Sunday, February 15, 2015

Carbohydrates Are Not The Enemy

Somewhere between the gluten-free movement and the Paleo push, being carb-free became the hip new thing.  Whether you were a weekend warrior or endurance junkie, carbohydrates, mostly grain-based carbohydrates, seemed to be conspicuously left off the menu. 

As a registered dietitian and CSSD, I thought this was especially interesting considering we’ve been preaching for decades that there is and always will be value in consuming carbohydrates.  Carbohydrates are one of the three principal types of nutrients used as energy sources (calories) by the body.  Carbohydrates can also be defined chemically as neutral compounds of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.

Not all carbohydrates are created equal.  They have different structures and can be classified as simple or complex, which impact the absorption rate of the body and concurrent rise in blood sugar.  Complex carbohydrates come from foods such as spaghetti, potatoes, lasagna, cereals and other grain products. Simple carbohydrates are found in fruits, milk, honey and sugar.  Regardless of the type that is consumed, the body eventually works to break carbohydrates down into its simplest form called glucose.  It then stores its excess as either glycogen in the liver and muscles, or fat depending on the body’s energy needs at the moment. 

The confusion about carbohydrates appeared on multiple fronts.  The first was the verbiage.  The term “carb” and even “sugar” became synonymous with “bread” or “grain-based” carbohydrates.  Sure, breads, pasta, barley, quinoa, popcorn and other grain-based items are in fact carbohydrates.  However, carbohydrates are also a major macronutrient in fruits, vegetables, lentils, beans and low-fat dairy.

Recently there has also been a big push toward gluten-free, which is an absolutely necessary dietary modification for those who have celiac disease.   Certain individuals who do not have celiac disease or a gluten-intolerance undertook this modification as a lifestyle choice for various reasons.  During this time, they not only lessened their grain-based carbohydrates, but also increased their intake of other highly nutritious vegetables, fruits, nuts, lean proteins, seeds, legumes and other antioxidant rich elements.  Over time, they might have found their energy increased and they may have even lost weight because these higher fiber and protein elements aided in satiety.  In turn, they made better choices in terms of portion size, and therefore, matched their energy expenditure more closely.  It was easy to attribute the way they felt to the lack of grain-based carbohydrates, but considering the number of changes that were made, it is hard to isolate the actual variable that made the difference. 
In essence, when I hear individuals and even “nutrition experts” talk about the elimination of carbohydrates or “junk” as I most recently heard it on a podcast, I’m concerned about the over simplification of the issue, that it will cause additional confusion and may remove valuable nutrients, antioxidants and other phytochemicals from the diet of athletes. 

As I work with athletes on an individual basis, I encourage them to tailor their overall energy intake, as well as their macronutrient needs (carbohydrates, proteins and fats), to their current training phase.  This dietary periodization can also become another element for positive adaptations within the training program and therefore, produce elements of stress necessary to make long term gains.  At the beginning of general preparation or base training, I may suggest a carbohydrate ratio of 55% of their total diet because of the many long endurance based sessions.  This percentage may increase slightly as the season wears on and the intensity of sessions gradually picks up.  Again, the appropriate amount is based on the athlete and their individual needs.  A place to start for individual guidelines is 3 – 4.5 grams of carbohydrate per pound body weight (with endurance athletes being on the upper end of this equation).  

There are also ways to individualize the diet based on both the type and timing of carbohydrate consumption.  The type of carbohydrate as either simple or complex should be adjusted in relation to exercise.  If an athlete is preparing for a training session, the goal is to include simple refined carbohydrates that are easily digested and low in residue to prevent gastrointestinal problems.  Research has shown that the consumption of carbohydrates before, during and post activity aids in fueling the muscles and even improving concentration to assist in performance.  These carbohydrates prevent early fatigue and the goal of any athlete is never to be nutritionally limited during their training session.  Examples of simple more easily digested carbohydrate sources are tortillas, non-whole grain bread, rice cakes, crackers, pretzels, bagels, English muffins or applesauce.  If an individual is not preparing to be active or recover from activity, then choosing whole-grain sources with a slower absorption rate and other valuable antioxidants is a great choice such as barley, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, bulgur, faro, kamut, millet or other whole grains.  These whole grain foods and whole grain flours contain the bran, germ and endosperm which provide a range of vitamins and minerals and in turn, can provide health benefits from lowering cholesterol to promoting healthy gut bacteria. 

The timing of the carbohydrate consumption within the daily schedule can be modified based on the body composition goals of the athlete and length of time until their “A” race of the season.  In addition, if an endurance athlete has nearly maximized their training volume and they are in their aerobic general preparation or base phases, they may also benefit from a limited number of individual sessions in either a fasted or low-glycogen state.  Often times, I find this occurs naturally because many endurance athletes train twice daily and are therefore already in a slightly glycogen depleted state.  Becoming a fat adapted athlete is certainly a key part of the endurance equation.  However, heart rate training / intensity of sessions is a bigger portion of this equation than just what you consume.  Regardless of how trained at utilizing fat you become, athletes will always utilize large amounts of stored glycogen during exercise lasting longer than one hour.  Choosing specific sessions to work on this variable is best done by working with a sports nutrition registered dietitian as picking the appropriate training session and duration is of the utmost importance. 

In summary, to say a person or athlete should “avoid all carbohydrates” is not only an oversimplification, but can even be a detrimental health decision as many food groups would be eliminated, as well as the many health benefits provided by these elements.  Instead, let’s choose not to demonize any macronutrient and realize that even simple carbohydrates like sweet treats  or other foods people enjoy can be included if the rest of the diet is generally good.  Instead of reinforcing absolutes, it’s best to make choices based on informed decisions that take into account the individual needs of each person.  Eating should be a joyful experience that has less “rules” and should occur without guilt.    

With that said, I’m excited to be working with Ultragrain® for a second year to help support their recipe development efforts, product promotion and to assist in getting the word out about substituting this amazing product for your regular flour to provide the benefits of whole grain.
Here’s a great recipe I just made with Ultragrain® Flour to kick the whole grains up a notch while providing a lean protein source to assist you with recovery after a long day of work and workouts!

Chicken Marsala made with Ultragrain® Flour
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 Tbsp. Ultragrain Flour
4 Tbsp Olive oil
2 cups fresh mushrooms, washed and sliced
¾ cup Marsala cooking wine
¼ cup water
¼ tsp rosemary
2 Tbsp fresh parsley
1 oz feta cheese

Pound chicken until thin. Dredge lightly on both sides with Ultragrain® flour. In large skillet, add 2 Tbsp olive oil and heat to medium.  Sauté mushrooms over medium heat until browned, about 10 minutes. Remove mushrooms and set aside.

Melt remaining 2 Tbsp. olive oil in skillet. Add chicken and cook through, 4 minutes on each side. Remove to serving platter. Return mushrooms to pan, stir in cooking wine, water, parsley and rosemary. Heat and pour over chicken.  Top with feta cheese. 

Makes 4 servings.

Per serving, with chicken: 330 calories, 28g protein, 10g carb, 15g fat (8g sat. fat), 105mg chol, 430mg sodium, 0g fiber

Recipe Adapted from:

Disclosure:  I am a sponsored athlete working with Ultragrain®.  However, the opinions expressed in this post are 100% my own and were not influenced by this affiliation in any way.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Generali Mercuryman Triathlon - Grand Cayman Islands

The week before I left for the Grand Caymans, it was 8 degrees for a day or two.  Yes, you heard that correctly, 8 degrees.  One morning when I awoke, it actually said the words "feels like -3" on my weather app.  I looked at it, did a double take, and got my swim gear on to trek out to the car (which would barely start) to fire it up and head to the pool.  Winter in PA isn't for the faint of heart.  It hurts your face, cracks your skin and generally, is somewhat miserable.  When I heard about a chance to get a break from the cold and do a race which contributes to a great cause in January, I was on it like white on rice.  

Fellow pro triathlete, Lisa Roberts, was kind enough to reach out the end of 2014 to provide all the details.  She was a wonderful ambassador last year for Mercuryman, and soon after, the race director, Trevor Murphy, also reached out. The best part was that the proceeds of this event go directly to the Estella Scott-Roberts Foundation which advocates equality for women and young girls, along with many other areas.  What I found surrounding this event, was a very tight knit group of individuals who love the sport of triathlon and enjoy empowering each other to do great things.  It was fairly small, so everyone was cheering for each other and obviously, many of them knew Estella.  This was a perfect way to honor her legacy and raise money and awareness for the charity. Please take a moment to click on the link and learn a bit more about the cause.

This scenic half would take place on the Grand Caymans touring around the East side of the Island for the bike course and then transition to a three loop run course that was very spectator friendly. 

 My good friend, Alyssa, was also pretty excited about getting out of the cold so we packed our bags and made a run for it!  A short plane ride to Miami and then a final leg with a little over an hour to Grand Cayman and we were there!
 The two loop swim was absolutely gorgeous!  We were blessed with calm waters so it was perfect to get out there and just do some open water after being in the pool for months this early season.  The water clarity was fantastic and very similar to Hawaii and St. Croix.  Luckily, somehow I found Charisa and like a true friend, she pulled me around most of the course!  I tried to lend a hand a couple of times and do some of the swimming, but I always seemed to pick the wrong times and she and another fellow were doing just fine so I sat back and enjoyed it. 

Photo Credit: Jason Lentzke

 You know it's a low key race when you and your "fellow competitors" are chatting in transition!  After the swim, Charisa and I talked about how amazing the water was and then headed out on our bikes virtually together.  There was almost no wind so this flat course was set up to be fast!  I enjoyed just riding outside again for the first time in months.  It was really just a chance to go hard and practice the getting the execution right again.  I didn't worry much about my watts or heart rate.  I just focused on how I felt and having fun on this long training day! 
 Heading into T2, it was all smiles, but I could already tell it was going to be a VERY hot run!

 What I found out very shortly after starting is that 8 degrees in PA doesn't prepare your body well for 80+ degrees and humidity!  I'm especially heat sensitive so this was a long hard run.  I wanted to walk many a time, but I knew with every step I would gain more fitness and I wanted to honor the race and my fellow pros by giving it my all!  It wasn't pretty, but it got done!
 After the race, we all got right in the cool water and laughed and visited!  It was a wonderful low-key celebration of empowering women and athletes all out there doing their best! 
 Posing for a few shots!  Many people asked me about the results, and the honest truth is that it didn't much matter to be where we all came across the line.  This race wasn't about prize money or a place, it was about supporting each other and being thankful experience this event.  We were so Blessed to have this opportunity to get to know the people of the Grand Caymans.  Everything about the event was just top notch from the welcome dinner, the race itself, to the post race food and awards.

 I hung out with Flat Stanley a bit since Alyssa brought him along in her bag (he travels well being flat and all). 
 On Monday, it was off to Stingray City on a glass bottom boat! The water was just breathtaking! Photo Credit: Rafael Goncalves
 When we finally arrived and saw the stingrays, everyone was at the edge of their seat!  I couldn't wait to get in and meet these creatures (ok, I was a little scared at first, but they are 100% fine to swim with under supervision from the guides). 
 If you're ever in the Grand Caymans, this is a must do trip!  You are literally up close and person with these amazing creatures.  They are not scared of you at all.  After years of being conditioned that squid is coming when the boats arrive, they are very excited to hang out and get their breakfast.

  Our guide was fine with giving them a smooch.  Me, not so much!
On Tuesday, we headed to Seven Mile Beach, which is labeled as being one of the top ten beaches in the world.  The sand is so incredibly soft and the water was fantastic.  With a final meal with our group, we ended a simply perfect trip.  I didn't even get sunburned which is a miracle of sorts considering my pale white skin at this time of year.

The Reef Resort was a spectacular host to this event and our group.  They had every amenity we needed and our room was clean, comfortable and the staff went above and beyond.  I highly recommend this resort if you are traveling to this part of the world.  I also liked that this side of the Island was a bit more quiet and not at all crowded.  It made the whole experience more relaxing.

I can't thank Trevor, his girlfriend Claire, the Reef Staff and Volunteers enough for being the hosts for this race and treating us like family.  It was truly one of my best race experiences thus far!  If you are looking for a race early season to do next year, this is a great choice for so many reasons.  It reminded me of all the things I love about triathlon and why I first got into the sport.  In just three weeks, I'll be off to QT2 Pro camp so this was a perfect way to get the ball rolling! 

As always, I couldn't do this without the support of my sponsors

And a couple more will be added to this list shortly for 2015!