Like to cook? I hope so — but even if you don’t, if you’re an athlete, you need to take an interest in what goes into your mouth. You can’t put low quality fuel into your body and expect to receive high quality performance results. I like to tell athletes that they need to, in some sense, eat as if they were pregnant. Like pregnant women, athletes need to make every bite count. Every bite, if possible, should contain some nutritional value, because if you are putting your body through a punishing training regime on a regular basis, you will need to provide it with raw materials to repair damage and to build strong, pliable muscle tissues. Even if you don’t like to cook, you should be able to handle the following simple steps to a diet that will support your training:
Step 1. Base at least one of your meals each day — and preferably two — on green leafy vegetables, such as green leaf or romaine lettuce, parsley, spinach, kale, etc.
You could make a salad the basis of your meal, try making a green smoothie with LOTS of greens and some fruit, stir fry your greens, or add them to soup — whatever will get them into you on a regular basis. Green leafy vegetables contain nutrients that can help the mitochondria — the power generators — in your body’s cells work more efficiently, which means more energy, and better endurance, for you. Green leafy vegetables are also high in glutamine, an amino acid that helps the body to build more muscle mass. Green leafy vegetables, believe it or not, are excellent sources of protein. Think of green leafy vegetables, not bread, as the staff of life — and you’ll be off to an excellent start.
Step 2. Add a carotenoid-containing vegetable to every meal, if possible.
Carotenoids are the substances that add vibrant colors to foods. You can add carotenoids to a salad, stir fry or soup by simply dicing in some carrots, tomatoes, or sweet potatoes. Or you could try a serving of beets (if you’re into juicing your vegetables — a very healthful practice — add beets to the vegetables you are juicing). Why is this important? Adults who have plenty of carotenoids in their diets tend to have better hip, knee and grip strength as they get older. In addition, carotenoid-containing vegetables are high in potassium, a mineral that helps muscles to contract and relax more efficiently. Athletes who eat plenty of carotenoids tend to have higher concentrations of lean muscle mass in their bodies.
Step 3. Include high quality sources of protein in your diet, such as beans, nuts, lean meats, and the green leafy vegetables mentioned above.
You probably already know why — you need that protein to help you build muscle mass. If you are worried about intestinal gas caused by eating beans, try adding just a little bit of seaweed (kombu is a good choice) to the pot when you are cooking the beans. The enzymes in the seaweed will start to predigest the beans, so that they are a bit more digestible by the time they hit your intestines. Don’t look at me like that — seaweed is edible and delicious, but if you can’t stand the thought of eating it, add it to your cooking pot as a large piece instead of dicing it in like a spice. Then pull the whole piece of seaweed out before you dish out the beans — if you are cooking for guests, they need never know it was in there.
Step 4. Include complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain breads.
Carbohydrates are to an athlete what gasoline is to a car — an important source of energy that you simply must have. Have a slice of sprouted grain bread with your salad, have some brown rice with your stir fry, or have one of those new pastas that have bean flour mixed in (by using sprouted grain bread or a pasta that has bean flour mixed in, you can sneak a little more protein into your diet at the same time). But, if you are prone to irritable bowels, go gently on the whole grains, and opt for white rice or a slice of French bread instead.
Step 5. Make sure that you have a good quality fat, such as fish, avocados, nuts, olive oil, or even butter or cheese in your diet every day.
Remember, fat isn’t bad — you need it to fuel your cells, to provide your nervous system with the raw materials that it needs, and to help you feel satisfied from eating your meal — you’re only human. Moreover, many vitamins, such as vitamin A, are fat soluble, so you can add vitamin A to your diet by eating fish or putting butter on your bread. While you are at it, try adding nuts to your salad, or grate some cheese over it. When you stir fry vegetables, don’t skimp on the olive oil. You can add olive oil to soups and stews, too. Get in the habit of including a little bit of fat with every meal. Or, chase your meal with a nice piece of chocolate — one that contains 70% or more cacao — that much cacao is enough to make your chocolate bar into an antioxidant rich health food, so enjoy.
Why haven’t I added a step that says, “don’t forget the fiber”? Not because fiber isn’t important — but because if you complete the steps above, you will be getting plenty of it without even having to think about it. Likewise for vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients…you’ve got it covered!
Brett Warren is a biochemical engineer from Boston, Massachusetts who develops sports supplements for Force Factor. He has done extensive research on nutrition and is an expert on nutraceutical science. He also has a passion for fitness and health. Brett’s work at Force Factor is supplemented by an active family life with plenty of gym time and outdoor recreation.