I’m now an elated mother AND an eat-more-fat evangelist. Lily has inspired me to share what I know about nutrition so that no athletic woman suffers from health issues due to improper fuel. 

 

I found the perfect way to speak out, partnering with long-time friend and Olympic marathoner, Shalane Flanagan, to write cookbooks geared towards female runners. We've made a huge impact on the running community (and other sports) and all three of our cookbooks went on to make the NY Times Bestseller list. 

 

When I began the research for our first book, I learned women in the United States are experiencing infertility rates at an all-time high. It’s estimated that 20 percent of active women and up to 45 percent of female competitive runners suffer from athletic amenorrhea, which can lead to bone loss and fertility issues. When the body isn’t getting enough healthy fuel, it begins to shut down systems that aren’t necessary for survival, and the female reproductive system is one of the first to go. Getting in more high-quality calories can reverse this detrimental condition.

 

Whether you’re in your teens, 20s, 60s or 70s, and whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or advanced runner, a balanced diet rich in good fats is essential for bone health, hormone health, heart heath, brain health, and more. Unfortunately there is still a fear of fat in our country. The reality is fat doesn’t make you fat. Good fats are an easily burnable source of sustainable energy.

 

Now I’m in the kitchen everyday cooking indulgent favorites to keep my active family happy and healthy. Since fat is essential for brain development in toddlers, nothing gives me more satisfaction than watching Lily devour buttery carrot muffins, slurp rich bone broths, slather kale pesto on bread, clear her plate of coconut oil-roasted sweet potatoes (in fact “coconut” was one of her first words), and eagerly hand signal for more sardines. (Lily is now 10 years old, smarter than her parents and still a great eater!)

 

I'm still on a mission to teach active women of all ages and levels a better way to nourish their bodies for the long run. Food should be celebrated—it nourishes our minds, bodies, and souls!

Learn how to build balanced and satiating meals without counting macros. Watch my Recorded Culinary-Nutrition Class

Elyse’s Favorite Healthy Fats

  • Avocado
  • Virgin coconut oil
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Butter (grass-fed, organic)
  • Dark meat chicken (pastured, organic)
  • Canned sardines in olive oil (and other sustainable fish)
  • Red meat (grass fed beef, lamb, bison)
  • Eggs—eat the yolk! (pastured, organic)
  • Whole milk yogurt
  • Parmesan (and other aged, high-quality cheeses)
  • Nuts and seeds (almond flour, almond butter, homemade nut milk, etc)

 

I'm passionate about teaching balanced and sustainable eating habits for hungry athletes. Don't miss on our Season Finale Culinary-Nutrition Class to fuel your best year yet.

 

 

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Photography By:
Page Bertelsen, Erin Scott, Andy Hughes, and Elyse Kopecky