Exercise and Energy: Food As Fuel

tumblr_mc644m7fo01r2zyogo1_400Exercise And Energy: Food As Fuel
By Dr. Karen Reznik Dolins, EdD, RD, CSSD, CDN
published in the Scarsdale Inquirer

“I’d like to have more energy.” Not surprisingly, this is often what I hear when I ask a new client what they would like to accomplish. Who wouldn’t?

Clients may seek my help to lose weight, learn how to fuel properly for an athletic event, or control a medical condition, but invariably the energy issue comes up. When I examine their diet and exercise habits, the reason for their insufficient get-up-and-go is usually clear. They simply don’t see the connection between what and when they’re eating, and their energy level.

Food is fuel, plain and simple. Our body needs fuel to stay alive, to break down and use the food we eat, and to move. Most of us don’t think too much about how much food we need to fuel our bodies, but under-eating or over-eating can each have unwanted consequences. Anyone wanting to perform their best athletically, reach a weight goal, improve health, or simply have more energy, will achieve greater success if they fuel properly.

Energy, Sports and Exercise

When speaking recently with a group of women training to compete in a sprint triathlon (half mile swim, 25 mile bike, 3 mile run), I discovered that in addition to wanting advice on fueling their training, many of them also hoped to lose weight. Committing to an athletic event to motivate exercise for weight loss is a common and useful strategy, but anyone using it needs to be aware that eating fewer calories than your body uses puts an athlete at a competitive disadvantage. This is because the beneficial changes that occur with a daily run, swim, or strength training session require food. Let’s say, for example, that you played an hour of intense, singles tennis followed by an hour in the gym. You had a yogurt for breakfast and a skim latte between tennis and the gym. You’ve has used far more calories than you have taken in. As your body tries to span the gap, your metabolism slows down, you stop building muscle, and you conserve fat. Most likely the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.

Athletic improvements are enhanced by getting what you need when you need it. In my work with athletes, whether executive types, active moms, varsity athletes, collegiate football players, or the pros, I find they tend to eat more when they need less. The student-athlete, for example, will often sleep in and skip breakfast, grab the first available edible item they see between classes, then spend hours on the field training before they finally get to sit for a substantial meal. They go into practice under- fueled, and try to catch up after. Their health, daily functioning (food fuels the brain, too), and athletic performance all suffer.

 Energy, Exercise and Weight Loss

Most people who want to lose weight don’t want to do so at the expense of energy. In fact, increasing energy levels is a goal of many attempting to shed some extra pounds, and staying energized during weight loss is a great way to make sure you stick with your meal plan. A diet that leaves you feeling lethargic isn’t likely to last long.

Adding exercise to a weight loss program is a great idea for a variety of reasons. We use more calories when we’re walking, jogging, riding a bike, or swimming than we do when we’re sitting in front of the computer or TV. We also change the way our body uses fuel. When done properly, exercise can help us use more fat for fuel.

It is common lore that exercise “speeds up” metabolism. Actually, the research in this area is far from clear, in part because of variability in fuel intake. Active people who eat more are most likely to see an increase in their metabolism, while those who don’t add enough food to fuel their activity may actually see their metabolism slump. This scenario is common among people who find that they are unable to lose weight despite copious amounts of exercise. The key to effective weight loss is to eat enough calories so that you are meeting basic energy needs but less than your total needs.

 Tips to Keep Energy Levels High

Eat and drink throughout the day. Eat before and after a workout. An active person needs at least 3 times as much carbohydrate (potato, bread, rice, pasta, vegetable, fruit) as protein (chicken, fish, meat), even when building muscle. Examples:

1 chicken breast (covering no more than 1/3 of the plate) with a medium baked potato, sautéed spinach, salad with vinaigrette and an apple

4 oz. hamburger on a whole wheat bun with salad, broccoli, and 1 cup melon

If you are training for an athletic event but also want to lose weight, make sure to plan ahead so you can lose slowly. Plan to lose no more than 1 pound a week in the month before your event, and do not try to lose weight the week of your event.  If exercising for weight loss rather than performance, create a plate as described above, but with smaller portions and less added fats.  Always include a small amount of carbohydrate along with fluid before exercising. Try a piece of toast, a piece of fruit, or a yogurt.  Stay hydrated. Any weight lost over the course of a workout is water weight, and should be replaced. Drink 2 cups of fluid to replace 1 pound.

On-line programs such as http://www.nutriinfo.com/etools/etools.jsp can help you calculate your needs.

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