Answers to commonly asked sports nutrition questions

Questions abound about how to eat for more energy, less body fat and better performance. Here are answers to questions athletes commonly ask me; perhaps they will answer your questions, too.

Question: I run three to four days per week, mainly to lose body fat. At what intensity should I run to burn fat effectively?

Although low-intensity "fat burning exercise" burns proportionately more fat than carbohydrates, you are unlikely to lose weight faster if you do low-intensity workouts. (Two excellent "fat burning" activities are sleeping and sitting -- but these are not known for having weight-reduction benefits!).

For fat/weight control, you need to look at you whole day's calorie balance -- not just at fat burned during exercise. If, over the course of the whole day, you have created a calorie deficit by burning off more calories than you eat, you'll lose body fat. However, if you overindulge (as is easy to do after a hard workout because you somehow deserve to eat the whole pizza), you'll end up gaining fat.

The biggest benefits of low-intensity, fat-burning exercise are 1) you are less likely to get injured, and 2) you are able to exercise longer and thereby burn more total calories. But high-intensity exercise tends to contribute to lower percent body fat.

Research on 1,366 women and 1,257 men suggests those who did high-intensity exercise had less body fat than those who did lower-intensity "fat-burning" exercise. (Am J Clin Nutr., Feb '90)

Question: Should I eat a breakfast before my morning workout? I've heard that not eating before exercise will help me burn and lose more body fat.

False. Eating 100 to 300 calories of a pre-exercise mini-breakfast boosts your blood sugar, energizes your workout and helps you exercise longer and harder. You'll end up burning more calories than if you were to exercise on "empty." The pre-exercise fuel will also curb your appetite so that, after the workout, you will be less likely to reward yourself with high calorie treats.

You can better enjoy exercise if you are well fueled. Even dieters should fuel before they exercise. Otherwise, the workout will be no fun and seem like a form of punishment for having excess body fat.

Question: I've been exercising for two months and have not lost a pound (nor any inches). I have actually gained 5 pounds. Help!

Do not assume you will lose body fat when you add on exercise. Loss of body fat occurs when you create a calorie deficit.

Often, the more you exercise, the hungrier you get and the more you eat. Men who add on exercise are likely to lose more weight than do women. (Nature wants men to be lean so they can efficiently hunt and gather food; women are supposed to be fatter and fertile.)

In one study with previously sedentary, normal-weight men and women who participated in an 18-month marathon training program, the men lost about 5 pounds of fat; the women barely any (Int'l J Sports Med, Vol 10 (S1),1989).

Similarly, other studies suggest normal-weight women fail to lose body fat when they add on exercise. I suggest you exercise for health, fitness and enjoyment ... not for burning calories!

Question: I know carbs are essential for running, but what foods are highest in carbs?

Good question. Nutrition professionals routinely talk about carbs but rarely define which foods are carbohydrate-rich. The best carbs include wholesome fruits, vegetables and grains.

Here's a more detailed list: Spaghetti, macaroni and other pasta shapes (add tomato sauce for more carbohydrates), rice, noodles, potato, sweet potato, yams, stuffing, couscous, millet, bulgur, kasha, barley, dried beans (i.e., pinto, black, garbanzo), split peas, lentils, refried beans, baked beans, lima beans, bread, rolls, tortillas, pretzels, air-popped popcorn, baked chips, crackers, energy bars, hot cereal (add raisins, banana, dried fruit, brown sugar or maple syrup for extra carbs), cold cereal (preferably dense cereals such as GrapeNuts, Wheat Chex or lowfat granolas), bagels, lowfat muffins, corn bread (with jam or honey), banana bread, pancakes, waffles, french toast (with maple syrup), fresh or dried fruit (bananas, pineapple, raisins, dates, apricots), juice (apple, cranberry, grape, pineapple, apricot nectar), fruit smoothies (made by mixing fruit and juice in the blender), lowfat desserts such as apple crisp, blueberry cobbler, angel cake, date squares, fig bars, oatmeal raisin cookies; frozen yogurt, lowfat ice cream, sherbert and sorbet.

Refined sugars also offer carbs that fuel your muscles but few vitamins to protect your health. Limit to less than 10% of your calories (that is, about 300 calories for active men and 240 calories for active women) your intake of refined sugars such as: jelly beans, licorice, gummy bears, marshmallows, honey, brown sugar, jam, jelly, maple syrup, soda pop, soft drinks, lemonade and even sports drinks (consumed apart from exercise, such as for a lunchtime beverage).

Question: What is an example of one day sports diet? I'd like an idea of the kinds of foods I should be eating to perform better.

In general, you'll eat a balanced sports diet if you include at least three kinds of food with a meal, and eat at least every four hours.

If you are exercising in the afternoon, I recommend you fuel up with a hearty breakfast (cereal + milk + banana OR bagel+ peanut butter + yogurt; 7 to 8 a.m.), a satisfying lunch (hefty sandwich made on hearty whole grain bread + a (chocolate) milk OR a large bean burrito; 11 to 12 noon), and an energizing second lunch (peanut butter + graham crackers + latte OR trail mix with nuts and dried fruit + yogurt; 3 to 4 p.m.).

The purpose of these first three meals is to fuel your afternoon workout and also curb your appetite so you have energy to cook a healthy dinner.

For dinner, any combination of protein, starch and vegetable (or fruit) is fine (chicken + rice + veggies; pasta + tomato sauce + meatballs). You could also enjoy a simple bowl of cereal + milk + fruit.

For more detailed information, you might want to read my new Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Third Edition (for more information or to buy it, see It offers comprehensive advice on how to healthfully fuel your active lifestyle -- even if you are busy eating on the run.

You could also meet with a local sports dietitian for personalized menu planning and food tips that are tailored to your lifestyle and food likes. (Simply put your ZIP code into the referral network at

Question: I regularly eat a 100% vitamin-fortified cereal. Should I also take a multivitamin pill?

No; you are already consuming a vitamin supplement in your cereal if not two, because most athletes eat more than one serving of cereal. Yet, you can further boost your vitamin intake with more whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lowfat milk or yogurt. These wholesome foods offer not only vitamins but also other food compounds that heighten the health protectiveness of wholesome foods -- far more than could be done by a supplement.

Question: Where can I find good sports nutrition information on the internet?

Three good sites include, and

Copyright: Nancy Clark, MS, RD 9/03

Nancy Clark, MS, RD is nutrition counselor at SportsMedicine Associates in Brookline MA (617-739-2003). Her new Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Third Edition (2003; $24) and her Food Guide for Marathoners (2002; $20) are available via or by sending a check to Sports Nutrition Services, 830 Boyslton St. #205, Brookline MA 02467.

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