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Sun, Feb. 16

Athletes must devise a winning nutrition game plan

Whether they play football, swim or jog, athletes of all ages and skill levels need to eat a nutritious, balanced diet to fuel their bodies.

Good nutrition, like any sporting event, has basic ground rules, says the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

Following these rules and getting plenty of practice will help athletes feel great and score those winning points.

All athletes need a diet that provides enough energy in the form of carbohydrates and fats as well as essential protein, vitamins and minerals. This means a diet containing 55-60 percent of calories from carbohydrates (10 to 15 percent from sugars and the rest from starches), no more than 30 percent of calories from fat and the remaining 10-15 percent from protein.

That translates into eating a variety of foods every day - grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, lean meats and low-fat dairy products. Fluids, especially water, are also important to the winning combination. Dehydration can stop even the finest athlete from playing his or her best game.

When starches or sugars are eaten, the body changes them all to glucose, the only form of carbohydrate used directly by muscles for energy.

Whether carbohydrates are in the form of starches (in vegetables and grains), sucrose (table sugar), fructose (found in fruits and juices) or lactose (milk sugar), carbohydrates are digested and ultimately changed to glucose. The body uses this glucose in the blood for energy.

The most important thing is to concentrate on eating a nutritious, balanced diet every day. This provides plenty of energy to grow and exercise.

Here are a few tips about eating before, during and after exercise.

• Before: Have some high-carbohydrate foods like bananas, bagels or fruit juices. These foods are broken down quickly and provide glucose to the muscles. It is also critical to drink plenty of cool water before exercise to keep muscles hydrated.

• During: Perspiration and exertion deplete the body of fluids necessary for an optimal performance and lead to dehydration. It is important to drink plenty of cool water - at least a half a cup of water every 20 minutes of exercise.

• After: If the exercise was strenuous and lasted a long time, glycogen stores may need refueling. Consuming foods and beverages high in carbohydrates right after exercise will replenish glycogen stores if they are low after exercising.

Please check with your physician before beginning any fitness program. You may want to contact a registered dietitian if participating in an endurance exercise or if you have special dietary needs.

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