A balanced diet is a key for athletes

Shopping catalogs advertising the latest swimwear are among the earliest signs of spring.

This automatically triggers intense fear that a body that may have put on several pounds during the holiday season needs to soon look presentable in swim attire. Following that is a feeling of confident resolve that the task of getting in shape before exposing ourselves to public scrutiny can be accomplished.

Current and former athletes typically face the dilemma of increased body weight by beginning a program of vigorous exercise. This may include running, fitness classes, or weight training. Any successful weight loss plan includes diet changes.

When engaging in an intense physical regimen, a balanced diet is essential to avoid serious health problems.

A nutritional plan for an athlete should be customized based on body type and size. Consulting a registered dietician is advised. Relying on someone you met at a gym or who happens to work in a vitamin store is a mistake. Online advice through sites that sell supplements could lead to trouble.

The basic human diet consists of three essential components:

• Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for muscle. They are broken down into sugars for immediate energy and stored in muscle as glycogen for later use.

• Proteins are essential for building and repairing muscle that breaks down during exercise. Proteins also help store glycogen in muscle. Proteins themselves are not easily stored and must be consumed daily for a healthy diet.

• Fats provide the highest concentration of energy. They are the main fuel source for any long duration (greater than 60 minutes) of sports activity.

Many weight-loss diets emphasize either carbohydrates or proteins as a foundation. While this may be effective for weight loss alone, it could lead to disaster for anyone engaging in intense workouts. Aerobic athletes taking a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet are at risk for kidney failure.

Vegetarian athletes face the challenge of meeting nutritional demands without meat, fish, or eggs as a source of protein. Milk, tofu, yogurt, cheese, and peanut butter are great dietary alternatives.

Whitney Bundy, a registered dietician and Director of the Food and Nutrition Department at The William W. Backus Hospital, said that distance athletes must be sufficiently hydrated before, during, and after a workout. Peanut butter is an excellent pre-workout meal.

Isn’t it ironic that with so many commercially available energy bars, a childhood favorite like PB&J can sufficiently fuel a great athletic performance?

If you wish to learn more about sports nutrition, listen to the podcast at Norwich Bulletin or Backus Hospital.

Anthony G. Alessi, MD, is a member of The William W. Backus Hospital Medical Staff and a neurologist in private practice at NeuroDiagnostics, LLC in Norwich. This column should not replace advice or instruction from your personal physician. E-mail Dr. Alessi at aalessi@wwbh.org.

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