When you’re running for weight loss, putting one foot in front of the other is only half of the equation. And when we say “half,” we really mean more like one-fourth. Maybe one-third.
That’s because, while running certainly burns calories and the right running program can also build muscle to help you increase your metabolism, the calories that you consume still matter, says registered dietitian nutritionist Jessica Crandall Snyder, a Denver-based runner. “Many runners overestimate how many calories they burn during their workouts, and end up over-fueling as a result, which leads to weight gain, not loss,” she says.
Meanwhile, how you get those calories (aka: what foods you eat) determines exactly how much fat you burn during every run, how your muscles recover, if your metabolism gets a boost from your workout and, ultimately, what you get out of your entire running routine.
So, if you’re running to lose weight, add these eight foods to your fueling plan:
- Full-fat Greek yogurt.
- Frozen berries.
- Lean beef.
- Whole grains.
Move over, bananas. One cup of sliced avocado contains almost twice as much potassium as does a whole banana. Potassium, an important electrolyte that helps you run harder, longer, is lost through your sweat, so it’s important to refuel after your runs. Plus, they are brimming with mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids, of which most people don’t actually get enough of to lose weight, says certified strength and conditioning specialist Albert Matheny, co-owner of SoHo Strength Lab in NYC. Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition even links higher intake levels with lower body mass indexes and levels of abdominal fat.
OK, this isn’t actually a food, but even if you don’t chew it, water is the No. 1 most important source of nutrition if you want to lose weight through running. “Just a 1% decrease in hydration reduces performance,” Crandall says. And when your performance takes a dive, so does your calorie burn and muscle building. So how do you know if you’re getting enough water? An easy way is to weigh yourself before and after each run, preferably naked and with an empty bladder. If, for example, your pre-workout weigh-in puts you at 180 pounds, your goal is for your post-run weight to not have dropped by more than 1.8 pounds. If you lose more than 1% of your weight in sweat during your runs, you need to drink more water before, during and after your workouts.
There are so many reasons that full-fat Greek yogurt makes this list. It’s rich in filling fat, whole carbohydrates and protein, all of which your body needs to recover from your running workouts, Matheny says. “Protein is especially important as every run breaks down and slightly damages your muscle fibers. Protein is what helps them build back up and by increasing muscle synthesis, increases your metabolic rate,” he says. Before bed is another great time to dig into a bowl of yogurt, as Greek yogurt is rich in casein, a type of slow-to-digest protein that can keep your muscles fed and building all night long.
These little powerhouse orbs of energy are a runner’s best friend. That’s because, not only are they rich in protein, they are rich in the most bioavailable protein known to man. That means that your body can absorb and use the protein contained in eggs more easily than it can protein from any other source, says Crandall, noting that this is doubly great because anyone trying to lose more weight needs more protein at breakfast. A 2015 review published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism concluded that Americans need to stop getting all of their protein at dinnertime, and instead space it out throughout the day in order to lose weight. Protein aside, eggs are also rich in energizing B vitamins and free radical-fighting antioxidants. Plus, the bulk of fat contained in eggs is actually of the unsaturated variety.
As a runner, it’s important to understand a little concept called “oxidative damage,” a biological process that stresses your body when it uses oxygen to break down food for energy – like when you’re running. While this physiological stress is what triggers your body to heal and grow, too-high levels can cause the body’s processes and health to break down, making results so much harder. “Every workout is a stress to the body,” Crandall says. “It’s important to balance out that stress with antioxidants, which combat oxidative damage.” One of the richest, most weight-loss-friendly sources of antioxidants: berries. Off-season? Buy frozen, Matheny says. Research from the University of Chester in England shows that because it’s picked and sealed at its nutritional peak, frozen produce tends to be richer in vitamins and minerals compared to its “fresh” counterparts. For instance, compared to fresh blueberries, frozen ones contained double the amount of powerful antioxidants called polyphenols. “Eat them after your workout for the best benefit. That’s when your body most easily absorbs their nutrients,” Crandall says.
Apart from the fact that nuts are packed with both protein, fiber and unsaturated fat – and linked to lower levels of inflammation, improved weight loss and a longer life – nuts are awesome for runners because you can eat them on the go, wherever, whenever, Crandall says. (A baggie filled with nuts is generally a much healthier option than that processed protein bar.) Remember, though: No matter how awesome they are, they are rich in calories. So aim for eating one handful of nuts per day. Any kind will do the trick.
Chicken and fish are great, too, but when it comes to meat, beef gets extra points for its rich iron content. Without enough iron, a nutrient in which 10 million Americans are deficient, your body isn’t able to get enough oxygen to your muscles to properly power your workouts and your overall health, Crandall says. Beef sirloins and fillets are great lean options for those trying to lose weight. If you’re shopping for ground beef, opt for a variety that’s 90% or more lean. It should say so right on the label.
While it’s true that most of us over-consume carbs, it’s important that you don’t completely cut carbs from your weight-loss plan, especially when it involves running, Crandall says. That’s because, once digested, your body stores carbs in your muscles and liver as glycogen, your primary fuel source for high-intensity exercise. To get the carbs you need without all of the weight gain associated with white bread, processed pasta and sugary cereals, stick with whole grains such as quinoa, bulgur, oats, amaranth and whole wheat, she recommends. They’ll fuel your runs and recovery while still providing the fiber that you need to curb overeating, promote healthy digestion and lose weight more easily.