We live in an era of quick fixes and instant gratification. While fad diets dominate and obnoxious and misguided celebrities promote miracle fat loss pills, we tend to forget the incredible healing and restorative powers of real, whole, and unadulterated foods. These "superfoods" (not to be confused with the bioengineered and often unhealthful "superfoods" of giant agribusiness) are extremely important to athletes and bodybuilders alike, because they convey a wide range of health benefits, help fuel workouts, and enhance recovery.
The health benefits of superfoods come from the food's mostly live and bioactive cellular components, and they may play a particularly strong role in fighting disease, positively impacting the cardiovascular or muscular-skeletal systems, eliminating free radicals from the body, or performing a combination of these processes.
When considering your unique eating needs as an active athlete or bodybuilder, it is useful to separate superfoods into three distinct categories: antioxidants, builders, and sustainers. Most superfoods have abundant macro- and micro-nutrient profiles, and can cross into other categories.
Antioxidants are various substances (such as beta-carotene, vitamin C, and alpha-tocopherol) that inhibit oxidation and protect the living body from the harmful effects of free radicals. Eating antioxidant-rich foods regularly such as the ones below can help your body fight off disease and remain healthy and fit.
- Green Tea: For centuries, Chinese herbalists have been using teas to treat a variety of ailments. One of their staples, green tea, has been lauded in the press because it is loaded with antioxidants like catechins, epicatechins, and epigallocatechins, as cited in a 2002 report in Chemistry and Physics of Lipids (4). Green tea can play a role in reducing LDL cholesterol levels, reduce risk of stroke and heart disease, and help protect the kidneys against free radical damage. Green tea has also been shown to enhance energy expenditure throughout the course of a 24-hour day. A study conducted by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that green tea extract "may play a role in the control of body composition via sympathetic activation of thermogenesis, fat oxidation, or both" (1). This is great news for athletes looking to bolster their energy and reduce unwanted body fat.
- Blueberries (and other dark berries): Blueberries rank fourth highest among all foods in oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC), as published in a 2005 National Institute on Aging report (3). (The foods with the highest ORAC are raisins, prunes, and dark chocolate). Blueberries can also help prevent many serious diseases and even slow down the effects of aging. "Berries supply a wealth of phytochemicals, including substances like flavonoids that act as powerful antioxidants to neutralize or inactivate free radicals, molecules that attack the cells in your body," says H.K. Jones, a registered dietician and nutrition professional based in Washington, DC. "These compounds may not only help ward off heart disease and stroke, but also aging, cancer, and other serious health problems." Berries are also a great recovery food and should be included in post workout protein smoothies.
- Spinach (and other green leafies): Spinach has been known for years to have multiple healthful properties. It is loaded with beta-carotene, potassium, and calcium, which makes it an all-star disease fighter and beneficial for bones and fluid balance.
Bodybuilders looking to pack on strong, lean muscle need plenty of protein in their daily diet. The protein-packed foods below give your body the right kind of protein it needs to make the most of your training regimen, while offering other important benefits ranging from cholesterol reduction to joint lubrication.
- Whole eggs: Back in the early 1990s, the whole egg got a bad reputation as a leading cause of skyrocketing cholesterol levels among Americans. As the nation grew heavier and cholesterol levels rose accordingly, a hunt was issued to find the cholesterol culprits. Yolks were thrown out, only to be reintroduced during the Atkins Diet craze of the late 1990s. Whole eggs have traditionally been a bodybuilding staple. Eggs are a great source of amino acids and the antioxidant selenium, making them important for those athletes who demand increased levels of protein. In addition, recent dietary studies have shown that the cholesterol from yolks does not actually raise LDL levels as high as scientists once thought.
- Coldwater fish: Salmon and other coldwater fish are quintessential bodybuilding foods. "Coldwater fish like salmon and mackerel are packed with the heart-healthy EPA and DHA omega-3 fatty acids, are high-quality protein sources, are low in saturated fat, and are loaded with healthful vitamins and minerals," says registered dietician and nutritionist Jones. "Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer." Coldwater fish is also a perfect recovery food for those involved in speed and power sports. These sports impose high demands on the body's metabolic and skeletal systems, particularly joints and connective tissue. Not only does coldwater fish supply ample levels of protein, but the fatty acids may help lubricate joints, assist in neurotransmission, and help with anabolic hormone production. Worried about mercury poisoning? "The latest Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mercury advisory says that up to 12 ounces of a variety of fish each week is safe for everyone," continues Jones. "At three to four ounces per serving, the American Heart Association's target of two servings of fish per week is well below the FDA's safe limit."
- Walnuts: Walnuts have been used in traditional medicine to treat impotency and reduce symptoms of inflammation. According to the California Walnut Commission, numerous scientific studies have shown walnuts to have healthful qualities including reducing cardiovascular disease, managing type-2 diabetes, promoting weight loss, and protecting against neurodegenerative disease (2). Athletes can benefit from eating walnuts because they are a portable, filling snack, and they pack in high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and protein.
Do you need a lot of energy to get you through long days packed with work and workouts? You probably already know that candy bars and coffee are not the answer, but what is? The complex carbohydrates below keep your fire stoked throughout your workout regimen and your daily living, while offering significant other health benefits.
- Brown Rice: For many years, serious bodybuilders have included brown rice in their diets because it provides the body with a high-glycemic, nutrient-dense complex carbohydrate, making it ideal for glycogen replenishment. It is superior to white rice in that it supplies higher levels of macronutrients (carbohydrates and protein) and micronutrients (B vitamins, fiber, potassium, and magnesium). Magnesium plays a vital role in creating muscle tone and in synthesizing protein.
- Oats: Oats are another bodybuilding staple. They have a low glycemic value and are high in a variety of key nutrients, including iron, zinc, and insoluble fiber. Oats have been used for a variety of healing purposes, including treating depression and heart disease. Oats are a perfect breakfast food because they take a long time to digest, resulting in a decreased insulin response.
- Legumes: Legumes are the fruits and seeds of leguminous plants, which include soybeans, red kidney beans, lima beans, lentils, and chickpeas, among others. Due to their low glycemic index and high fiber and protein content, legumes are a prized food for athletes because they help to keep blood sugar levels steady. That makes them a perfect meal to eat two to three hours prior to training. Legumes are also high in the electrolytes potassium and calcium, making them great for building bones, maintaining fluid balance, and lowering hypertension.
1. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 70, No. 6, 1040-1045, December 1999.
2. California Walnut Commission, Scientific Research Update, September 2005.
3. National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging, 2005.
4. Chemistry and Physics of Lipids. 2002 Dec; 120(1-2):109-17.
Eric Mink is a former professional football player and the founder of a sports performance clinic specializing in physical training, joint rehab, and nutrition for athletes. Mink has written analytical reports on the pharmaceuticals and nutritional supplement industries, as well as a range of articles in the areas of sports training and rehab, nutrition, and training theory and practice.