Part 3: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
All foods contain calories and in that regard, all foods contain energy. Forget for now the so called negative-calorie foods that supposedly require more energy to digest and absorb than is actually contained within the food itself. Although all foods have the potential to provide energy, this does not necessarily mean all foods are created equal.
First of all, there is much more to a food than just calories. A McDonald’s cheeseburger contains 300 calories, about the same as a bowl of oatmeal, a piece of fruit and a cup of orange juice. But that does not mean a cheeseburger would make a good pre-workout meal, or even necessarily a good meal at any time. This is because the burger contains four times as much fat (with half of that being saturated fat), 40 mg of cholesterol, and little dietary fiber. The oatmeal, fruit and juice on the other hand, contain very little fat, to begin with, much of what is there being the beneficial poly- and mono-unsaturated fats, no cholesterol, plenty of fiber, and plenty of carbs to provide energy for training or daily activity.
Let’s break down the oatmeal a bit further. There are three major varieties of oatmeal: flavored instant packs, rolled oats, and steel cut oats. A serving of each variety contains roughly the same nutritional breakdown – that is about 150 calories, 2-3 g of fat, 27 g of carbohydrates and 3-5 g of protein. But if you stop looking there you will miss two important points. Although all three have the same amount of calories, closer inspection shows that the instant pack contains 12 g of sugar while the other versions contain only 1 g of sugar. Further, despite having identical nutritional breakdowns, the serving size for steel cut oats is only ½ of that for rolled oats, meaning following the same preparation method would yield twice as many calories.
Second, it is important to consider what foods contain beyond energy: important vitamins and minerals. There may be a lot of energy up for grabs in a candy bar or other snack food, but that is really all there is. Not to mention the fact that most of the energy on offer is coming from sugars and fats. Alcohol is one of the most dangerous things because it contains 7 calories/g, nearly as much as fats. Fruits and vegetables on the other hand, may have a little less energy value, but they are packed full of vitamins, minerals, fiber and natural sugar. Consuming these types of foods will actually allow you to eat more and get more of the nutrients you really need because you don’t have to try to avoid all the high-calorie filler in junk foods.
Finally, not only the content but the timing of your intake of certain foods is important. Prior to exercise, you want to focus on foods that will give you sustained energy, generally things like oatmeal or whole-grain bread that have plenty of carbohydrates, but break down relatively slowly. During exercise, quick energy is the primary concern, so items like fruit, gels, bars or energy drinks are best. Following exercise, you should aim to replace your glycogen stores, as well as including a little protein to support muscle recovery. The rest of the day, a balanced diet should include foods rich in vitamins and minerals, as well as a little fat and protein to keep you feeling satisfied.
Taking the time to figure out how all the nutrients in different foods work together may seem like a daunting task. However, once you begin to become familiar with the foods you consume on a regular basis, it is much easier to make an educated guess about anything out of the ordinary. More importantly, knowing what you are fueling your engine with will help you to get achieve a higher level of performance from your body.