One cannot be a runner anywhere in the world, and not be aware that Kenyan runners are the best runners in the world. But it’s actually the Kalenjins, one specific tribe of Kenyans, who dominate in the world’s races. There are only about 5 million Kalenjin in the world. “There are 17 American men in history who have run under 2:10 in the marathon,” Epstein says. “There were 32 Kalenjin who did it in October of 2011.” (Source: Warner, Gregory. NPR Parallels Many Stories, One World. All Things Considered: “How One Kenyan Tribe Produces The World’s Best Runners”. Nov. 1, 2013). It’s also a great story, the NPR focus is on the genetics and mental toughness of the Kalenjin, which is not what I am addressing today.
My focus is on the diet of the Kalenjin Kenyans. My interest was piqued when I came across an article on Active.com that detailed the findings of a study conducted by Yannis Pitsiladis of the International Centre for East African Running Science in Glasgow, Scotland; Mike Boit, an Olympic bronze medalist in the 800m event from the 1972 Games; Vincent Onywera from the Exercise and Sports Science Department at Kenyatta University in Nairobi; and Festus Kiplamai from the Department of Foods, Nutrition and Dietetics at Egerton University in Njoro, Kenya. For 7 days, they monitored the food and drink intake of 10 elite Kalenjin runners (1500m and 12k) as they reached peak conditioning for an upcoming cross country season. Validity? One researcher stayed with the athletes around-the-clock for the duration of the week! *
What they observed was rather eye-opening, especially for an aspiring runner like myself.
First, contrary to the popular belief that people should eat a variety of foods, the Kenyan runners only consumed a limited selection of foods, 86% of which came from vegetable sources and 14% from animal foods (about 3.5oz of meat/day and copious amounts of tea with full-cream milk). They also consumed no dietary supplements whatsoever, they relied on whole foods to sustain their training! During this 7-day period, the group ran 75 miles, doing twice-a-day daily workouts. *
Macro nutrient ratio: 80/10/10
Here’s what I really enjoyed reading, as a high-carb low-fat vegan: the Kenyan runners obtained 76.5% of daily calories from carbohydrates (600g per 24 hrs.)! 13.4% of their calories came from fat (~46g) and 10.1% of calories came from protein (~75g). Sounds like the high-carb, low-fat diet recommended by Dr.s McDougall, Esselstyn, Campbell and Barnard! Sports-nutritionists recommend consuming at least 9g of carbs/kg of body weight (4.1g/lb.) and 1.2g/kg of body weight of protein (.5g/lb.) so these runners were eating according to contemporary scientific wisdom for their 5’9, 129lb. frames. *
The top 4 components of the Kalenjin Kenyan runners’ diets were as follows, in order of quantity:.
- Ugali (corn): 23% of total calories
- Sugar: 20% of total calories
- Rice: 14% of total calories
- Milk: 13% of total calories
- Remaining: 30% from meat and plant sources, “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)”. *
As you might notice, the top 3 sources of these runners calories came from starches and sugar! One of the main arguments for a starch based, high-carb low-fat diet is that our bodies’ rely on glucose (sugar!) to provide energy for all of our cells!
This is all sounding pretty darn good for a person who eats mostly plants, vegan (the Kalenjins are not vegan they consume ~3.5oz. of meat/day, about 1/2 a cup), and mostly carbs (like me)!
But….there’s one more thing to assure you of the benefits of a high-carb, plant based diet!!!
The observed diet of the Kalenjin Kenyan runners was remarkably similar to another tribe of people famous for their superhuman running abilities: the Tarahumara Indians of the Sierra Madre Mountains, Mexico.
“Research reveals that about 75 to 80% of total daily energy comes from carbohydrate, 12% from fat and 8 to 13% (sound familiar?) from protein. The Tarahumara Indians eat copious quantities of corn meal, along with praiseworthy portions of beans.”* Thumbs-up for high carb! Woohoo!
There is one important thing I would like to briefly address, the milk component of the Kenyans’ diet. (This is a vegan blog, but I cannot ignore this important topic.) I do not advocate milk as part of a healthy diet, but here’s some interesting research as to why it might be okay for the Kenyans.
There are two main types of milk proteins called A1 beta-casein and A2 beta-casein. A1 is the conventional milk consumed in the western hemisphere from Holsteins (the most common breed of dairy cow raised) and A2 comes from cows in India, Africa, and Asia. According to Keith Woodford, a professor of farm management and agribusiness at New Zealand’s Lincoln University, there are more than 100 studies that suggest a link between consumption of A1 protein milk and diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. By the way, human milk only contains the A2 beta-casein protein. **
So where am I going with this? Well, African cow breeds produce A2 milk and according to The Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism “Milk proteins and human health: A1/A2 milk hypothesis”, “Populations, which consume milk containing high levels of β-casein A2 variant, have a lower incidence of cardiovascular disease and type-1 diabetes.” ***
So there you have it! What began as a simple Google search this morning on “how the elites eat before a marathon” before my 16-mile tempo run this morning turned into a day-long exploration of the Kenyan diet! I do conclude that it was a rather fruitful search 🙂 Hopefully this spurs you to give the high-carb diet a try, and go against the carb-phobia that dominates the media health coverage today! Don’t forget, these tribes are mostly vegan 😉