Fourth of five parts
There's no shortage of information out there about what to eat to maximize the benefits of your workout.
Open a fitness magazine or ask your buddies at the gym, and you're sure to get enough tips and tricks to make your head spin. Your brother swears by his protein shakes, while your co-worker loads up on coffee before a workout. Your best friend eats a solid breakfast before her spin class, but the guy on the StairMaster next to you claims it's a sin to eat a single bite before you sweat.
But ask an expert, someone who really understands the relationship between what we put in our bodies and what we get out of a workout, and the answer is simple: Eat right, all the time. There's no better way to maximize the benefits of physical activity, period.
Sounds easy enough, but it's more fun to eat the bad stuff. And that means your exercise is all about offsetting bad habits instead of working toward better fitness.
The good news is eating sensibly is easier than you think. You don't have to be perfect - you just have to keep your eyes on the prize, which is a healthier, happier you.
For a basic overview of what the experts agree is a good diet for just about everyone, look no farther than Uncle Sam.
Last summer, the feds dumped the old food-pyramid format in favor of a graphic called MyPlate that focuses on making each meal balanced and healthy. Half of the ideal plate contains fruits and vegetables, while whole grains and lean protein make up the other half, with a serving of low-fat dairy thrown in as a side dish.
The icon is new, but the information is pretty much the same as what you learned in your high school health class. Lots of the good stuff, very little of all that stuff you know is bad - processed foods, sugar and fat.
"The basic story has not changed" since the USDA started making dietary recommendations decades ago, said Jackie McClelland, a professor and nutrition specialist in N.C. State's Department of 4-H Youth Development and Family & Consumer Sciences. "Balance, moderation and variety. They started with that, and they really are still at balance, moderation and variety. And it works."
One thing that has changed since then, however, is a little thing called the Internet that can help you assess how closely in line your current diet is with the guidelines.
At the USDA's ChooseMy Plate.gov website, you'll find a full explanation of the MyPlate guidelines as well as something called the Super Tracker that's chock-full of tools to help you get on target and stay there. You can create a profile showing your ideal intake of calories and each of the recommended food groups, set and track your goals and receive related tips and encouragement via email. You'll also find specific examples of foods from each recommended group.
What does all this have to do with your exercise habits?
"If they'll eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains ... they'll be perfectly ready to do that exercise and get the most out of it," McClelland said.
For real athletes only
But what about all those magazine articles about supplements or loading up on carbs or the latest fad nutrients?
Forget about all that, unless you're an elite athlete.
Those top-notch physical specimens among us, the marathon runners, the triathletes, the professionals, can tinker with their diet to unlock the full potential of their muscles and abilities because they've trained their bodies to respond to specialized nutrition.
That's the kind of person David Nieman, director of the Human Performance Lab at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis, studies intently. Much of the lab's groundbreaking work, Nieman said, has to do with "what can the athlete at the far end of the continuum add to reduce the impact of the exercise stress on their immune systems and bodies."
The cutting-edge Human Performance Lab has done studies comparing the benefits of bananas and watermelon versus Gatorade in male cyclists ("The good news," Nieman said, "is using fruit or fruit juices supports performance just as well as the sports drinks.") and is seeking just the right mix of plant molecules blended into a sports drink that will boost performance in top athletes.
But all that fancy stuff doesn't have much to do with most of us, he said.
"It's really quite simple," he said of finding a magic formula for health. "They just need a well-balanced diet based on fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity on most days of the week, and for the vast majority of people, that's it. They don't need supplements, they don't need Gatorade, they don't need extra vitamins and minerals - none of that."
If you're going for a jog or hitting the elliptical for a small chunk of time in an otherwise regular day, it's useless to pattern your habits after those of elite athletes.
"There are a lot of things an athlete will do, and an individual might read in a magazine, but it's not really going to do a lot for them," McClelland said.
Timing your dining
So we know what to eat, but what about when?
Some tippy-top athletes go hungry just before a big exertion, but that's unwise for the rest of us.
"In general, you really do need to eat prior to exercise in order to have stable blood sugar and a high enough energy level so that you can have a beneficial and effective workout," said Lisa Hardway, a certified personal trainer at the Alexander Family YMCA in Raleigh.
How much to eat, and how far in advance of a workout to eat, varies from person to person, Hardway said.
"Some people can eat immediately before, and some people need to eat an hour before," she said. But eating something, at some point, before working out is key. "If you only have time to eat five minutes before you get in the gym, that's better than not eating, by far," she said.
For a pre-workout meal (and for other meals), Hardway recommends fueling up with lean protein and complex carbs and making sure you're well hydrated.
A good breakfast before a morning workout, for example, might be stone-ground wheat toast with a scrambled egg (try adding extra egg whites) or topped with low-fat cottage cheese, Hardway said. If that sounds like a little too much prep work in the morning, you can make a good - and quick - breakfast the night before.
"You can just have cold boiled eggs and toast in the car on the way to the gym," she said.
After a workout, Hardway said, the same rules of good nutrition apply. But that's where some of us goof. A good workout in the morning is easily forgotten during a dinner out with friends, when the most tempting items on the menu probably would get a stern frown from Uncle Sam and his MyPlate.
"If you wipe out your day's exercise, if you wipe out your entire week's worth of exercise with one meal - yes, you can do that. It is not only possible, but it's quite easy," Hardway said. "But the best thing to do after you've done that is to say 'Yikes, I did that,' and then forget about it and get right back on your exercise program."
It's not magic
Maybe someday, someone will find a way to make doughnuts into health food. Maybe the Human Performance Lab will come up with a sports drink that will give our precious few minutes in the gym enough oomph to melt off those extra pounds more easily. But don't hold your breath.
"There's no secret, and that's the problem," McClelland said. "People always want a magic pill."
But for now, and likely forever, there is no magic. There's just the tried and true science that says if you put good stuff into your body, you'll get the best results out of it. Period.
Thursday: Weight-loss bloggers get a new look