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Nutrition Articles  ›  Healthy Habits

High Performance Nutrition - Part 1

The Big Picture: Food as Fuel

-- By Dean Anderson, Fitness & Behavior Expert
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Good nutrition provides the foundation for your goals, whether you want to lose weight the healthy way or fuel high-level physical activities. Unless you eat “the right stuff” at the right times, you aren’t going to get very far in either direction.

Unfortunately, what counts as the right stuff often depends on the situation. Your body can’t do everything at once. Restricting your calorie intake to promote weight and fat loss can make it very difficult to build muscle mass or train for endurance events. If you’re trying to combine any or all of these goals, things can get pretty complicated.

This article will help you understand the role that carbohydrates play in fueling exercise and recovery and how both the timing and nutritional makeup of your meals and snacks can help you achieve your performance goals.

Fact #1: The more you exercise the more carbohydrates you will need for fuel.

With all the emphasis placed on exercising to lose weight, many people are surprised to hear that exercise itself doesn’t actually burn much fat as fuel. Exercise uses up the calories you've eaten, but most "fat burning" occurs when your body then has to turn to fat stores to fuel basic bodily functions.

To fuel moderate and high intensity exercise, your body relies primarily on carbohydrates (glucose), which are broken down quickly to fuel muscle cells. (Your body can't turn fats and proteins into usable energy quickly enough to meet the demands of exercising muscles.)

Therefore, higher intensity cardio and strength training activities will burn more glucose as fuel, and more calories overall. Learn more about the myth of the "fat burning zone" by reading this Ask the Expert Q & A .

Action Step: Don’t limit your carbohydrates. Most people need about 100-150 grams (400-600 calories) of carbohydrates every day just to fuel their brains and central nervous systems. On top of that, you need additional carbs to replace the energy stores you used when exercising. If you’re trying to lose weight, research shows that a diet where 55-60% of total calories come from carbohydrate is ideal for most physically active people.
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About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.

Member Comments

  • This is exactly the information I have been looking for, and could not find anyone that would tell me. Not even a doctor. Thank you Spark. - 10/4/2013 11:16:01 PM
  • I try and do carb balancing. I subtract the grams of fiber from my carbs and try and have that match (or be under) my protein. I ALWAYS make sure I have at least 100 grams of carbs but I have PCOS and other health issues and have been told that carb balancing is the healthiest for me since it keeps my blood sugar level. I am finding it REALLY hard to lose some weeks. I've been eating between 1200 and 1400 and get anywhere between 120-30 mins of exercise a day. - 8/22/2013 6:48:04 PM
  • Great article - 6/26/2013 12:35:28 PM
  • Great information. - 6/18/2013 7:48:25 PM
  • RON562
    Very good article. My problem is I'm starving hungrey after I workout and that's where I fail. - 5/22/2013 11:15:04 PM
  • SPLATEK
    good article except for the bit about needing carbs - carbs are NOT a necessary macronutrient. Take for example the Inuits, Eskioms. They function perfectly well on a ketogenic diet - better heart health and overall health. Recent advances in science, exercise physiology and science and sport psychology has shown that most people and almost all athletes can function at high intensity perfectly, even better in most cases after the initial down time adaptation phase. People are omnivorous and carbohydrates that come from anything other than vege, esp dark green vege are unnecessary for survival and/or high intensity exercise. Good article otherwise. Eat your fats, lots of them! :-) - 6/20/2011 8:01:35 PM
  • AVENTUREUSE
    I love reading Dean"s article. Please Dean write more it"s great. - 12/27/2010 9:57:22 AM
  • Love those Dean Anderson articles! They are so well written and informative. Keep them comin'! - 6/10/2010 11:19:07 AM
  • GIANT-STEPS
    One comment I'd add is that certain long endurance activities do require nourishment during the event. I've competed in 5+ hour cycling events. Ultra-endurance events can last over 24 hours.

    When I ran high school track our coach told us not to eat anything 3 hours before our training or event. When I started to cycle long enough to require food I couldn't handle it; it seems you have to train your body to send a little blood to your stomach even when your legs want it all. For a while I felt ill no mater what I ate while cycling hard. After I got used to it I found myself looking forward to a snack; in fact now I start to feel a little peckish 20 miles into most rides. - 2/8/2010 5:08:17 PM
  • THIS IS AN AMAZING ARTICLE!~

    from an avid runner struggling with weight loss and how the body actually works....THANK YOU! - 11/16/2008 1:37:24 PM
  • This is a well written article. I heart Coach Dean (and carbs) ! - 10/22/2008 2:39:17 PM
  • This article helps to dispel a lot of fitness/nutrition myths out there. I'm looking forward to the next part. Thanks! - 10/9/2008 11:52:52 AM
  • Great article. - 9/7/2008 12:28:10 PM
  • SUSIE2065
    susie2065

    This was excellent, everybody need to know about workout. I do really think you answer all my questions . For now anyway lol
    Ty for your help - 9/1/2008 9:42:52 PM
  • TRYINGHARD1948
    This was a most informative article for me and answered many of the questions that I had. - 9/1/2008 5:56:50 AM