Consultant dietitian to the Institute of Health and Fitness and the Collingwood Football Club, Lorna Garden, says that nutrition is an integral part of the health and fitness equation. Garden says more than 50 percent of Australians are overweight. Most want a quick answer, but there are none.
Fad diets overlook the three components of weight loss—fluid, muscle, and fat—and focus only on what shows results on the scales. Fluid and muscle (which weighs more than fat), are quickly lost. However, fluid is rapidly regained and, if you lose muscle, your metabolism will slow. Ultimately, you will be able to eat less than before without putting on weight.
What counts in fitness is the shape and composition of our bodies, aspects dictated by the level and distribution of body fat. There are many complicated ways to accurately measure body fat such as water displacement or the new x-ray technique that can also determine muscle and bone mineral density.
As part of an initial assessment some gymnasiums and dietitians will use the “pinch test”. While it’s not as accurate, if the “pinch” measures more than 2.5 centimeters at any one site on your body you could probably stand to lose.
To successfully control your weight you must keep your metabolism high by exercising. Each person has a specific basal metabolic rate (BMR), which decreases when we diet too strictly because the body thinks it is starving and needs to conserve energy. The BMR also decreases naturally at the rate of about two percent each decade after childhood. One good way to keep it up, says Garden, is to eat small amounts frequently. “Recent studies show that grazers, those who eat a small snack or meal every two to three hours, are less apt to over-eat and have a higher metabolic rate than those who skip meals. It’s preventative eating—it helps keep you in control and inhibit the 5 pm fridge syndrome.”
Another good idea is not to eat for a few hours before going to bed. When you sleep your metabolism slows and, if you have eaten recently, that energy is more likely to be stored as fat. Good snacks include yoghurt, fresh vegetables, and fruit. Garden supports the “2 Fruit `n’ 5 Veg Every Day” nutrition program because those foods are good sources of certain vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber, while being low in fat, salt and kilojoules. It’s not as hard as it first might appear. A serving is about 1 cup, so you’re eating about 2 cups of vegetables and 1 cup of fruit a day. A good salad of lettuce, tomato, carrot will get you halfway there.
Fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamin A include nectarines, apricots, peaches, tangerines, carrots, red capsicum, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, spinach, and tomatoes. Rockmelons, paw paw, mangoes, broccoli and asparagus are also high in Vitamin A, but along with bananas, grapefruit, honeydew melon, kiwi fruit, lemons, limes, oranges, mandarins, pineapple, strawberries, watermelon, beans, green capsicums, cabbage, cauliflower, onions, potatoes, and zucchini supply a good amount of vitamin C. Beware of fruit juices—they provide all the calories but none of the fiber. Vitamins A and C are thought to play a particularly important role in cancer prevention, anti-ageing and recovery from strenuous exercise.
There are no simple answers; no quick fixes. The best education begins in childhood and provides the basis for a balanced life and the power to fad diets. The answer is not only calories but, in the case of some weight loss centers and fad diet books, a considerable amount of money. Take, for instance, the popular book `Fit for Life’. While it has some good points, said Garden, in that it encourages the consumption of fruits, vegetables and carbohydrates, the basis of the theories it contains are unscientific. “Basic physiology does not justify the suggestion that you couldn’t combine protein and carbohydrates in one meal,” says Garden. “The enzymes in the digestive system which break down protein and carbohydrates work independently and are quite capable of working at the same time.”
Another aspect of the book that concerns Garden is the lack of promotion of legumes and dairy products that are combinations of protein and carbohydrates. “Legumes also provide soluble fiber which helps decrease cholesterol. It bothers me that the book discourages the use of dairy products, because that increases the risk of developing a calcium deficiency which can lead to osteoporosis (the loss of calcium from the bones which makes them brittle).”
In general, says Garden, it is best to have a high-carbohydrate snack or light meal about two to three hours before a workout. She suggests bananas, low-fat yoghurt, or rice cakes, muffins, crumpets or raisin toast with a light topping of honey or jam. According to Garden recent studies have shown that also eating carbohydrates within 15 minutes of finishing a strenuous workout speeds recovery. This, Garden says, is the only place a sugary drink is of value. A flavored mineral water, soft drink, or sports drink is fine, but it should be followed with a meal rich in complex carbohydrates such as rice, pasta or potatoes.
Is there such a thing as “good junk food”? Garden says yes, there are such alternatives. Have pizza, but choose a vegetarian or marinara topping instead of high-fat meats and sodium-laden olives and anchovies. Go Chinese, but pick steamed rice and braised meat and vegetable dishes. Hungry Jack’s? Try the chicken fillet on an oat bran bun. At Fats Domino’s Burgers and Shakes (24 Toorak Road, South Yarra) you can sample the sports burger and milkshake that Garden developed for the Collingwood footy club. The burger is much higher in carbohydrates and lower in fat than an ordinary burger. It’s a blend of very lean mince and lentils, served up on a sour dough bun with the fixin’s. The shake is a mixture of banana, low-fat milk and rice bran and also very high in carbohydrates.
The bottom line is that your mother was probably right—you must learn to eat fewer calories than you expend. For every extra pound you carry, somewhere along the line you ate 28,000 calories more than you expended. But take heart. There are many ways to take control of your diet and get fit. Just remember you can’t successfully do the one without the other.