It’s Halloween and you know what that means, costumes, carving pumpkins and of course C-A-N-D-Y! As an elite runner, I’ve gotten many questions and comments on the subject of the sweet-tooth.
“You eat candy?” someone asked me recently, alluding the fact a “serious runner” wouldn’t do such a thing. I stared back at them as I swallowed a mouthful of M&M’s. “Every once in a while,” I replied, as I watched the look on their face turn from shock to the “I guess she is human,” sort of look.
It seems there are a lot of misconceptions about athletes and candy. A serious runner doesn’t eat candy right? Do they eat any sweets at all? Should anyone who wants to be a better runner give up candy this Halloween? These are just a few questions I’ve gotten, and wanted to share my opinion on as an elite athlete.
First things first: Everyone has a sweet-tooth.
Whether you prefer the sweet or the savory, there’s no denying that we all have sugar cravings every once in a while (or maybe for some, all the time). Have you ever been to a birthday party and noticed that odd ball who refuses a piece of cake? That’s been me. Not to cut calories, but simply because I don’t care for chocolate cake. However, put an apple pie in front of me and I could devour the entire thing. Everyone has their weakness, and that includes even the biggest health-nuts and greatest athletes.
But is it okay to act on that sweet tooth?
There was a point in my life where I made a decision to be the best runner I could be, and so I decided to cut out everything in my life that could negatively affect my running, including all “junk food.” That Easter season my parents gave me a giant Reese’s Peanut Butter egg (my favorite) and instead of allowing myself a single bite I secretly discarded it in the trash. I stuck to my pact pretty well and even stopped craving sweets as much, that is until track season ended and I rewarded myself with a dessert. In the two-week break I took off of running I probably over-indulged beyond the amount of sweets I would have eaten all season if I hadn’t been so strict. That year I realized it was better for me to allow myself a few sweets now and then, in moderation, rather than restricting to the point of binging.
Real Runners don’t completely avoid sugar or carbs.
Did you know a study on the diet of elite Kenyan runners showed that sugar accounted for 20% of daily calories?¹ Of course, the majority of this comes from things like adding sugar to tea and not chowing down on candy bars. But to say that becoming a better runner means cutting out all sugar is definitely overboard in my opinion.
I’ve witnessed a lot of elite runner’s diets over the years, both in college and now on the professional side and one thing I’ve learned is that the ones who have long-term success in this sport aren’t deathly afraid to touch candy, cookies or cake. The night before my 3000m PR I sat at a table sampling several different dark chocolate bars with Lauren Fleshman and the other Oiselle runners. I also had a teammate in college who ran with a bag of M&M’s instead of an energy gel. I’ve met elite runners who ate everything from a chocolate chip waffle to a cookie, to a candy bar the morning of their race. I’m not suggesting these as healthy pre-race choices, but the point is that these are real runners who didn’t have to completely restrict themselves to be successful.
Crossing the line…
I’ve also seen that other side of the sport; runners who fear calories and restrict themselves to the point of disordered eating. Perhaps most of this article might seem strange because I seem to be saying, “Yeah, go ahead eat candy,” as if it were healthy. In today’s society we all know very well that we are in a health crisis, with obesity rates rising and sugary foods being one of the main culprits. But what about the 20 million women and 10 million men who at some point in their lifetime will suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder such as anorexia?² In a world where the media keeps telling us to eat less, lose weight and aim for that “perfect” cover-girl body, it seems like no one can find a healthy middle-ground. Add in the fact that eating disorders are 20% more likely in elite athletes than a random control group³ and you might see where I’m going.
It’s all about self-control.
I’m not a dietician, or doctor, but in my own opinion I believe the answers to the candy questions lie in moderation and self-control. As a kid, I remember returning from trick-or-treating feeling like I’d just won the lottery! With hundreds of pieces of Reese’s, Twix, Jolly Ranchers, and M&M’s right at my fingertips, the temptation was overwhelming. For that one night, my mom would make an exception to her usual candy rule of “one-or-two-a-day” and let us indulge. At the time, I hated that rule, because in all serious, who can eat one Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup and stop at that? But as I’ve gotten older and have become more serious as a runner, I realized my mother was teaching me the important lesson of self-control.
But here’s the key: Self control works both ways. For someone who is trying to lose weight or eat more healthy to become a better athlete, eating less candy or junk food in general can be a very positive choice. However, self-control also comes into play when it comes to “giving in.” Someone with true self-control is not the person who has to turn their head, walk away from, or feel extremely guilty for eating a piece of candy or dessert every once in a while. Instead, it’s the person who can enjoy some Halloween candy, Christmas cookies or a chocolate egg and know that its okay.
Sure, a diet of candy, candy canes, candy corn, and syrup is not something I would recommend to anyone, (unless you’re an elf!) but as a serious runner myself, I personally don’t believe you have to give these up entirely to be a great athlete or healthy person. For some, that means a little dark chocolate a day, or something sweet a few times a week. At the same time, if someone chooses to completely give up candy or dessert and still maintains a complete and healthy diet without falling into relapse, then more power to them! All and all well-balanced diet is the most important thing. Happy Halloween!