Eating practices of the best endurance athletes in the world

Daily nutrient intake

About 86 percent of daily calories came from vegetable sources, with 14 percent from animal foods. As you might expect, the Kenyan-runners' diets were extremely rich in carbohydrate, with 76.5 percent of daily calories coming from carbs. The Kenyans ate about 10.4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body mass each day, or approximately 4.7 grams per pound of body weight.

An amazing facet of the Kenyans' eating habits was the consistency of this carbohydrate intake: Every 24 hours, the Kenyans took in about 600 grams of carbohydrate, with very little variation from day to day. They were truly stocking their leg muscles with glycogen, giving their sinews the right fuel necessary for the high-intensity training they were conducting -- and avoiding the fatigue which automatically follows on the heels of glycogen wipe-outs.

Incidentally, sports-nutrition experts frequently recommend that athletes involved in strenuous training should consume about nine or more grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body mass per day, so you can see that the Kenyans were truly eating according to current scientific wisdom.

Given such an ample carbohydrate intake and the reliance on vegetable foods, fat intake was bound to be modest, and it was: About 13.4 percent of daily calories came from fat (~46 grams), with 61 percent of these calories coming from milk (Kenyan runners ordinarily place full-cream milk in their tea).

Protein intake amounted to 10.1 percent of all calories and a total of 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (75 total grams daily). Once again, the Kenyans were fully in line with recommendations of top sports nutritionists, who call for protein intakes of ~1.2 grams per kilogram daily for endurance athletes. About two-thirds of the protein came from plant foods. Water intake was modest (about 1.113 liters per day), and the Kenyans actually tended to drink more tea than water on a daily basis (tea consumption was about 1.243 daily liters).

The foods

As you might expect, ugali furnished about 23 percent of the runners' daily calories; after all, it's the national dish of Kenya. There were some surprises in the dietary data, however. For example, just behind ugali in second place for calorie-provisioning was plain sugar, which provided about one out of every five calories (20 percent) consumed by the Kenyans over the course of the day.

That's right, the vitamin-free, mineral-free, "bad," "simple" carb from which Americans are fleeing was consumed in rather prodigious amounts, about 133.5 grams (534 calories) per day. Similar levels of sugar consumption are sometimes blamed for the rising tide of obesity in the U.S., particularly among young people, but in fact sugar intake provides some key advantages for athletes involved in intense training on a daily basis: After all, the stuff re-stocks muscle-glycogen stores very quickly and effectively.

As long as the rest of the diet is rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber and anti-oxidants (which is the case with the elite Kenyans), and as long as regular exercise is carried out and caloric intake doesn't exceed caloric expenditure (also the case), sugar isn't a bad thing at all. In fact, it can be argued (from the quick-glycogen-replacement standpoint), that sugar is a rather-desirable nutrient (before you send me any angry letters on this topic, please look up the frequencies of type 2 diabetes in Kenya and the U.S.).

In terms of providing calories, the "big-four provisioners" in the Kenyans' diets were:

  1. ugali, with 23 percent of total calories
  2. sugar, with 20 percent of all calories
  3. rice, at 14 percent
  4. milk, hitting 13 percent
No other single food provided more than six percent of daily caloric sustenance (bread was at six percent, with potatoes and beans at five percent each).

Milk provided the lion's share of protein, with 28 percent of daily protein grams (and calories), followed by beans, with a respectable 19-percent share, and rice and ugali were neck-and-neck for third and fourth, with 12 and 11 percent of daily protein, respectively. A smaller surprise? Since the Kenyans relied so heavily on full-cream milk as a source of energy and protein, their daily consumption of saturated fat checked in at about 28 grams -- 252 calories out of the daily caloric quota of 3,000 or so.

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