"Superfoods" to Feed Your Athlete

by Aaron Goldberg

Many times in sports, it’s the little things that stand out or make the difference between true success and mediocrity. It’s the efforts away from practice that can prove to be the most beneficial. Nutrition falls under this category, and, further yet, “superfoods” represent the epitome of an underrated difference-maker at all levels of athletics.

Superfoods are classified as whole foods that provide rich sources of numerous vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, essential fatty and amino acids, and other nutrients. These important resources have the potential to directly influence performance on the field, but also play a crucial role in improving life away from sports by positively affecting blood pressure, heart health, and cognitive function.

Cherries are one example of a superfood that is greatly undervalued in your athlete’s typical diet. This fruit has shown to decrease soreness associated with vigorous physical activity, while reducing the time needed to regain full muscle strength after a workout. In addition, cherries are linked to both a greater duration and a higher quality of sleep – key elements in determining your athlete’s success, as sleep can have a big impact on performance.

There is no definitive evidence on when it’s best to incorporate cherries into your training program, but some research has found that recovery after workouts, competitions, injuries, or surgeries are great places to start. You can consume this fruit through tart cherry juice, as well as dried, frozen, and fresh tart or sweet cherries.

While cherries improve overall recovery, beets are superfoods that aid your body in utilizing oxygen more effectively during physical exercise. Beets can lower blood pressure, improve oxygen consumption, and elevate performance endurance.

Beets & Other Berries

You should take beets in moderate quantities and in one sitting. Whole beets can be eaten in a variety of ways, such as being roasted as a side dish, sliced on top of salad, and incorporated into a host of different recipes. However, your athlete must be conscious when ingesting this superfood because beets can produce hypertension, or high blood pressure, if they are over consumed. 

On the other hand, mental performance is just as, if not more, important than physical functioning and execution. Berries are superfoods that offer an improvement to cognitive function and preserve brain and eye health and DNA integrity. Berries such as blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries contain antioxidants, which can help you decrease inflammation, reduce oxidative damage, and facilitate strength recovery after exercise.

It is recommended that you eat berries two or more times per week, typically post workout, and a different combination of whole berries is more effective than eating a single type of berry. Berries are also solid options because they are diverse forms of food, as you can add them to salads, entrees, desserts, oatmeal, yogurts, breakfast cereals, and smoothies.

Healthy Proteins

Two superfoods that deliver healthy protein, an extremely important element in your athlete’s diet, are flaxseed and whey. Flaxseed is useful in helping with inflammation, boosting immunity, producing anti-arrhythmic effects, improving cardiac pumping, decreasing muscle oxygen consumption, and increasing fat oxidation. Contrastingly, whey protein plays a critical role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis, aids in building muscle mass, and reduces the recovery time following a workout.

With flaxseed, research has shown that greater health benefits are gained when you consume freshly ground flaxseed instead of whole flaxseed or flaxseed oil. In order to achieve this, you should purchase whole flaxseeds and grind them in a coffee grinder prior to use. You can then add the ground flaxseeds to granolas, cereals, breads, yogurt, cottage cheese, salads, or pastas.

Whey protein is most effective when taken in combination with carbohydrates, so, for maximal benefits and to meet individualized recovery needs, you should consume about twenty grams of whey protein with a mix of carbs within thirty minutes following intense exercise each day. Whey can be found in food like dairy and sports nutrition bars, or you can buy it in supplement form and create recovery shakes.

All of this information is crucial in understanding the proper way to incorporate superfoods into your athlete’s diet, yet convincing them to try these foods can be an issue. The key to motivating student-athletes to try new food is education. It has been found that allowing them to taste a food while simultaneously explaining its importance can take away some of the risk they might associate with trying new food.

Overall, the dietary selections that your student-athlete makes have the ability to greatly affect their health in the future, so it is important to help them choose wisely. In addition, superfoods can simply be more delicious and fun to eat!

Information and parts taken from “Up, Up, & Away” by Amy Culp in the April 2014 issue of Training & Conditioning.