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Summer games: Eat like a gold-medal athlete

Karen Hawthorne is a health and lifestyle writer and producer in Toronto, Canada. Her work has appeared in print and online for publications including Glow, Homemakers, BestHealthMag.ca and the National Post.

Eating for athletic energy

Carbs are gold when it comes to boosting energy, says Liz Pearson, a Canadian dietitian and co-author of Ultimate Foods for Ultimate Health. And by gold, she means, gold-medal-worthy! With the Summer Olympics set for July, now is the time to be inspired to get in shape. Pearson wants to spread the message that the most successful exercise regimes start with what you eat.

Woman eating yogurt

Carbs are good for you

"Carbohydrates are the primary and most important source of energy for the body," says Liz Pearson, who is on a mission to end carb-o-phobia. Her new book, Broccoli, Love and Dark Chocolate, is set for release in spring 2013. "The truth is that carbs are actually good for us and we need to consume them every day, particularly when we’re active."

whole wheat breadCarbs are gold for energy and performance

The U.S. Institute of Medicine recommends that most of our daily calories -- 45 to 65 percent -- come from carbohydrates, with 20 to 35 percent coming from fat and 10 to 35 percent from protein. Why the heavy need for carbs? Our bodies break down carbs into sugar — glucose — that provides energy for cells, tissues and organs, Pearson says, and gets stored in our muscles for when it’s needed. Once storage is depleted, however, muscles quickly fatigue.

"Any time we exercise, we should adopt the mindset of an athlete and think of carbs as fuel for our muscles -- but it’s critical to be aware that not all carbs are created equal," Pearson explains. The best fuel for our bodies is 100 percent whole-grain breads and pasta, fruits, vegetables and beans. Most of the carbohydrates we eat on a daily basis should be these good carbs because they’re slowly digested and they provide a gradual release of sugar into the bloodstream. They contain valuable nutrients and plant compounds that protect health and guard against diseases.

Good carbs and bad carbs

On the other hand, getting carbs from refined grains such as white breads and pasta, or cereals, cakes and cookies made with white flour, as well as highly processed sugary drinks, candy and desserts, is not the best choice. These types of foods can increase the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, macular degeneration and some cancers, Pearson says.

Eat good carbs for optimal exercise

The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each week, with children and youth requiring 60 minutes per day. Given these guidelines, how do you incorporate carbs into your diet for your workout of Olympian proportions?

Pearson cites recommendations from the International Society of Sports Nutrition: Eat a meal consisting of good carbs three to four hours before exercising, followed by a carb-and-protein snack 30 to 60 minutes before getting started. Eating another carb-and-protein snack immediately after exercise is ideal to optimize carbohydrate storage.

Carb options to fuel those muscles

Three to four hours before exercise:

  • 100 percent whole-grain spaghetti or pasta salad
  • Stir-fry veggies on a bed of brown rice
  • Whole-grain pancakes

30 to 60 minutes before exercise:

  • Small bowl of whole-grain cereal
  • Whole-grain crackers with bean dip
  • Half a sandwich with lean protein on whole-grain bread
  • Fruit smoothie made with milk or yogurt

Post-workout:

  • Chocolate milk
  • Yogurt
  • Whole-grain energy bar

Carbs boost brain health

If increasing energy levels isn’t incentive enough, Pearson emphasizes that good carbs are also excellent for brain health – including memory building, learning and thinking.

Foods that improve brain power >>

Carbs for weight-loss

Carbohydrates may even promote weight loss because of their ability to satisfy hunger. A recent Canadian Community Health Survey, for example, showed that of the almost 4,500 people studied, those who were at the lowest risk of being overweight got 47 to 64 percent of their calories from eating carbohydrates.

More on eating like an athlete

Snacking around workouts: Do's and don'ts
Kerri Walsh: Eat and exercise like an Olympian
Natalie Coughlin's Olympic diet tips

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