Some athletes perform well despite consuming an atrocious diet. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Most athletes and other active, health-conscious people recognize that the old adage “you are what you eat” is true in many ways.
To perform our best, whether it’s at the marathon, a 400 IM swim, a game of volleyball, or a workout at the gym, we need to fuel our bodies right. While the general consensus is that whole foods are healthier than processed foods, and that plant-powered foods are by far the best choices, there are definitely a few nutritional standouts that should be staples in any active person’s diet. Here’s a roundup of some of our favorites:
1. LEAFY GREENS:
Dark leafy green vegetables are some of the most nutrient-dense foods around! They are a great source of vitamins K, C, and E, and minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium, and potassium. They are also rich in protective antioxidants and phytonutrients like beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin.
Because exercise requires increased oxygen consumption, it also increases the production of free radicals in the body. Thus, protection against oxidative stress in the form of adequate antioxidant intake is especially important for athletes.
Green smoothies are a great way to get more greens in your diet. You can sneak TONS of greens into a smoothie without even noticing them! It’s a much quicker, easier, and more convenient way to get a huge dose of nutrient-rich greens than a salad. Check out our guide to amazing green smoothie combos and here’s a list of 35 delicious ways to eat more greens — seriously you won’t need to look further cause the list has it all. If you are a salad fan, check out these meatless & dairy-free protein packed salads!
No doubt about it, berries are great for your health! They make an amazing addition to anyone’s diet, but new research suggests berries may be especially beneficial for athletes. Research has shown that these super fruits benefit the brain by improving cognition and slowing age-related memory loss; help prevent Parkinson’s Disease; reduce cancer tumor growth; and even boost post-exercise recovery.
If you are a Blueberry fan, throw in a handful in that post-workout smoothie or check out these amazing blueberry recipes — all of which are vegan. While blueberries have a special place in our hearts, our recent favorites are Goji berries, Mulberries, Açaí berries and Goldenberries! So go ahead and learn all about them so you can start incorporating these powerhouses in your diet. These Goji Energy Bites and the Mulberry Salad are great recipes to fuel your workout!
3. NUTS AND SEEDS
Nuts and seeds are proof that good things come in small packages! Regular nut consumption has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, and the omega-3s found in nuts and seeds may even lower your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
But more generally, they are a great source of healthy, plant-based fats (including omega-3s), as well as fiber, vitamin E, and a little-known amino acid called L-arginine. Arginine has been shown to boost immune function, promote wound healing, and help manage cardiovascular disease.
And the fiber and fat content in nuts and seeds is important for helping you feel full and satisfied. Thus, they make a great snack or addition to salads, desserts, and entrees. So, grab a handful or make some nut butter!
Seeds are fascinating so we made this entire seed guide just for you. Our favorite seeds are Chia seeds, and you can learn all about this fabulously nutritious seed here. Try making any of these quick powerful recipes: Energizing Chia Pudding, Banana Chocolate Pudding or the Seeds and Goji Granola and they will surely keep your body going during those tough workouts!
Avocados are one beautiful and amazing food. These high-alkaline beauties contain healthy, monounsaturated fats, which have been shown to slow brain aging. They have also been shown to help protect against certain types of cancer, and are a great source of antioxidant vitamin E.
And you don’t have to be a guacamole-lover to appreciate the avocado…there are TONS of easy ways to incorporate them into your diet. Try avocados in smoothies for a rich, smooth texture, whip it into a pasta sauce, make a creamy salad dressing; use as the base for a raw soup; or even create an these chocolatecupcakes with Avocado-Mint Icing!
An added bonus: the fat in avocado has been shown to help your body absorb the nutrients from leafy greens and other vegetables. So don’t be shy about adding this fruit to green smoothies and salads! Your body will thank you.
5. CRUCIFEROUS VEGETABLES
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, and Brussels sprouts are well-known for their cancer-fighting properties. A slew of recent research has found that these amazing veggies can help prevent certain types of cancer, and keep cancer from coming back in those already diagnosed.
Like leafy greens (see above), cruciferous vegetables also help reduce oxidative stress in the body, meaning they help protect against the harmful impacts of free radicals. Athletes would enjoy this Baked Broccoli Burger or this healthy Kale and Artichoke Pizza!
6. BEANS AND LENTILS
Beans and lentils should be staples in any active person’s diet! They are packed with protein, fiber, and a variety of vitamins and minerals. They are also packed with complex carbohydrates – you know, the “good” of “slow-burning” carbs that help fuel prolonged physical activity.
Beans and lentils are also extremely versatile. Toss some black beans on a salad, make lentil tacos, whip up some garbanzo bean hummus, make a veggie chili with kidney beans or try these lentil veggie burgers,or this out-of-the-worldlentil loaf! There are plenty of delicious options!
Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) has rightfully developed a reputation as a superfood, supplying significant quantities of essential vitamins and minerals including manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, folate, and copper. A cup of cooked quinoa contains 8 grams of complete protein and 5 grams of fiber, and is rich in complex carbohydrates. From breakfast to dessert, there are plenty of ways to incorporate quinoa in your diet. The Quinoa with Roasted Root Veggies and Currants, Pistchio Pesto Quinoa or Cajun Quinoa Cakes are great for those who want a boost of energy.
8. WHOLE SOY FOODS
Minimally processed soy foods such as organic edamame and tempeh are excellent sources of plant-based protein. They are also rich in isoflavones, a type of plant hormone that has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer, a reduction in “bad” cholesterol levels, a decreased incidence of menopausal symptoms, and a lower risk for osteoporosis.
Despite the ongoing debate about the healthfulness of soy, recent research suggests the benefits of consuming whole, organic soy products likely outweigh the potential negatives for most people. Likewise, some of the healthiest people in the world (e.g. traditional Asian diets) have included foods like tofu, soymilk, tempeh, miso and soybeans for centuries, not only without ill effects, but with health-promoting effects.
Athletes have much to gain from consuming minimally processed soy products. Soy protein helps repair and rebuild muscles after a hard workout, and as with many other plant foods, antioxidants help protect the body against free radicals. And the role of isoflavones in protecting and maintaining strong, healthy bones can’t be ignored! Bone health is important for all of us, but is a key consideration for runners and others involved in high-impact activities. So don’t be afraid to add a few soy products to your diet. Just be sure they’re organic/non-GMO, and as with most foods, moderation is the rule. Try these amazing tempeh and tofu recipes!
Glad this touched on the health benefits of soy! Of course, everything in moderation but it’s ridiculous to me how certain “studies” immediately point to negative correlations and soy. I love all of the above mentioned foods as they are a huge portion of my diet :)
Thanks for your comment Bridget. Glad to hear you are already eating “like an athlete” :)