MSG and “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome”

If you’ve never heard the term “umami”, that’s not surprising, but you’ve certainly tasted it. Umami is that rich, savory and meaty flavor that you get from a properly cooked piece of meat, sautéed mushrooms, or sauces such as A1, worcestershire, or soy sauce.

Umami is a Japanese work that literally translates as “deliciousness”, and the flavor was originally isolated by chemists from that country. Casually known as the “fifth taste”, behind sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, umami has become a culinary buzzword in recent years, with chefs and major food companies competing to make burgers and other foods with a deep umami flavor.

Hype aside, umami is a flavor that brings a rounded and satisfying flavor profile to cooked foods, especially foods without meat or other rich ingredients. Emphasizing umami is especially useful for vegetarian or vegan cooks, as it’s a flavor often lacking in those foods.

Luckily there are a number of good ways to bump up the umami in your cooking. For vegetarians and vegans, good sources of umami include mushrooms, soy sauce, vegan worstershire, balsamic vinegar, and nutritional yeast. For those with less restrictive diets, umami is easily available from cooking or browning meat, from commercial sauces and spice rubs, and from the vegetarian sources noted above, especially mushrooms.

Like any flavor, umami can be overdone, and the results are just as awful as dishes made with too much salt or sugar. Carefully handled, however, a bit of umami can take rescue a flat-tasting dish or add a welcome dose of richness to otherwise plain foods, all without adding salt or sugar – but be careful about using soy sauce, or other sauces and spice rubs, to get your umami, as those can be loaded with salt as well as umami.


Umami-booster Recipe – Teriyaki Sauce

½ C tamari (soy sauce, reduced sodium versions OK)

¼ C sugar (or 3 T agave or honey)

½ t grated ginger

1 clove garlic, finely minced

2 T mirin (Japanese cooking wine; sherry or a dry white wine will also work)

1 Tablespoon sesame seeds

½ t cornstarch


Whisk together all ingredient in a small saucepan until the sugar (or honey, etc) has dissolved and the cornstarch is completely broken up and dissolved as well. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the sauce just barely begins to boil (small bubbles slowly forming and breaking), and simmer about 30-60 seconds until thickened. Use hot for sauce, or cool and refrigerate for up to two weeks.

Yogurt is good – but shop carefully.

Greek yogurt is one of the food success stories of the last decade, at least here in the States. At its best, Greek yogurt is a very good source of protein, calcium, and vitamin B12 with a minimum of calories and the benefits of live and active probiotic cultures; at its worst, Greek yogurt can be a high-calorie sugar bomb.

Case in point: let’s compare a dark chocolate flavored Greek yogurt vs. a plain Greek yogurt with a side of dark chocolate. Both yogurts are organic non-fat offerings from Stonyfield Farms®, to keep the comparison consistent, and the dark chocolate is a ½ ounce serving of Dagoba® 59%. The total calorie count for both snacks is almost identical at 140 calories.

So if the calorie counts are the same, why compare the two? Simple: because nutrition is about more than just calories! The dark chocolate flavored yogurt has no fat, 13 grams of protein, and 21 grams of sugar, as well as 15% of the RDA of calcium, riboflavin, and phosphorous, with 10% of the RDA of vitamin B12. For comparison, a can of Coke® has 35 grams of sugar, so the yogurt is the equivalent to drinking two-thirds of a cola.

The plain yogurt with a side of dark chocolate, on the other hand, has about 5 grams of fat, 16 grams of protein, 11 grams of sugar, 1 gram of fiber, and 20% of the RDA of calcium, riboflavin, and phosphorous along with 15% of the RDA of vitamin B12, plus the polyphenols and flavonoids from dark chocolate.
The winner? The plain yogurt with chocolate on the side. The combo has about half the sugar, more protein, healthy plant-based fats, and higher levels of micronutrients. As a snack, the combo is also more likely to be a satisfying and lasting choice, as the higher levels of fat and protein tend to increase feelings of fullness and provide more stable, longer lasting energy.

One word of warning: make sure you’re getting PLAIN yogurt. Even vanilla yogurt, which many people think of as “plain”, is loaded with sugar – 19 grams, to be exact, for the vanilla-flavored non-fat plain Greek yogurt from Stonyfield.


(Stonyfield is a registered trademark, and use in this blog does not indicate endorsement of or by the company or its products.)

Vinegar as a performance enhancer?

Apple cider vinegar, especially in its raw, naturally fermented form, has become a bit of a darling of the health food world. And, to be fair, there are a lot of good things about cider vinegar: in its raw, unpasteurized form it’s a naturally fermented food that is very low in calories, rich with probiotic bacteria, and it contributes a nice acidity and sourness to food that can bring out flavors.

Apple cider vinegar is not, however, a miracle food. While one well-known brand of apple cider vinegar claims (on their website) that their vinegar “Helps control weight”, “Helps remove body sludge toxins”, “Helps promote youthful, healthy bodies” and “Promotes digestion & pH Balance”, there have been few scientific studies of the possible health benefits vinegar and, within those studies, the results are mixed.


(Sounds like we should keep apples for eating, and make vinegar out of less delicious ingredients!)

One of my old professors at ASU, Carol Johnston, did a pair of studies with vinegar that are now widely cited as proof of vinegar’s health benefits. While the studies did find some positive benefits, especially in the realm of blood sugar control for people with diabetes, the results were not entirely positive. Vinegar did not help control blood sugar when taken with a dose of simple sugars, for example, and the studies found no influence on insulin levels, glucose levels or A1C levels at two hours after ingestion.

Furthermore, the samples were very small (between 9 – 14 people), and as of yet I have not heard of successful repeat studies, a critical part of the scientific method. Even Dr. Johnston, an advocate of vinegar in general, acknowledges that the effects are relative modest, and many of the myths about vinegar are just that: myths. She also notes “acetic acid is a poison and can have toxic effects.”

(As an aside, her suggested dose is one to two tablespoons diluted in a glass of plain water. Drinking vinegar straight can cause serious problems in your mouth, throat, and lungs, and mixing vinegar with anything other than water may neutralize the acetic acid.)

On that note, Dr. Johnston has shown that the possible health benefits of vinegar come from the acetic acid – not any “enzymes” or probiotic elements that the fancy vinegars claim to have. That means that any vinegar, from your supermarket gallon of distilled white vinegar to the hippie-est raw organic product probably have the same effects noted in Dr. Johnston’s studies, so there’s no reason to buy a more expensive product to get the purported health gains.

Finally, a recently published article in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics addressed the results of the collected evidence across five different published studies. The conclusion of the article were simple: “…there is a lack of evidence at this time to recommend vinegar as an adjuvant treatment…”, and the author also noted potential health risks from long-term vinegar consumption.

On the other hand, there is a possible new use for vinegar that may be of great interest to athletes, especially those involved in endurance events. Recent scientific work suggests that muscle cramping, the bane of many a long-distance runner or soccer player on a hot day, may be at least partially resolved by taking a shot of vinegar (usually in the form of pickle juice). The mechanism is not known, by the current hypothesis is that the vinegar may disrupt with the misfiring nerve cells that can cause cramps. Interestingly enough, several similar studies found no scientifically significant link between dehydration or electrolyte imbalances and cramps, which are both usually blamed for muscle cramping.

Vinegar may not be the panacea that some claim, but there are some potential benefits, especially for athletes, and it may be worth experimenting with pickle juice or your own salt and vinegar concoction if cramps are a regular problem for. In addition, it may be worth considering a shot of pickle juice in the middle of a competitive event if you are cramping – it may not taste good but may also be the most effective option out there.

Vitamin D and exercise

An interesting study in the British Journal of Nutrition recently examined the correlation between vitamin D levels and exercise capability, and found that there was a statistically significant relationship between vitamin D and all the parameters of exercise tolerance that were tested.


(Former USATF 100-mile champ Dave James about to get some skin in the sun.)

In laymans terms, the researchers found that, in their test population, the people with the highest vitamin D levels (the top quarter) had up to a 25% higher exercise capability than the people in the bottom quarter. As always, a correlation is not causation, and the test population was likely to be untrained (and so have very different baseline capability than a cohort of athletes), so I wouldn’t run out an buy a vitamin D supplement.

Given other connections between vitamin D and bone health and possible links to some mental health issues, however, it does seem to make sense to keep our vitamin D levels topped off. Supplements are not the best way to do that, though. It’s better, if practical, to get our vitamin D from endogenous sources (ie: exposure of our skin to the sun). The form of D created within our bodies is better utilized, and less likely to cause side effects, than the commonly available supplemental forms.

So get a bit of sun, and keep running — both are good for your bone health, and both could make you faster.

Racing while injured

Running while injured is a big mistake, but I think we’ve all done it. Racing while injured? That’s just dumb.

So: with my bum knee (medial meniscus?), I headed to Phoenix to race in the Coldwater Rumble, one of the winter series races from Aravaipa Running. There were distances from the 100-mile to the 4-mile, and I had been signed up for the 52k, a distance I really enjoy and one on which I (now formerly) had the course record.


I justified my decision to race by first dropping down from the 52k to the 20k, which, at nearly a third the distance, probably would only have a quarter the physical impact of the longer race. The justification expanded with a promise (to myself) that I’d only run when it felt good, and walk the rest. Together, that seemed like enough to take my participation from the dumb category to simply stubborn – if I could hold myself back.

On race morning, I skipped the warm up and started at the back of the pack, two strategies for reducing the seriousness (and the pace) of the first couple of miles. Walking the initial climb, I found myself at the back of the field, wondering if I’d have to run just to avoid being DFL, but I told myself there would be a strange pride in that should it happen.

Looking back, I’m actually really happy with the way the race went. I managed to hold myself back more than I thought possible, had fun, felt good the next day, and, more importantly, I got to run with some people I’d never run with before. I’m often lonely in ultras, as the top quarter of the field often gets pretty spread out, but at Coldwater I was running with people all day.

In that way, the race was a bit like Across the Years (ATY) – very social, low pressure, and friendly. Also like ATY: I got to run with my beer buddy Brad, a great guy just as happy to talk hops and IPAs as to do the usual ultra-banter. We yo-yoed for a while, Brad running the downhills past me, me chasing hard on the uphills, and in the end the result was the same: we both ended up in the timing tent, drinking an IPA and talking about running.

And that’s about the only reason to run while injured – the social aspects. It’s the people that keeps me coming back to races, since it would be just as easy to run a 20k time trial on the fantastic local trails here in Flagstaff, and I’m happy to embrace that side of the racing experience. Sometimes.

No gain from gluten free diets for most athletes

I know that I’ve written about this before, here and here, but it’s worth noting again, especially in light of a NY Times article today: there does NOT appear to be any benefit for athletes (or the general public) to go gluten-free, unless you have a diagnosed condition like Celiac disease or gluten allergy. As the article notes, a GF diet does not appear to reduce symptoms of GI distress in athletes, or to reduce post-exercise inflammation, a major goal of many athletes.

Gluten-free diets are also quite limiting, can be expensive, and take away many favorite foods, all without apparent gain. So take any suggestion that GF will make you faster with a grain of salt – or at least a nice piece of crusty Italian ciabatta.

The top diets of 2015

In a recent ranking of the “best” diets from 2015, the top ranked diet was the DASH diet, followed by the MIND diet and TLC diet. The worst were the Raw Food diet, Atkins (low-carb), and the Whole30 diet. The next questions are: how did they come up with the rankings, and what do all those letters mean for how we should be eating?


The rankings were developed by compiling and averaging individual rankings from a panel of experts (about twenty doctors, public health experts, and Registered Dietitians). The categories included nutritional completeness, disease-fighting ability (specifically heart disease and diabetes), how easy it was to follow the diet, weight loss (short- and long-term), and safety.

Not surprisingly, the top three diets shared many familiar characteristics: an emphasis on fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains; avoidance of added salt, sugar, and saturated fats; and portion control. The worst ranked diets tended to be “elimination” diets (avoiding certain food groups or ways of preparing food) or diets that focus on quick short-term weight loss.

So should athletes use this information? I would focus on two general themes: first, avoid any diet that focuses on a single food group or that promises swift weight loss. Examples would be low-carb diets, wheat- or dairy-free diets (if you do not have Celiac disease, obviously), and any diet including the words “cleanse”, “detox”, or “elimination”, or that gives a certain time frame for the diet. Athletes need a healthy, well-balanced, and sustainable diet, not something designed to last 30 days or to quickly shed water weight.

The second theme to emphasize is fresh, unprocessed foods with adequate protein and high-quality fats. Minimizing added sugar and salt are also important, but if you’re not eating processed food or restaurant food, then you’re in control of both of those. Over 80% of the sodium in the average diet comes from processed/packaged food.


To further break down the areas of focus, start with fresh, unprocessed foods. This one is simple: try to eat things that grow in the dirt and don’t come in boxes, cartons, or cans. I can hear the question now: “But what about ‘healthy’ foods like canned beans or jars of salsa?” Quick answer: a ½ cup serving of beans contains 490mg of sodium (canned Bush’s Black Beans), while a single two-tablespoon serving of salsa contains 310mg (Herdez Salsa verde). And I don’t know about you, but I can’t build a meal out of a half-cup of beans with two spoonfuls of salsa.

(see my earlier post about minimizing added sodium in convenience foods)

Second: “adequate protein”. This one is a bit tougher, since each person has different protein needs depending on age, gender, activity level, type of training, and fitness level. The US RDA is 0.8 grams protein per kilogram body weight, but that is widely regarded to be inadequate, especially for athletes and older people. A better starting point would be 1.0 – 1.2 g/kg, with some seniors and hard training folks closer to 1.5 g/kg (or even up to 2 g/kg for calorie-restricted diets or intense periods of heavy training).

Most Americans eat more than enough protein, but the quality is another issue: your protein should come from mostly plant-based sources, lean meats, and low-fat dairy, and I look for a calorie to grams of protein ratio of no more than 10:1 for a food to be considered a “protein” in my diet. An example would be the super-firm sprouted tofu in my fridge, with 120 calories and 14 grams of protein per serving, which is over that 10:1 ratio (8.6:1). Look for a minimum of saturated fats and zero trans fats.

Finally, the high-quality fats. This one isn’t too complicated: plant sources are generally best (think avocados, olive oil, raw nuts, or dark chocolate), and high fat meats and dairy the worst (think bacon, ½ & ½, fatty cuts of steak, or ice cream). There are a few exceptions: the omega-3 fatty acids appear to have some potentially significant health benefits, and the best quality source of those fats comes from cold-water fish (sardines, herring, anchovies, some tuna, salmon). Plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids are in a less usable form, and the conversion rate to the good form of omega-3s is quite low. There is a bit of new evidence that a higher fat version of the DASH diet may be even more beneficial, but those data are new and mixed in their results.

Take any diet with a healthy dose of skepticism, but the general rules above have been repeatedly proven in studies over the years. A little bit of everything, not too much of anything, and cook it yourself.

UTOD: Practice eating “aid station” food

If you never race, or do runs over about two hours, then you don’t really have to worry about nutrition in the middle of your run. For the rest of us, however, long run nutrition is important: it makes long runs feel easier and more fun, minimizes muscle catabolism (breakdown) during the run and promotes muscular recovery, makes people less likely to overeat after a workout, and trains your stomach and GI tract for the challenges of eating during ultra-endurance events.


I’m not going to go into detail in this post about what products to eat, when to eat them, or caloric/fluid goals, but rather focus on the that idea of training the stomach and GI tract. You’ve probably heard the old adage that you should never try anything new on race day, like a new pair of shoes or a new shirt. The same goes for nutrition – if your car was having problems, you probably wouldn’t try using diesel fuel to see if that helped, but I see runners in big races try all sorts of unusual foods because they’re available or look good.

From a nutrition point of view, two things are consistent in the very long events: first, it’s likely that you’ll have GI issues or that your planned food will lose it’s appeal; second, it’s likely that at least one aid station will have run out of the one kind of food you were counting on, be it bananas, energy gels, or salt tablets. It’s important, therefore, to have planned ahead for those two contingencies.

To reduce the impact of the first, practice eating and running. It’s that simple. Carry your planned race foods on your long runs and then eat like you would during the race and see how you tolerate the intake. You don’t have to do this on every long run, but regularly, and on most of the longest runs that you do. Develop a contingency plan for when you lose your taste for your planned foods: let your crew know what they can substitute or suggest, including flavor preferences (“Don’t give me any apple-cinnamon gels, can’t stand them.”). With a bit of training and planning, you’ll be ready for many nutritional challenges.

For second challenge, when aid stations run out of your preferred items, it’s important to have trained with a variety of foods that you expect to see at the aid stations. Even if you’ve trained entirely with energy gels and sports drinks, and that works, you should also regularly include aid station type food to test it out.

What are aid station staples across the ultra-endurance world? Bananas and oranges are pretty common, as are pretzels and chips. Most aid stations will have soda as well, so figure out if you can deal with cola (or Mountain Dew, or root beer, etc.) and be ready to grab a cup if you need to. Cookies, such as Oreos or chocolate chip, are pretty common, and you’ll almost always find boiled potatoes – at ultramarathon events, at least. Candy makes an occasional appearance, and, if you’re racing at an Aravaipa Running event, expect to see dates, bean burrito bites, and pumpkin pie.

I’m not suggesting that you carry pumpkin pie along on your training runs, but it is important to have tried some of the above foods in training to see what you like and what your stomach can handle. It’ll prevent indecision, and thus save time, and you’re more likely to have a happy stomach in the end.

Do we value community in the ultra world?

I’ve always believed that the best parts of ultrarunning are places it takes you and the people you get to run with. Sadly, both of those aspects of our sport are changing: our access to amazing places, such as the Grand Canyon, is threatened with restriction or regulation, and our community is becoming more commercial and focused on a couple of high-profile races, races sometimes owned by major for-profit corporations.


(Three runners, three hometowns, three stories, one moment. Mogollon Monster 100, 2014.)

It is debatable if prize money is a positive thing at ultramarathon races, and the overall effect that lottery systems have had on the sport, but I generally think the results are not positive. Given that, I tend to gravitate towards smaller independent races, and tend to skip races with lotteries or races owned by corporations instead of people. There are a few exceptions, of course, but not many: I’ve never applied for or run WSER, for example, and I’ve decided I’m never going back to the Leadville 100 unless the management shapes up. Zane Grey may be the only race I do this coming year that has a lottery.

But enough about me: take a couple of minutes and read this blog post by John Lacroix, a passionate runner and race director in Colorado (Human Potential Running Series). Suspend any opinion you may have about John and read his post for what it says, then take a minute and reflect on your values, and what you’re willing to give up to preserve the environment and build the ultra community.

Music as a motivator and performance enhancer.

It can be a bit depressing to go a gym or fitness center these days, since everyone is plugged into their headphones. There’s very little social interaction anymore, but there’s a positive side to the music habit: good music has been shown to reduce perceived effort and increase endurance, which can mean longer, more fun workouts.


There are a number of studies that have shown a positive relationship between music and exercise, and anyone who has run past speakers blaring the theme from “Rocky” during a race has probably felt the boost music can provide. One of the more interesting studies was a small one published in 2012 (n=11) that focused on the effects of synchronous music on the performance of high-level triathletes.

As you might expect, the music, especially music that the athletes chose themselves, had significant psychological benefits, reducing the perceived effort (how hard the workout felt at a given level of performance). The athletes also reported a more positive mood and had better feelings about the workout when they were listening to their tunes of choice.

More interesting is that the benefits were not only psychological. The study authors noted slight decreases in oxygen consumption, blood lactate levels (think: “the burn”), and an increase in running economy, a measure of how efficiently you run – how much energy is required to run at a given speed. That’s surprising, at least to me. It’s hard to imagine how music would improve physiological markers of effort, but the effect is there and is statistically significant.

The researchers did not speculate as to what caused the improvements, but they did note that the benefits were greatest when the music was chosen by the athlete and matched, in terms of beat/tempo, to the running cadence during the workout. I would guess that the physiological benefits of music come indirectly from the psychological effects: music makes people more positive and relaxed, and that relaxation slightly increases the efficiency of their movements, which then reduces oxygen consumption and the generation of blood lactate.

Whatever the reason, there definitely appears to be a good reason to train or race with music, at least occasionally. It may not be social, but it can help you get through a tough workout and make training more fun – and who doesn’t need that from time to time?