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Eat for Energy

--by Melissa Joulwan

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Turn on the TV or flip through a magazine and you're bombarded with conflicting messages about what you should eat, when you should eat, how much you should eat, and how you should feel about it. It can all be very confusing -- and discouraging. Despite what supermodels and superstars may say by their actions, skipping meals, smoking cigarettes, and exercising 2-4 hours a day with a personal trainer will not lead to a perfect body and life-long bliss. It's unhealthy to analyze the food we eat and to calculate just how many miles we have to run or how many hours we have to exercise to rid ourselves of it. Happiness, energy, and a strong, realistic body-image are nurtured through a combination of sensible exercise, adequate rest, and good nutrition.

What You Should Eat

There are four basic building blocks of nutrition that your body needs everyday: protein, carbohydrates, fat, and water. Give it these things regularly, and it will run like a zippy little sports car fresh from the factory.

Protein

A funny thing has happened in recent years. There was a time when we all ate way too much protein; eggs-and-ham, burgers, and steaks were considered healthy because they "put meat on your bones" and had lots of iron. Then everyone became more educated and health-conscious; meat was a no-no and pasta was going to save us all. Now, the pendulum seems to be swinging around again toward a higher-protein diet. Diet fads may come and go and come back again, but the healthiest way to eat is the same as it has always been ... balanced among the essential nutrients with a wide variety of foods.

Adequate protein is essential to keep your body functioning properly. About half of our dry weight -- including muscles, hair, nails, and skin -- is composed of protein. Our cells and immune systems rely on protein for maintenance and re-building. Our bodies don't have the ability to store protein or synthesize all the amino acids (building blocks of protein) we need -- that's why eating some protein every day is so important.

Carbohydrates

Aaah, the lovely carbohydrate. Who doesn't think of bagels and pasta as two of the primary food groups (along with chocolate and pizza, right?). As wonderful as carbohydrates are for providing energy quickly, too many carbs can send us into a tailspin of low blood sugar from an insulin dump. It's the job of insulin to lower our blood sugar levels when they get too high; insulin does this by taking the excess sugar in our blood and storing it as fat. Insulin doesn't know the difference between plain white sugar and a really wonderfully chewy bagel -- if there are extra carbs there, the insulin wants it. See the cycle developing here?

Too much sugar --> insulin --> low blood sugar --> fat storage --> "I'm tired & hungry."

The easiest and best way to avoid extra fat storage and dipping energy levels is to eat the right amount of high-fiber carbohydrates so that the sugar in these foods enters our blood slowing, thus keeping the pancreas from releasing high quantities of insulin into the bloodstream.

Fat

If there is a big, bad wolf of nutrition, it is surely fat. We can hardly say the word without disgust entering our voices. Yet fat is an excellent form of fuel for energy. It's concentrated; we've got lots of it in storage; and it's easy to include in our diets. So how can we make peace with the enemy?

The key to making fat part of a healthy, sensible diet is to eat the right kind. Any fat that is solid at room temperature is not our friend -- it's saturated and brings with it the risks for all kinds of health problems. The best sources of fat come from vegetable sources and are mono- or poly-unsaturated: peanut, canola, olive, walnut. This, of course, doesn't mean that we should feel free to drown our salads in olive oil; moderation is the key.

Water

Is water the greatest thing on the planet, or what?! It tastes great. It has no calories or fat. We can drink it warm when we're cold and cold when we're hot. It goes with everything, and can be found just about anywhere.

It's also essential to keeping us happy and healthy. Next time you feel inexplicably crabby, think back to the last time you drank a glass of water. Dehydration can lead to crankiness and a whole host of other, more serious, conditions. As a rule of thumb, we should try to drink a minimum of eight glasses of water everyday -- and more on workout days. A big glass about 10-20 minutes before a workout, and 4-8 ounces every ten minutes during a workout, keeps us feeling good and functioning optimally.

Drinking enough water is especially important for aiding fat loss. The liver is responsible for metabolizing fat. When our kidneys don't get enough water to perform their functions, they recruit the liver to help them out. If the liver is busy helping the kidneys, it can't do its own job of using up that stored fat for fuel. In addition, our bodies need water to keep cool during exercise, and to help in digesting the food we eat.

When You Should Eat

My brother has a wonderful gift for eating when he's hungry. It seems like a simple enough concept, but anyone who's ever devoured a slab of chocolate cake after a filling meal will understand that eating only when hungry doesn't come naturally to everyone. But bear in mind, any time we are physically hungry, we should eat. There is no good reason to go hungry -- particularly for athletes. To keep our metabolisms humming and our muscles fueled, we need to eat ... about every four hours or so. If time between meals stretches longer than that, a balanced snack will save the day. This part of my advice is not optional; if we "starve" our bodies between meals, irritability, fatigue, and slowed metabolisms are unavoidable. Stay fueled up.

Eat within one hour of waking in the morning to jump-start the system and restore blood sugar levels. They dip during sleep (because we're going without fuel for 6-10 hours) and need to be supplied in the morning. A light, balanced snack an hour or two before bed not only allows for a good night's sleep, but also supplies fuel for our bodies to repair and re-build during the night.

How Much You Should Eat

There are no hard and fast rules on how much we need to eat. Sure, we can read charts and calculate calories-needed based on calories-expended, but I think it's naive and presumptuous of us to think an organism as wonderfully complex as our bodies can be described by a formula in which we multiply our weight by some arbitrary number devised by some guy in a lab somewhere.

Roughly speaking, we should eat about 1-3 ounces of protein at breakfast and 3-4 ounces at lunch and dinner -- keep in mind that 3 ounces of fish, chicken, lean beef, or pork is about the size of a deck of cards ... it will fit comfortably in the palm of your hand. A little over, a little under -- it's not critical. What is crucial is that we get some protein every day and at every meal or snack that we eat.

Along with that protein, we get to have the fun stuff -- carbohydrates and fat. Carbs that enter the bloodstream slowly (like fruits and vegetables, thanks to the fiber in them) should be our first choices. Not only do we get the vitamins and minerals they naturally supply, but the fiber in them makes us feel full. A balance throughout the day between grain-based carbs and fruit / veggie carbs is the best way to feel great. In addition, a small amount of fat (the equivalent of 1-2 teaspoons of oil per meal) will keep the rate of sugar absorption down and keep our energy at optimum levels.

How You Should Feel About It

We all should feel great about food. It's the source of our power and our strength. What's a birthday party without the celebratory cake? And what's the end of a race without the "these-are-the-best-bagels-and-orange-slices-ever" found at the finish line? We all need to get over our fear of eating the wrong thing or eating too much and listen to our bodies. If we pay attention, our bodies will tell us just what we need to know. I hope these guidelines help your body to "speak up."

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