Dean Karnazes’ fridge didn’t always look like a hijacked Whole Foods warehouse. In fact, if you’d looked inside the ultrarunner’s icebox five years ago, you would have discovered a very different inventory than the wild-caught fish, organic fruits and vegetables, and natural energy bars that crowd his shelves now. “I used to eat horribly,” says Karnazes, ticking off a menu that includes pizza, Cheetos, Doritos, and other self-described “crap” he once used to fuel his 145-pound frame through races ranging from 50 miles to 350.
Today, Karnazes, who is training to race a marathon in every country in the world next year, eats what he calls a hybrid of “paleo, raw, pescaterian, and Mediterranean.” In layman’s terms, that means lots of unprocessed protein, produce, and fish, most of it uncooked, with an added nutritional flare from his Greek ancestry. “As I’ve gotten older, my performance and daily energy levels have improved by refining my diet,” says the 51-year-old Karnazes. “I like to follow what [fitness guru] Jack LaLanne once said. He said, ‘If man makes it, don’t eat it,’ and, ‘If it tastes good, spit it out.’”
LaLanne might not have gone for eating 34 bananas in one a day, which Karnazes once did during his 75-day “Run Across America” in 2011, but the mega-marathoner says he avoids all refined foods, including potato chips, cookies, and Hawaiian pizzas (Karnazes is infamous for once ordering the pie during a 200-mile race, directing the delivery guy to meet him at an intersection along the route). “I recover better when I don’t have lots of sugar,” he says. How then does Karnazes meet his energy needs, which top 5,000 calories daily when he’s training? With lots of salmon, yogurt, and, yep, bananas.
Inside Karnazes’ Fridge
Raw ginger: Plenty of people have gingerroot in their refrigerators, but few eat it like Karnazes does—raw, whole, and in large amounts. “Raw ginger settles my stomach like nothing else,” he says. “During all-day endurance events, I eat roughly 500 to 700 calories per hour. Some of my runs last for 30 to 40 hours, so I’m ingesting two weeks’ worth of food in two days.” That’s when Karnazes reaches for his raw ginger. “It helps me digest all those calories,” he says. “It works better than Pepto-Bismol.”
Wild-caught Pacific salmon: “I eat salmon every day, whether it’s fresh, smoked, or canned,” says Karnazes, who keeps up to three pounds of the wild-caught fish in his fridge at all times. This means several trips to his local fishmonger (or to the store for tinned fish when fresh and wild-caught isn’t available), but the Ross, Calif., resident says it’s worth it. “The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon are the miracle food,” he says of the heart-healthy fat found in the fish. “Its protein composition is also highly digestible, and the fat in salmon acts like an anti-inflammatory. An endurance athlete is constantly fighting inflammation, and salmon is the cure for that.”
Pasteli: “These are energy bars my Spartan ancestors used, and I love them,” says Karnazes of pasteli, the Ancient Greek version of a candy bar made from sesame seeds and honey. “They taste good, and they give me lots of sustained energy.” Unlike most endurance athletes, Karnazes doesn’t go for energy gels, shots, or other manufactured sources of concentrated calories. “Gels and GUs are fine for shorter distances like marathons, but you can only eat so many gels and GUs. After a while, you just want real food, and pasteli does the trick,” he says.
Bananas: Karnazes likes to go to extremes, whether he’s training or racing—or eating bananas, apparently. “On any given day, I’ll eat five to 10,” says the man famous for running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. “They’re a really clean fuel. They’re easy on the stomach, and they’re plug-and-play, or peel-and-eat, so you can eat them while running and they’re available everywhere.” Like most produce in his fridge, Karnazes’ bananas are always organic.
Unsweetened coconut milk: Karnazes doesn’t go for cow’s milk, preferring unsweetened coconut milk in his morning coffee and his afternoon banana smoothies. “The fat profile of coconut milk is really good,” he says. “Coconut milk is anti-inflammatory, and since it’s lower in sugar than regular milk, it doesn’t negatively impact my blood sugar.”
Stevia: What are these odd spice-like shakers of chalky white powder? “It’s a plant-based high-intensity sweetener,” says Karnazes of stevia, a no-calorie, all-natural sugar alternative gaining popularity with nutritionists and athletes alike. Karnazes says he uses stevia in lieu of sugar, adding a dash to his coffee, Greek yogurt, or even dinner salad when he wants his arugula with a sweeter kick. “It lends a nice flavor profile and is really one of the few high-intensity sweeteners, like Splenda or Equal, that’s not manmade,” he says.
Coconut water: You won’t find a Gatorade or other commercial hydration drink in Karnazes’ fridge. “I use only coconut water for active hydration when I’m running,” he says, “because with it, I don’t have to worry about the concentration of electrolytes. If you get a hydration drink that’s too osmotic, meaning it draws too much water into your cells, it can give you the trots”—that’s runner-speak for the runs. Keeping with his low-sugar diet, Karnazes also likes that the coconut water he drinks has only 60 calories in 12 ounces. “I can drink a lot of it without overloading my gut with sugar,” he says.
Full-fat Greek yogurt: This is the only dairy in Karnazes’ diet—and one of his few sources of saturated fat, which the ultrarunner says is key to rebuilding nerve cells and helping him feel full. “Full-fat plain Greek yogurt is so high in fat, it satisfies you for a long time,” he says. “I eat just a tablespoon at a time, and it gives you this rich, flavorful, almost sour-cream taste.” Yogurt also contains probiotics, or good-for-you bacteria that Karnazes believes has a huge impact on his health. “We have more microbes in our body than human cells—some of them good, some of them bad. So when you eat more good bugs, they outmuscle the bad ones.”