15 Superfoods for Peak Performance

January 21, 2014
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The other day I drove into a Rancho Santa Fe gas station, and just as I was about to jump out to go pump my gas, the nice attendant came up and asked me “I’d be happy to pump your gas for you.  Premium fuel today?”  Yes, please, I respond and get back in the drivers seat. “Wow, they have good service at this gas station,” I say to my son. I glance back at the pump and notice that they also have 100 octane fuel, I had never seen that before, and boy is it expensive – over $6 a gallon!  I think to myself, that must be the super premium fuel for all those Ferrari’s and other high performance cars that you see zipping around Rancho Santa Fe all the time.  It stands to reason that the higher performance car you have, the higher quality of fuel it needs.

That stop at the Rancho Santa Fe gas station got me thinking about sports nutrition.  Athletes are kind of like high performance cars.  Just as we expect sports cars to perform better than an average car, athletes put higher demands on their body and seek superior performance.  Putting the wrong gas into a Ferrari can mean lower performance, and overtime could land it in the shop for repairs or even create damage to the motor/inner workings.  The same is true for young athletes – if they are choosing lots of junk food, they might not end up with optimal performance, or over time could end up with chronic inflammation and be plagued with injuries.

Endurance and elite athletes burn a significant amount of calories, so they can and need to regularly eat a lot of calories to replenish their energy reserves.  But just because they can polish off a box of donuts or a large soda and a couple 20 piece nuggets and still not gain weight, does not mean that they should.  Just like a Ferrari, athletes should consider putting in the best possible fuel if they want peak performance.

Because of the extra demands they put on their bodies, it is important for athletes to consume a diet rich in plant-based foods, high quality (ideally grass-fed) protein sources, plenty of healthy fats, and limit nutrient-deficient and inflammation-causing foods (foods that contain a lot of sugar, trans fats, or too many omega 6 fats – found in vegetable oils, soy oils, etc).

One of the best foods an athlete can add to their training regime are superfoods.  Superfoods are highly nutrient dense foods that provide an abundance of nutrition and can potentially improve performance and overall health…kind of like “super premium” fuel.

At the top of my list of functional foods for athletes are these 15 superfoods.

15 Superfoods for Peak Performance:

  1. Chia Seeds – Without a doubt, chia seeds are my number one recommendation for athletes. An ancient Aztec superfood, chia seeds gave the Aztec warriors the long-lasting energy and endurance they needed to go into battle.  Chia seeds are an essential addition to the athletes’ diet, boosting endurance, energy, hydration, focus/attention, and reducing inflammation.  Chia seeds are an excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids, and are also high in fiber, protein, and have a number of minerals including calcium, magnesium, and potassium – all important for athletes.  Omega 3s are proven brain and mood food, which can help athletes with focus and attention – to keep their head in the game. Omega 3s are shown to lower inflammation – which is helpful to reduce inflammation – critical for recovery and injury prevention.  Unlike flax, chia is rich in antioxidants, which means it will not go rancid after grinding, and helps to prevent free radical damage.  Chia seed are uniquely hydrophillic, so when they come in contact with water, they form a gel-like substance.  This chia gel slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, helping to level out bloodsugar and maintain energy/endurance.  Chia gel also holds on to water, which helps to maintain hydration – very important for an athlete  Always make sure to consume chia seeds with plenty of water or liquids to prevent dehydration, I like to soak the chia seeds for about 5 minutes before consuming to ensure they are hydrated.
  2. Raw Cacao – Exercising increases the formation of free radicals, so a diet high in antioxidants is important for athletes.  One of the most nutritionally complex foods on earth, cacao has an oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) score of 95,500 per 100 grams, making it one of the best sources of antioxidants, which is helpful in preventing free radical damage. But perhaps what is even more important for athletes is that cacao is one of the best food sources of magnesium. Magnesium is required for over 300 enzymatic reactions, including the synthesis of fat, protein and nucleic acids, muscular contraction and relaxation, cardiac health and bone building. Magnesium improves blood flow and plays a key role in the metabolism of adenosine triphoshate (ATP), critical for aerobic and anaerobic functions. Cacao is also rich in potassium, iron, polyphenols, flavanols, theobromine, and proanthocyanidins.  Cacao offers a long list of health benefits including reducing heart attack and stroke, lowering blood pressure, boosting mood and brain function, lowering stress, relaxing muscles, boosting our skin’s internal SPF, and much more.  A recent Journal of Physiology study suggests that antioxidants in cacao may help bolster exercise endurance. Try this Choco-Banana Super Smoothie – which contains 5 Superfoods for Performance (chia seeds, cacao, coconut water, pink Himalayan salt, and banana).
  3. Coconut water – often referred to as nature’s Gatorade, coconut water is an excellent hydration tool, naturally rich in electrolytes and also a source of natural quick energy.  When athletes sweat, they lose fluids and electroytes, coconut water helps to replenish the lost fluids, electrolytes, and also provides a natural source of carbohydrate to replenish lost glycogen (energy) stores.
  4. Himalayan Sea Salt – along with fluids, athletes lose sodium and other minerals when they exercise and sweat, which need to be replenished.  High quality air dried sea salts or pink Himalayan salts contain beneficial minerals and trace minerals that are missing from table salts.  Table salts also contain anti-clumping additives which are not in natural sea salts.  I recommend that athletes use only the highest quality salts when they are making foods at home – put a pinch of Himalayan salt into smoothies (it brings out the sweetness and flavors too!), and always cook with high quality salts, which along with the sodium contain a number of important minerals that the body needs.  Sometimes when we crave salty foods, our bodies are seeking minerals – which are lacking in processed and packaged foods.
  5. Bananas – are a an excellent complex carbohydrate to consume 30 minutes before a race, one banana contains approximately 467mg of potassium, an energy-supplying electrolyte which provides protection to the cardiovascular system. Green tipped bananas contain a prebiotic which aids in digestion and the body’s ability to absorb calcium.  High in vitamin B6, bananas help to support sleep, neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), and white blood cell formation. Bananas are also known for minimizing muscle cramping.  Slice them and top cereals, oatmeal, or add them to smoothies.
  6. Coconut Oil – might seem like an odd food to include in a list of superfoods for athletes.  But it is a very unique fat that can offer athletes a lot of benefits.  First, it is a medium chain fatty acid, which is more readily converted to energy by the body, so it is also less likely to be stored as fat.  Coconut oil is more easily digested, it is less likely to cause stomach upset than other fats. Coconut oil is also a natural antiviral and antibacterial, which supports a healthy immune system.  It can be used topically as well to help with skin irritation and dryness. I recommend adding a teaspoon of coconut oil to your morning smoothie, or oatmeal.
  7. Sweet Potatoes – Despite their naturally sweet taste, sweet potatoes have a low glycemic index which means they can be absorbed and used gradually, preventing the blood sugar from spiking and crashing. Sweet potatoes have been shown to improve blood sugar, even in Type 2 Diabetics. One of the best sources of beta-carotene, sweet potatoes raise our blood levels of vitamin A, which is a fat soluble vitamin and is best absorbed when eaten with some dietary fat, so don’t be afraid to put a little grass-fed butter on them!  That will help you absorb the nutrients!  Sweet potatoes are a good carbohydrate source for athletes and also helpful in preventing inflammation, which aids in recovery.
  8. Teff – The word teff means ‘lost,’ a reference to the fact that the grains are so small that if you dropped them, they will be nearly impossible to find. An ancient North African cereal grass, teff has an good balance of B vitamins, amino acids/protein, calcium, zinc, and is an excellent source of iron to help prevent anemia. Teff has as much protein as an egg, is gluten free, and has a nutty, molasses-like flavor.
  9. Berries – Eating foods high in antioxidants is critical for athletes, who can suffer up to 200 times the free radical damage compared to their less active counterparts.  Scientists have found that a diet rich in antioxidants may help with exercise recovery by reducing muscular damage. Blueberries, acai, pomegrante, and goji berries are all good sources of antioxidants.  Berries are also a good source of fiber.  Snack on them, or toss them into a smoothie or on top of your cereal.  Dried berries are a good addition to trail mixes.
  10. Almonds – a good source of vitamin E, magnesium, potassium, manganese, copper, riboflavin, monounsaturated fats and protein; almonds are nutritional powerhouses.  A small handful of almonds a few times a week can be helpful in lowering cholesterol, and preventing heart disease.  Almonds are useful in nervous system and muscle recovery. Other tree nuts are also beneficial, such as cashews, walnuts and Brazil nuts.
  11. Kale – High in nutrients like vitamin K, magnesium, vitamin C, calcium, folate, zinc and iron, kale is one of the most nutritious vegetables on the planet. Sneak some into your smoothie, or chop it up and add it to soups, or omelettes – kale packs a big punch.
  12. Quinoa – Often considered a grain, quinoa is not a grain, but a seed.  Naturally gluten free, quinoa is a good replacement for grains.  It contains high levels of both carbohydrates and protein, with all nine essential amino acids, which are critical to many biochemical functions. Quinoa has a rich history as a sports nutrition tool. The Incas used it to increase the stamina of their warriors, helping them to run long distances at high altitudes. Quinoa is a good source of manganese, magnesium, iron, zinc, potassium and calcium.
  13. Raisins – offer a quick source of concentrated energy, and are also a good source of potassium and magnesium, which helps to balance our body’s pH, and also is important for athletes to replenish when they work out and sweat.  Raisins also contain calcium, and a substance called boron, both of which are important in building strong bones.  Athletes need to make sure they are getting plenty of bone-building nutrients to prevent stress fractures and breaks.  Raisins also contain fiber, which helps promote good digestion.
  14. Hemp Seeds – an excellent vegan source of easily digested protein, hemp seeds contain all 10 essential amino acids. Just 3 Tablespoons of Hemp Seeds = 11 grams of protein. Hemp seeds provides an array of minerals including zinc, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium and iron. Hemp seeds contain a healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. In addition, hemp seeds contain an especially beneficial type of omega-6 fat called GLA (gamma linolenic acid), which supports anti-inflammatory hormones and facilitates fat-burning.
  15. Avocados – are full of healthy fats that help to reduce our inflammation, boost the absorption of certain vitamins (fat-soluble ones), and are actually a high fiber food. Avocados are a good source of carotenoids, vitamin K, vitamins B5 & B6, vitamin c, folate and potassium. Avocados promote bone and heart health, and help manage blood sugar.  Adding avocados to smoothies can make them light and fluffy and boost the fiber, vitamin content, and help to keep you satisfied longer.

Sara Vance Article written by Nutritionist Sara Vance, author of the book
The Perfect Metabolism Plan A regular guest on Fox 5 San Diego, you can see many of Sara’s segments on her media page. She also offers corporate nutrition, school programs, consultations, and affordable online eCourses. Download her free 40+ page Metabolism Jumpstart eBook here.

*This article is for educational purposes only. The content contained in this article is not to be construed as providing medical advice. All information provided is general and not specific to individuals. Persons with questions about the above content as how it relates to them, should contact their medical professional. Persons already taking prescription medications should consult a doctor before making any changes to their supplements or medications.

©2015, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.

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