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The evils of empty calories

Published June 25. 2011 09:01AM

I typed the headline of this column about 20 minutes ago. I've typed other sentences since, all of which have been rather quickly followed by my right middle finger banging down upon the delete button.

Clearly, I'm struggling for a way to introduce the evils of empty calories as I reach for the last bit of the breakfast I typically eat three hours before a 60- to 80-mile training ride. The chewing is quickly accompanied by a You-big-dope moment and followed by one of delicious irony.

That's because the breakfast I'm eating only totals 280 calories, yet it contains more than 50 percent of the RDA of seven vitamins and minerals, is absolutely packed with antioxidants and fiber, and serves as the primary fuel for three and a half to four and a half hours of riding. (I also ingest 115 calories of Sustained Energy, a great sports drink from Hammer Nutrition during the ride, but rarely anything else.)

Obviously, this breakfast is antithetical to the type of breakfast you need to be warned about, so eventually we'll compare it to a typical on-the-way-to work breakfast: a Dunkin Donuts Blueberry muffin chased down with a cup of Dunkin's standard coffee sweetened with two packets of sugar and flavored with two tablespoons of half and half.

If you have this, you consume 556 calories containing 18.5 grams of fat, 89 grams of simple carbohydrates 54 of which are sugar one gram of fiber, and so little protein that it's not worth writing about. Virtually nothing in this breakfast has nutritional value hence the term empty calories.

And empty calories do evil things to your body even early in the morning.

First, the overload of dietary sugar elevates your level of blood sugar so quickly and to such a degree that excessive insulin is secreted. The insulin does its job so well that virtually all the blood sugar is transported to the muscle cells.

But if you ate properly the day before, your muscles have already been restocked with energy. They don't need this offering. As a result, much of it sometimes most of it! gets transported to the fat cells for storage.

And don't forget those 165 calories of dietary fat. Although they take longer to process, most are headed for the same fat stores.

That sensation of hunger you often feel in the morning is normally predicated purely on low blood sugar, which ironically occurs again in as little as 90 minutes after a bad meal because so much blood sugar was swept away. As a result, you eat again during coffee break. If you ingest more empty calories, however, the cycle repeats and in another 90 minutes you feel hungry again.

Now compare that breakfast and the empty-calorie fallout to mine and my workout. To start, I eat cup of Hi-Lo Maple Pecan cereal from Nutritious Living, one cup of Fiber Select cereal from the Giant supermarket chain, and four cups of green tea three hours before the workout.

Of its 280 calories, nearly 43 percent are protein. While protein isn't the best source for immediate energy, that's not what I need three hours before a ride. Besides, if I ate properly the night before, I'm properly fueled already.

This ingestion of protein helps primarily because it takes longer to digest, thereby creating satiety; additionally, it can be used as a secondary source of fuel in the final stages of the ride.

While my breakfast does contain 60 grams of carbohydrates, virtually all are complex rather than simple. That means they break down at a slower rate; furthermore, 42 of the 60 are fiber. As a result, I'm only ingesting 18 grams of net carbs, the ones that affect blood sugar.

The result of the breakfast high in protein and complex carbs and low in fat (5 grams) and sugar (1 gram) is a steady supply of energy throughout the first two-thirds to three quarters of the ride. If I would use the Sustained Energy sports drink previously mentioned in the amount the company suggests, that steady supply of energy could remain in tact for the entire ride.

Instead, I purposefully go into significant caloric debt at the ends of long rides because it forces your body to burn fat and improves the efficiency with which you do so.

But don't let these examples fool you into believing that the ingestion of empty calories happens primarily with the morning meal or that it's a problem only confined to adults. A report printed in the October 2010 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, for instance, revealed that the main sources of energy for American children aged 2 to 18 come from desserts, pizzas, sodas, and other sugar-sweetened drinks.

In fact, four out of every 10 calories consumed by American kids come from solid fat and added not natural! sugars. When you consider that many of their other calories come from processed simple carbohydrates such as the ones found in the Dunkin Donuts Blueberry muffin, it's realistic to estimate that two thirds to three quarters of the calories consumed by typical children would qualify nutritionally as empty calories.

So is it any wonder that currently more than 23 million of them are overweight or obese?

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