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Whole Foods Best for Workouts

Only elite athletes need supplements and energy bars. The rest of us can fuel our workouts with regular whole foods.
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WebMD Feature

It's not an uncommon site. Runners at the starting line of a race guzzling down the last few drops of Ultra Fuel, unwrapping a PowerBar or carefully storing small packets of Goo energy gel in the micro pockets of their running shorts.

Novice racers and runners are looking around thinking, "This is what I should be doing. This is how I will sustain my energy and run a better race."

But is it?

According to Lisa Cooper, registered dietitian who has worked with many athletes, food is more than something that quells hunger; it is fuel composed of nutrients essential for maintaining optimal health and top performance during an endurance event like a race.

So if bars, drinks, and gels claim to give you that, should they replace whole foods when it comes to performance?

"Whole foods have other substances in them that benefit the body," says Cooper, "I would choose a whole food."

Industry experts tend to agree.

Despite clever marketing for the myriad purported performance foods available, whole food such as an apple with peanut butter on it might be a better choice.

The goal for everyone, athletes and non-athletes alike, should be to get a balanced diet, says nutritionist Philip Goglia, co-founder of Performance Fitness Concepts, a nutrition and wellness consulting company in Los Angeles. A diet rich in a healthy combination fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and fish or chicken would be enough to get someone through a race or a day at work.

"Supplements are just that," says Jeff Stout, exercise physiologist and co-author of five books on sports nutrition.

"I always prefer that the majority of the calories come from [whole] food," says Stout, a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine. "The body is made that way. Supplements supplement the diet when foods don't do enough."

To get energy from whole foods, it is important to be educated about what we eat and when.

"Food falls into three categories," says Goglia. "Protein, fat, and carbohydrate."

After you eat, nutrients are released into your bloodstream and converted to glucose, or blood sugar -- your body's energy. Energy not used right away is stored as glycogen in your liver for quick release or as fat for later use.

Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for the muscles and the brain. For the best, quickest sources of energy, Goglia tells WebMD, choose single-ingredient carbohydrates such as vegetables, fruits, or oatmeal over multi-ingredient items like breads or muffins. Simple carbohydrates, like fruit, are a quicker energy source than complex carbohydrates like a yam, but both are better choices than a blueberry muffin.

Fats provide the body with a slower release of energy than carbohydrates because it has a higher caloric content. Protein mainly works to build and repair muscles and is only used as energy if inadequate carbohydrates are available.

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