These days information on nutrition for athletes is everywhere. There is nutrition advice specific to individual and multisport athletes. There is nutrition advice for Ironman triathletes. You can’t turn around without finding nutrition advice on your feed, or in ads, or on the TV.
But it wasn’t always that way.
During the early days of distance running, there was more advice about what not to eat than about foods that might boost performance. Our cross country coach encouraged us to avoid eggs for the most part. It was believed they could produce sideaches. Same with Coca-Cola, where caffeine was the enemy, and the amount of sugar messed with your bloodstream. And donuts. We weren’t supposed to eat donuts.
So I abided by that advice during the season. I was so disciplined about it that I did not touch a Coke from August through November. That was tough for a high school kid to do.
But then my family moved to a different town and our coach said nothing to us about nutrition. Thus my junior year in high school I began the habit of eating what I wanted for lunch. That lunchtime diet consisted of one baloney sandwich, a bag of Fritos, a yummy Suzy Q snack cake and a can of Coke.
None of those foods is actually “real” in terms of origin. Baloney is made from who knows what shards of formerly living things. Like hot dogs, baloney is best left unexamined. However I dared look it up and Reference.com gives that rather sanitized version of what’s in baloney:
“Some brands of bologna are made from a combination of pork and beef and on occasion, turkey is added. The nutritional value of bologna varies depending on the meat used to make it. Since it is a processed meat, it is high in sodium and saturated fats. Bologna is mainly sold sliced and ready to eat, though some people prefer to heat it up before consuming. Bologna sandwiches are a well-known lunch item in the United States.”
I likely slapped that baloney on a couple slices of white bread and layered it with American cheese slathered with mustard. By lunchtime the mustard would soak partly through the bread creating an absolutely scrumptiously moist patina suited for a Baloney King. Then it was time for the Fritos!
The Fritos were just fun to eat. The shapes and all. Then came the Suzy Q, both purchased down the hill from the high school at the local Blue Goose Supermarket where I knew the owner’s son. It was all so downhome and simple that I looked forward to it every day.
On the nutrition front, the Fritos were also high in sodium. They also packed a few carbohydrates, as did the darkly textured Suzy Q, whose interior filling was like consuming sex on a bun. 50% more creme!
Then I’d wash it all down with a Coke, rich with another 25 or so grams of sugar, if not more. And that was that. Lunch in the early 70s. Three hours later I’d be out training with the guys running 6-8 miles every night. Or, we’d line up to race every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. We did that week after week for a schedule of 18-20 meets total.
Day after day I’d consume my junk food lunch. Sometimes I’d substitute the Suzy Q with one of those Hostess apple or cherry pies. Again, there was less fruit in those things than there was serious content in the 1960s show Laugh-In. In other words, not much.
Yet despite this diet, I ran well enough to lead the team to a District title and ultimately attract some interest from college running programs. I never told them about my secret diet of a baloney sandwich, bag of Fritos, Suzy Q and can of Coke.
Yet somehow I think they knew. Because on college road trips were were fed sandwiches made by the college cafeteria. They were tightly compressed and the meat source was generally unrecognizable. A bag of potato chips came with the sack lunch, along with a soft and often spotted apple and a box of orange-flavored juice that looked like it had been milked from a Martian.
Somehow we survived on that stuff as well. Which is to say that sports nutrition in the 1970s left much to be desired. It also built dietary habits that to this day are hard for me to break. The sweet tooth. The love of salt. The desire for the quick fix and buzz of Coke. All of it resonates in my system like the promise of a rush to an addict.
I’m not happy about it. But at least I’ve come to recognize the source of my pain. Coming to grips with old habits, no matter what they may be, is the start to recovery.
As for today, I’m sitting in Starbucks having just consumed a plastic platter of apples, cheese, hard-boiled (salted) eggs and a peanut-butter laden piece of soft pita or whatever the hell that was. And I feel good even after washing it down with rich hot chocolate.
Old habits die hard. I just hope those early dietary years haven’t killed me already.