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Fine Tune Your Diet to Fuel Your Active Lifestyle

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This Fitness Makeover will focus on nutrition for the endurance athlete. A year ago, Bob Petraglia from Boston, Mass., began swimming 800 meters three times a week for fun and fitness. As most of us find, he was addicted to the endorphin rush that his newfound exercise provided, and within six months Bob was up to 2,000 meters six times a week (with 3,000 meters on the seventh day).

This fall, he plans to race in the annual 2.4-mile Waikiki Roughwater swim, and depending on how that goes, perhaps a five-mile swim in St. Croix.

These are ambitious goals for a relative newcomer to the sport, but having spoken with Bob I’m confident that he’ll be crossing the finish line in both events with no problem at all.

Bob had questions regarding his daily diet and how he could maintain or gain back some of his weight; he has dropped 18 pounds since he started swimming, only half of those pounds intentional and necessary.

At 5’9” and 152 pounds, Bob needs to be about 160 pounds, according to Leigh Fish, MS RD, a Los Angeles-based registered dietician who specializes in athletes (her boyfriend Josh also happens to be a triathlete on the US National Team!).

Given that I am not a registered dietician or nutritionist, I have deferred all advice that follows to Leigh — and have only served to break it down into a reader-friendly article (and I’ve learned a few things from our guest source in the process … so thank you, Leigh).

Bob writes that he feels healthier, more alert, and a lot hungrier than ever before since he began swimming on a daily basis. This is natural, and he needs to increase his intake of carbohydrates in a specific way to avoid losing more weight — while sustaining the energy he needs for optimum performance.

Most people assume that binge-ing on pasta, grains and breads is the best way to gain the quick energy needed for endurance training. Wrong.

According to Leigh, Bob needs to keep his metabolism running all day long with frequent snacking, and not just three large carbo-friendly meals.

“Eating only large meals may not give you the sustained energy that you need for an intense swim workout, especially if your most recent meal was more than two hours before the training session,” she explains.

“Although you wouldn’t want to have a large meal right before your swim, a small snack which is mainly carbs, such as a cup of juice or a half a granola bar, would be just right.”

Bob supplied me with a comprehensive daily diet breakdown of foods he eats and snacks on (which I forwarded to Leigh), and vegetables were the only food group that was somewhat neglected.

“Including vegetables in your lunch and dinner meals is very important,” says Leigh, “because it allows you to eat a large volume of food without a large amount of calories. Be sure to choose an array of colors when eating fruits and vegetables, as this will provide you with the multitude of vitamins and minerals that you need before, during, and after your workouts. Remember, not everything comes in a pill, even if it’s a multivitamin.”

(Great advice, if you ask me … like most people I know, I rely on vitamins more than I should for my daily allowances).

Bob’s diet could also use more dairy, and Leigh recommends consuming it after the tough workouts.

“Reloading with a protein/carbohydrate food is useful to replete any glycogen stores that may have been lost in heavy training. Good options are a glass of milk, low fat ice cream, cottage cheese, or yogurt.”

Bob’s consumption of protein is Herculean, with generous daily portions of chicken, nuts, hamburgers, and tuna. Leigh reminds him that fish and eggs are another protein source not to be overlooked.

Bob’s only apparent vice is a passionate addiction to Doritos. A whopping five times a week at up to 10 handfuls a pop, this is the one area that gave Leigh the right to slap our subject with a major meal makeover.

“‘10 healthy handfuls a day’?! Now really, how healthy can a handful of Doritos be? A good substitute here would be pretzels," Leigh says. "In the meantime, weaning yourself off the Doritos would be a wise option since your dependence seems to be so … immense!

"Allow yourself Doritos three times a week and limit your intake to two handfuls that fit into a small bowl. If you want more, refill the bowl ... with pretzels! Slowly, your dependence will just turn into a now-and-again indulgence.

Comment from the peanut gallery: My guilty pleasure is ice cream, and since speaking with Leigh Ive begun weaning myself off of those easy-to-consume-in-one-sitting Ben & Jerrys pints. Instead, Ive stocked my fridge with Ben & Jerrys frozen yogurt, and I now only allow myself a half-pint (served in a bowl instead of right from the carton). Hopefully Im getting my post-workout protein fix while weaning myself off of those oh-so-good-but-oh-so-bad fat calories.

As far as monitoring his weight, Bob need only step on a scale once a week. Daily scale-stepping will show minor fluctuations that can wreak havoc on one’s psyche and contribute to hyper-self-analysis — not a good road to go down.

Instead, a weekly weigh-in can give you a consistent reading that over time will paint an accurate picture of where your body weight is, and should be.

Bob is an avid vitamin- and mineral-taker, and although Leigh admits that most people would rather rely on a pill for their essential needs, she stands by her claim that there is no comparison to vitamins and minerals gleaned from real foods.

She does, however, suggest the occasional extra dose of Vitamin C and E, given the endurance athlete’s above-average training intensity:

“Vitamin C and E are good antioxidants, especially for endurance athletes who experience a great deal of oxidative damage during long bouts of cardiovascular activity. It can’t hurt to take this, but also may not be necessary each day.”

Finally, the last bit of wisdom that Leigh offered to impart to Bob (and possibly to more than a few readers of this column), is the “if a little is good, then a lot is better” misconception about protein intake.

Given Bob’s healthy meat consumption discussed earlier, there is little reason for him to boost his protein intake with powders and energy bars in his between-meal snacks.

“Considering the intensity level that you are swimming, you need, at the most, 1.2b/kg of protein per day," Leigh said. "For a 152-pound man, this is only 83 grams of protein. 1 cup of milk for breakfast, 3 oz. of turkey and 1 slice of cheese for lunch, and 5 oz. of turkey for dinner provides about 87 grams of protein. Some protein powders in smoothies can offer up to 25 grams of protein (and 100 calories), all of which are unneeded in Bob’s case.”

In the end, Leigh was impressed with Bob’s dedication and overall healthy eating habits and lifestyle. The recommendations she gave were not major diet overhauls, but rather ideas based in common sense and backed up with respectable knowledge and experience.

With a few little changes, Bob will find his top-priority goal of being a healthy athlete a reality. In the water, he should expect to continue to surpass even his own expectations.

Although the above overview is broad and has been written to apply to the general active population, it is important to note that the feedback came after a comprehensive analysis by a registered dietician.

It was based on an individual of a certain height and weight, with detailed specifics of the subject’s diet plan. Anyone considering a drastic change to their eating habits (for better or worse) is urged to consult a registered dietician or nutritionist who can outline a plan to address each individual’s specific needs.

If you are interested in being the subject of a Fitness Makeover, please e-mail your questions to Alex, and include a phone number where you can be reached upon your selection.

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