Progress 2022 -- Food fuels fitness: The basics of nutrition

Apr. 2—Food is an essential part of daily life. As essential as it is, a lack of knowledge and ads for particular diets can make nutrition confusing.

King's Daughters Medical Center providers weighed in on how nutrition and food impact not only life, but fitness and sport. Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Brock Johnson shared how food fuels the body for sport and helps in the recovery process.

A group of dietitians responded to questions together in a document submitted to The Daily Independent. Megan M. Cook, Kirstin Anderson and Heather Jenkins contributed to the answers.

Calories, carbs, fat and protein are brought up when discussing healthy eating or the latest diet trend. It's important to know the role each of these play in the body.

"Carbs, fats and protein make up all of the calories in our diet," according to the group of dietitians. "Calories are what the body needs for energy for daily tasks and to survive. Carbs are the body's preferred source of energy. Fats help certain vitamins do their job and provide essential fatty acids. Protein helps maintain muscle mass and promotes wound healing."

The number of calories has a role. "As a general statement, consuming more calories that we burn will cause us to gain weight, and burning more than we take in will cause us to lose weight," Johnson said. "I would point out that not all calories are created equally."

The dietitians and Johnson make it clear that it matters what makes up the calories.

"It is important to focus on the whole picture of nutrition," according to the dietitians. "Three hundred calories from a candy bar versus 300 calories from nuts and seeds will differ in nutrition and macronutrients."

They advise finding foods with the three macronutrients — carbs, fats and protein — along with vitamins and minerals.

"Calories are simply a measure of how much energy a particular food contains," Johnson said. "The same amount of calories may be obtained by eating a double cheeseburger as eating some carrots. Granted, it would take a lot of carrots."

Johnson said foods higher in fiber and higher in protein "can help you feel more full and satiated for longer than processed foods with high fat and carbohydrates."

It all comes down to fueling the body to reach goals.

"As a rule, I generally wouldn't get too caught up in calorie counting," Johnson said. "A well-rounded diet with healthier foods tends to be best. Avoiding processed foods, fast food, sugary and greasy foods is important for meeting fitness and weight loss goals. As with all things, moderation is key."

While the number of calories in and out has a role in fitness and health goals, the dietitians also point to better food choices and adequate nutrition for weight goals.

"Adequate nutrition is important with any weight goal," according to the dietitians. "If you are trying to lose weight, more of your calories should come from lower fat, nutrient-dense foods such as lean proteins, fruits and vegetables."

This should be done in combination with exercise, the said.

"On the other hand, if someone is trying to gain weight, increase calories in high fat, protein-rich foods," according to the dietitians.

Each of the macronutrients of carbohydrates, protein and fats serve an important role in the body's daily function, as well as making and maintaining fitness goals.

"What we put into our bodies is important for what we are able to get out of them," Johnson said. "In general, a well-balanced diet ensuring that you're getting adequate amounts of essential vitamins and minerals is the most important thing. Each food group is important to performance and normal function."

It is beneficial to know the basics of how each type of these macronutrients works to fuel the body based on the type of activity such as running or weightlifting.

"Our bodies utilize different fuel sources depending on the type and duration of exercise we engage in," Johnson said. "Sugars and simple carbs are the quickest and most available energy source."

Carb loading before a run or other similar activity can be a popular piece of advice. Johnson explained the idea behind it, even if flawed.

"Our bodies also store carbohydrates which it may utilize for energy, particularly in lower duration aerobic exercise such as long-distance running," Johnson said. "The effectiveness of 'carb loading' specifically is a bit controversial, but the idea is to ensure that your body has plenty of stored carbohydrates to use as an energy source."

It's not uncommon to see a weightlifter with a protein shake or something similar.

"Protein is an important macronutrient for weight lifters and those looking to put on muscle mass," Johnson said. "It's not necessarily as important as an energy source, but for recovering and building new muscle. As we lift weights, we break down our muscles. It's in the recovery phase that our bodies repair and build up our muscles as an adaptation to greater and greater resistance and loads. It's this repair and recovery that is dependent on protein."

Johnson shared more about recovery and how the macronutrients play into the body's response following physical activity.

"During the recovery phase of training, our bodies need plenty of protein to repair and build muscle," Johnson said. "Carbohydrates are important to replenish spent stores after more strenuous activity. Even fats play a role, particularly in long interval and aerobic training."

Paleo, keto, low-carb and other extremely reductive diets can often have followers of the diets eliminating a substantial portion of one or more of these macronutrients. This can be dangerous for health in many ways, and they aren't sustainable in the long run, according to the dietitians.

They are dangerous and unsustainable because a person is lacking key nutrients from the diet.

"The person is also at risk for developing health conditions such as renal failure, high cholesterol and blood sugar issues," according to the dietitians.

As plant-based diets gain momentum, the dietitians weighed in on the benefits. Primarily relying on plants for food and fuel can reduce the risk for heart disease, lower the risk of diabetes, help maintain a healthy weight and reduce cancer risk, according to the dietitians.

For those who go for fully plant-fueled lives, such as vegetarians and vegans, the dietitians said they should have at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day and base meals on potatoes, bread, pasta and other starchy vegetables. They choose to add whole grain.

The dietitians also recommend dairy alternatives such as soy or almond milk for vitamin and mineral supplementation.

Food and nutrition don't have a clear one-size-fits-all answer. It is individual. The KDMC dietitians said everyone has a different schedule, lifestyle and eating habits.

"Everyone leads a different life. What works for others may not be suitable for you," according to the dietitians. "Speaking with a dietitian can help determine the most appropriate habits for better health."

For those looking for personal guidance on diets, supplements, vitamins or other nutritional concerns, the dietitians advise seeing a family doctor for lab work. Following the results, "the physician can come up with a plan of care which can include outpatient appointments with a registered dietician for diet education," according to the dietitians.

"Healthy eating habits can be incorporated into each person's life," the dietitians said.

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