Nutritional misinformation ruins some efforts to get into top shape


What happens when good-health information goes bad?

Sometimes bad health ensues.

I recently encountered two different young men who fell into an increasingly familiar trap. They started running and working out with weights to improve their health and appearance, and ended up disappearing, as it were.

This phenomenon occurs over a one- or two-year period. During the first half of the process, young men decide to get in shape, begin working out, and start eating right. Once-flabby bodies firm up, tummies trim down, and muscles start to bulk. All is going well.

Then, at the gym, the guys get nutritional advice from local hulks.

First, they learn that if a little is good, more is better -- and they head down the road to more compulsive workouts, and mega doses of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. In fact, I've met body builders whose "supplement habit" costs them $80 or more a month.

What they don't learn is that possible side effects include diarrhea or constipation, skin rashes, nerve damage from too much vitamin B6, toxic build-up of fat soluble vitamins A and D, and decreased blood clotting time from too much vitamin C. In addition, recent research indicates that amino acid products are not utilized as well as amino acids from food.

Next, they learn that if a little is bad, none is better. They begin to try to rid their bodies of every speck of fat, by ridding their diets of every single gram of fat-containing food, and by cutting daily calories to the bone.

What they don't learn is that "calories" are not evil. They are simply a measure of the energy value of food.

And the human body requires energy to function. Young men in the 18- to 25-year range need to eat about 3,000 calories a day to match their energy output, even if they are only moderately active.

Food restriction means weight loss, of course. In the beginning, this is OK, because most of the loss is excess fat.

But with increased activity and decreased food, the body begins to cannibalize its own lean body mass. Muscle begins to disappear. Athletes become small, weak, tired and demoralized, despite formidable discipline and commitment to a system that used to work.

The solution, although simple, is not always easy. These guys have to start eating again. Most would do well to start eating a little more food each day, gradually working back to the normal 3,000 calories. A low-fat sample diet follows:

Breakfast: 2 cups dry cereal, 1 cup skim milk, medium banana, 8 ounces orange juice.

Lunch: 2 sandwiches, each made of 2 slices seven-grain bread, 1 tablespoon of low-fat mayonnaise, 2 ounces sliced turkey, 1 ounce low-fat cheese, 1 thick slice of tomato, Romaine lettuce, a pile of sprouts; 8 ounces fruit juice; large apple.

Snack: 1 bagel; 2 tablespoons peanut butter; fresh pear.

Dinner: 4 ounces turkey meatballs, 2 cups spaghetti, 3/4 cup tomato sauce, 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, 1 slice bread with 1 teaspoon margarine and garlic powder, 2-4 cups mixed garden salad with nonfat dressing, 1/2 cantaloupe filled with 1 cup nonfat vanilla yogurt.

Snack: 8 ounces split pea soup, 8 whole grain crackers.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center in Baltimore and national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

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