So now you’re in training, do you really need the sports bars, special powders, pills and potions? And what about the ‘superfood’ of the week? Relax – real food can provide all you need, it’s just a matter of eating nutrient-rich meals and having them in the right proportions.
We have pulled together a list of the top 7 essential nutrients to boost your health – and there’s not a supplement in sight!
Protein is a victim of the mentality that “if a little is good, then a truckload must be even better”. The Australian diet tends to have plenty of total protein in it, but it’s best to eat it in several small serves – no more than 30 grams at a time – for optimum absorption. All types of heavy training – even for endurance – require more fuel from protein than if you were not training. An inactive person requires 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, while a power/strength athlete looking to bulk up may require as much as 2 grams per kilogram each day and an endurance athlete needs 1.2-1.4 grams of protein per kilo. Beware that you can have too much protein – the Dietitians Association of Australia recommends no more than 200 grams per day, regardless of bodyweight.
Carbs have a bad rap, but they’re the essential fuel for exercise and the building blocks to recovery. Training requires more calories, and those additional calories when you are active should largely be made up of complex carbohydrates that come from wholegrain breads, cereals such as oats, starchy vegetables and beans. Time your carbs so you eat them around (i.e. before and after) your exercise.
Iron levels can drop with heavy training, especially in runners – they can lose iron through ‘foot strike’ impact. This can lead to tiredness and poor recovery. Worse, you can develop anaemia and be hit with cramps, headaches and shortness of breath. Iron supplements can help, but side effects can include nausea and heartburn or poor absorption, so it’s best to look to real food. There are two types of iron. Haem iron is found in liver, lean steak, dark chicken meat, fish, oysters and salmon. It’s the real deal, while non-haem iron is harder to absorb, although pairing it with foods containing Vitamin C-rich foods helps. Non-haem foods include eggs, breakfast cereal (fortified), wholemeal bread, cooked spinach, lentils, kidney beans, tofu and almonds.
4. Vitamin D
After years of being told to protect ourselves from the sunlight (our main source of vitamin D), many of us are now dangerously low in the stuff. vitamin D is essential for the absorption of calcium from the gut to boost bone health that will protect you against stress fractures and other bone issues when you’re active. Recent studies have shown that higher vitamin D levels equate to better athletic performance, too. Oysters and fish are good sources of vitamin D, especially oil-packed fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines. Eggs, mushrooms and dairy and tofu products fortified with extra vitamin D and calcium also provide a boost.
Potassium helps you maintain fluid and electrolyte balance in the body, which is very important when you’re training. It’s almost impossible to get too much potassium when you’re getting it from natural sources. White or navy beans (used in baked beans), leafy greens, baked potatoes with skins, fish, dried apricots and avocados all contain more potassium than the much-hyped banana!
Antioxidants are vitamins and minerals (e.g. selenium, vitamins A, C and E) that help combat the cellular damage caused by exercise and enhance recovery. Good foods for antioxidants are acaì berry (you can find it as freeze-dried powder or frozen pulp), blueberries, leafy greens, olive oil and tomato juice or sauce. Sweet potatoes have a triple-whammy – heaps of antioxidants plus anti-inflammatory nutrients and a combination of factors that work together to help regulate blood sugar
7. Natural anti-inflammatories
Train hard, challenge your body to do new things and you’ll get sore, but eating ibuprofen like M&Ms is bad for your gut. Eating foods with natural, harmless anti-inflammatory properties is kinder to your tummy and still reduce the extent and duration of muscle soreness.
- Fish oil can be used to prevent both chronic inflammation and guard against the muscle soreness that comes from high-intensity training.
- Ginger contains the pain-relieving chemicals gingerol, shogaol and zinzerone. Researchers at the University of Georgia even suggested ginger might be more effective than popping anti-inflammatory meds. Just half a teaspoon of the raw root or ground herb can cut next-day muscle soreness by 23-25%.
- Leafy greens can cut post-workout muscle damage. Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition suggested best results come from long-term daily eating of veges such as kale and silverbeet.
- Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory spice used in Chinese and Indian medicine. The active component is curcumin, which neutralises free radicals to help decrease painful joint inflammation.