Getting Fit: Basic Nutrition
I am happy to explain, to anybody who asks, what I know about nutrition. The reasons that there are so many overweight people are vast and complicated on a psychological level but surprisingly simple from a practical point of view. Practically speaking, people are overweight because they eat too much, and they eat disproportionately from the food groups. The good news is that there exists plently of good information on the food groups and portion control. Our government has done a shockingly good job of breaking down the food groups with their revised food pyramid. In terms of working out and getting fit it is beneficial to know how our bodies use each nutrient and where to find them. That is what I want to do in this article. For actual food plans and diet advice I suggest The Not fad Diet by the American Heart Association and The Way to Eat by Dr. Katz.
Protein is used to build and maintain muscle tissue. Protein is what is responsible for our muscles being able to move and our organs being able to perform basic functions; protein repaires muscle tissue when it is damaged. When proteins are digested they are broken down into their component parts which are called amino acids. There are 13 amino acids that our bodies can produce without outside sources, but there are another 9 which we need to provide by eating certian foods. Without protein our muscles become atrophied and weak and our organs deteriorate more quickly. Weight lifters eat lots of protein. They need it to build big muscles; lifting weights breaks muscle tissue so that protein can build it back bigger and stronger. People who do not do much heavy lifting do not need as much protein (but everyone needs at least some). Good sources of protein are beef, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts, seeds, and beans. Vegetarians can also get all the proteins they need with a combination of certain nuts and seeds. Meat is not the only good source.
Consider carbohydrates gasoline for the body. Proteins are used to repair muscle while carbohydrates are efficiently converted directly to energy during high endurance exercise. There are two kinds, simple and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are sugars that are found in candy. They require almost no effort for our bodies to convert them directly to energy. That is why kids run around like crazy after eating candy – then crash. They ingest rocket fuel for the body and peter out before they get into orbit. The other kind of carbohydrates are the complex variety. They are what sustain our bodies for longer and more steady energy use. They won’t get us into orbit but they will allow us to fly around the world without stopping. Endurance athletes eat a lot of complex carbohydrates before, during, and after exercise. Good sources of carbohydrates are whole grain breads, root vegetables, corn, and beans (beans are a miracle food). It is good to eat whole grains instead of the refined varieties because whole grains maintain fiber and vitamin content while still providing all the same carbohydrates of their processed cousins.
Fats are a necessary part of healthy living. Fats make our cell’s membranes stronger, regulate hormones, and support a healthy immune system. The wrong kinds of fats are bad. Saturated fats and trans fats are the bad kinds. They raise LDL (the bad cholesterol) which sticks to arteries and cause heart attacks (one of several risk factors). But, polyunsaturated and monosaturated fats are the beneficial fats found in fish oils, flax seeds, nuts, avocados, and olive oils. Everybody needs to make a special effort to eliminate the bad fats and replace them with the good ones. They are not to blame for our obesity; processed foods and candy can be blamed for that. Good fats help our bodies run smoothly and improve brain function (see omega-3).
Vitamins, Minerals, and Fiber
There are a slew of vitamins and minerals that bodies need. We use them for growth, our immune system, organ maintenance, and everything else that happens in our bodies. Some vitamins help with the development of red blood cells (the B vitamins) while others like vitamin A, C, and D have been shown to be useful in repairing sun damage to skin cells. So, yeah, vitamins are necessary. The best way to get them is through a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Not to be left out is Fiber. Everyone knows why we need fiber, and not getting enough fiber can be, echem, unpleasant. Eating plenty of fruits like pineapple, mango, and pears will supply needed fiber. Also, beans and whole grains have fiber (remember beans being a miracle food?). Athletes, more than most people, need to make sure to get plenty of vitamins and minerals. Exercising puts pressure on the immune system and athletes who do not either supplement with vitamins or eat a lot of healthy foods are risking illness due to a compromised immune system. The supplements I use are from USANA Health Products.
A diet book is not what I aim to write. Serving sizes and menus can be found in other, more comprehensive, places. My goal is simply to give a breakdown of what substances our bodies use for everyday function and how they relate to basic fitness. Proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals have a function that we cannot do without. Diet books and health gurus are always chanting the merits of a balanced diet because only from a variety of foods can we get all the nutrients our bodies need. Eating fast food and pre-packaged food might, in some instances, satiate our need for certain vitamins or minerals, but they are seriously deficient in many other areas. Eating them is inadvisable. Those who are looking to lose weight should be certain that every bite counts, that there are no wasted calories. Whole grains instead of refined, lean meat rather than fatty, and high fiber, high vitamin and mineral roughage. And beans!