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A Nutritionist's View: Feeding the Active Female: Part II

Manore, Melinda M. Ph.D., R.D., FACSM


Feeding the active female: Part II.

Melinda M. Manore, Ph.D., R.D., FACSM, is Chair and professor, Department of Nutrition and Food Management at Oregon State University, and is a member of the USA Gymnastics National Health Care Advisory Board and the Gatorade Sports Nutrition Advisory Board. Her research focuses on women's health issues, nutrition and exercise, energy balance and weight control, and disordered eating. Dr.Manore is an associate editor of ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal® and the author of Sport Nutrition for Health and Performance.

Active women have a number of common issues related to eating and making good food selections. Part I of this series discussed two common nutrition problems frequently seen in active women: poor iron status and poor intake of bone-building nutrients. This column, Part II, will focus upon two common dietary complaints and concerns of active women: 1) How do I get adequate fruits and vegetables in my diet when I am so busy? and 2) What are the best carbohydrates to eat? For the female athlete who selects a vegetarian lifestyle, the challenges are to get the nutrients typically consumed in meat and dairy foods from other food sources. Our next column, Part III, will discuss the common fueling issues of active women and men and the timing of energy intakes in relationship to activity. The final column, Part IV of this series, will focus upon the common feeding and nutrition issues seen in active men.

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Common Dietary Complaints of Active Women

How Do I Get Fruits and Vegetables in my Diet When I am so Busy?

Getting adequate fruits and vegetables in the diet can be a challenge for any active individual, especially those who spend 2 to 4 hours per day training, have work and school responsibilities, need time for shopping and preparing food, and have family and social commitments. This goal is even more difficult if you don't cook. The importance of getting adequate fruits and vegetables into your diet cannot be underestimated. First, they provide important micronutrients that help keep your immune function strong, provide you with the energy micronutrients (e.g., B-vitamins) so you can fuel your muscles, and help maintain cell functions. Second, they provide a nutrient-dense source of carbohydrate to help fuel the body during exercise and help you concentrate. Thus, the carbohydrates that you find in a glass of orange juice not only provide you with energy, but important vitamins and minerals as well, which you won't find in soda. Third, fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals, substances found in plant foods that contain protective compounds that may help prevent diseases.

If you are serious about improving your diet, health, and ability to perform physical activity, then filling your diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables needs to be a priority. The amount of fruits and vegetables recommended are given in Table 1, and serving size definitions are given in Table 2. Here are a few tips for beginning new dietary habits that we hope will last a lifetime:

* Select fruits and vegetables that travel well so you can "grab and go" if you must. Bananas, apples, pears, and oranges are easy to throw in a bag to eat for breakfast or later as a snack. Oranges can be peeled ahead of time and put in a baggie. Fruit juices are always easy to consume and are a great way to get fruit in the diet, but they need to be used with caution if weight control is an issue. Finally, dried fruits (e.g., raisins, apples, apricots, and cranberries) are another easy way to get fruit in your diet and can be easily packed and thrown in your briefcase or backpack.

* Experiment with cutting up vegetables after a trip to the store and storing them in the refrigerator in plastic bags. This is an easy way to get fresh vegetables during the day. If this is too difficult, you can buy fresh vegetables already cut up and ready to eat or frozen vegetables that only take a few minutes to cook in the microwave. At the end of the day, nothing is quicker than making vegetable stir-fry from either fresh or frozen vegetables.

* Canned fruits and vegetables are inexpensive compared with fresh fruits and vegetables and are easy to eat. They can be eaten right from the can (e.g., canned mandarin oranges or fruit cocktail) or easily heated in the microwave. Select those canned in their own juice without added sugars.

* Select broth soups that are filled with vegetables or soups made with vegetables as their base, such as carrot or squash soup.

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What Are the Best Carbohydratesto Eat?

Decreasing the processed carbohydrates in your diet and eating more whole grains and cereals has numerous health benefits. Some of these benefits include getting adequate intakes of the B-vitamins required to metabolize protein, fat, and carbohydrate for energy. Research shows that active individuals can become B-vitamin-deficient within 8 to 11 weeks of eating processed foods with few fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (1, 2). This poor B-vitamin status results in significant decreases in aerobic power and peak power, higher blood lactic acids during exercise, and the inability to perform high intensity activity, such as sprinting, compared with better status (1, 2). Another benefit of eating more whole grains and cereals is that they fill you up, so you are less likely to overeat, and they help keep your gut healthy. Since carbohydrates are so important to fuel exercise, getting adequate amounts should be a priority. Recommended amounts and serving sizes for whole grains are given in Tables 1 and 2. Here are a few tips to help you incorporate more whole grains and cereals into your diet:

* Read the label. Only buy bread and breakfast cereals that list whole wheat or whole grain as the first ingredient. Look for breads and cereals that provide at least 2 to 3 g of fiber per serving.

* Ask for whole grain breads, rice, and pasta at restaurants and delicatessens. If you are not quite ready for all whole grains, ask for the grains to be mixed (e.g., half brown/half white rice).

* Buy whole grain pasta and brown rice. Whole grain pasta can be mixed with white or flavored pastas to ease you into eating more whole grains. Because whole grain pasta takes longer to cook, cook it for a few minutes first before adding white pasta to the cooking water. Brown rice also takes longer to cook than white rice, but it can be made in advance and kept in the refrigerator or frozen. There also are quick-cooking brown rice products on the market.

* Select whole grain snacks such as whole grain crackers and granola bars, popcorn, and baked corn tortilla chips.

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Making dietary change can take time. Begin by identifying some realistic goals and setting up a workable plan. Make sure to add time to shop and prepare food. Then identify some small steps that you can achieve, such as keeping fruit on your desk or in your gym bag so a healthy snack is always available when you are hungry. Soon these small steps will become good habits and a lifestyle.

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1. Van der Beek, E.J., W. van Dokkum, J. Schrijver, et al. Thiamin, riboflavin, and vitamins B6 and C: Impact of combined restricted intake on functional performance in man. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 48:1451-1462, 1988.
2. Van der Beek, E.J., W. van Dokkum, M. Wedel, et al. Thiamin, riboflavin and vitamin B6: Impact of restricted intake on physical performance in man. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 13:629-640, 1994.
3. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Food Guide Pyramid (1992). Available at Accessed April 2005.
© 2005 American College of Sports Medicine