By Maureen Callahan; Photography by Freepik
And they work specifically for women…
Choosing a baked potato over a peanut butter sandwich isn’t the kind of life-altering decision that, say, changing your email address is, but your choice could have repercussions on your fitness.
Grab a not-so-good pre-run snack and you’ll struggle to finish. Reach for the wrong food when you put down those weights and next time you train, you could be crashing harder than a disgraced beauty queen after an all-nighter. The simple truth is what you eat influences your performance in key ways.
That’s why we delved into a stack of scientific studies and picked the brains of half a dozen experts – topnotch researchers, coaches and sports nutritionists – to single out the top 18 foods for any exercise, from yoga and running to rock climbing.
The winning foods…
Stock your kitchen with these staples to perform and feel your absolute best.
The cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fat in these green health bombs can help keep your body strong and pain free. US researchers found that competitive women runners who ate less than 20 percent fat were more likely to suffer injuries than those who consumed at least 31 percent. Researcher Dr Peter Horvath speculates that the problem is linked to extreme low-fat diets, which weaken muscles and joints. “A few slices of avocado a day are a great way to boost fat for women who are fat shy,” says dietician and sports nutritionist Leslie Bonci.
Thanks to bananas’ high potassium content, peeling one is a speedy solution to that stitch in your side. While a lack of sodium is the main culprit behind muscle cramps, studies show that potassium plays a supporting role: you need it to replace sweat losses and help with fluid absorption. Bananas are also packed with energising carbs. One medium-size fruit has 400mg of potassium and as many carbs (29g) as two slices of wholewheat bread.
Researchers recently placed fresh berries on their list of the 20 foods richest in antioxidants. Just a handful of blueberries, raspberries or blackberries is an excellent source of these potent nutrients, which protect muscles from free radical damage that might be caused by exercise. Shop for berries by the shade of their skin: the deeper the colour, the healthier the fruit.
4. Baby Carrots
Close your eyes and they almost taste like crunchy sweets. Carrots pack complex carbs that provide energy to muscles and potassium to control blood pressure and muscle contractions, Bonci says. And a half cup has just 145kJ.
5. Whole-Grain Cereal
Just add fat-free milk! Looking for something to eat before you hit the gym? Raid your cereal stash. The healthiest brands contain endurance-boosting complex carbs and muscle-building protein. Sixty minutes before a workout, fuel up with a 835kJ snack: three-quarters of a cup of whole-grain cereal with 120ml of fat-free milk. “When you eat something before exercising, you have more energy, so you can work out harder and perhaps longer. And you’ll be less likely to overeat afterwards,” Bonci says.
6. Chicken Thighs
Skimp on iron and zinc and your energy will flag. Cooking up some juicy chicken thighs is the best way to get more of both. “Dark-meat poultry is significantly lower in fat than red meat yet has all the iron, zinc and B vitamins that women need in their diets,” says sports nutritionist Dr Susan Kleiner, author of Power Eating.
7. Low-Fat Chocolate Milk
There’s way more to milk than just calcium. In fact, it’s a damn near perfect food, giving you a lot of valuable energy while keeping your kilojoule count low, Kleiner says. The chocolate kind is loaded with calcium, vitamins and minerals just like the plain stuff, but new studies confirm that milk with a dot of cocoa is as powerful as commercial recovery drinks at replenishing and repairing muscles.
8. Low-Fat Cottage Cheese
Despite its frumpy image, this diet staple packs 14g of protein per half-cup serving, along with 75mg of calcium and five grams of carbohydrates. That protein is crucial to healing the microscopic muscle tears that occur during exercise, says dietician Amy Jamieson-Petonic.
READ MORE: 11 ‘Healthy’ Foods Nutritionists Never Eat
9. Dried Cranberries
This fruit delivers a generous pre- or post-workout blast of carbs (25g per quarter cup). Plus, cranberries have proanthocyanins, compounds that help prevent and fight urinary tract infections. Running to the bathroom every five minutes definitely isn’t the kind of workout you’re looking for.
Don’t skip the yolk. One egg a day supplies about 215mg of cholesterol – not enough to push you over the 300mg daily cholesterol limit recommended by the World Health Organisation. Plus, the yolk is a good source of iron, and it’s loaded with lecithin, which is critical for brain health, Kleiner says. What does brain power have to do with exercise? Try doing a sun salutation without it.
11. Ground Flaxseed
“Flaxseed is full of fibres called lignans that promote gut health,” says Kleiner. Since flax lignans contain both soluble and insoluble fibre, they keep you regular. “When you’re trying to do an endurance sport, it can be disruptive to have digestive problems,” she says. A daily dose of one to two tablespoons of ground flaxseed tossed in your cereal nets you fibre without fuss.
Complex carbohydrates, protein and unsaturated fats – all the right elements to fuel activity – meet in one healthy little 290kJ, three tablespoon package. Plus, hummus is often made with olive oil, which contains oleic acid – a fat that helps cripple the gene responsible for 20 to 30 percent of breast cancers, according to researchers.
“They’re portable and a rich source of vitamin C,” Bonci says, “which helps repair muscle tissue.” One orange has all the C a woman needs each day – close to 75mg. Vitamin C is also key for making collagen, a tissue that helps keep bones strong.
Female soccer players kicked and sprinted just as well in the final minutes of a game as they did at the start when they added 55g of peanuts a day to their regular diet, Horvath says. The extra fat may help improve endurance by giving muscles energy to burn up front so they can spare muscle glycogen sto res later.
15. Baked Potatoes
Prone to perspiration? Four shakes of salt (about 1100mg of sodium) and a small baked potato is the perfect recipe for electrolyte replacement. “The electrolytes, sodium and potassium, help maintain fluid balance in and around cells and make sure muscles contract as they need to,” Bonci says.
Great for heart health, but here’s an added twist: new studies are suggesting that monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fats might help lessen abdominal fat. It’s too soon to understand the link, but “this could be particularly good for women working to tone their core,” Kleiner says.
17. Whey Protein
“Whey protein contains the ideal assortment of amino acids to repair and build muscle,” Kleiner says. Plus, it’s digested fast, so it gets to muscles quickly. Stir a scoop into a smoothie for a delicious boost before or after your next workout.
Immune-strengthening probiotics are always welcome, but the best thing about yoghurt is that it will spike your energy without making your stomach gurgle in yoga class. “It’s liquidy in consistency and because you can digest it quickly, it’s easy on the gut,” Bonci says.