Training Food – Renee McGregor on sports nutrition
Our next interview is with Renee McGregor, Sports Nutritionist to sports people of all abilities, best selling author and keen runner. This promises to be a real education 🙂
Renee, how did you initially become interested in sports nutrition and dietetics?
I initially did a biochemistry degree with nutrition which I found absolutely fascinating and I actually thought I would end up in research. However my tutor encouraged me to look into Dietetics as he thought that it would really suit my skill set! I decided to take his advice and was lucky to be accepted on the post graduate course in Glasgow. I qualified as a registered dietitan and started working clinically within the NHS. I really enjoyed this for the first few years and I gained so much from these years of working. However I always knew that I wanted to work within sport. I was a very sporty child, always in the teams at school and continued to stay fit and complete challenges such as London to Brighton bike ride. After I had my two girls, I decided that I didn’t want to return to the NHS and so I took some time out to be a Mum to them but also to do a post graduate in applied sports nutrition. After the first lecture, I knew I had made the right career path. I loved being able to return to my biochemical roots and I guess the rest is history!
You say what you eat can make all the difference to your performance. How is this?
Although training is probably the most important aspect of performance, in order to get optimal results from your training, making sure you put the right fuel bore, during and after is a necessity. Training is a stimulus so if you are trying to increase speed for a 5k then your training will involve several sessions where you are working at very high intensity. You will need to ensure adequate carbohydrate before this session to actually achieve these high speeds and then post training, in order to help the muscles adapt from the stimulus it is important to re-fuel with both carbohydrate and protein.
How has sports nutrition developed, during your 14+ year career?
Its evolved significantly; it’s a science. As more and more studies demonstrate how nutrition impacts performance and recovery, it is being explored further in order to get that extra edge. Even since I qualified as a specific sports dietitian, thoughts around carbohydrates, protein, fats, hydration, energy requirements and portion sizes have changed significantly. We are seeing big differences between males and females; different ethnicities and sports which makes it a very exciting area to be involved in.
So the evidence base is developing rapidly. Look forward to reading more on that.
Do you think food intolerances are on the increase? If so why?
I don’t think there is a rise in food intolerances but I think more people are wanting something to blame/focus on for why they may be feeling tired, bloated etc. a lot of people do not realise that actually being dehydrated is the most common reason people get bloated. Similarly a lot of people will come to me and say, “I just can’t eat pasta, it bloats me!” a gain the reality is that when we eat carbohydrate, we tend to also hold onto more water. You can hold onto as much as 4g of water per g of carbohydrate so naturally you are going to feel a bit bloated especially if you have eaten a huge plate of pasta!
I think it has become very “faddy” to have an intolerance; however during my time in the NHS I worked in an allergy clinic where I saw real, legitimate allergies and intolerances and so I’m very cynical when someone tells me pasta makes them bloat!
That said I do work with individuals who do have legitimate issues, usually with a lot more severe symptoms who really benefit from excluding the culprit food item.
Do you feel we’re seeing a trend where people are returning to healthier foods and home cooking?
Yes, there seems to be a real think for “clean” eating. Personally I hate the term “clean” because it also suggests that eating food that are not in this list are “dirty”. I don’t believe in demonising any foods or ingredients because its all about balance. I do believe that if you prepare the majority of your meals with fresh ingredients then you are more likely to get a better balance of nutrients.
What advice would you offer to anyone considering going on a diet?
Don’t deprive; don’t over restrict and set realistic goals. When people embark on very restrictive or fad diets they do tend to lose a lot of “weight” in the first few weeks but the majority of this weight is loss of glycogen and fluid stores. You will also tend to lose more muscle mass which long term will be detrimental as a lower overall muscle mass will lower your metabolic rate. When I’m working with individuals who are trying to lose weight, the key is to lower overall energy intake, increase protein as this will retain muscle mass. Additionally protein tends to have a higher satiety value so it tends to fill you up for longer. I also never cut out carbs completely. I will advise on portions and timing so that no food is off limits. I usually also prescribe one “cheat” meal or pudding a week.
As part of my Lyme Disease treatment plan, the specialist advised going dairy free for a minimum of 3 months. Aside from using coconut oil as a butter substitute, what other tips could you share for anyone going dairy free?
The biggest mistake a lot of people make when going dairy free is not to replace it appropriately. With so many dairy free alternative milks available these days it can make it very confusing. I always recommend that individuals try to replace dairy with soya milk and products such as yoghurt. Soya is the closest match to dairy when it comes to protein and calcium. Many of the other milk alternatives available are very low in carbohydrate and protein so are not a good substitute. I also encourage dairy free alternatives that are high in calcium such as tahini, nut butters, green leafy veg and oily fish.
Thank you… What part does sport participation play in your own life?
It plays a huge part in my life. As I said I have always been involved in sport ever since school. I started running more competitively about 8 years ago; initially I just ran half marathons. In 2012 I was lucky enough to get a club place at London marathon; by this time I had been working with Holly Rush for a while (GB marathon and ultra marathon runner) and she offered to coach me. I took her up and was delighted by my time of 3.17. Holly has continued to coach, advise and inspire me!
Over the last few years I have moved away from road running and racing. I have a 3 year old Brittany spaniel and I love going for long exploratory runs with him surrounded by beautiful countryside. This has lead to me run a few ultras in the last couple of years and I’m hoping to go back to my favourite race, SBU35 at the end of August this year.
3.17!! That’s a fantastic time Renee 🙂 You’ve got the ultra bug too which is great to hear.
Your recent feature in Trail Running Magazine highlighted 10 ‘hero’ foods. Any others to suggest for runners?
My Hero foods are definitely not an exhaustive list and they are transferable across all sports. As with all sports its not really about individual foods but more about the combination of foods around training.
What dangers are there associated with individual superfoods?
The problem with using the term “super food” is that it sends a false message –instantly individuals assume that if they include this one wonder product in their diet, it wil make them instantly healthier. However just because you have a super green smoothie every morning it doesn’t stop you from developing health problem sor stop you from gaining excess weight if you are still over consuming in other areas. It also plays to the food manufacturers and retailers because as soon as something is deemed “super” it means they instantly hike the prices up too!
You have a concern about bad advice on nutrition from bloggers. How can anyone spot this more easily?
Food and health bloggers without formal qualifications are a real concern of mine. It took me 6 years of studying and several more years of researching to gain the knowledge and practical application of nutrition that I have today. Just because you have an interest in food doesn’t make you an expert of give you the right to prescribe advice to others. One of the major problems is that the term “nutritionist” is not protected. Anyone can all themselves a nutritionist whether they have a legitimate degree in nutrition or they have done a 6 week diploma course from the internet. There are also many alternative therapy courses such as nutritional therapy. None of these course are regulated by a governing body and so the advice they provide is not usually evidence based. As a Dietitian I am regulated by the British Dietetic association but also the Health Professions council. I have to abide by a strict code of conduct and all my advice needs to be evidence based.
Having just started reading your “Training Food” book I can begin to understand that. I hope my own Fuel Food comes up to scratch btw?!
It is fine – you are not advising individuals or suggesting they make major changes to their diets such as being gluten free or removing carbs or keeping clear of fruit without any evidence for making such claims.
Phew! 🙂 How can effective sports nutrition help the mind?
I’m not sure if sports nutrition can specifically improve the mind but there have been many links with nutrition and general well being; if you eat well – a varied diet rich in nutrients, you generally reap the rewards. Some studies have shown getting the balance of n3 fatty acids can really improve cognitive function and there are many reports of how low Vitamin D levels can be linked to an increase risk of depression.
I saw in Robbie Britton’s latest blog post with ProFeet that you’re advising him. What general nutritional advice would you offer ultra runners?
I think its very difficult to give general advice as no two people are the same. I always like to work with the individual, get to know their goals both from a body composition point of view but also from a performance point of view. This will very much shape my advice. However I guess in general terms ultra runners really need to learn to tailor their nutritional intake to their training; there is no need for big bowls of porridge or pasta if you are going out for a long run at a low intensity. That said due to the general increase in training volume and “time on feet’ ultra runners will benefit from increasing their protein intake; this doesn’t mean eating huge portions post training but its more about having a small amount of protein at an increased frequency throughout the day. Increasing essential fatty acids can also help with inflammation. The other key thing ultra runners need to pay attention to is their salt inake, particularly during long runs and races. The sodium requirements per hour for most ultras are double that of a shorter race and many branded sports drinks will have no where near enough. I usually recommend using salt caps or sticks which ensures that you meet your requirements.
And what about for those from a short walk/run to a 10k?
Again it does come back to intensity. So if you are doing a high intensity 10K session then you need to make sure you put enough carbs in before and also replace them with protein after; however if you are walking, you will have enough energy stores within your body to meet the demands of this activity. However do remember to stay hydrated and keep on top of your salt intake if it particularly warm.
Your new book “Training Food” seems to have really tapped into people’s interest. Has the response surprised you?
Yes! I have been so overwhelmed by the response it has got but also really touched when people get in touch and let me know how much they have benefited. I also really like seeing all the pictures of the recipes they have made.
That’s pretty modest, given “Training Food” is Amazon’s #1 best seller in Fitness Training. What made you decide to write the book?
I was actually approached by the publishing company. One of the editors had been following my blogs and article sin magazines and liked the way that I made sports nutrition practical and accessible. She got in contact and we agreed to meet. The rest as they say is history!
What other books would you recommend to anyone interested in healthy sports nutrition or a healthy lifestyle?
That’s a really difficult question and I guess if I’m honest I don’t go looking! As I said earlier I stay clear of books written by individuals who are not qualified; there are so many that are based on their individual journey with food and nutrition and while this may be interesting, I think its important to remember that “one size does not fit all”. Just because a celebrity has written a book about going sugar or gluten free because it worked wanders for them, doesn’t mean they should impose their ideas onto the rest of the population.
What is the best nutritional advice someone has ever given you?
It’s a bit of a cliché but “a little of what you fancy does you know harm!”
Renee thank you very much indeed for this interview. Here’s to continued success for you and your “Eat Well Feel Fab” brand 🙂