Nutrition & Exercise: Carbohydrates

My sports nutrition class finished yesterday. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I want sports nutrition to be my main focus. The idea of being an athlete’s nutritionist is pretty daunting, to be perfectly honest! I think part of the hesitation for me is that I have such a hard time with nutrition when I’m training for something, and I know that food and exercise combinations are extremely specific to each individual. When I have trained for the marathons I’ve done in the past, it’s been a challenge to figure out what and when to eat such that I have enough energy for a 3-hour run but I’m not still digesting my food when I leave on that run.

Luckily, there are others who love the idea of being a sports nutritionist! They can have all the athletes for clients. But I still did take away some great knowledge from the class as far as what the different macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, protein) do inside our bodies when we are exercising a lot and burning them for fuel. Today I’m just going to touch on carbohydrates, and I’ll cover fats and proteins sometime next week.

Carbs are the backbone of an athlete’s nutrition program. They are the most energy-yielding nutrient one can consume, because they can be burned both anaerobically and aerobically. Anaerobic exercise includes things like sprinting, climbing hills, or isometrics. Aerobic exercise includes endurance training such as running, walking and swimming. Carbs also are the main source of fuel for our brain and central nervous system. They depend on carbohydrates for proper function. When we eat a carbohydrate, it is broken down into glucose molecules and that glucose is either burned for energy or stored, depending on our activity levels. Glucose that is stored turns into glycogen, and is stored in our muscles and liver. We can dip into these stores during our next workout.

Athletes (and, everyone!) should focus on nutrient-dense carbs such as leafy greens, sweet potatoes, bananas, watermelon, grapefruit, oranges, berries, other fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. Try to avoid empty carbs such as sodas, juices, cakes and cookies, sugary or processed cereals and candy.

Many people have experimented with low-carb diets. They were certainly popular and many had success on them. I won’t go into the pros and cons of low-carb diets right now, but I will tell you that they are not ideal for someone who is exercising a lot. Any initial weight loss on a low-carb diet will be due to lost glycogen stores (from our muscles and liver) and also a reduction in water retention. Once all of our carbohydrate stores are used up, the body has no choice but to begin breaking down proteins for energy. If we’re not consuming carbs but we are exerting energy, we need to find something other than glucose to burn as fuel. Protein from our muscles will be broken down into amino acids, which are then used for energy. This results in decreased muscle mass, which hinders the performance of an athlete.

But remember, try to consume healthy, beneficial carbohydrates that will not only provide you with fuel, but also with other vitamins and minerals that can be used to support your health. I avoid sugary sports drinks (especially those made with fake sugars) and use water or coconut water for hydration. A Gatorade may quench your thirst and give you the electrolytes you need to finish a workout, but I hate the idea of also putting sugar or fake sugar into my body at the same time. Go for the more pure drinks, and supplement them with a piece of fresh fruit.

I’ll talk about protein and fat for athletes next week…

Note: Fruit photos above were taken by my sister, Alice Dickherber. Look for them (and many others!) on my new website (link is at top of blog home page) soon!

Recipe: Cilantro Pistachio Pesto

This was the first week of our CSA delivery. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and it involves purchasing a share of a local farm and receiving a delivery each week of whatever was harvested at that farm. It’s really great because all of the food is local, fresh and organic. Right now it’s all greens – spinach, romaine, and a couple of other types of lettuce. We also got big bunches of parsley and cilantro.

So, we’ve been eating a lot of salads at our house, as well as adding lettuce, spinach and cilantro to our sandwiches and smoothies. On a recent visit to a local restaurant, my veggie wrap contained cilantro pistachio pesto that was delicious. I decided to come up with my own version using the cilantro from the CSA.

This was quick and easy – I just threw a few things together and didn’t give it much thought. We used the pesto on sandwiches and as a dip for veggies and crackers.


Cilantro (I used about ½ bunch)

Shelled pistachios (I used about ¾ cup, unsalted)

Olive oil

Sea salt (to taste)

Mix ingredients in a food processor. Add olive oil slowly until desired consistency and taste. Serve!

This is just something simple, but the idea is that you can make your own spreads at home using a few whole ingredients. The CSA will force me to become more creative with what I make, so hopefully this is just the start of many new experiments in the kitchen!

As you can see, the pesto didn’t last long…



A few weeks ago, Ed came home from a weekend in Maine and told me he got to eat fiddleheads. I had heard of fiddleheads before, but didn’t know anything about them. Then this past weekend I was in Boston at a wedding shower for my future sister-in-law, and fiddleheads were served with the other veggies. I ate as many as I could since Ed had been so excited about them, but when I got home I decided it was time I did some research to figure out what they are all about.

As it turns out, fiddleheads are superfoods!

Fiddleheads are the unfurled leaves of the fern plant, and they are harvested in early spring. They are picked before the leaves are exposed to full light and fully opened, so they are still curled up tightly. Ferns may have five or more fiddleheads, but it is recommended that only three fiddleheads are harvested for sustainability reasons.

There are many different types of fiddleheads, and they are only available seasonally. Since they are not cultivated, they are harder to come by and can be very expensive. Fiddleheads are found primarily in New England, and fiddleheads from the ostrich fern and cinnamon fern are the most common. Most fiddleheads must be cooked, because they contain shikimic acid, a compound found in certain plants that can upset the stomach when consumed. The cooking will alter the plant such that the shikimic acid can no longer hurt the stomach.

Now onto the exciting part…

Research has shown that fiddleheads contain twice the amount of antioxidants as blueberries! Blueberries have always been known for their high amount of antioxidants, so when I learned that fiddleheads have twice as many, I was shocked. In addition to antioxidants, fiddleheads contain omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, and many other vitamins and minerals. I’m glad I took Ed’s advice and ate a lot of them in Boston last weekend!

Fiddleheads taste sort of like asparagus – they are pretty mild. Some people like to pickle them, which I know Ed would love. I found a recipe here if you live in the New England region and want to try it! In the meantime, to all my Maine and Massachusetts readers, if you ever come across fiddleheads at the grocery store, farmer’s market or on the menu at a restaurant, I recommend trying them. They are extremely healthy and taste great!


Dear PWN,

“I buy pre-washed baby carrots for convenience reasons. Today, they tasted like chemicals… why?”

I thought this was such a great question. First, let me distinguish between baby carrots and pre-cut baby carrots. Real baby carrots are carrots that are grown and picked early – they are young and small and have a slightly different taste than more mature carrots. Real baby carrots are harder to find, but they are delicious.

Pre-cut baby carrots are mature carrots that have been run through the cutting machine to give them their perfectly rounded, bite-sized shape. The first pre-cut baby carrot was invented in 1986 as a result of a farmer having too many deformed or misshaped carrots. He didn’t want these to go to waste, so he sent them through a potato peeler and a green bean cutter, and created baby-cut carrots. Now, baby-cut carrots are made from a type of regular carrot that is specially bred to contain more sugar than other carrots, and also to have a brighter orange color. This may be why kids love baby-cut carrots so much – they are sweet and colorful!

Prepackaged baby carrots are everywhere, and like the PWN reader stated, they are SO convenient! Kids love them, they save time because you don’t need to scrub/peel/slice them, they are perfectly sized for dipping, and you can even buy them in individual bags which makes them extra easy to use for snacks and lunches.

So, why would anyone take the alternate route and buy carrots that are bunched together and covered in dirt?

Well, apparently after they are cut, pre-cut baby carrots are dipped into a solution of water and chlorine. Since they no longer have their protective skin, the water and chlorine solution is a way to clean them and prevent bacteria from growing. The carrot only stays in the solution for 5 minutes or less, and is then dried using a centrifugal drier.

So, my reader was exactly right when she said her baby carrots taste like chemicals! I am actually disappointed to learn that this is where baby-cut carrots come from. Wouldn’t we all rather have a fresh, misshaped carrot than a tiny baby carrot that is perfectly rounded and dipped in chlorine? A water and chlorine solution is actually very typical for washing food products, and some believe it to be perfectly safe and effective. However, I would personally much rather hand-wash my fruits and vegetables in my own fresh water.

I recommend buying real carrots and preparing them yourself. This takes more time, but then again I have repeatedly said that eating good, healthy whole foods is more time-consuming than eating convenience foods. If you buy organic carrots, you can just take a good scrubber and scrub the surface under water and then slice the carrot. When the carrots are not organic, I usually use a peeler first and then slice it. I find that real carrots taste much fresher than the pre-cut baby carrots, and scrubbing and slicing is a quick process once you get used to it. I haven’t done a financial analysis on buying pre-cut baby carrots vs. buying fresh carrots, but I imagine you save some money buying fresh as well.

Thanks for the great question!


Weight Watchers Experiment: Follow-Up

Some of you may remember when I had to do a research report on Weight Watchers (read about it here and here). Well, it was exactly five months ago today that I purchased those Weight Watchers-branded Blueberry Muffins and Lemon Crème Cakes, and I want to follow up on the experiment I conducted.

I bought the processed muffins and cakes to bring into my class as a visual during my presentation. I wanted my classmates to see the endless ingredient lists, which began and ended with things like hydrogenated oils and refined sugars. However, after the class, instead of returning the food for a refund, I opened one muffin and one lemon crème cake and put them on a plate and left them on the counter. Someone – I won’t mention any names – thought they were up for grabs and took a bite out of the lemon crème cake. Needless to say, he was pretty disgusted with the taste and didn’t go back for more…

After that I moved them into an empty cabinet and they’ve been sitting in there, untouched and uncovered, for exactly five months. Today I pulled them out and took photos to show you how much they’ve changed:

Or rather, how much they haven’t changed! Not a trace of mold, no trail of ants, no flies, and no rotting or foul smells. They’ve hardened a bit, but that is the only difference between the food five months ago and the food today.

Why? Because they are so highly processed. And if the food is staying so in tact outside the body, who knows what it’s doing inside the body! But my guess is it’s not being metabolized properly. More likely it’s being stored as fat. It contains very few nutrients that are actually needed by the body, so provides little nutrition or fuel. Michael Pollan, in a recent interview, said “don’t eat food that’s incapable of rotting. If the food can’t rot eventually, there’s something wrong.” The blueberry muffin and lemon crème cake would be wrapped up in the category of “incapable of rotting”. Pollan calls these things “edible foodlike substances,” not actual food.

The muffin and cake are representative of thousands of other food products that are available in the grocery store nowadays. Obviously it’s difficult to avoid ALL processed foods. It’s doable, but probably not all that realistic. But if we can just focus on purchasing the foods that rot, we will be doing our bodies a huge favor. Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, meats, fish, nuts, seeds, beans, fresh homemade pie… all of those things will eventually go bad and decompose. And when eaten, our bodies will be able to break them down, benefit from all of their nutrients, and dispose of the waste that is not needed. These types of foods are supportive of health and much less likely to contribute to fat storage and other imbalances.

Just something to think about as we begin our week…