Food for Fuel

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In the past two years my level of athletic activity has increased dramatically. I’ve gone from running three miles at a time to running a marathon. I’ve increased from not cycling at all, to cycling maybe once a week, to cycling everywhere everyday. A workout for me used to be about half an hour to an hour four days a week. Now I workout one hour to three hours five to six days a week. But, while my fitness changes have been drastic, my nutrition changes have been minimal. Sure, every athlete knows protein is good for recovery post activity. But beyond that there is an overwhelming amount of nutritional information out there and much of it is conflicting. How many calories do I really need to fuel and recover? Are carbs good or bad? Are all fats created equal?

I had a ton of questions and I began to feel that I was doing things all wrong. First of all, I was suffering from blood sugar crashes throughout the day. Secondly, even though I was burning a ton of calories through exercise each day, I wasn’t necessarily losing weight. Weight loss wasn’t necessarily my ultimate goal, but I certainly wasn’t striving for weight gain either. Was the weight gain the result of increased muscle tissue or from all that beer I drank at Oktoberfest?

After some internal debate I decided to see a registered dietician who specializes in sports nutrition. I found Central Texas Nutrition Consultants through some online research. Sally Bowman, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD, is one of their dieticians who specializes in sports nutrition. She has worked as a consulting sports dietitian for the athletics department at the University of Texas for about 10 years. At first, I balked at the fee. It is $175.00 for the first 90 minute session. Ouch. The price and length of sessions decreases after the initial visit. But, I decided I couldn’t handle having all those questions anymore and I worried that I would get even more off track as I increased my training for a half-ironman.

I kept a food log for about a week and took it to my first visit. Sally looked it over and explained that I was eating far too few calories and my body could be in starvation mode. Now I love food, so by no means was I intending to under eat. But, I already suspected from my blood sugar crashes that I wasn’t doing enough to properly fuel my body for my activity level.  I just didn’t know what or how much to consume. It wasn’t until Sally explained the math and science behind food as fuel that I realized just how severely I was under fueling.

Now there are a lot of differing options out there about carbohydrates. In spite of my healthy eating habits, I clearly know nothing about nutrition which is why I sought out and paid for the advice of a professional. Sally has a long history of working with athletes who need to fuel their bodies for hours and hours of intense activity. This is the kind of activity that I also need to fuel myself for. So, for me, Sally recommended I increase my calorie and carbohydrate intake ALOT. Because I paid for Sally’s professional advice and she has shown me the scientific reasoning behind her opinion I have chosen to follow her guidelines.

So, I get to eat more….way more. And I have a set amount of carbs to consume at each meal. Sounds great, right? It is actually way more difficult than I imagined. First of all, I just don’t enjoy eating that many carbohydrates and I think I had really trained my nutritional mindset to the whole “carbs are bad” mentality. It is also exhausting at the end of the day to plug in the calories from my last meal and learn I have still come up nearly 1,000 calories short due to what I have burned in my workouts. So, I guess I’ll just grab a Big Mac for a late night snack? No thanks. So what I am learning to do now is to plan my meals out in such a way to actually fuel for my workouts and not just play catch up to all the calories I burn.

Please understand that I am not trying to discuss what is right or wrong here. I am only talking about what is right for me. That’s why I sought out expert advice instead of exhausting myself by trying to sift through all the differing opinions from my friends and online resources. The information I received from a registered dietician was worth the money for me. There are a ton of options out there, but not all are based on solid scientific evidence. Also, what works for someone else may not be right for you.

Recently a friend of mine has been working out with a popular fitness group. This particular group is known for their brutal boot camp style workout routines and their fondness for the Paleo diet. A trainer for this group was assessing my friend’s body fat percentage. My friend was told she was 27% body fat. This is within the healthy range for women.  More than 33% body fat is considered obese. Less than 21% is not healthy. This fitness trainer told my friend that she should strive for 18-19% body fat. Excuse me? My friend told me this days ago and I am still fuming. I will tell you that I am 25% body fat and I work out very hard. The notion of someone suggesting that a healthy woman lower her body fat percentage nearly 10% to an unhealthy level is absolutely absurd! It is repulsive to me that our society is equating unhealthy body standards for women with fitness.

My friend is a health professional and after my 30 minute rant on the subject I believe she decided to research the topic to get her own accurate information. But, what if she hadn’t? What if she just believed this person who was a trained fitness instructor and followed their lead into unhealthy expectations for her body? This is why I encourage anyone who has questions about nutrition, is bogged down by all the conflicting dietary information out there, has significantly increased their athletic training, or wants to properly lose or gain weight to seek out a professional who has received formal education in nutrition. A good resource for finding a registered dietician is eatright.org.

There are some instances when the visit may be covered by health insurance. But, even if it is not, I am now a firm believer that receiving accurate and scientific information catered to your nutritional needs and fitness goals is well worth the price.

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