Serious athlete or weekend warrior? Focus on foods that fuel your body, repair damage, reduce inflammation, improve strength, and build muscle. Turn your frame into a lean, mean, exercising machine with these seven super-fitness foods:
Are rich in high-quality protein, critical for athletes to repair muscle, maintain aerobic metabolism, and speed recovery and wound healing. They also contain vitamins and minerals involved in energy and protein metabolism, cell growth, tissue repair, and protection against oxidative stress and inflammation. And they’re rich in leucine, an amino acid that’s key in building lean muscle mass, and choline, a vitamin-like nutrient that can speed weight loss without impacting strength.
- Bake eggs, chopped kale, and Swiss cheese in muffin cups for quick mini-quiches;
- Beat eggs with minced onions and shredded Asiago, and cook in a greased waffle iron;
- Lightly whisk eggs and stir into chicken or vegetable broth with ginger, hot peppers, and scallions for instant egg drop soup.
2. Sweet Potatoes
Are high in carbs, critical for energy before high-intensity exercise. Unlike other sources of carbohydrates, such as pasta or bagels, sweet potatoes are grain-free, gluten-free, and rich in potassium, an electrolyte that’s depleted during high-intensity exercise. Low potassium levels impact muscle contractions, energy, and endurance, so it’s important to replenish them with natural sources. Sweet potatoes are also high in beta carotene, a powerful antioxidant that reduces inflammation. Drizzle sweet potatoes with olive oil to add more anti-inflammatory compounds that help reduce pain and swelling.
- Toss sweet potato cubes with coconut oil, cumin, garlic, and cayenne pepper, and roast till tender;
- Mash cooked sweet potatoes with almond milk, cinnamon, chopped almonds, and raisins for a grain-free breakfast bowl;
- Make “lasagna” with sweet potatoes thinly sliced lengthwise in place of noodles.
3. Almond Butter
Is a great post-workout snack, rich in protein and other important nutrients for athletes. Almonds are high in magnesium (critical for proper function of muscles and nerves), vitamin E to prevent exercise-induced oxidative damage, and other nutrients that help the body use oxygen more effectively. In one study, athletes who ate whole almonds before training improved their cycling distance and endurance and had higher blood levels of antioxidants.
- Whisk almond butter with sesame oil, rice vinegar, and minced ginger for a creamy Asian vinaigrette;
- Make hummus with white beans, almond butter, olive oil, lemon juice, and minced garlic;
- Scoop the flesh from a roasted sweet potato, mash with almond butter and bananas, and re-stuff potato skins for twice-baked breakfast potatoes.
Are high in nitrates, which are converted by the body to nitric oxide, a compound that dilates blood vessels, improves blood flow, and enhances athletic performance. In one study, athletes who drank beet juice showed a 38 percent increase in blood flow to muscles,. In another study, runners who ate cooked beets ran 5 percent faster. And in a review of 23 studies, researchers concluded that drinking beet juice can improve cardiorespiratory endurance (the ability of the circulatory and respiratory systems to supply fuel during sustained physical activity), exercise efficiency, and performance.
- Wrap whole beets in foil and roast until tender;
- Add cooked and cooled beets to a smoothie with bananas, blueberries, and Greek yogurt;
- Thinly slice beets, toss with olive oil and salt, and bake till crispy for a nutrient-dense chip alternative.
Are loaded with antioxidants, including ellagitannins, shown to reduce exercise-induced inflammation. In one study, athletes who took an ellagitannin-rich pomegranate extract had less muscle soreness and significantly higher strength recovery after resistance training. In another study, subjects who drank pomegranate juice for 15 days reduced muscle soreness and weakness in their elbow flexors after resistance training compared to a placebo. It’s even better if you combine pomegranate juice with apple juice and/or green tea—the quercetin in apples and epigallocatechin 3-gallate (EGCG) in green tea have been shown to reduce inflammation in cyclists.
- Combine pomegranate juice, apple juice, cooled green tea, and sparkling water for a healing post-exercise drink;
- Toss pomegranate seeds with sliced kiwi, tangerine segments, minced basil, and lime juice;
- Mix concentrated pomegranate juice and pomegranate seeds with coconut milk and freeze in an ice cream maker.
Is loaded with resistant starch, a slow-burning carbohydrate that minimizes and controls spikes in blood glucose and insulin prior to exercise. Resistant starches also provide fuel for beneficial bacteria and improve gut microbiota, which play an important role in the production, storage, and expenditure of energy. Hummus is high in protein and iron, critical to optimal athletic performance via its role in energy metabolism and transport of oxygen to muscles. And studies show that legumes help you feel fuller, longer, promoting fat loss and lean muscle mass.
- Spread hummus on whole-wheat tortillas and layer with avocado, baby spinach, sliced onions, and salsa for an on-the-go breakfast wrap;
- Stuff boiled eggs with hummus for a healthier deviled egg;
- Layer hummus, sliced olives, red onions, yellow peppers, and goat cheese on pizza crust, and bake until bubbly.
Are high in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory anthocyanins and other phenolic compounds that have been shown to reduce muscle damage, lessen pain, speed strength recovery after exercise, and decrease markers of inflammation. Most studies on athletes have focused on tart (Montmorency) cherry juice, but a review of sweet cherries found the same health benefits, and other studies show that sweet cherries are equally high in anti-inflammatory compounds.
- Simmer frozen tart cherries with rosemary needles, then purée for an instant jam;
- Combine tart cherries with chopped apple, onions, and celery in a honey-yogurt dressing for Waldorf salad;
- Toss pitted cherries in balsamic vinegar and minced thyme, and roast till tender.
Try our Avocado Eggs recipe