How People Eat: Legendary cross country coach Bob Milton

Ask science teacher Bob Milton to explain this observation: Of all the cross country trophies in his classroom at Norwell Middle School, how did his teams wind up with both the state championship trophy and the state runner-up trophy for 2004?

When it's time for lunch, science teacher Bob Milton doesn't hit the cafeteria or the vending machine -- he raids the bottom shelf (visible below in a 2nd photo) of his storage cabinet for natural peanut butter, fruit or a can of Campbell's Chunky soup.

His explanation begins with this startling factoid: That was the year his varsity middle school team had the top 7 runners in the whole conference.

“The odds of that,” he says, still marveling over it seven years later, “are trillions to one. I had the math teacher figure it out.”

At that time, the state championship was divided into a big school and small school competition. So he ran his varsity squad in the big school race, where they won the state championship, and he ran his “B team” in the small school championship, where they were the state runner-up.

“Those boys,” he says, still proud and amazed, “they laid it out there.”

In an earlier 14-year stint as Norwell’s high school cross country coach, Milton’s teams won 90 percent of their meets, including four Top 15 finishes at the state meet.

What was his secret? Smart training regimens, obviously, a strong team mentality and an emphasis on good nutrition. Eating a proper diet, he counseled his runners, was a good way to get faster “without having to run a single step.”

His runners may not have bought into nutrition the way he does, but they listened. He says he even had one runner go on to study nutrition in college because of what he learned in cross country.

Milton’s no longer coaching — though he says he’d get back into it “in an instant,” if asked — so now he primarily shares his nutritional theories with his eighth grade science students.

He advises them to avoid the nitrates and nitrites in hot dogs and to stay away from soda, which he believes can cause osteoporosis and, as a major source of empty calories, can lead to nutrition deficiencies.

During a recent interview in his classroom, he expanded on some of his theories about a “proper diet” and what works for him:

Bob Milton's lunch shelf

Q. How hard is it for you to maintain your weight?

A. “I have to work at it. I could easily weigh 250 pounds if I didn’t.”

Q. How often do you step on a scale?

A. “I weigh myself every other day, before I get into the shower. I always want to be under 160.”

Q. Was it hard for you to cut out drinking pop, once you decided it was necessary to do so?

A. Milton says he used to drink a lot of pop, especially Pepsi. He had a fondness for it dating back to his boyhood days when he’d watch “The Lone Ranger” at his grandmother’s house and she would serve him “a fried cheeseburger, potato chips, pastry and Pepsi on a TV tray.”

It took him a couple of years to wean himself off Pepsi, switching first to Pepsi Free, with no caffeine, and then eventually off soda altogether. Now he drinks V-Fusion, a blend of vegetable and fruit juices.

Q. What do you eat for breakfast?

A. “Oatmeal or shredded wheat or a boiled egg, along with a glass of V-fusion.”

Q. What else is on your diet?

A. Fruits and vegetables, chicken, “a little beef, but not too much”  — though he doesn’t worry as much about his cholesterol as some people do, because he doesn’t agree with how cholesterol is measured. “In fact,” he says, “I disbelieve it strongly.”

His theory: If your cell membranes are made up of cholesterol, then the numbers are too low. Triglycerides, he says, are a much bigger problem, lead to more clogging.

Natural peanut butter, olive oil and coconut oil are on his “good fats” list. He believes it’s best to cook with coconut oil, because the hydrocarbons don’t break down.

He steers clear of the aforementioned nitrates, hydrogenated oils and table sugar, though he might have a piece of birthday cake every once in a while.

Q. So I take it you pack your lunch, rather than taking your chances with whatever’s on the menu in the school cafeteria on any given day?

A. “C’mon,” Milton says. “I’ll show you.”

He leads me to a storage area in the back of his classroom and opens a cabinet containing various teaching supplies. One lower shelf serves as his lunch pantry, stocked with Campbell’s Chunky soups, natural peanut butter, no-sugar-added applesauce and mandarin oranges. He also brings in bananas, though he doesn’t have any at the moment, and V-fusion, which he sometimes drinks out of a beaker — no doubt to add to his reputation as an eccentric science geek.

Q. Do you have any weaknesses, food-wise?

A. “Cherry preserves. I have some on toast once in a while in the evening. I figure if I’m going to be a bad boy, it could be worse.”

Q. What’s your favorite meal at your favorite restaurant?

A. Milton says he doesn’t really like to eat in restaurants because afterward he tends to feel tired and irritable. Every great once in a while he and his wife will go to a Chinese buffet, where he’ll have shrimp and broccoli — and where he might indulge the temptation to have a small amount of ice cream.

Q. Does it bother you to get too full?

A. “Yes, it does. But I don’t let myself get too full. How do you get too full eating broccoli, or green beans?”

Q. What about pizza?

A. “I don’t eat pizza, other than maybe once or twice a year.”

He says the nitrates in the ham and pepperoni bother him, as does the fat.

“You take that pizza and you squeeze it, that grease will run right down your arm.”

Q. Hmm. Usually I ask people about their “Death Row” meal — what they’d ask for if they had “one last request” before they die. What would yours be?

A. “If I’m going to die, I don’t think I’m going to feel like eating.”

Q. Any other pet peeves with the American diet?

A. “Most people eat too many carbs. I think potatoes are almost like sugar. … I believe that if people fixed their diets, more people could live to 120.”

Milton also notes that he believes people should take supplements to get nutrients they might not otherwise get in their regular diet.

“The main ‘supplements’ that I take are: colloidal minerals, a vitamin mineral product, fish oil, a glucosamine and chondroitin capsule, a special calcium and magnesium mixture and a liquid high in antioxidants.  It is important for people to know that they should be taking them everyday and that they are most likely not completely nourishing their bodies by simply eating ‘right.’ ”

Q. So what about exercise? Do you still run?

A. Milton says he has knee trouble, so he isn’t running much these days. Instead, he works out on an elliptical machine, lifts weights three times a week, plays table tennis in a league in Fort Wayne and walks every day. He misses running, “but I miss coaching more than I miss running,” he says. “I would love to get back into coaching.”

“I knew in seventh grade what I wanted to be: a teacher and a coach.” Though he’s unhappy how difficult it is for him to get back into coaching once he stopped for a few years, he notes he feels extremely lucky to be a teacher.

“I’m doing what I love,” he says. “I’m doing in life exactly what I want to do.”

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