Arts interview

Health food isn’t just kale juice. It’s also a juicy burger

‘Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow.’: A nutritious cookbook stepping beyond calories

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Shalane Flanagan (left) and Elyse Kopecky (right) smile with their cookbook, 'Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow.'
Photo courtesy of Alan Weinter

Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow.
By Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky
Published by Penguin Random House LLC
Released 2018

Imagine being an Olympic runner. Let’s skip all the grueling workouts and numbing ice baths — what’s on your plate for dinner? Perhaps there is a crisp, individual celery stick, garnished with one ounce of hummus — not to forget the side of lettuce. Dessert might be a low-fat granola bar, or, on an indulgent night, a whole banana. With slight exaggeration, these are what society deems health foods to be: low sugar, low calories, and undoubtedly low enjoyment.

However, this stereotype is the precise opposite of what is on New York City marathon champion Shalane Flanagan’s supper table. From “power bowls” stacked high with brown rice, fried eggs, pulled pork, and pesto drizzle to lemon hazelnut cookies and chocolate peanut butter cups, “bland” and “boring” are the last words to come to mind when describing her meals. A plethora of such nutritious and delicious recipes can be found in Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow. (2018), a cookbook co-written by Flanagan and her former college cross country teammate, Elyse Kopecky.

They created the cookbook to teach people how to eat with indulgent nourishment — health food isn’t just kale juice; it’s also a juicy burger. “It’s about eating the real foods that are going to fill you up and leave you satisfied, as opposed to packaged foods which don’t provide any nutrition and leave you hungry,” Kopecky vocalized.

Alongside photographs of ethereal egg yolks spilling gold and crisp veggies dripping with miso glaze, fat-rich ingredients burst off the page: olive oil, aged cheese, avocado, butter, dark meat, whole milk yogurt, wild salmon, and nuts. “Despite all the nutrition science out there that debunks the notion that fat is bad, many runners [and society as a whole] still have an ingrained fear of fat,” introduces the cookbook. Balance, not restriction, is what the recipes preach, but this is easier said than done.

Kopecky was not always aware of the importance of eating with indulgent nourishment. In seventh grade, she began running competitively, which, coupled with inadequate nutrition, led her to suffer from athletic amenorrhea (absence of menstruation) for 15 years. When she had the chance to work abroad in Switzerland for her marketing job at age 30, she was forced to change her diet from all low-fat, processed products to include more hearty, whole foods. For the first time in her life, she got her period back without having to give up her sport. She realized that her experiences could help a lot of women struggling through the same issues. Finding this calling, Kopecky left marketing to study nutrition at culinary school. After graduating, Kopecky reunited with Flanagan over home-cooked meals and started sharing her nutritional wisdom with Flanagan. It helped Flanagan’s progress in running so much that the two decided to write a cookbook together.

Kopecky’s main motivation in creating the book was that she “saw that undernourishment was such [a] detriment to runners of all levels, ages and genders due to disordered eating habits that can result in all sorts of health issues like stress fractures and other injuries.” In the female running community, undernourishment-caused amenorrhea is sometimes seen as a source of pride of athletic fitness by some who do not realize the harmful long-term effects, such as low bone density and reproductive health. To change such a mindset, the authors stress that instead of thinking of food as just fuel, we can think of food as something to be enjoyed. Kopecky believes that “everything you eat should taste amazing and make you feel satisfied so that you’re not snacking on junk or ‘hangry’ all the time.”

The cookbook has the honorable badge of reaching the New York Times best-seller list, but what matters most to the authors is the letters they receive from athletes, parents, and coaches who share stories of how the book has helped their audience overcome eating disorders. “We get some really amazing letters that make us tear up, but we know that our book is making a difference.”

Disordered eating is extremely common among high school and college athletes, according to Dr. Jennifer Carlson, a clinical associate professor at Stanford University. “Many athletes are often unaware of just how many calories they require,” Carlson says. “Other athletes may adopt a special diet in hopes of improving their performance,” breeding fear around food.

Numbers are for counting splits and miles, but not calories. “When people start tracking calories, they start relying on more packaged foods that have those numbers,” Kopecky notes. Instead, the two want people to get in tune with their bodies’ hunger signals.

When Kopecky cooks for her family, she doesn’t worry about the fact that the sweet potato she picked up at the grocery store doesn’t have a label with a taunting calorie count. She sits at the table to enjoy her meal for its flavors, listening to her cravings and not what a number is dictating. She cooks from their book on a daily basis, the Turkey Trot meatballs a perfect snack and the Superhero muffins a fan favorite. “My one-year-old loves these beet molasses muffins — great because babies need iron.” Flanagan’s favorite is the Thai quinoa salad; before winning the NYC marathon, she ate it weekly for its delicious combination of macronutrients.

The book doesn’t promise that you’ll win one of the most competitive races in the world like Flanagan or have picturesque family dinners every evening like Kopecky. Whether a runner or not, Run Fast, Cook Fast, Eat Slow promises to convey an important philosophy: to eat and cook with joy. No low nothings.

Elyse Kopecky is a chef, speaker, nutrition coach, and two-time New York Times Bestselling Author. Her cookbooks, Run Fast. Eat Slow. and Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow., co-authored alongside four-time Olympian and NYC Marathon Champion, Shalane Flanagan, are helping thousands of runners overcome harmful diet habits. Run Fast. Eat Slow. features Elyse's "indulgent nourishment" food philosophy for long-term health and happiness.