I was recently asked by a popular magazine to list five ingredients that are particularly beneficial to athletes. While it was tough to narrow down, here are my picks:
1. Beets. Fresh beets are an athlete’s natural medicine, especially when juiced and consumed as a concentrated drink before exercise. Why? Beets are rich in nitrates. Beneficial bacteria in our saliva convert the nitrates to nitrite, and eventually on to nitric oxide elsewhere in the body. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator that helps protect the heart and may improve exercise capacity and efficiency. More power is produced with less energy expended, so beets are certainly worth a try.
Just avoid using a mouthwash before drinking beet juice; a strong mouthwash might reduce the beneficial bacteria in the mouth and could possibly lessen the conversion of nitrate to nitrate; a necessary step in the beet benefit process. Beets offer a strong flavor so finding flavor combos that please the palate is a key to regular compliance (investing in a high performance blender will also help). A glass of fresh beet juice a few hours before intense exercise is ideal. Skip the beet pills; they don’t have the same potential as the actual beet root. Concentrated beet powders (without added sugars and fillers) are a convenient and portable back up plan when traveling. These can be easily mixed with water and used about 30 minutes before exercise.
2. Red Lentils. Lentils come in many varieties and can be used interchangeably but red lentils are small, skinned and split so they cook down very rapidly and are quite useful for a time-pressed athlete. Unlike other legumes, lentils don’t need to be soaked for hours before cooking. Lentils are packed with protein, iron and B vitamins; all key nutrients for athletic performance and recovery. Lentils are also high in fiber and can help with satiety (fullness). This may influence sensible portions at mealtimes and less mindless munching between meals. They’re good for the environment, easy to find and very inexpensive. Great for salads and sides, lentils also can be used for soups and stews (especially if overcooked accidentally).
3. Lemons. We ofter overlook the full power of citrus. The vitamin C in citrus fruit may help reduce inflammation from the chronic stress of exercise. What’s more, Vitamin C increases the body’s ability to absorb iron found in plant-based foods such as beans, lentils and leafy greens. Don’t forget the extra protective benefit of the citrus peel when used to make colorful strips of zest. Citrus zest is rich in fiber and flavonoids that protect the heart by reducing harmful LDL cholesterol. You can add citrus zest (any citrus fruit will do) to warm cereal, salads, dressings, grains, shakes, yogurt, ice cubes and in your favorite dessert. Zest goes with everything and adds a bright pop of color.
4. Pepitas. Also know as pumpkin seeds, these nutrient-dense seeds provide a powerful mixture of antioxidants, minerals, healthy fat, fiber and protein. Raw, roasted or toasted, pepitas can be added to salads, shakes, trail mix or sprinkled on top of a sweet potato or a bowl of yogurt. They’re inexpensive, accessible, portable and can easily upgrade any athlete’s nutrition plan.
5. Turmeric. This golden root is part of the ginger family and has powerful anti-inflammatory properties that have been used in India for thousands of years in Ayurvedic healing medicine. Turmeric is the spice that gives curry its yellowish hue due to compounds called curcuminoids, including curcumin, the main active antioxidant ingredient in turmeric. Oxidative damage to the body from chronic stress, environmental toxins and yes, intense exercise can be quieted by curcumin as it blocks free-radical damage and stimulates the body’s own antioxidant defense system. Turmeric is a bold flavor and often used as a powdered spice for curry dishes. Adding a small thumb-sized piece of turmeric root to the blender for juices, smoothies and soups is another way to include this powerful anti-inflammatory ingredient.