Simple Staples: Learning from Elite Kenyan Runners

I read an article recently that analyzed the diet of a group of elite Kenyan distance runners. It didn’t surprise me that  the diet is largely plant based. In fact, animal sources only comprise a mere five percent of their daily caloric intake. As such, the diet is very high in healthy carbohydrates for energy and low in fat and protein – a true prescription for a high performance diet that also helps to stave of chronic illness. Indeed, heart disease and diabetes are hardly the threat in Kenya that they are here.

wspf-kenyan-runners-051What did surprise me about the Kenyan runners’ diet was its limited variety. It consists mostly of the starchy staple known as “ugali”, a kind of dough made from maize flour that is eaten with the hands and used to pick up stews for flavouring. They also eat a fair share of rice, potatoes, bread, kidney beans, cabbage, collards and kale. So here we have a group of the most elite endurance athletes pushing the boundaries of human performance and they eat a very simple pseudo-vegan diet of limited variety.

You would imagine that athletes of this calibre would be popping the highest quality supplements and protein powders to make up for such a “deficient” diet, but surprisingly they do not supplement with anything at all. I can’t help but suspect these athletes excel not despite their diet but, at least partly, because of it.

We probably view diets such as those the Kenyan runners eat as deficient because we ourselves have far too many choices in our part of the world. What’s more, if you are a vegan in this part of the world you are made to believe that you simply must eat a variety of special and obscure Superfoods and green concoctions to make up for what is missing in your diet. Don’t misunderstand; there is nothing wrong with green juice, but I think we have forgotten how to put together simple, functional food to meet the demands of a high energy, fast paced life. You cannot centre your diet around fancy foods. Kale chips can only get you so far.

At the  centre of this simple Kenyan approach is the carbohydrate staple. I have read that some Kenyans feel that they haven’t eaten unless they have had ugali. Ask any one of 1.7 billion people living in Asia what they will be having for dinner and you can bet they will say rice. A meal without rice isn’t even a meal. For most of the world, starch forms the basis of the diet. Everything else is an accompaniment to the staple.

But what if you ask a North American what they are going to have for dinner? Many people might not even be able to answer that question right away. We have such a glut of choice in our part of the world that we don’t know what choice to make. It’s hard to put together healthy meals when you can choose from anything, but have no education on the subject. Perhaps that explains why our health has gone off the rails. But if we centred our meals around the same healthy staples, we wouldn’t really need to think about it all that much. Because we can have anything we want, we have lost the concept of the simple staple – and mealtime has become complicated!

What’s worse is that our obsession with micronutrients often leads to an extremely warped macronutrient ratio. So often I have seen vegans avoid starches in their diet to make room for all the other special foods they think they need. But when carbohydrate consumption drops, you must fill that gap in with fat and protein foods that don’t effectively meet energy demands. You must meet your calorie needs somehow, and veggies and greens alone are too calorie dilute to do it. Because of this, fatty foods and oil often fill the place of the missing carbohydrates. Imagine the Kenyan runners sacrificed ugali so they could eat superfood salads instead? Either the diet would be so calorically poor that they would wither away, or they would meet their caloric needs by drenching their salads with calorically dense olive oil and nuts. I say this with only the slightest bit of sarcasm, but I believe I could defeat the most celebrated Kenyan marathoner if he were to fuel solely on nuts and leaves.

Without going too much into the details of why this doesn’t work, just remember the bottom line is that you cannot perform athletically (or in life for that matter) on a low carbohydrate, high fat diet. However, when you forget about your staple foods, you are forced to eat this way. I have coached many vegans who have needlessly overcomplicated their diets while forgetting to include enough carbohydrate foods. They all come to me with the same problem – they have no energy and they can’t understand why. They assure me they have tried everything, including the most potent superfoods and top quality supplements and still they have no energy. In the worst cases, they have given up veganism because they have become convinced that they are missing some important mineral or vitamin in their diets.

In reality, they simply don’t have fuel to burn. You can’t drive your car if you don’t put fuel in it. If you want to drive fast, you need lots of it! There are many reasons one can be lacking energy, but more often than not, when I coach them to centre more of their meals around starchy staples, they are amazed at how quickly their energy and engagement with life improves. I have a suspicion that the majority of ex-vegans who quit due to lack of energy did so simply because they did not consume enough carbohydrate. I can’t prove it, but if the world’s most elite runners are getting close to running 26.2 miles in two hours eating corn and kale, we should be able to design a simple vegan diet that helps us reach our life goals.

So what can we learn from the performance diet of the Kenyans? Get simple! It’s fine to have so many choices at the grocery store, but find some staple foods you love and remember to center your meals around them. For myself, I find that my favourite staples are rice, corn, bananas, potatoes and sweet potatoes. I centre almost every meal I eat around one of these base foods. The result? Well, I had enough energy last year to run over 5,000 kilometers and run a 2:56 marathon. Not quite Kenyan elite time, but my recovery was fast and I never once lacked for energy. I didn’t get sick or injured once. I’m not special. I eat for energy and I use that energy to meet goals that I set for myself.

You don’t have to run a marathon, but as vegans, we owe it to ourselves to maximize our energy to unleash our passion on the world. That takes a good deal of healthy carbohydrates!

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