WHAT I THINK ABOUT WHEN I THINK ABOUT FOOD | A COLUMN BY DAVID MCNEILL

At the risk of being condescending, and calling all runners control freaks, my experience is that habitual runners (from the hobby joggers to the Olympic medalists) share qualities of being perfectionist, pedantic, meticulous, and non-compromising. Broad generalisation, I know. But all positive attributes to have when kept in check – capable of breeding consistency: the hallmark of a successful and happy runner. I too find the term control freak a little harsh, but for lack of a better term, it will do. As champion 1500m runner Jenny Simpson of the USA said, “where my job begins and where my job ends is a very fluid thing. It’s my life”. Running is my life too, and on that note, I will admit to being a mild control freak. For some runners, the extent to which their life revolves around running goes only so far as ensuring they can get their 30min run in, 5 times a week. For others, running can strictly dictate when you go to bed, when you say no to social occasions, say no to alcohol, say no to relationships. And perhaps most commonly, running can dictate what we eat. And while many aspects of my own life revolve around running, food is not one of them. In true Melbournian fashion, there is an aspect of my life that revolves around food, all of its own accord.

Melbourne Noodles Market
Melbourne Noodle Market

As a runner, food is the topic I most commonly get quizzed about. “Do you watch what you eat?” “What do you eat after workouts?” “How many calories do you consume each day?” And since I am a vegetarian, the question that proves the bane of my existence, “where do you get your protein from?” I have rehearsed my answers as many times as I’ve been asked the questions, and rarely have I said what I really think. When asked about food, I talk about food as the people who ask me the questions expect me to answer them. But in reality, it’s not what I think about when I think about food.

Melbourne laneway
Melbourne laneway

I live in Melbourne, which while always being a veritable melting pot of food pride, has in the last decade experienced an explosion of importance in the culture of the city. I engage in coffee snobbery as much as the next Melbournian, but I have also developed a keen and evolving interest in the culture of food. Quite independent of my running, I have come to value food’s story: the manner in which food is grown, how far it has travelled, it’s ability to sustain culture both financially and even spiritually, and it’s place in world issues – from the economy to the environment. By no strange coincidence, when food has a story, it tends to be healthier. So, perhaps by a lucky coincidence, this has fit in well with my life as a long distance runner.

McNeill's Coffee
McNeill’s Coffee

Food very often has a social role rather than a fuelling or a recovery role in my life. Perhaps a reflection on the company I keep, which is either runners, foodies, coffee-drinkers, or all of the above, food served from scratch tends to have more social value around my friends and family than store bought, pre-prepared, over-processed food. My Mum spoilt my family growing up with a different, extravagant dish every night. Variety was the spice of our family’s life. That variety ensured a pretty balanced diet, and the love and care shone through in the time and effort my Mum put into the food prep. That’s a key value I place in food today. Food isn’t just fuel, but an expression of love and care and appreciation – both for the people I cater for, and the ingredients I strive to use.

Chai-soaked date HotCrossBuns
Chai-soaked date Hot Cross Buns cooked by David McNeill

So far as my consideration for my running goes when it comes to food, I think about two main things: processing and variety. I aim to use food in my cooking that has the same nutritional profile as it did when it was harvested. So without added sugar, not stripped of the fat or fibre, and preferably without the nutrients cooked out of them. Food in it’s whole form. I often prefer to prepare from scratch rather than buy pre-prepared, to ensure added freshness and nutritional value, and also just because I love to cook. And I go for variety. Using as many different, fresh, whole food ingredients as often as I can, and not becoming too reliant on any one category of food (whether thats green veggies or starchy veggies or grains or beans or eggs/dairy). Making food choices according to this mantra offers a lot of flexibility. No two meals need be the same, and because of that, I don’t have to worry about too much or too little of any particular nutrient defining my diet.

I don’t view food in terms of calories. I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how many calories I consume each day – I dare say it is not consistent though. Nor do I think about food in terms of low or high carb, low or high fat, or low or high protein. Sadly, I know too many people who’s food comprehension can be summed up by the following mantra: “meat is a protein, pasta is a carbohydrate, and chocolate is a fat.” As if different foods are entire macronutrients of their own accord (sigh)! As such, when I am asked where do I get my protein, I wax lazy, avoiding the long-winded explanation and say, “I get my protein from eggs and supplementing with protein powder.” The reality is however, that most every food I eat has an appreciable amount of all the macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats). They don’t call them whole-foods for nothing!

McNeill's brunch time creation
McNeill’s brunch time creation

The way I think about food doesn’t exclude the possibility for me to enjoy the occasional crap too. I love a Tim Tam, I love a cinnamon roll, I love ice cream. There’s all kinds of crap that I enjoy, and which I occasionally indulge in. But I am fortunate that my control over these indulgences is not a question of ignoring the cravings. My enjoyment and appreciation for food is about more than just taste. Indulgent food can tend to be heavy on the taste, but light on the experience and the story. While food’s story and the experience of sharing food prepared from scratch doesn’t play into everybody’s value system, I am glad it plays a part in mine, since it takes the guess work out of deciding what to eat and what not to eat. Food needs to satisfy more than just my hunger. It is something that gives balance to my life as a runner, and it is something from which I garner happiness, knowing I have contributed to another’s health and enjoyment through cooking, or made an uplifting moral choice to support agriculture that is financially and environmentally fair and sustainable.

McNeill's Kale quinoa salad and a soft boiled egg
McNeill’s Kale quinoa salad and a soft boiled egg

If food is but another thing controlling your life through running, consider looking at food from a different perspective. It is possible to make healthy choices independent of your running, and from which much happiness and fulfilment can be derived.

McNeill's Sweet Potato-Poblano Soup
McNeill’s Sweet Potato-Poblano Soup

PS: As a practical side note to this column, here are three food websites I frequently consult for foodspiration: 

www.thugkitchen.com

www.101cookbooks.com

www.thehealthychef.com

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