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Fueling to Perform…with Food

By Nell Stephenson, B.S.
April 7, 2016
Fueling to Perform…with Food image

“Just get the calories in, it doesn’t matter where they’re coming from.”

“As an endurance athlete, you need to consume a lot of carbs to fuel that training.”

“You can’t train too long on an empty stomach; you’ll get dizzy and it could be dangerous.”


It’s overwhelming, isn’t it?

Sadly, these three misconceptions are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding how we need to fuel our bodies for sport.

As a long time ironman triathlete who’s been racing for nearly 20 years, I can honestly say that I’ve probably tried every gel, sports drink, bar, and recovery powder on the market when I first got started in the sport.

Keep in mind that I was quite self-assured in following the recommendations I’d read in the running magazines and the triathlon newsletters. What they were suggesting was right along the same line as what the USDA still to this day recommends to athletes in terms of what their diets should be comprised of.

According to the Dietary Reference Intake, upwards of 55 percent of an athlete’s daily calories should come from carbohydrates. And according to the USDA, suggested servings include six to 11 servings of grain, three to five servings of vegetables, two to four servings of fruit and two to three servings of dairy1.

As a committed athlete, I followed these guidelines closely. There’s one critical piece of information I’ve not yet shared with you. Despite the fact that I was racing competitively and really enjoying the training, I was actually suffering at the same time, not just in sport, but also in day-to-day living.

Years of GI distress, which began when I was a very young child, had grown increasingly worse until the point that in my early twenties, I was more or less sick each and every day.

The pain I’d feel from bloating could get so debilitating that all I could do to alleviate it a little was to curl up into a ball pressing my knees into my stomach to try to counter the pressure.

I visited countless doctors, gastroenterologists and even had to go to the E/R a few times when things became intolerable. I had several (mis) diagnosis: IBS, colitis, ‘maybe Crohn’s’… and was also the recipient of several prescriptions which I simply couldn’t stomach taking. In desperation, I tried a few and not only did they not help the existing symptoms, they added even more. Through all of this, no doctor asked what I was eating.

The very last doctor I saw reluctantly performed an initial screening for Celiac Disease (testing for serum immunoglobulin A (IgA) tissue transglutaminase (tTG) antibodies is useful because it offers adequate sensitivity and specificity at a reasonable cost2.)

The test came back negative so unfortunately, the doctor advised me not to cut gluten out of my diet. Doing so would significantly compromise my ability to get sufficient fiber and B vitamins in my diet, as, in his opinion, cereal grains and breads were the best sources! Then, to top it off, he suggested I begin taking Prozac, because there was nothing wrong with me!

It simply didn’t make any sense.

I felt so miserable, I figured I had nothing to lose by cutting out the gluten, despite his warning.

I went ahead and cut it out and in three days, I felt better.

Three days!

After years and years of feeling awful!

I began replacing all those carbs I thought I needed to fuel my ironman training with gluten free versions. Gluten free bagels, pastas, breads… you name it, I ate it, still under the impression I’d need these things to keep myself prepared for sport.

And even though I felt better, in all honestly, I still didn’t feel great.

What was even more annoying was that I was training my tail off yet still looked really average and my racing performance was still sub par.

I was so close to settling, accepting that I simply wouldn’t be able to achieve the lean body I wanted and maybe feeling sub-par was just my destiny.

But I already knew too much.

You might say that Pandora’s Box had been opened.

If something I had been eating for so long, that I thought was really good for me (whole wheat) was really making me very sick, I wondered… could there be other ‘foods’ that might be under the same category?

I went back online and started digging again.

This was back in 2005, a good three or four years prior to the explosion of Paleo into the mainstream, so telling someone that I was following a Paleo diet was far from commonplace.

I stumbled upon the work of Dr. Loren Cordain and a book called The Paleo Diet.

Its science-based, yet common sense, theory that if we eat what our ancestors ate, mimicking their foods with what we have available to us in our modern times, we will inherently be healthier than what occurs when one follows the standard American diet.

I began following it immediately and noticed changes right away.

My stomach went from feeling acceptable to fantastic, I began sleeping better, recovering more quickly from training sessions… and losing fat.

Over the course of the next year I dropped 10% body fat and gained a whole new lease on life.

Not only did this translate to feeling better on a daily basis, but to being able to actually train and go hard for an entire race, rather than having to stop in the portable toilets each and every single race.

I achieved my ironman goals by qualifying for World Championships not once, but seven times.

I learned just how important it was to make the choice to eat only fresh, local food, balanced out in terms of macronutrients, depending on what my training load looked like, and what time of the season it was.

I reached out to Dr. Cordain, simply to thank him for all the work he’d done and to let him know how grateful I was to have happened upon it, and from that first email, our working relationship developed into one that continues to this day.

A cookbook we wrote with his wife Lorrie, an implementation program and even being guests together on the Dr. Oz show all transpired from this circuitous path I was on from sickness to health.

It would be several years later that I began to learn more about fat adaptation and the glorious feeling of being able to eat to fuel your day, whether you’re training or not, by including more good fats in the diet, steering even further away from those antiquated guidelines pushing the American public down the path to obesity and subsequent illness.

The most important message that I hope to impart on anyone who reads or hears my story is that we always have a choice about what we put in our bodies.

Sometimes it may not be black and white, but we can always go with the better of two not so great options, keeping in mind it’s the big picture that counts more than anything else.

It’s like I always say: Eat Food and Move!


[1] "Balanced Diet for an Athlete." LIVESTRONG.COM. LIVESTRONG.COM, 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 25 Mar. 2016

[2] PRESUTTI, John, DO. "Celiac Disease." - American Family Physician. American Academy of Family Physicians, n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.No

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