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Avoid fat; fat is ok, eat it up. Avoid carbohydrates; carbohydrates should be the major portion of your diet. Consume a high amount protein; eat balanced portions of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. There is a lot of conflicting advice out there. What to do, what to do....

That depends on who you believe and what you are trying to achieve with your food intake. The word diet, in this case, means "what you eat"; everyone is always on a diet. Many people go on special diets from time to time to lose weight, gain weight, or maintain weight (among other reasons).

What is the best diet for you - how much fat, protein, and carbohydrate, and how to decide what will work for you? The answer is up to you, your physician, and your personal needs. This article will touch on some of the current ideas in nutrition, and some of the ways those apply to swimmers. You should consult your physician before beginning any type of specific diet to avoid or reduce the chance of medical complications.

What are a few of the popular ideas for regular day to day diets for athletes out there (Note - these are only examples of food plans, not an exhaustive list)?

  • Dietary Guidelines for Americans (from the US Dept. of Agriculture): They recommend a balanced intake from all food groups (there are six of them now) through use of the food guide pyramid. This approach is based on years of research and observed results. It is also similar to the Unified Dietary Guidelines proposed by five of the major health organizations in the USA.

  • Vegetarian diets are varied, from avoiding some meats to absolutely no animal products. These diets are a bit more challenging to make complete for an athlete, but very achievable. In fact, they may be healthier than many other eating plans. This plan (or life choice) has a food pyramid, too.

  • 40-30-30, such as The Zone Diet: A plan based on the concept that what and how you eat has a powerful effect on your physiology and health -  don't all diets have this same underlying philosophy? Yes, but not all plans stress it as much as this one.  Dr. Barry Sears, Ph.D. explains his zone diet concepts, from SwimInfo. This plan recommends changes in the composition of dietary fats, exercise, omega-3 fish oils, and controlling the proportions of three main elements of nutrition (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats).

  • High Protein, low carbohydrate, such as The Atkins Diet: These focus on lowering the overall intake of carbohydrates. These plans do not seem to fit in the general realm of fitness; they limit the most easily accessed source of energy. They are also not recommended by the American Dietetic Association due to the larger portions of fat and increased demand on kidney and liver function.

Each of these plans, and many others, all have different rules and guidelines to follow in regards to what to eat - they also have recommendations on how much to eat. Swimmers, like other athletes, need to take in enough calories to offset those used in exercise (and used during the non-workout times, too). What is a calorie? A unit of measure that tells you how much "energy" is in a type of food. Carbohydrates and protein have 4 calories per gram while fat has 9 calories per gram. Some diets also consider the glycemic index of foods, or how fast a food increases the level of glucose in the blood.

How many calories do people need in a day? A very rough rule is to multiply your weight in pounds by 12 - this is probably the minimum calories you need to get by day to day; as an athlete, you will need more - you could burn an extra 800 (or more) calories every hour during a workout. If you want to continue to be able to practice, you need to replace this spent energy. How? By eating!!

Basic guidelines state that in a general diet, approximately 60 % of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates, 15% from protein, and 25% from fats. This will vary from plan to plan and from person to person, and the exact breakdown is up to you (remember, you should consult your physician before beginning any type of specific diet to avoid or reduce the chance of medical complications). Most experts also advise athletes to break up their meals into smaller mini-meals throughout the day, as opposed to just a breakfast, lunch and dinner. Specific guidelines on what to eat before, during, and after exercise include:

  • Before - eat a meal 3 to 4 hours before the start, comprised of primarily easy to digest carbohydrates with a low glycemic index . Some low index foods: (fructose, a sugar, has an index of 23 out of 100 apples, pears, yogurt, soy beans, kidney beans, skim milk, and peanuts.
  • During - consume "sport type drinks" that will replace both electrolytes and carbohydrates. Other easily digested foods may be consumed during prolonged periods of exercise or on those long meet days; look for low to moderate glycemic index foods. Some moderate index foods: (lactose, a sugar, has an index of 46 out of 100)  popcorn, sweet potatoes, orange, oatmeal cookies, orange juice, apple juice, grapes, and bananas.
  • After - some studies show timing is key - begin replenishing within the first 20 minutes. Re-hydrate, using water or more sports drink and replenish fuel stores even further by consuming carbohydrates with a high to moderate glycemic index. There is also a growing movement to add protein - and perhaps a slight amount of fat (4 parts carbohydrate to 1 part protein, and some incidental fat) to aid recovery. Some high index foods: (glucose, a sugar, has an index of 100 out of 100) watermelon, pineapple, potatoes, waffles, bagels, bread, jelly beans, rice cakes, honey, soft drinks, and Rice Krispies.

Whatever diet you choose, remember the old saying "you are what you eat" - and if you don't eat like an athlete, you cannot perform like one!

For more information and a "platefull" of links, go to the Swimming Nutration Directory Page.

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