Food as fuel

Food’s gotten a bad rap lately. For most of history, food has been hunted, scavenged, fought over, and sought after, but with scarcity came veneration. Offering the gods a prized lamb or loaf of bread signaled a supplicant’s highest devotion. That all changed when industry discovered how to tease more food out of less land. As a 24-hour, all-you-can-eat, fast-food society we tend to look at food with suspicion if we even look at all. Is that slice of chocolate cake trying to ruin my diet? Is that slab of steak plotting against my heart? Will that soda send me to an early grave?

Let’s take off our glasses for a moment and look at food with fresh eyes. On the most basic level, food is fuel. Fuel for building bones, muscles, and organs; energy for exercise, and, when put into storage, fat. So, rather than letting all that fuel get comfortable clinging to your arms, abs, hips, and thighs, put it to use!

Type of activity: Short Duration/Explosive Movements

Fuel: Creative Phosphate

Where you get it: Meat (beef and dietary supplements)

How it works: Your body stores a small amount of creatine phosphate in the muscle cells which can be rapidly broken down for quick bursts of speed (sprinting) or power (Olympic lifting.) The rapid depletion of creatine phosphate means that you cannot sustain a maximum effort for very long without having to slow down so that the body can regenerate its supply. Supplementation with creatine phosphate has been shown in studies to be effective in increasing the amount stored in the body.

Type of activity: Medium Duration/High Intensity Exercise

Fuel: Glycogen

Where you get it: Complex carbohydrates (grains, starchy vegetables, and fruits) and Simple carbohydrates (fruit, sport drinks, and candy)

How it works: When carbohydrates are digested, they are ultimately broken down into sugars which the body converts into glycogen. This process is called glycolysis and is referred to as anaerobic metabolism since it does not require oxygen. Most of the bodies’ glycogen is stored in the liver and skeletal muscles. Glycogen is released in order to sustain activity after creatine phosphate has been depleted. Glycogen can fuel high intensity activities (medium distance running, rock climbing, martial arts) but will eventually become depleted if additional carbohydrates are not consumed. Endurance athletes will often “carbo-load” to increase their bodies’ stores of glycogen prior to an event.

Type of activity: Long Duration/Low Intensity Exercise

Fuel: Fat

Where you get it: Unsaturated fats (olive, canola, and fish), Saturated fats (butter, lard, and tallow)

How it works: A single pound of fat contains 3,500 kilo-calories (what we usually refer to as calories) making it the most efficient way to store energy in the body. Most of our daily activities are fueled by breaking fat down into energy. Fat oxidation requires the presence of oxygen (thus the term aerobic metabolism) and produces energy more slowly than the breakdown of glycogen or creatine phosphate. During prolonged bouts of activity (distance running, cycling), the body increasingly relies on fats to fuel muscle contractions, but fat’s slow transformation into energy dictates that the activity take place at a lower intensity level. Our bodies carry enough fat to easily fuel several marathons, so fat-loading or fat-supplementation is unnecessary (unless it is fish oils and then as a health consideration).


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About Tony Fed

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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