Sat, Sep 15, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Eat yourself fit

We'd like to think that exercising regularly means we can eat what we want, when we want. If only it were that simple

By Rebecca Hardy  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Many of us believe that exercising regularly gives us a license to eat fattening foods with no adverse effects. Surely that's the whole point of physical exertion? Not so, the experts say. Any effective exercise habit must be supported by the right food.

"It's like fueling a car," sports scientist Garry Palmer said.

Bad nutrition, he said, can hinder performance, leaving you sluggish and nauseous and, eventually, making you ill.

"Many people think going to the gym means they can eat what they want. It can free you up, but not much," sports nutritionist Drew Price said. "It depends how overweight you are."

Heidi Skolnik, a sports nutritionist who works with the New York Giants football team, said it is all about balancing the calories coming in with the calories going out.

"I often see people who can't understand why they're not losing weight, but when we look at their food intake, they're eating as if they're running a marathon, not half an hour a day. That might burn 300 calories, but that's one chocolate bar -- not a lot of food. Generally, you need more calories only if you are training intensely for more than two hours every day," Skolnik said.

The standard advice is that, if you're exercising, your diet should consist of 60 percent carbohydrates and 10 to 12 percent protein. The rest should be fat. If you want to lose weight, eat more protein and reduce both your carb and fat intake.

"Proteins increase your metabolism and chew up calories faster," Price said.

Other weight-shedding advice is to eat your carbs in the morning or immediately post-exercise, when they are less likely to turn to fat. Skolnik said sipping a carb-based sports drink during an intense spinning class (lasting an hour or more) increases blood sugar levels and helps the body to burn more fat.

"Whatever your goals, the most important thing is to make sensible food choices," Price said. "That's good quality protein [lean meat, fish, tofu, soya mince, quorn, quinoa, low-fat cottage cheese or quark cheese], good fats [oily fish, walnuts, flax seeds or flax-seed oil] and good carbs [wholegrain rice, bread and pasta, sweet potatoes and oats]."

As we know, not all carbs were created equal.

"Good carbs have a low glycemic index -- glucose is released slowly into the blood -- and won't result in energy crashes," Price said.

Another piece of well-known, but often ignored, advice is to drink enough water.

"One study showed that almost half of all gym-goers were dehydrated before they even started exercising," Skolnik said.

Tess Griersmith, sports dietician at the London Sports Medicine Centre, said that even mild dehydration can impair performance by 30 percent. Some studies advise that you drink just under three liters a day when exercising, including half a liter two hours before physical exertion.

"Check you are getting enough by weighing yourself before and after," Skolnik said, then drink half a liter for every 454g lost while working out.

The timing of meals is also a big factor. The general rule is to wait three to four hours after big meals and one and a half to two after smaller meals before exercising. This way you'll avoid feeling lethargic or nauseous.

Bear in mind, however, that everyone's needs are different, depending on your fitness regime and body composition. Serious number-crunchers can calculate their basal metabolic rate (BMR), the number of calories they would burn if they stayed in bed all day, and from there, work out their calorie needs based on activity levels (try an online BMR calculator such as bodybuilding.com/fun/issa64.htm).

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