How to eat right, simplified


These days, we hear about food a lot. Every time you turn around, there is a new book or study on nutrition. Authors such as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser have shined a light on the industrial food system and as a result we have a better understanding of what we eat. More and more people have tried to change their diet in order to lose weight, live healthier, or as a result of a food allergy (e.g. lactose intolerance, peanut allergy) or disease (e.g. Diabetes, Celiac disease, Chron’s disease). The market has responded with all sorts of products that accommodate those special diets. Even many dinky bodegas offer soy milk, gluten free bread, cage free eggs and organic lettuce.

Although the abundance of research and special diets out there can make the head spin, the scientific community has actually moved closer and closer to consensus about how we should be eating. In truth, it isn’t that difficult to understand how to eat healthy.

I have done my best to summarize this in general guidelines. Keep in mind that some of these are more universally agreed upon than others.

General Guidelines:  

1. Minimize your intake of anything highly processed. Most pre-made, pre-flavored, pre-cooked foods are low on nutritional value, high on salt, sugar and fat and loaded with preservatives. A lot of processed foods that act as everyday staples to many people are engineered not to be more nutritious but rather to be more addictive.

2. Minimize your dairy intake. Humans are the only species to drink milk after infancy. Some scientists have theorized that all humans are allergic to lactose, just in varying degrees. Adequate calcium intake can easily be achieved by eating enough vegetables (e.g. Kale, edamame) and other non-dairy foods (e.g. Sardines, Almonds). If you must have milk in your coffee and cereal, consider a soy milk, almond milk or rice milk.

3. Eat a variety of grains. For the most part, the wheat that we eat today is unlike the wheat that people ate 100 years ago. Like many other foods, it has been engineered not for nutritional value but for maximum crop yield. Despite this, there’s no need for complete gluten abstinence (unless you have a gluten allergy), but most of us could stand to eat more varieties of grains rather than relying almost entirely on wheat. There are lots of wonderful gluten-free options out there such as rice, buckwheat, amaranth, quinoa, and millet so even when you have to load up before a long ride or race, there are many alternatives to the old bowl of pasta.

4. Minimize your sugar intake. Just to clarify, the demands of our sport pretty much require us to consume large amounts of sugar on the bike, which is all the more reason to minimize sugar intake off the bike. A little sugar in your coffee won’t do you any harm, but 6 Oreos every night will. This doesn’t mean that you can’t splurge every once in a while, just make sure that it is a splurge and not the norm. When possible, replace processed sugars such as sucrose and high fructose corn syrup with natural sugars such as honey, maple syrup and agave nectar.


5. Eat a lot of vegetables, and more specifically, vegetables of all different colors. Vegetables provide a lot of the nutrients we need and most can be eaten raw or prepared fairly easily. Current  recommendations suggest that when we look at our dinner plates, most of the plate should be covered in vegetables. Even those that cringe at that thought are often pleasantly surprised when they experiment with different types of vegetables, cooking techniques and flavors. At the risk of offending my mother if she is reading this, I was amazed at how good brussels sprouts could be when prepared well!

6. “Graze” on natural, low-glycemic index foods. There are times as a cyclist (e.g. during and immediately after the race or workout) where you want high glycemic index foods that will keep your metabolism “revving”. When you snack, though, you should seek out slow burning foods such as cherries, apples, dried fruit, nuts and hummus that will keep you satisfied for longer and avoid the metabolism spikes of high GI foods.

For ethical reasons, some may wish to eliminate meat, fish, industrially produced eggs and genetically modified foods but for the most part that is an ethical discussion rather than a nutritional one. Certainly though, there is increasing evidence that organically grown vegetables, grass fed beef, free range chicken and non genetically modified grains may indeed be more nutritionally dense as well as less likely to contain harmful bacteria, pesticides and hormones.   

You will note that I don’t use the words “eliminate”, “avoid all” or “maximize” anywhere here. All too often we like to categorize things into 2 categories: good and bad. But even the unhealthiest foods, such as fois gras, milkshakes and cheeseburgers won’t kill you to have once in a while. In fact, a lot athletes I know look at being able to have a beer or a few cookies after a ride without guilt as one of the benefits of exercise. Likewise, too much of a “good” thing can be unhealthy as well. Michele Ferrari famously said “It's dangerous to drink 10 liters of orange juice”. Though I wouldn’t agree with his implication that this makes it OK to cheat, he makes a valid point: even something “healthy” can be abused. Although it would be easier to plan if we could just separate all food into categories of good and bad, we benefit greatly from variety within the general guidelines.


Below is a sample daily menu for a cyclist. I deliberately did not specify portions because portion sizes would be different for people of varying body mass, training load, metabolism and Caloric balance goal (i.e. weight loss, gain or maintenance). I would simply note that the portions of vegetables should be relatively large and the portions of meat should be relatively small. Endurance athletes will typically require more carbohydrates, calcium and salt than the general public due to their training load and loss of electrolytes in sweat. This particular sample is geared towards someone in a transitional/off-season phase of their training, which means a few less carbs and a little more fiber than other phases of training.

Sample Daily Menu

Breakfast: Oatmeal with apple chunks, Fruit Juice

Mid-morning Snack: Almond and Date rice cake

Lunch: Veggie burger with avocado, Lentil salad

Mid-Afternoon Snack: Hummus with baby carrots, celery sticks and green or red pepper sticks, Apple juice (no added sugar)

Dinner: Lemon and Herb Salmon, Millet Salad, Roasted beets, Garden Salad (Baby Greens, tomato, cucumber)

Dessert: Homemade mango/raspberry sorbet sweetened with honey or agave nectar

Astute readers will notice that many of the above recipes are from The Feed Zone Cookbook. It's a great resource for cyclists. Simple, easy to make recipes designed with the special needs of cyclists in mind

Astute readers will notice that many of the above recipes are from The Feed Zone Cookbook. It's a great resource for cyclists. Simple, easy to make recipes designed with the special needs of cyclists in mind

Of course, just as there is a big difference between knowing you should ride towards the front of the pack in a crit and actually being able to do it, there is a big difference between knowing how to eat and actually being able to do it. Most of us have a lot of forces working against us that make things difficult. Here are some of the most common obstacles/excuses I hear from athletes:

"My mother/father/husband/wife does all the shopping and cooking and they don’t accommodate my needs as an athlete"

"I am at school/work all day and there are no healthy snacks available there. I get really hungry and end up buying candy in the vending machine/eating one of the cookies that Mildred in Accounting brought in"

"I am too busy to cook, so I just eat out all the time"

"I'm in college and I don't have a kitchen. I eat out or at the cafeteria all the time." 

"By the time I get home from school/work I am starving and I make bad decisions about nutrition"

"I don’t have enough time to go shopping and buy the foods I should be eating more of (fresh fruits and vegetables in particular). I only go shopping once a week or less and by the end of the week a lot of that stuff has gone bad"

"I don’t have enough money to shop at Whole Foods (a.k.a. Whole Paycheck) all the time"

"I travel a lot for work/to races and my diet falls apart when I travel because I eat out a lot or buy food from highway rest stops that don’t have many healthy options"

All of these are legitimate and fair points but there is a solution to every problem. In my next blog, I will talk about all of these obstacles and ways that you can overcome them. SPOILER ALERT: the key word is “planning”. Yes, it can be a challenge but for all of the effort that you put into planning your training and racing, you can probably spend a little bit of time planning your diet, right?

Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road  racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head  coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for  Team Young  Medalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!  

Happy Holidays

It's no accident that 30% more people sign up for gym memberships in January. Most people drink and eat too much during the holidays and exercise too little, so come January 1st everyone decides that it's time to make a New Years resolution to start that diet, lose though extra LBs and start training again.

Unfortunately 25% of New Years resolutions are broken is less than a week and over 50% are broken by the 6 month mark. Real life gets in the way: jobs, family, laziness, stress and everything else makes it difficult for us to continue what we have started and way too many of us fall into the "All or nothing mentality" that leaves no room for error. Either we complete our training every single day to the letter, we sleep 8 hours every night, we never eat dessert, we never drink more than 1 drink at a time, etc etc OR we just give up. In other words, we set such high standards for ourselves that we are guaranteed to fail.

So here's my advice:

1. Don't wait until New Years. Start now. Every day is a new beginning and every day you can promise yourself that you will give it your best shot, regardless of what happened yesterday and what is going to happen tomorrow. Don't worry about trying to make up for lost time. Don't agonize over it if you can't do every workout exactly as planned. Don't beat yourself up for eating a couple Christmas cookies. Just do the best you can every day. Do the best you can to plan but don't let everything fall apart the moment your plans fall through. It happens. Get over it.

Drinking a glass of water in between alcoholic drinks can help keep you from drinking too much at holiday parties

Drinking a glass of water in between alcoholic drinks can help keep you from drinking too much at holiday parties

2. Everything in moderation, but a little excess is OK sometimes too. Don't miss out on the fun of the holidays. Celebrate time with your family and loved ones. All work and no play does not make Jack a better athlete. So have a cookie. Have a glass of egg nog. Have some butter fried latkes. Don't stuff yourself or drink so much that you throw up but enjoy these things, especially if you deprive yourself of them the rest of the year. If you are going to treat yourself to something sinful, you might as well enjoy it!

3. Be flexible. Look at your travel plans. Look at the weather forecast. If you have off from work or school or if it's 60 and sunny on some December day it's OK to do a little longer ride if you can. Likewise if it's snowing outside or if you are busy with holiday parties or final exams all day, maybe you can move things around with your training and take that day off or just do an hour on the trainer. This time of year most of us aren't racing (sorry cyclocrossers!) and most training is lower intensity, so there is lot's of room to move things around as you need to. And when in doubt... talk to the coach!


Sometimes it's easier to hop on the trainer the second you get home from work if you just don't think about it too much

Sometimes it's easier to hop on the trainer the second you get home from work if you just don't think about it too much

4. Make good behavior habitual. Here's a dirty little secret about training: consistency is the most important thing. More important than what you do, how much you do and how hard you do it is that you keep doing it. Seriously, most of my time and energy as a coach is spent trying to make it easier for my athletes to train consistently. The reason that's so difficult is because we have conflicting messages from our brains. There is the logical brain which tells us: "You need to train because you want to win that race... or at least not get dropped", "You shouldn't eat those cookies because you will get fat" and "You need to go to bed now so you can wake up and train at 5:30 AM". But then there is the feeling part of the brain that reminds us: "You are really tired and sore", "Those cookies really look good" and "I want to stay up to watch Homeland". When we are really focused and able to keep our goals front and center the logical brain may win out, but it never lasts. Time goes on and the daily grind starts to wear us down. Those goals seem really far away and it gets easier to miss that workout, eat those cookies, stay up late and hit the snooze button a couple more times in the morning. Don't feel bad, it happens to everyone. The solution is very simple: habit. Make your training habitual. Replace a bad habit like drinking a beer when you get home from work with a good habit like drinking a glass of water or hopping on your bike. Replace watching TV before bed with reading a book. Replace going to stopping by your co-workers desk to grab some gumdrops with eating a bag of carrots. If we make it a battle between the logical and feeling parts of our brains the feeling part will eventually win out. So don't make it a battle, just take your brain out of the equation. If something is habitual you don't have to think... you just do it. (OK, so this one might be easier once everything settles back to normal after the New Year)

Happy holidays everyone, and remember to tell your families and friends how much you love and appreciate them.

Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road  racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He also is head  coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Young  Medalists/Team Rothrock. If you are interested in coaching or if you want to find out more, check out Backbone Performance at or like us on Facebook at