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An interview with Renee McGregor

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Monday 28th August 2017
There’s so much information and advice about nutrition out there for runners. And there are so many food fads promising instant, life-changing results if you eat this/don't eat this. Who can you trust to talk sense about this stuff? Well, time and time again we speak to athletes who swear by the guidance of Renee McGregor. Renee is a Dietitian who’s been working with athletes at all levels for 15 years. We were very lucky to have the opportunity to ask her some questions about her work and to get her take on some of the ‘fashionable fads’ being pushed in the world of nutrition. 
1. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do and how you work with athletes?
I’m a performance and clinical Dietitian which basically means I work with athletes of all levels professional, elite, recreational and junior, providing them with nutrition strategies and solutions to ensure that not only do they perform optimally, but they also look after their health. Presently I work with a number of ultra-distance runners and triathletes as well as the GB wheelchair fencing team, GB wheelchair basketball team, England Rhythmic Gymnastics, Scottish gymnastics and Train as one. From a  clinical perspective, my specialist area is eating disorders and I am the lead Dietitian for ABC, Anorexia and Bulimia Care, a national Eating disorder charity. Sadly I do find that on many occasions my two areas of specialism, sports and Eating disorders do overlap.
No two athletes or clients are the same and so it’s important to do a full assessment with each person, hear about their goals and also their lifestyle. In this way I can then tailor advice to suit their needs, as well as providing solutions to any performance gaps and barriers. 
2. Why do you think runners are constantly looking for the magic bullet that'll help our training - superfoods, cutting out certain foods, 'clean eating', fat adaptation etc?
To be fair I don’t think it’s just unique to runners and is more probably to do with the society we live in. It seems many of us feel this perceived pressure to succeed and it is this that drives individuals and particularly runners to look for that golden nugget. Running could be thought of as an extreme behaviour; what I mean by this is that in some cases, runners will go to any extreme in order to achieve their desired goal. If you think about ultra runners, they will keep pushing to see just how far and extreme terrain they can withstand, regardless of the pain or discomfort they are feeling. The same would be true for an extreme bird watcher that would put their life at risk, trekking through the Amazon forest amongst death inducing snakes, in order to see a rare species. Both examples demonstrate the lengths individuals will go to to achieve their ultimate goal. And while a certain amount of drive and determination is healthy, the worry is when this actually becomes damaging to health.
3. In your opinion what's the most damaging 'food fad/trend' and why?
There are so many, I don’t know where to start! 
I guess anything that involves “detoxing” or “cleansing” is an absolute no, no for me. These are unnecessary and actually put the individual’s body at a higher risk of stress.
In general though any diet or fad that encourages the removal or restriction of food groups, is damaging. Avoiding carbohydrate has a significant negative impact on performance, immune, hormonal and bone health. The other real negative related to a lot of these fads is that they are not based on scientific evidence. In fact they are usually based on n=1; that is an individual has found something they believed has worked for them and so decided that everyone would benefit form the same process. As a Dietitan, I would be struck off if I did not base all my advice on scientific evidence. 
4. What's the worst or most ridiculous piece of advice you've ever seen from a nutritionist?
I think the most damaging one I have seen are those that suggest that certain foods should be avoided as they are acidic or alkaline to the body. While certain foods may well change the pH of our body temporarily, it is just that. The body is an amazing machine and has the ability to control and regulate the perfect environment it needs in order to work optimally. So yes while protein foods may cause a slightly acidic effect, the body has a mechanism, namely releasing calcium ions from the bone, to help neutralize this and once again return the body to an optimal environment. What is really dangerous is when these same nutritionists also suggest avoiding dairy. This is because then when the body has to release calcium ions form the bone to neutralize, there is not sufficient calcium available within the body to be reabsorbed  and so this can then lead to poor bone health and higher risks of osteoporosis and stress fractures. 
Just to set the record straight here – some nutritionists are regulated and often practice as registered nutritionist. The big problem is that the term nutritionist is not regulated and so anyone from personal trainers to individuals who have done a short course in nutrition online, call themselves a nutritionist, set up a service and provide advice. In comparison, Dietitians have to have degree qualification as a minimal qualification –I myself started off with a biochemistry degree and then followed this up with post graduate degrees in Dietetics and then a further post graduate degree in applied sports nutrition. 
5. What simple no nonsense nutritional guidance would runners benefit from incorporating into their training?
Don’t skimp on carbs – they are not the enemy but be mindful of what type of carbs, when and how much to have based around your training. A lot of runners worry about being the right “weight” to perform; so while they might deprive their body of vital energy, what they never look at is running technique or sleep quality or recovery choices. These all have more of an impact on running than a number on a scale alone. 

Renee 1
Renee preparing to run with Sarah Baxter (left) and Holly Rush (right) and the highly acclaimed Fast Fuel book

6. As a very good runner yourself (I know this because I've run with you) what are your current favourite pre, during and post-run snacks?
Before I run I do like toast or bagels – usually topped with almond butter and honey, served with plentiful mugs of black coffee. During, it really depends on the terrain, distance and intensity I am running at but, generally I find peanut m and ms usually sort me out if I’m going through a dark stage within a run or race. Post run, I’m not hugely fussy – as a snack I often have something like cheese on toast or feta and avocado mashed on sourdough toast; for a main meal I love anything with potato – presently I am enjoying jacket potatoes with vegetarian sausage casserole.
7. Your new book, Orthorexia, is out soon. Can you tell us a little about what led you to write it? 
I had been talking to Nourish books, my publishers for Training Food and The Fast Fuel Books, about an idea for my next book for a while and we definitely wanted it to be based on disordered eating in some form or manner. 
The idea for Orthorexia came about because of the reaction of the audience at Cheltenham Literature festival last Autumn. I was on a panel with Bee Wilson and Madeleine Shaw for a “Clean Eating Debate”. For those of you who would like to hear more, there is a blog on my website but let’s just say it is difficult to have a debate when the majority of the audience is so narrow minded. The reaction to this experience, led myself and Nourish to agree that this topic around the obsession with “eating clean” needed to be explored in further detail. In addition, they wanted to produce a book about nutrition that was actually written by someone who had credible nutritional qualifications – unlike the many diet and lifestyle books that have exploded on the market. For me, it was a great opportunity to start telling the truth about the many fad trends that hit our headlines every year as well as highlighting the potential negative effect they can have on those that are vulnerable and susceptible to disordered eating. 

See our review of Fast Fuel, Food for Running Success here
Find out more about Renee’s work and publications at her website here: www.reneemcgregor.com

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