People who train for fitness, health and sports and who care about nutrition -– and we all should -– choose particular foods for two main reasons:
To increase performance
To maintain or improve health
I’ve produced my own list of “must eats,” including the reasons for the selections. Here are my nutritious choices to consider in your quest for health, fitness and performance.
What About Organic Food?
I am an advocate of organic food and have been for many years. The 2007 European Union trial confirms what many have claimed for decades: that the tendency is for organic food to be higher in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants than nonorganic food. Nevertheless, there is a range of quality, and there can be no guarantee that any particular organic item will be of superior nutritional quality to a well-grown, nonorganic product, although it will almost certainly have less-pesticide residue.
For the foods in my list below, choose organic when convenient and cost-effective, but don’t get too obsessive about it.
1. Lean Meat
Protein requirements feature strongly in weight training and bodybuilding circles, and there’s little doubt that adequate protein, plus a bit more, is required by all active athletes.
Are some protein sources better than others? The answer is yes, and it has more to do with health than performance effect. Commercial protein “supplements” are not a feature of this article, mainly because there’s really not much evidence that one works better than any other, even though the manufacturers would like you to think so. Meal timing — when to eat for best effect — is probably more important than protein source. Read up on the bodybuilding diet for more information.
Lean meat means you purchase it without much fat, you cut it off before cooking, or you grill or cook it so that the fat drips away from the meat before serving. Most of the fat, which is fat you can do without, will be saturated fat that raises cholesterol.
Chicken and turkey are my favorites. They have less iron than red meat, but they are more flexible and don’t seem to have the problems associated with an excess of red meat. Beware of composite slices that may be high in fat and preservatives. Choose lean, fresh meats if possible.
Red meat and processed red meat have been associated with bowel (colorectal) cancer and, more recently, lung cancer, prompting the American Cancer Society and the World Cancer Research Fund to recommend that people who eat red meat should consume less than 500 g (18 oz) a week, very little if any to be processed.
“Red meat” refers to beef, pork, lamb, and goat from domesticated animals, including those contained in processed foods. “Processed meat” refers to meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting or the addition of chemical preservatives, including those contained in processed foods.
Advantages. The amino acids in lean protein build and repair muscle and body tissues broken down by weight training and physical activity. Low animal fat and cholesterol intake protects against heart and artery disease.
2. Low-Fat Dairy Products
The reason for choosing low-fat dairy is the same as for choosing low-fat meat: Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol, which may increase the risk of heart disease. Naturally, if you’re lactose intolerant, you will need to adjust your intake to include lactose-free milk or cheese or stick to yogurts that you can tolerate.
Milk also supplies calcium and vitamin D (in fortified milks), and this is important for bone health.
Skim milk powder, which includes whey and casein proteins, makes a good weight-trainingprotein supplement shake and saves you money on the cost of commercial protein powders. Leave out the sugar in the following recipe if it suits you.
Mix skim milk powder 4 to 1, water to powder (check instructions on packet).
Add 2 to 3 teaspoons of sugar to a large glass to taste.
Add a level teaspoon of cocoa powder to a large glass.
Mix in shaker or suitable jar or blender.
Take one glass at least 30 minutes before training or earlier, but make
sure you can tolerate it.
Take two glasses within 30 minutes after training then keep topping up with carbohydrate and protein foods until next session, according to energy used in your session.
If you add 3 teaspoons of sugar to each glass, that will give you about 30 grams of carbohydrate and 10 grams of protein for each glass. This is a good ratio for recovery from strenuous exercise.
Add a tablespoon of yogurt for flavor and texture if you choose.
Cheeses and yogurt offer calcium and protein, but you need to avoid eating too much high-fat cheese. The occasional treat of Camembert or blue vein is not going to be a problem. If you’re on a calorie-counting diet, watch the sweetened yogurts, even the low-fat ones, because they can have a lot of sugar.
Advantages. Low-fat dairy provides the calcium and amino acids important for muscle and bone maintenance and rebuilding. Low-fat versions help minimize saturated fat and cholesterol consumption.
3. Fish and Seafood
Oily fish, such as sardines and salmon, and the fish oil supplements from these and similar sources contain the important omega-3 fats which are essential for normal functioning of the body. They may also provide a range of health protection for heart function, as a general anti-inflammatory, and in brain function, in learning and mood.
Omega-3 fats, such as those found in fish oils, may also play a minor role in assisting with weight loss. Supplements of fish oil are popular with bodybuilders in the weight loss or cutting phase, when very low body fat is the target. There is no consistent evidence, though, that they help with weight loss, even though they help reduce triglycerides, a fat in the blood.
Crustaceans, such as shrimp and crab, may be higher in dietary cholesterol, yet this is not likely to raise blood cholesterol with moderate consumption. Iodine is an essential mineral found in seafood, and this may be important in regions where iodine is less available in other foods.
Large fish such as swordfish, shark, and tilefish can have high amounts of mercury and organic pollutants, which may be harmful if too much is eaten. Smaller fish are a better choice for your dose of omega-3s.
Advantages. Fish and seafood provides essential omega-3 polyunsaturated fats and iodine.
4. Mono and Polyunsaturated Fats and Oils
While omega-3 fats are essential for a wide range of critical body functions, the vegetable fats containing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, when they replace animal fats, have been shown to improve blood cholesterol readings, including the good high-density cholesterol (HDL) that protects against heart disease.
Seeds and nuts contain omega-6 oils and monounsaturated oils, and a few, such as walnuts, have the vegetable version of omega-3 fats. Vegetable oils, such as sunflower and safflower, have mostly polyunsaturated omega-6 fats. Earlier fears that this type of oil was “pro-inflammatory” and might lead to diseases such as cancer and arthritis in humans have not been proven.
The seed and nut oils (and green leafy vegetables) also contain a plant version of omega-3 oils, which is only a small portion of what is converted to the fish oil equivalents of EPA and DHA. These plant omega-3s are probably important in their own way for human health, but not enough is known about their role. Canola and soy oils and margarines contain these oils called “alpha-linolenic acid.”
Monounsaturated fats are found in olives, nuts, seeds, avocado and in some cuts of meat. Most vegetable oils, except the tropical palm oil and coconut oil, have a reasonable percentage of monounsaturated oils.
Polyunsaturated fats are more abundant in seed products, such as canola, safflower and sunflower, and in many nuts. Until more definitive research on the omega-6 oils is available, mostly monounsaturated oils such as olive oil, peanut oil or high-monounsaturated sunflower oil should be used for cooking and salads.
Advantages. These oils protect against heart and artery disease and provide essential fats that the body cannot make.
5. Green Leafy Vegetables
This includes spinach, lettuce, Chinese vegetables and the brassicas (cabbage, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and all similar vegetables).
Green leafy vegetables, vitamins and minerals (iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium and vitamins C, A and K) and carotenes are potent sources of antioxidants and anticancer agents. A daily consumption of this potent food group is not only promotes good health but is consistent with our evolutionary heritage as primates.
Advantages. Antioxidants provide essential protection from free radical damage produced in high-intensity or endurance exercise, including regular sessions of hard weight training workouts. Nutrient-dense foods, such as the green leafy vegetables, also supply essential nutrients at the expense of energy density, which may be important if you’re trying to lose weight.
6. Red, Yellow, Purple and Orange Vegetables
The “rainbow” vegetables like peppers, beetroot, red cabbage, carrots, sweet potato and eggplant are full of antioxidants, polyphenols, flavonoids, carotenes and anticancer agents.
Advantages. For the same reasons as above, eating a variety of these vegetables (some raw) is important for general health and withstanding the rigors of hard weight training.
7. A Wide Variety of Fruits
I emphasize a “wide variety,” because it has become fashionable to claim that berries are the healthiest fruits to eat and that too much of other fruit is unhealthy. This is not proven and has been derived substantially from the low-carb and Paleo-eating dietary principles, much of which I do not accept. Read more in my article on fad diets.
Berry fruits, such as blackberries, raspberries, strawberries and blueberries, are high in antioxidants, judging from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) tests, yet apples are not far behind.
There are examples of various fruits having a particular nutrient strength. Persimmons are dramatically highest in carotenes such as lutein, a nutrient important for eye health as we age. Bananas are avoided by some because of the high sugar content, yet they are high in potassium, which is important for normal blood pressure, and they provide valuable energy for exercise plus vitamins, such as B6. Watermelon is also sometimes avoided, because it lists high on the glycemic index scale, yet it has the red carotene lycopene, probably important in prostate cancer prevention. It is also relatively low in sugars because of the water content.
Advantages. Fruits supply not only a wide range of antioxidants and protective nutrients, they also provide some of the carbohydrate energy that is essential for high performance in training or competing and keeping the immune system healthy.
Don’t discriminate: Eat at least two servings each day of a variety of fruits.
8. Nuts and Beans
Beans. In the USDA antioxidant tests, beans came out on top of berries for antioxidant potential. Beans also provide protein, especially soy beans, and soluble fiber, iron, potassium and calcium. Beans are heart healthy as they contain no cholesterol, little saturated fat and some have useful quantities of omega-3 fats.
Nuts provide essential fatty acids, fiber and protein as well as magnesium and zinc, some iron, vitamin E and B6 and folate. Brazil nuts contain the highest concentrations of the mineral selenium than any other food. Almonds have the highest calcium of any nut. Walnuts have more omega-3 fats than other nuts. Nut consumption is associated with less heart disease.
Advantages. Nuts and beans, along with fruits and vegetables, provide a broad selection of all the essential vitamins, minerals and other plant nutrients required for human health, physical strength and immunity. These food groups are particularly important for vegetarian and vegan weight trainers.
9. Whole Grains
Grain foods have taken a battering in recent years from the antigrain lobby who claim that grains are unhealthy. In fact, whole grain consumption has almost certainly been shown to protect against heart disease and type 2 diabetes –- and possibly bowel cancer. Whole grains and whole grain cereals like muesli and oats contain a range of vitamins and minerals, including iron, zinc, magnesium, folate and B vitamins, vitamin E and (importantly) starch for energy. Eating whole grains should be preferred to adding unprocessed, bran because this may prevent the absorption of some minerals.
Advantages. Whole cereal grains are a major source of carbohydrate for energy and are a good source of magnesium, iron and zinc, particularly when eaten in mixed meals to aid absorption. Vitamin C in fruit or orange juice will help you absorb iron from whole grain foods.
I have not included foods such as various herbs, spices, teas, garlic and exotic root vegetables, which might reasonably be classified as incidental foods for many people. You can still eat them, so you can enjoy the spectrum of healthy plant foods.
By: Paul Roger