I have read several books by prolific writer Matt Fitzgerald before. That’s not surprising – if you’re a runner who reads a lot about running you are basically guaranteed to have come across one or more of his books before. I find him a terrific writer – he has the ability to make complicated subjects sound simple. On the other hand, I do have doubts about the content of at least some of his older books. When I bought “Brain Training For Runners” I was initially very keen but eventually changed my mind – and from what I’ve heard, so has Matt.
Never mind, the previous book he wrote about nutrition, “Racing Weight”, is very good and I do recommend it. You can tell his background as a professional nutritionist is helping him remain on solid ground, so I was immediately intrigued when I heard that he had published another book about nutrition: “The Endurance Diet”. I was even more intrigued when I was offered a free copy for a review, and since they immediately agreed that I would be able to post a review even if I didn’t like it, I accepted.
Matt has spent a considerable amount of time interviewing, and living in close proximity to, several elite endurance athletes, ranging from runners and cross country skiers to cyclists and rowers and several other disciplines as well. He says he has identified 5 core habits that their nutrition has in common, which form the basis of the book:
1. Eat Everything
2. Eat Quality
3. Eat Carb-Centered
4. Eat Enough
5. Eat Individually
Eat Everything means they eat a varied diet, including items from each of 6 different categories: vegetables; fruits; nuts, seeds and healthy oils; unprocessed meat (includes eggs) and seafood; whole grains; dairy.
Eat Quality speaks for itself. However, it is worth pointing out that even elite athletes do allow themselves small amounts of less healthy treats every now and again, which helps to remain on message for the majority of time. Note that “small amounts” is the operative phrase here.
Eat Carb-Centered very much goes against the recent wave of low-carb diets that seem to become increasingly popular. He points out that the Kenyans, possibly the most successful group of endurance athletes in history, are on a diet that is extremely high in carbs, and would laugh in the face of anyone arguing that carbs aren’t good for them.
Eat Enough is concerned about the amount of calories required to sustain the training that is necessary to perform at elite level. Of course this dismisses every single calorie-restrictive diet ever, and he also speaks out against calorie counting. On the other hand, according to Matt elites seem to know when they have had enough and often leave food on the plate, untouched, when they are saturated. Apparently they have a very finely tuned appetite that lets them know when they have eaten the exactly right amount of food.
Eat Individually goes somewhat against the grain of all other habits listed, in that elite athletes all vary their diets individually to their own needs and tastes, be it to wrap breakfast vegetables in meat (seriously!) or just their own version of otherwise standard dishes.
The chapters describing these habits are all very clear and very accessible. Much of it is common sense, which all too often is very much absent in dieting books, so that definitely speaks for Matt and his understanding of the subject matter.
I have to admit being slightly dubious about some of his points, though. I do know some athletes that perform at a very, very high level on low-carb diets, and I simply do not believe his assertion that this is only possible in disciplines like ultrarunning where the standard is not as high just yet, so elites can get away with a sub-optimal diet. In fact, I know a professional cyclist whose low-carb diet did not stop him from winning several medals in world championships.
There are also a few elite vegan athletes that are able to perform just fine, despite clearly not “eating everything”.
And I do get the feeling that the “Eat Individually” chapter is a bit of a cop-out; after going on about how elite athletes all eat extremely similarly he suddenly comes up with a fifth habit that seems to state the opposite, at least up to a point.
The last few chapters are a bit of a mix. I enjoyed the chapters with recipe suggestions and “Endurance superfoods” (after helpfully pointing out that “superfood” is nothing but a marketing term) but found the chapter about endurance training a bit pointless – it’s too short to provide much meaningful information and just doesn’t belong into a book primarily about nutrition in my view
His strongest point, I think, is the way in which his “diet” can be introduced in small steps, not requiring massive changes all at once, which greatly increases the chance of this approach actually working and sticking until it becomes a habit, unlike many fad diets. Nothing is restricted entirely and the odd unhealthy treat is positively encouraged, as a reward or a way to ensure that you remain on track for the rest of time – a very refreshing approach.
There is a lot of interesting information in this book and it is very well written. While I clearly do have reservations about some of the content (maybe it’s just the Doubting Thomas in me), the basic message I got from the book was to eat a diverse range of high quality food and not restrict calorie intake. Also, don't try to follow the latest fad or food hyped for alleged “endurance gains”; instead you should always opt for natural, unprocessed, healthy food and the potential endurance gains will be far greater. To support this approach, Matt also has a mobile app called “DQS” that can be used to track his “Diet Quality Score” (an idea introduced in “Racing Weight” and explained in detail in this new book as well), a simple way to track the quality of your diet, and certainly superior to calorie counting.
All in all I do think this a book you should read; read it with an open mind but remain sceptical at the same time - or is that just my own approach to just about everything?
For anyone interested in this book, I have been offered one copy to give away to one reader. Leave a comment stating your interest or contact me on twitter @tfbubendorfer until 7 May and I'll pick one winner at random.