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Nutritional Health for Women

Nutritional health provides a foundation for optimum fitness, performance, and overall health. Excellent nutrition results in more energy, better athletic performance, and less risk of illness. Poor nutrition can cause poor performance, low energy, mental and physical stress, and greater incidence of injuries. A balanced diet is achieved by eating healthy foods, plentiful nutrients, and adequate calories. Reaching this balance can be challenging, as calorie requirements and weight maintenance are a concern to most women. This is complicated by a confusing number of "miracle" diet and nutrition plans, which can be misleading and unhealthy.

As an active, athletic woman, your body often needs more nutrients than it receives. Most girls and women do not eat enough calcium and also have diets that lack enough iron, zinc, and vitamins D, E, and B, including folate. By knowing your potential deficiencies, you can correct them. You can design your own eating plan with a healthy balance of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fluids, and adequate calories to enjoy the best food, health, and fitness.

Food Content
The building blocks of foods are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats; however, very few foods are "pure" carbohydrate, protein, or fat. Both natural foods, such as milk, and prepared foods, such as a cheeseburger, are combinations of protein, carbohydrate, and fat. Foods also contain vitamins and minerals, which function in the body as enzymes and regulators of organ and muscle function. Vitamins and minerals are in highest concentration and absorbed best by the body when eaten as they occur naturally in foods.

Balanced nutrition requires eating a wide variety of healthy foods to meet all your needs. Unfortunately, many prepared foods and meals are not well balanced and are high in fats or sugars and low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The nutrition profile of the average athletically active female is low in carbohydrates, milk products, red meat, fruits, and vegetables. Understanding the value of these foods or their nutritional equivalents will allow you to correct these deficiencies.

The body needs carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, minerals, water, and electrolytes on a daily basis to function most effectively. Amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats are measured in grams; one gram is about the weight of a paper clip. Vitamins and minerals are measured in micrograms (mcg), milligrams (mg), or international units (IU). The Food and Drug Administration, through much nutritional research, has standardized Reference Daily Intakes (RDI). Formerly called Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA), these guidelines help to set standards for meeting your nutritional needs to optimize health.

Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are the best fuel source for muscles, brain, and blood. They are broken down by the digestive system into glucose, which is either stored or released directly into your bloodstream to provide energy for the body. Sugars are the simplest forms of carbohydrates; simple sugars include glucose, sucrose, and fructose. More complex carbohydrates, including starches and fibers, are simple sugars that are bonded with each other. Fiber is an important carbohydrate nutrient; insoluble fiber is not digested but is essential for transporting waste out of the body.

Foods that are primarily carbohydrates include fruits and vegetables, breads, pasta, cereal, and "fat-free" desserts and candy. Reading the food label of a package gives you information about total grams of carbohydrates, including the breakdown of sugar and fiber content. Carbohydrates contain four calories per gram; one gram equals about a quarter teaspoon of sugar.

The Importance of Carbohydrates to Athletes
Glucose is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen. When the body needs fuel and does not have enough glucose in the bloodstream, it converts this stored glycogen to glucose, which travels in the blood to where fuel is needed. Glycogen is always the first source of energy, and for athletes, is the optimal source of energy, especially during competition or an event. The glycogen-to-glucose breakdown is a simple, quick body process. To improve performance, athletes try to maximize the amount of glycogen their body has available. Glycogen storage can be increased before an event by "carbo-loading". The total body storage capacity of glycogen is about 1,500 to 2,000 calories (Kcal)—basically enough energy to live off of for one inactive day or to carry you through 60 to 90 minutes of intense aerobic exercise. It is recommended that girls and women eat at least 55 percent of their calories as carbohydrates, which can be obtained from healthy servings of fruit, vegetables, bread products, and whole grains or beans. Dairy products also contain carbohydrates. Like all foods, however, there are best, good, and poor types of carbohydrates. Best types of carbohydrates are broken down to glucose more slowly and also contain healthy fiber.

Lately, high-carbohydrate diets have received bad press due to the popularity of "high-protein/low-carbohydrate" diets. This is unfortunate. Research in medicine, nutrition, and exercise physiology repeatedly shows that carbohydrates provide the best fuel for life and athletic performance. Diet plans have been compared, and over the long term, weight is best maintained with high-carbohydrate diets.

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From The Active Woman's Health and Fitness Handbook by Nadya Swedan. Copyright © 2003 by Nadya Swedan. Used by arrangement with Perigee, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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