Our top 10 fitness foods
Trying to get fit? Katie Hiscock's top 10 fitness foods will help fuel your body to get the most from your workouts and to aid recovery. Next time you're at the supermarket make sure you stock up on these staples...
With hydrating water, muscle-healing protein, refuelling sugar and bone-healthy calcium in every glass, milk is great for those upping their activity levels. A warm glass around bedtime may also help you drift off and get the rest you need, thanks to its slow-digesting casein proteins and ability to boost sleep-inducing serotonin and melatonin.
Chocolate milk is an age-old favourite for endurance athletes. It might sound unhealthy, but it works because it contains the two essential ingredients you need after a workout: carbs to give energy and protein to repair muscles. A homemade fruit milkshake or fruit smoothie does the same job.
2. Dried fruit
High in natural sugars, dried fruits (such as apricots, raisins and mango) give a concentrated source of carbohydrate, making them agreat energy booster. You'll also get a dose of fibre, potassium, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals with every mouthful.
If you can't stomach energy gels during long races, dried fruits are a great natural substitute as they pack in plenty of high GI carbs to give you energy. Aim for one or two servings before a race and two to three servings for every hour of running (one serving is roughly three dried figs). As with all foods, if competing, experiment with dried fruit during training runs rather than on competition day to avoid the dangers of a washing-machine stomach mid-race!
A compact boost of energy...
Dried fruit energy nuggets
3. Broccoli (and other green veg)
With free-radical-busting antioxidants, digestion-promoting fibre, plus a whole army of vitamins and minerals, broccoli along with kale, spinach and green cabbage are some of the most nutrient-dense foods you'll find in the supermarket. They are also a great source of folate (a natural-occuring folic acid), which is thought to be good for heart health and for women hoping to conceive.
When it comes to bone-building calcium, plant based foods such as broccoli and kale offer a healthy dose and can be a good alternative to dairy products. Low calcium levels make you more vulnerable to stress fractures, particularly if you do endurance sports, so make sure you get enough calcium in your diet - the NHS recommends 700mg for adults a day.
4. Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes are a good addition to a carb-loading diet before a long race, such as a half marathon. They are also high in the electrolyte potassium, which can help ward off muscle cramping during exercise.
As well as being loaded with vitamin C, tomatoes contain a powerful antioxidant called lycopene, which gives the fruit their lovelyletterbox-red colour. Lycopene has been making headlines for a few years now as a powerful nutrient to help prevent prostate cancer in men.
Tomatoes may also help with a weight-loss programme: the fruit has been linked with natural weight loss hormones in the body such as leptin, a type of protein which helps to regulate metabolic rate and appetite.
Bananas are the perfect fitness food: compact, unfussy, soft to chew, and packed with nutrients. Don't be too quick to bin the peel however - Taiwanese nutritionists found the peel is not only packed with even more potassium, but mood-boosting serotonin and eye-protecting lutein, too. Try the whole banana - peel and all - in a smoothie.
Bananas are slightly higher in energy than other fruits but the calories come mainly from carbohydrate, which makes them brilliant for refuelling before, during or after a workout. They're also packed with potassium, which may help with muscle cramps during exercise.
Combinations for extra energy...
7. Brazil nuts
All nuts are packed with vitamins, minerals and fibre, but Brazil nuts are also one of the few good sources of selenium, a mineral and micronutrient which helps to maintain a healthy immune system and can help protect against heart disease and cancers. The heart-healthy 'good' fats in nuts help to lower bad cholesterol levels, but be wary: they can be high in calories if you nibble too many.
Upping your exercise and activity levels can make you more hungry so it's important to choose snack foods that pack in nutrients and curb hunger pangs. Nuts fill you up far better than other snack foods so are a wise choice to beat the 4pm snack attack.
Add to homemade cereal...
Blueberries earned their 'superfood' status a few years ago, thanks to their high level of free-radical-beating antioxidants. Free radicals are thought to travel around your body damaging cells, causing disease, and triggering signs of premature aging. Berries are often lower in calories than other fruits, too.
Like dried fruit, fresh fruit is also good to eat during and after exercise since it contains high GI carbohydrate-packed sugars, which provide energy to muscles in the quickest way possible. Frozen blueberries (often far cheaper than fresh in the supermarket) are brilliant when whizzed up into a post-exercise smoothie to replenish your muscles' glycogen (energy) stores.
Salmon is a good source of Omega 3, a fatty acid that's believed to keep your heart healthy and slow down the effects of memory loss.
Pick protein for the perfect post-exercise meal. Protein rebuilds and repairs muscles so is the nutrient to fill up on after a workout. Protein-packed salmon is a great choice, as well as eggs and lean meats.
Cocoa is especially nutritious, rich in magnesium, antioxidants and amino acids. To get the full benefit you need to get as close to the whole bean as possible. Cocoa nibs or powder are best - sprinkle on yoghurt, fruit or add to granola.
One of the best things about doing regular exercise is that it allows you a little more leeway when it comes to naughty foods. And there's nothing wrong with treating yourself every now and again, is there? If you're after a sweet fix, pick dark chocolate over cake or other calorie-laden foods to get all the nutritional benefits of cocoa with less added sugar. The higher the cocoa content, the better - look out for bars containing 70% and over.
Low-fat dessert idea...
This article was reviewed on 7 September 2021.
Katie Hiscock is a fitness writer with diplomas in personal training and sports massage therapy. With an interest in sports nutrition, antenatal exercise and injury prevention, she works as a therapist for Brighton & Hove Albion.
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