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Food Basics

-By Brett Qualls, PT, DPT, OCS

People love food, it is a fact of life.  Where we run into problems is when we have either too much food, not enough food, or when we are eating the wrong kinds of foods.  If you ask five different health experts, you will likely get five different opinions about the “perfect” diet.  It can all become very confusing.

Several years ago, I began to think about food as fuel for my body.  This has drastically simplified my diet choices and how I look at the food that I eat.  We will begin with a very simple relationship: fuel is necessary to make the engine in your car run.  In this example, your body is the car and your metabolism is the engine.  The food that you eat is the fuel necessary to keep that engine running.  Whether you are driving the sports car model or the minivan version of the human body, the engine under the hood still requires the right kind of fuel to get the job done.

Many diets look at calorie counting.  What really is a calorie?  A calorie is a measure of heat.  Original calorie counting was performed by burning a food item and measuring the amount of heat that was produced.  Some foods burn hot and fast, generating more heat, and thus would have a higher calorie value.  Depending on how high you are revving your body’s engine (your metabolism), you will require more or less calories to keep thing running smoothly.  The best way to explain the food as fuel model is to break food down into 3 main categories: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.


Carbohydrates or “carbs” are those foods that burn hot and fast.  These would be like the racing fuel that you would use in a street race.  These are the simplest energy source for your body to break down and create energy.  Consequently, carbohydrates are your first fuel burned with high intensity activities or exercises.  As a result, they would be the first fuels used for sprinting, high intensity workouts, and high speed sport activities.  While carbohydrates are a great source of fuel, they do come with a downside.  Over filling the tank with unnecessary carbohydrates that do not get burned with your daily activities will result in them being stored in your body as fats.  Uh oh!

Some great carbohydrate sources include whole grains, sweet potatoes, brown rice, and fruits.


Dietary fats are more of your slow burning fuel source.  Your body does not prefer using fat metabolism for high intensity exercise.  Fats are more complicated than carbohydrates for the body to metabolize for energy.  As a result, fats a preferred energy source for endurance activities, such as distance running and bike riding.  When your body has utilized your dietary fat from your daily diet, it starts to break down your stored body fat.

Some healthy fat sources include nuts, avocado, fish, and oils (olive oil, coconut oil, etc).


Proteins are not typically used as a fuel source during an activity, as they are a more complex dietary component to break down for fuel.  Essentially, the process of breaking down proteins is generally not fast enough to keep up with the demand of a body in motion.  Proteins are used more during the “recovery” process after exercise.  What we do know is that muscle proteins are broken down during resistance exercises, such as weight lifting or strength training.  The protein in your diet will help with muscle recovery and in the building of new muscle fibers.

Healthy protein sources include fish, lean meats, beans, nuts, and soy products.

Essentially, I think it boils down to providing your body with the right quantity and quality of fuels to meet the level of performance that you are expecting from your body.  Truly your body will have different fuel requirements daily, depending on what you have planned for the day.  Running your car on cruise control for 4 hours will have different fuel requirements  than if you are expecting your car to be the top performer in a street drag race.  There are downsides to using the wrong fuel, under fueling, or putting the wrong kind of fuel into your engine.  Your body is constantly using different amounts of each of the three fuel sources that we discussed above, so it is important to include all three in your diet plan.  Time to go fuel up!

*Copyright Havasu Living Magazine

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