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Nutrition Tip: Carbs Are NOT the Enemy! ;-)

Posted Oct 19 2008 12:00am

Pardon me while I sound off about something that just bugs me, both as a health-centric person & as an athlete: Low-carb diets.

Not only do I abhor diets, dieting, & all that these ideas stand for (short-cuts, laziness, short-lived results, unrealistic expectations, resultant unhealthy metabolisms, short-sightedness, etc.), but I think the currently ubiquitous "low-carb" trend is stupid.

First of all, your body needs carbs. It's just that simple. The real issue is WHICH carbs one chooses, which can make all the difference in terms of health. People often forget that fruits & veggies contain fiber & carbs, & if you're going to choose a carb, why not choose one with additional perks? ;-)

Also, unlike most of the diet-obsessed world, I believe that one should eat for overall health, instead of narrowly focusing upon on which foods make one gain or lose weight.

Rather, it is the amount of body fat that one lugs around on one's body frame which is the real culprit. (And by this illustration, I'm clearly not talking about carrying a 10 lb. sack of butter on one's shoulder ;-) ) Please note that this does not mean that you shouldn't eat fat. Ironically, you need to eat a certain amount of fat in order to be able to lose it. Yes, that's right. You heard me correctly. If you restrict your calories too severely or eat a diet that's too low in fat (i.e., lower than 25%), your body's gonna hold onto the fat & scream "No, I will not let you go!" precisely because it thinks it's gone into survival/starvation mode. :)

How much body fat one can lose is not determined solely by either exercise or one's nutritional plan alone. We really do need both for lasting success & health.

That being said, what we eat has a huge impact on our energy levels, mood, & also upon the success of our efforts to lose body fat. Nutritionists that work with top athletes know this, & so it's important not to disregard the role that healthy eating plays in the process of getting into shape & feeling good about our food choices. Food also affects mood, which in turn can have an effect upon exercise & our attitudes towards our progress. Why not eat a healthy balance of foods & stack the cards in your favor?

Now, as a runner/athlete, I know this better than most. The factors of what, when, & how much I eat profoundly affects my training. I burn off lots of calories & my body needs to continually replenish glycogen stores, as well as vitamins, minerals, salt, & other nutrients, etc. And this means eating.

Now to be fair, I'm not looking to lose weight right now. However, that being said, I was able to drop some pounds of body fat by eating healthfully & working out, all the while using a moderate, common-sense approach. If you're curious how I did it, you're welcome to visit my blog to follow the journey I took, "back to a healthy self," which I began back in July 2007.

Please note that I didn't approach the process as a "race against time," & along with the body fat percentage loss also came a newfound wisdom & clarity. :) Through the process of "becoming me again," I was profoundly & irrevocably changed for the better. All along this journey, little "lights" kept going off inside my mind, metaphorically speaking, & I've found that there's a good really reason why "this time, it will really be different" & why I will never go back to the less-productive former attitudes & approaches which were holding me back, with regard to exercise progress, performance, & maintenance.

Of course, the whole point is that the journey does NOT end after you lose the body fat; if you operate from a long-term perspective, exercise becomes a constant source of renewal & progress, & through it we can continue to grow our minds & nurture our bodies. After a while, the questions stop becoming ones of "why, how, & when do I need to exercise," but rather, "how can I exercise more effectively for maximum benefit & enjoyment," or "when can I exercise next, because I can't wait to get out there & move?" It becomes an integral part of one's life, as if one could not imagine not exercising!"

But back to eating & nutrition: Even though I'm no longer trying to lose body fat, I still am conscious of portion sizes, & focus on eating a balanced diet, rich in nutrients & fiber. As most of you probably already know, eating foods high in fiber means that you will achieve satiety for a longer period of time. This is key. So start eating your fruits & veg, as well as healthy grains & legumes! (If you are open to trying new things, chance are good that that you'll find healthy produce that you like & won't feel like you're forcing yourself to eat the things that you don't enjoy!) This way, if you fill up on fiber, you won't reach for things you know you shouldn't be eating, because your tummy isn't screaming out in hunger &/or your blood sugar isn't taking a nose dive & then hitting rock bottom!

Speaking of which, it's absolutely crucial to keep one's blood sugar level throughout the day. Even if you aren't hypoglycemic or diabetic, maintaining a steady blood sugar level is still important for cultivating balance in one's eating & health, & from a preventative health standpoint, will help to shield you from disease & create the best possible health scenario for yourself, especially further down the road. For me, this means eating snacks & small meals throughout the day. I try not to eat a heavy dinner, doing my best to make lunch the "main attraction."

My current nutritional plan is composed of about 50% carbs, 25% fat, & 25% protein, & is specifically geared towards running fitness/performance. [For more information, please see "The Runner's Diet" (from Runner's World), which is a misleading title, because of course this nutritional program isn't actually a diet at all.]

Also, like the above article similarly discusses, I watch what I eat & when I eat it. If I do eat certain foods with high glycemic indexes (like potatoes, etc.), I make a real effort to eat them in moderation & also try not to eat them in the middle of the day when I know I have to focus & get work done, because these types of foods (especially when eaten in substantial quantities) make me feel like I'm in a "food coma." :)

If you've ever experienced a "food coma" before -- that uncomfortable, discombobulated, spacy feeling that sometimes happens after eating a large meal, then perhaps you will recognize that this not-so-lovely sensation is the body's way of trying to tell you something. And usually that something is "You've eaten too much of a particular thing." :)

But seriously, one thing I've learned through the sport of running is that it pays to listen to your body. And that applies to nutrition just as much as it does to exercise.

Now this is not to say that I don't ever eat complex carbs like pasta & potatoes. Quite the contrary. Certain high glycemic foods (of the healthiest variety!) do serve their purpose, particularly if you have an active lifestyle. However, generally speaking, I find that it's best to be strategic about eating complex carbs. For example: As a runner in training, I tend to save these types of high-glycemic index foods for when I'm training & need to fuel for a road race. In other words, they are eaten to fulfill a specific, practical purpose.

As with most types of foods, complex carbs are best eaten in moderation. Why do I say this? Well, for one, even though complex carbs release glucose into the blood stream more slowly than simple carbs, it's still best not to overdo it. After all, just because the glucose is released more slowly into the bloodstream when we eat complex carbs, doesn't mean that we should go bonkers & eat large amounts of them! Even if you don't have blood sugar problems, eating too many complex starches in one go can cause imbalance in the body, by cumulatively flooding the body with large amounts of glucose which must then be processed/burned off, or if not, then stored somewhere in the body as fat.

Wanna be able to eat heartily, feel satisfied, & not have to worry so much about weight & body fat? Then start exercising! It's really not that hard; if you can lace up your sneakers, toss on exercise clothes, & just get out the door, then you've already mastered the most difficult step. :) I'm being 100% serious. The mental aspects of getting started are usually a lot harder to conquer than the physical ones.

Instead of playing games with ourselves, why not just get out there & move? If you are really resistant to the idea, then start small & try something simple: For example, walking is a great place to start. You'll be surprised at how refreshed you feel after getting outside & talking a quick little stroll around the neighborhood!

And when you take that second step (i.e., exercising!), remember to start slowly & gently, & be patient with yourself. Exercise is supposed to be fun, not a punishment, so find a physical activity/sport that you truly enjoy doing! Chances are that if you approach your exercise with a sense of joy & anticipation, you'll not only see results, but be able to sustain those results for a much longer period of time!

If you are in need of a little encouragement & motivation to get started, the key thing is not to "wait to feel inspired." Often times, it works the other way around. If you just lace up the sneakers & head on out the door, you will most likely find the motivation you are seeking once you get started! Yes, it's true. It really is!

And then, to help you succeed, I recommend participating in some sort of system to hold yourself accountable & track your progress. Start an exercise blog or join fitness-centric social networking communities (like DailyMile , JustFinish , Wellsphere , or SparkPeople , etc.). Work out with a friend or family member, or meet new friends by getting involved in a local activity group for a sport you've always wanted to try. You can join your local running club, local Y, or fitness center, or sign up for community classes. Whatever, whichever. The point is to just get started! :)

Also, for additional ideas & inspiration, feel free to check out my fitness blog . On it, you'll see how I got started up again with exercise after a hiatus period of inactivity. (It's a very honest accounting of the whole process. You'll see all the steps, both forward & backward! There's a lot of useful analysis of "what worked & what didn't," which'll hopefully help steer you towards success.) There are also helpful tips on all sorts of topics relating to exercise, fitness, preventative health, nutrition & healthy cooking, body image, body-fat loss, & exercise psychology/philosophy, etc. Also, you'll find several resources there to help you along in your process to obtain long-term health & fitness. So check it out!

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