Jen Van Allen started to run when she was in college, just a few times a week, 30 minutes at a stretch. It was a fast, easy way to exercise. Nothing more. Growing up, she didn’t consider herself athletic. Far from it. She was the kid who “would do anything to get out of sports and gym class.” She was the kid who played piano and violin, not the one who played sports.

But after college, she was living in New York City and writing for American Banker when a friend convinced her to enter the lottery for the New York Marathon “on a whim, and to my horror, I got in.” For the first time in her life, Van Allen trained – and trained – and ran 26 long miles. “Never again,” she told herself as she plodded over the final hills.

Nearly 50 marathons and ultramarathons later, not to mention a six-year stint as special projects editor for Runner’s World magazine, Van Allen has co-written “Run to Lose: A Complete Guide to Weight Loss for Runners” with Pamela Nisevich Bede, a dietitian and sports nutrition expert. We spoke with Van Allen, now a resident of Yarmouth, about the book, food labels and why breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: At the start of your book, you suggest readers take a “Run to Lose” quiz. May I ask you some of your own questions? What is your worst eating habit?

A: Worst eating habit? Oh my gosh. (Long pause.) I try to stay away from sugar, because I don’t like the way it makes me feel. I do like chocolate though. (Even longer pause.) I guess I’ll say chocolate.

Q: OK, maybe this one will be easier. What is your healthiest eating habit?

A: I really love raw vegetables, genuinely. I’m not just saying that. I really do love raw vegetables, and I eat them three meals a day.

Q: Do you keep a food journal?

A: I have in the past when I was training for long-distance races, for the sake of testing out how different foods made me feel in terms of how much energy they provided, what impact they had on my food and hunger level, what impact they had on any GI distress.

Q: Do you read labels on packaged foods?

A: Oh yes. It takes me hours to go to the grocery store. I shudder to think how much of my life I’ve spent on reading food labels. Studies have shown that people who read food labels on a regular basis have better success maintaining weight loss in the long term. You really have to be your own advocate and understand what you are putting in your body. And it’s all right there. It’s an easy way to take the reins of your health. There are so many factors you can’t control that can contribute to your weight and overall fitness – you can’t control your genetics – but (reading labels) is one controllable factor.

Q: Do you ever eat food just because it’s there?

A: Of course. Yes, oh yes, I’m human. There are so many times when you are in a social situation or it looks delicious or it evokes some wonderful memory. Our relationship with food is about so much more than just fueling up to get energized for our workout.

Q: OK, self-quiz is over. I’m wondering whether writing the book changed any of your own eating habits.

A: I was the most interested by what I learned in two areas. One is the impact of the timing of when you eat. I did a story for the Washington Post and research for the book that looked at how a calorie at 10 p.m. affects you versus a calorie at 11 a.m. Mounting research shows that your body metabolizes those calories differently. Part of it is you are going to be less active after dinner than you will be after breakfast. I was definitely a person who ate a big dinner. The other really interesting thing I learned is that researchers are really looking into the impact of stress – not just on creating digestive upset but also on metabolism. It’s interesting to think about how our emotional states impact our bodies’ ability to efficiently work.

runtoloseQ: So you no longer eat big meals at night?

A: Now I really try to make breakfast the biggest meal of the day. I eat much smaller dinners, and what I found is that I wasn’t really hungry for a big meal at night.

Q: What is a typical breakfast for you now?

A: Coffee and eggs, egg whites usually, scrambled up with green veggies like broccoli, kale and mushrooms with some avocado and goat cheese.

Q: And a typical dinner?

A: Vegetables and protein. We are (mostly) vegetarians, though we’ll eat fish and dairy. We have a lot of salmon or tuna or shrimp with veggies. I am a pretty terrible cook, so I keep it pretty simple.

Q: And have you figured out how to lead a life with no stress?

A: (She laughs.) No.

Q: Because if you have, I’d like the secret, please.

A: Everybody does. ‘I wish’ is the answer. But writing the book did help me to understand the extent to which psychological stress of any sort could impact how my body functioned and how I physically felt. It helped me understand what a toll stress can take on the body.

Q: Have you struggled to lose weight in your own life?

A: It’s so rare for me to meet any female athlete who hasn’t. I was never someone (for whom) achieving an ideal weight came naturally. It’s always been something I had to work at. For years, I thought I was a really healthy vegetarian. But when I was struggling to get pregnant and when I was pregnant, it made me completely re-evaluate my diet. I realized there was a lot of not so healthy stuff in my diet – artificial sweeteners and processed foods.

Q: Is running the most effective way to lose weight? What about other sorts of exercise?

A: Running is one of the simplest, most convenient forms of exercise there is, and therefore it’s the most accessible for most people. Aside from a pair of shoes, there are very few barriers to entry. I’ve often heard the question, “What is the best form of exercise?” The answer is the one you enjoy the most and are going to do most consistently. The sport itself is just really a gateway to so many other things: It’s spending time outside. It’s a way to socialize. Running is very simple, very convenient and very cheap. And it is good at burning calories, too.

Q: Is your book aimed at runners who overeat or overeaters who need encouragement to run?

A: Anybody who wants to start exercising and eating right can find a lot of good information in the book. The reader we had in mind was the runner who was exercising on a regular basis but really struggling to fine-tune their nutrition and weight to energize them to run faster. So many people feel they are eating right and exercising regularly but still struggle to lose five or 10 pounds. The book is designed to help them identify their trouble spots and give them the strategies to fix them. There is so much confusing information. The conventional diet advice often contradicts the advice given to athletes and runners about how to fuel up when training and for races. The goal of the book was to clear up that confusion, to sync up fitness and nutrition. Because it’s not intuitive at all.

Q: Not everyone who reads this column will read your book. What three takeaways might you give them? In other words, what’s the short version of “Run to Lose”?

A: You need to customize an eating approach that works for you rather than just adopting an off-the-shelf diet like paleo or low carb. Your needs are so specific. No one else lives your life or has your training program. George Sheehan – he was a famous running writer – and he famously said, “We’re all experiments of one.” Test out different strategies to figure out what works for you and be flexible to let it evolve over time as your life and your needs change.

Second, I would really encourage you to pay attention. Do keep a food diary. Pay attention to the way different foods make you feel physically and emotionally. And as much as you can, keep it simple. The simpler your approach to eating, the more sustainable it’s going to feel and the less stressful it will feel.

Some people get into diet plans where they have to order certain foods or buy it at certain stores, and it gets expensive and complicated. If you have a regular rotation of recipes and meals that feel very doable for you and if you develop a taste for apples or carrots or other simple foods, those can go a long way to helping you achieve your goals, whatever they are.

One of the biggest mistakes that people make when they make resolutions to eat healthy and exercise is they try to cut back on calories at the same time they are trying to get themselves to exercise. It almost always backfires. You really do need to nourish yourself well when you are pushing your body farther and faster than it has gone before. Trying to beat yourself into submission is not a sustainable sports nutrition strategy. And by the way, you should enjoy what you are eating.