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Activity and Nutrition: Ask the Nutritionist

Registered dietitian Carolyn O'Neil answers your questions about nutrition for exercise, sport, and living an active life.

Question:
My job requires that I sit for nearly eight hours each day. As a result, I'm gaining weight and my belly is getting bigger. I want to lose the weight and have a flatter stomach. Is there some way I can do so without exercising or going on a diet?
Answer:

The answer to your question is no. Many people work for at least eight hours a day, sitting at a desk for most of that time. To lose weight and work on your abdominal muscle strength and tone, you'll have to make time before or after work to exercise, especially if you aren't very mobile during your workday.

Cardio exercises (suggested for at least three times a week for 30 minutes) can help you burn calories to control your weight. This includes walking, tennis, dance classes, or time spent on an elliptical machine or treadmill. Strength exercises (suggested two to three times per week) can help you gain muscle tone and increase flexibility. This includes weight training, Pilates, or yoga.

When people say "go on a diet" that can mean so many things. For weight management, and especially weight loss, you need to take stock of your eating habits. You may need to avoid or cut your portions of calorie-dense foods like cheese, cream-based soups, creamy salad dressings, ice cream, and high fat meats like sausage. Eat more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Enjoy low-fat or nonfat dairy products and lean meats such as chicken, turkey, fish, and lean cuts of beef such as sirloin or deli-sliced roast beef.

Question:
I'm a 23-year-old mother with three kids and a very busy life. My doctor recently informed me that my cholesterol levels are extremely high and told me to start exercising six days a week for 30 minutes each day. This is going to be hard for me to do. So I want to know if adding olive oil to my diet could help lower my cholesterol.
Answer:

Olive oil is a fat, and like any fat contains about 100 calories per tablespoon. So keep in mind: olive oil is just as caloric as other fats and can contribute to weight gain if consumed in high amounts.

Olive oil does contain heart-healthy fats, which are associated with lower blood cholesterol levels. But you can't just pour olive oil all over an otherwise unhealthy diet and expect your cholesterol levels to suddenly go down. Making dietary changes to control your cholesterol levels is a twofold process. First, increase the amount of fiber in your diet, such as the fiber found in oatmeal, fruits, and vegetables. Second, decrease the amount of animal fats and saturated fats you consume, such as the fats found in butter, whole milk, cream, sausage, bacon, and heavily marbled cuts of beef. Exercise is also good for your heart health and cardiovascular function. But you have to address any issues with your diet. I suggest using olive oil-based cooking sprays to sauté your vegetables, as well as using olive oil as a salad dressing base. Canola oil is a good choice, as well.

Question:
I go to the gym, but only sometimes. I maintain a pretty normal diet during the weekdays. But on the weekends I eat a lot more. So I've been unable to lose weight. When I feel hungry, I'm really hungry and can eat quite a lot, almost like I can't control myself. What can I do to start losing some significant weight?
Answer:

The good news is that exercise burns calories, meaning that when you're hungry you can eat a bit more without incurring weight gain. But I recommend that you get in touch with your "hunger feelings." Are you really hungry, or are you just bored or anxious? When a "hunger attack" comes on, try taking a few deep breaths. Relax, drink a glass of water, and re-evaluate if you are still hungry after a few minutes. Also, if you plan three meals a day, plus a snack mid-morning or midafternoon depending on your schedule, you may be surprised to learn that you don’t get so hungry throughout the day because you are feeding yourself in a sensible way.

Question:
I’m a 30-year-old active woman. After a meal (400-600 calories), how long should I wait to work out or go jogging?
Answer:

It depends on what you ate and what you mean by "working out." High-fat meals are harder for the body to digest, and you may experience cramping if you jump right into strenuous exercises, such as running or swimming. However, if you eat a well-balanced meal or snack that includes a combination of a lean protein, a carb, and fruits or vegetables at the calorie level you mentioned, you should be good to go within 15 to 20 minutes. It’s important to enjoy your meals and consume them mindfully and in a relaxed manner. Then get back to the day’s activities. Give your meal a chance to enter your system and it will provide the energy you need for any healthy workout.     

Question:
Are there certain foods I should and should not eat right before I exercise?
Answer:

Avoid high-fat foods and spicy foods. Choose meals or snacks which are carbohydrate-based, such as granola bars, whole wheat crackers, or fresh fruit. These kinds of foods will provide your body with easy-to-use energy for your workout.

Question:
Can drinking a moderate amount of alcohol today have a negative effect on my athletic performance tomorrow?
Answer:

Moderate consumption of alcohol (no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink for women) should not affect athletic performance the following day, as long as you are properly hydrated. But over-consumption of alcohol causes dehydration and fatigue.

Question:
What nutrients are the most important for a long-distance runner to consume?
Answer:

Long distance runners need all of the same nutrients found in a balanced diet that other people need. Because long distance runners burn more calories than non-active people, they need to eat more food and need more of the easy-to-access energy that comes from carbohydrates such as bananas and breads. According to sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, runners also need to pay attention to their protein intake. She states that “A more-than-adequate intake for runners is about 0.75 grams protein per pound body weight (1.5 grams protein per kilogram).”

Question:
My work shift is always changing. One day I'll have to work in the morning. Then the next day, in the afternoon. Then the next, at night. Then I have two days off. My sleep and meal times are always changing, and I can't exercise as regularly as I'd like. What can I do to avoid gaining weight with such a crazy schedule?
Answer:

One of the biggest barriers to planning physical fitness routines is a hectic schedule, so join the club! But despite your situation you will certainly have to set aside time to exercise, whether it’s a walk one afternoon or an exercise class one morning or evening. Book an appointment time on your calendar, with yourself, to get some exercise. I understand that it’s hard to find a rhythm within your work schedule. But you must remember to prioritize your health first. Remember that going for a run or a brisk walk can actually energize you for when you need to stay awake and can help your body rest when it’s time to sleep.

Question:
Is dairy milk a better source of protein than other kinds of milk, such as almond or soy milk?
Answer:

Skim dairy milk contains 9 grams of protein, which is slightly higher than whole milk. Both almond and soy milk contain 8 grams of protein. So they’re all roughly in the same ball park. Calcium is naturally occurring in dairy milk, but added to soy and almond milk in varying amounts depending on brand. Note: Added calcium can settle to the bottom of your milk carton. So make sure to shake the carton before pouring.

Question:
I am very active and I have to use my whole body all day because my job is very demanding. For an hour and 40 minutes each week, I walk my dog, which is hard because he's a really big dog and he is always pulling away. Is that enough? What is the best way to lose weight?
Answer:

A pet can be a great aid to good health. Walking your dog is good exercise and it sounds like your dog gives you an extra challenge. Without knowing the specific physical demands of your job, the general rule for figuring the amount of exercise needed per week is 30 minutes a day for at least four days a week. If you increase the intensity from walking to jogging, it’s even better. And it sounds like your dog may want to jog!   

Question:
I recently had my second gout flare, so I haven't been able to pinpoint any possible food triggers yet. Normally I'm very active and these attacks really cut me down. What foods do you know of that can trigger gout attacks?
Answer:

First, make sure you are seeing a physician who specializes in gout management, such as a rheumatologist. There are medications to treat the inflammation associated with gout flares. There are also medications that exist to treat the underlying metabolic condition called hyperuricimia, which is too much uric acid in the blood.

Dietary management of gout is limited but important to help control the buildup of uric acid in the blood. A low-purine diet is often recommended for people with gout. Laura Rall, PhD, nutrition researcher at Tufts University in Boston says, "Begin by eliminating foods in the 'high-purine' category while reducing your intake of foods in the 'moderate-purine' category. If you don't have gout attacks after trying this, you may add more foods from the 'moderate' category or occasionally try a food from the 'high' category. Using these guidelines, you may be able to determine a safe level of purine consumption and enjoy some of your favorite foods without experiencing attacks."

Foods considered high in purine content include all types of alcoholic beverages; some fish, seafood, and shellfish such as anchovies, sardines, herring, mussels, codfish, scallops, trout, and haddock; and certain meats, such as bacon, turkey, veal, venison, and organ meats like liver.

Foods considered moderate in purine content include meats such as beef, chicken, duck, pork, and crab, lobster, oysters, and shrimp; and vegetables and beans such as asparagus, kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, mushrooms, and spinach.

Question:
I work in construction, which takes a lot of my energy by the time lunch rolls around. What kind of fast-food options do you think are the healthiest and the best pick-me-up choices for the middle of a busy day?
Answer:

Just because food is "fast" doesn't make it unhealthy. Many sandwich shops offer whole-grain breads and rolls, and you can build your own sandwich with plenty of vegetables and lean meats -- turkey, chicken, and roast beef for example. Enjoy your sandwiches with mustards that are calorie free. Go easy on the mayo or other types of sauces. If you’re going to a burger place, choose a single-sized burger and load up on the lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onion garnishes. Skip the cheese and save yourself 100 calories. Chicken breast sandwiches can also be a good choice. Choose the grilled chicken and load up on garnishes. Be sure to stay hydrated since you are working so hard possibly in the heat at times. Choose water or unsweetened ice teas. And if you want a bit of sweetness, add some lemonade or sweet tea to the mix.

Question:
Other than having blood tests done at a doctor's office, how can I know if my diet is healthy enough to provide me with all the nutrients I need for my busy weekdays?
Answer:

The USDA's MyPlate is a great place to start. The site provides straightforward tips on eating a balanced diet that provides all of the nutrients you need. The idea is to create a meal plate that consists of 1/2 fruits and/or vegetables of various colors, 1/4 lean protein and 1/4 grains (at least half of your grains should be whole grains). MyPlate also advices people to consume three servings of low-fat or nonfat dairy per day, such as milk in your cereal in the morning, a cup of milk for a snack or during lunch, and a cup of low-fat or nonfat yogurt as a snack or dessert.  

Question:
Most days I eat a pretty healthy lunch with portions appropriate for my build. But instead of feeling energized, I sometimes feel sleepier than I did before I ate. I’m not overeating, so why does this happen?
Answer:

The kinds of food you eat at lunch can contribute to feelings of fatigue. High-fat foods force the body to work harder during digestion. So they can drain your energy levels as the body works on digestive functions. Choose lighter foods, such as broths or tomato-based soups; salads that are light on the dressing, cheese, and croutons; and follow up a savory lunch with a piece of fresh fruit to provide you with natural sugar for energy and fiber to help with digestion.

Question:
I'm 22 and diabetes runs in both my mother and father's families. Can I really lower my risk of diabetes with exercise and a healthy diet?
Answer:

If your family members have type 2 diabetes, which used to be called adult-onset diabetes, there is a lot you can do to lower your risk. The most important thing is to maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise. Stay active to help keep your weight under control and be careful not to consume more calories than you need per day.

Question:
What is in buttery-tasting pan sprays that make them taste like butter, but without all the fat?
Answer:

Because you only spray on a thin layer, cooking sprays are great for sautéing vegetables and lean meats with a small amount of oil. If you check the ingredients label you will see the primary ingredient is vegetable oil. While some are flavored to taste like butter, others are flavored to taste like olive oil and may even contain some olive oil.

Here is an example list of ingredients in one brand of butter-flavored pan spray: soybean oil (adds a very small amount of fat), soy lecithin, natural flavors, dimethyl silicone (for anti-foaming), beta-carotene (for color), propellant. Keep in mind that even cooking sprays labeled as "zero calories" can actually contain less than 1 calorie per serving. So they're not completely calorie free. You can actually make your own cooking spray by buying a spray bottle and filling it with healthy oil such as canola or olive oil.

Question:
Am I short-changing myself by exercising early in the morning before I've eaten anything?
Answer:

You need some fuel to get you going and help you feel good about your workout. So if you grab a banana, a whole-grain English muffin, or a carton of low-fat yogurt on your way to the gym, you will likely have a far more enjoyable workout, be able to work harder, and be less hungry when you're finished. If you do not eat something, "You may become light-headed, dizzy, and wishing you were not exercising," says Nancy Clark, MS, RD, author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook.

Question:
What is your professional opinion on meal supplement bars?
Answer:

I don't like the idea of "meal replacement" because I think you should eat an actual meal, not a bar. But many meal replacement bars are really good choices for taming hunger and giving you the energy you need as a snack.

Always check the calorie content on the Nutrition Facts label. A good calorie count for a snack is 150 calories or less. If you are using it to replace a meal, make sure the bar contains a decent amount of protein -- at least 10 grams.

Question:
I’m a 32-year-old woman. I exercise pretty often, so I have a good amount of muscle tone, but I want to get leaner and thinner. In addition to changing my exercise routine, what kind of diet should I maintain to get a slimmer physique?
Answer:

I say focus on the total calories in your diet and the company they keep! Limit foods that are high in sugar, saturated fat, and salt (sodium) such as frozen desserts, frozen pizzas, pre-packaged entrees, chips, cookies, bottled salad dressings, pre-seasoned boxed rice, or pasta mixes. Go for meals with a foundation of fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains, and low-fat or nonfat dairy.  Read the Nutrition Facts labels to find healthy foods all over your local grocery store, such as canned beans, whole-grain pastas, and frozen vegetables.

Question:
Could a gluten-free diet be supportive enough to fuel my 40 minutes, five-days-a-week swimming routine?
Answer:

Many gluten-free foods are good fuel choices for exercise. Fruits, vegetables, beans, lean protein, and low-fat dairy foods (milk, yogurts, and cheeses) are all naturally gluten-free, as are rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn. You might want to try gluten-free products, such as brown rice pasta or oatmeal that is made in gluten-free production facilities.

Although there are many options in today's supermarket, be cautious. "Gluten free" does not always mean "healthier." Just because a bag of chocolate chip cookies says "gluten free" doesn’t mean it's calorie free. Many gluten-free products are made with quite a bit of sugar and/or fat.

Thank you for joining us for WebMD Ask the Nutritionist. Be sure to check in on Wednesday, Feb. 8, at 1 p.m. ET when we discuss the new USDA "MyPlate" and what it means for you. Sign up if you'd like an email reminder the day before the event.

WebMD Ask the Specialist Transcript

Reviewed by Carolyn O'Neil, MS, RD on January 09, 2012

The opinions expressed in this section are of the Specialist and the Specialist alone. They do not reflect the opinions of WebMD and they have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician or any member of the WebMD editorial staff for accuracy, balance or objectivity. WebMD is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on WebMD. 

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