Fueling Fitness: Understanding The Link Between Food and Fitness

The natural link between food and fitness has stimulated a mountain of sports nutrition research and launched countless products marketed to fitness-minded consumers.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Contributing Editor

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The research into nutrition and fitness is now so extensive, every five years the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) publishes in its journal a review of studies on the topic. Subjects range from the effects of dietary supplements and other ergogenic aids on physical performance to the most effective macronutrient distribution patterns (how best to manage calories for maximum results).

Despite the complexity of the subject and the sheer volume of investigation, certain dependable basics filter through.

All athletes — whether casual or competitive — need to balance their energy (read: calories), protein and fluid intake to match their activity; that’s basic. For example, insufficient calories for a serious athlete or even the fitness-minded individual means loss of muscle mass, reduction in strength and increased risk for illness. Most active persons with a body weight ranging from 110-175 lb., and who exercise 30 to 40 minutes per day, will require an extra 200-400 calories per workout session.

For serious athletes, energy expenditure can be daunting. Exercising two to three hours per day, five to six times per week can push these added energy demands to 600-1,200 or more kcals per hour during exercise, driving daily energy requirements to between 2,500 and 8,000 kcals for highly competitive athletes.

Adding to the challenges of refueling is the fact that intense training can suppress appetite. Also, athletes should not eat too close to training to avoid digestive issues or cramping. To meet the energy demands, many athletes turn to high-energy drinks and nutrition bars to provide nutrient-dense snacks that complement balanced meals.

Nutrient density is important for athletes. This is because demands for micronutrients — the vitamins and minerals that allow proteins, fats and carbohydrates to be utilized — are correspondingly increased.

The Power of Carbohydrates

Egg GranolaDespite the persistent popularity of all things “low carb,” athletes know carbohydrates are vital sources of energy. General recommendations are that 45-65 percent of kcals should come from carbohydrates with complex sources. These include whole fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, all playing the dominant energy role.

“Carbohydrates are necessary to fuel muscles and muscle-building exercise,” says Kelly Toups, program manager for the Whole Grains Council, Boston. “Whole grains offer many benefits over refined grains. The bran is rich in fiber, B vitamins and antioxidants, and the germ is the source of healthy fats, minerals and protein.

"Without the bran and germ, about 25 percent of the grain’s protein is lost, along with at least 17 key nutrients, many of which are vital to sports performance," she continues. "For example, magnesium — typically stripped away to 16 percent of its original level in white flour versus whole wheat flour — is necessary to help muscles relax.”

The Kashi Co., La Jolla, Calif., provides a spectrum of whole-grain products, from snack bars to pilafs. Using its “seven whole grains on a mission” theme to emphasize different properties of whole grains, the company promotes whole grains as good sources of energy for fitness-minded consumers as well as for serious athletes. The company even added a protein counter to its website so consumers can calculate daily protein intake as they add whole grain products to their daily fare. This serves as a reminder that grains are major contributors to human protein needs, as they have been for thousands of years.

“While a pasta dinner is a classic pre-race ritual, it’s hardly the only way to carb-load,” says Toups. “The variety of whole grains available, along with increasing culinary curiosity, continues to open new doors for whole-grain centered meals.

"For example, so-called 'ancient' or 'heritage' grains are finding their way into more popular exercise and recovery foods. Breakfast cereals are constantly reformulating, and nutrition bars — a popular pick for long-distance cyclers and runners — are increasingly studded with ingredients such as amaranth, oats and quinoa. Even in the beverage industry, drinks made from oats or quinoa are being introduced as quick sources of portable nutrition.”

Ancient grains such as quinoa, teff, millet and buckwheat are rich in complex carbohydrates, fiber and protein. And so are legumes such as beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils. Many of these grains, and all of the legumes, are free of gluten, the protein in wheat and its relatives, rye and barley, which generates autoimmune reactions in persons with celiac disease. Although celiac disease affects only a small portion of the population, gluten-free products are increasingly popular among athletes, driving an increased variety of healthy carbohydrate choices.

ThinkThin ProductsThink Products Inc., Los Angeles, grew from the vision of Lizanne Falsetto, an international model who sensed the need for healthy foods on the go. Following years of success with its high-protein bars, the company recently added a variety of gluten-free, high-protein hot cereals to its line.

Based on a mix of steel-cut oats, rolled oats and quinoa, with added fruits and nuts, the hot cereals provide a balance of complex carbohydrates and lean protein, alongside healthy fats. It should be added that virtually all whole foods that contain energy-yielding complex carbohydrates (starch) are also good sources of protein.

More protein

The amount of protein needed by athletes has been the subject of much study and debate. The RDA for protein is 0.8g per kg of body weight. For that 110-175-lb. athlete, that translates to a protein requirement of between 40 and 65g per day. This amount is easily met by most Americans.

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