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How to Choose Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates and Exercise

Whether you currently exercise on a regular basis or have been giving some thought to getting started, don't even think about skimping on the carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the fuel your body needs and prefers to power any type of exercise. Regardless of your choice of activity -- aerobic dance, running, strength training, yoga, swimming, bicycling, or walking -- you'll perform at your best by including a variety of carbohydrates in your diet.

The Best Workout Food
Here are some great food choices to keep you energized before and after you exercise:

Pre-workout (low-GI) carbohydrate choices:
Apricots, dried
Garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
Low-fat, fruited yogurt
Skim milk, plain or chocolate

Post-workout (high-GI) carbohydrate choices:
Corn flakes
Graham crackers
White rice, long grain, quick cooking
Potato, baked

People often begin an exercise program when they go on a diet. They know that increased physical activity helps burn calories and tone muscle. What they may not consider is that when you cut calories, whether by extreme reductions in food intake or occasionally skipping meals, energy levels can take a nosedive. If you happen to be following a diet that cuts out or drastically reduces carbohydrate, remember that the conversion of protein to energy is a much slower and more difficult process for the body to complete. Following a high-protein diet may make you feel weak and tired. You'll end up skipping your workout entirely or cutting it short because you're too worn out-neither of which helps you reach your weight-loss goals.

There are also considerations for carbs and timing of meals that depend on when you work out. Whether it's first thing in the morning, during your lunch hour, late afternoon, or after work, make sure you're not sabotaging your efforts by giving yourself either too little or the wrong kind of food.

Early Birds

If you're an early riser who likes to work out while most everyone else is still sleeping, congratulations! This is the best time to work out -- not necessarily in terms of burning more calories but because it's done and out of the way. Not much conflicts with a 5:30 a.m. workout. You're less likely to blow it off than if you save it for after work when long-running meetings, family commitments, or socializing with coworkers can get in the way.

How do you feel before you begin your morning workout? Do you wake up hungry? If that's the case, you definitely need to eat something before you exercise. There's no one perfect food for everyone, so experiment with different food choices. One thing is certain, a small amount of a carbohydrate-rich food will do the trick to get you going and keep you going. Since glycogen (carbohydrate) stores are used while you sleep to keep your heart, brain, and other organs functioning, you need to top off those stores in the morning, particularly if you're hungry first thing.

Some people do just fine exercising in the morning on an empty stomach; in fact, they may feel discomfort if they DO eat. Again, pay attention to your own hunger cues to see how you feel. If you're one of these folks, you may be ravenous after you wrap up your workout. This is an especially good time to bring on the carbohydrates! Immediately following a workout, your muscle cells are most receptive to taking up carbohydrate -- sort of like sponges soaking up all that glucose and storing it for the next bout of exercise.

What if you have no appetite before you exercise and still don't feel hungry when you're finished? Try a liquid form of carbs, such as a fruit smoothie or a sports drink. This will still get the carbohydrate to your muscles within an optimal time frame and help prevent the extreme hunger that often follows a delayed appetite. Sometimes your appetite kicks in when you don't have access to food, and you end up overly hungry.

Lunchtime Warriors

Working out during lunchtime can break up the day while relieving stress. Before you work out, however, think back a few hours: Did you eat breakfast or skip it? If you ate breakfast, how many hours has it been? That light breakfast eaten in the predawn hours is long gone, and you may feel the effects in the form of low energy once you hit the gym. If you've skipped breakfast altogether, well, by now you know the consequences of that!

If a midday workout is your standard routine, make certain you're up to the challenge by eating a mid-morning, carbohydrate-rich snack. Remember that most people need to eat every 3 to 4 hours. Topping off your tank an hour or so before you exercise will get you through your workout with energy to spare. Once you're finished, don't think skipping lunch will aid in your weight-loss efforts. Replenish carbohydrates, fluid, and protein to refill glycogen stores, cool and rehydrate your body, and begin to rebuild muscle. All are equally important for your next workout!

Evening Exercisers

carbohydrates and exercise
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Exercise is a key component of weight
loss, but eating is also vital to an
effective workout. Don't skimp on the
nutrition before you exercise.

If you save your workout until the end of the day, it's particularly important to do a fuel check. It may have been hours since you last ate. Just as you wouldn't expect your car to run without gas, you can't expect your body to perform optimally without fuel. Evening exercisers need to be diligent about their food intake all day long. A large coffee and pastry for breakfast, and a salad and diet soft drink for lunch will barely get you through the day, much less an evening distance run or toug h aerobics class. If you've added strength training to your workout routine and feel frustrated that you're not as strong or defined as you'd like, you may not be eating enough calories, including fat, protein, and carbohydrate. Carbohydrates aren't reserved for runners only!

Consider eating five to six times during the day (meals and snacks), and include protein and carbohydrate each time. This eating strategy helps fill in nutrient gaps, maintain a steady blood sugar level, and won't leave you empty at the end of the day when your workout depends on adequate calories.

For some people, foods with a high glycemic index may produce a quick surge in blood sugar followed by a quick drop to a too-low level. Use those foods in moderation before and during a workout. High-GI foods typically are best saved for replenishing glycogen after a workout.

In our final section, we'll teach how to decipher the various diet and low-carb promises you'll find in the aisles of your grocery store.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.