Day in and day out, you are working hard. Is your food?
Common knowledge tells us that we need food for energy but there is so much more. Functional food describes nutrients in foods that go beyond energy. It is the ability of these chemicals to give our bodies a super human boost that place them in a category all their own. The fundamental need of an athlete is energy balance—calories in must equal calories burned to allow for good recovery. It is these functional foods that will allow the athlete to progress from fundamental to skilled.
One class of functional foods is antioxidants. When contained in foods, vitamins A, C, E and Selenium act together with phytochemicals found in the pigments of fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants act as our bodies’ own special forces to fight off the damage that is caused at the cellular level from exercise and training. By preventing lactic acid formation and binding to out of control electrons, antioxidants prevent the damage from ever occurring.
Filled with sweet juice and wrapped in a bite-sized package, Mother Nature was on her A game when she created berries. Popping berries into your mouth while waiting for your turn on main court will not only give you a carbohydrate boost, but fill your body with vitamins A, C and Selenium and the electrolytes that your muscles require for good contraction. Research shows that consuming fruits and veggies high in antioxidants help the body to scavenge the free radicals produced during exercise to aid muscle recovery and to prevent soreness. Whether fresh, frozen, dried or juiced, these powerful foods fight wear and tear.
After a long match in the hot sun, cooling off and refueling are top priorities. Frozen grapes, blueberries and apple-berry sauce are the perfect solutions. Rehydration and refueling together with recovery and cooling make these snacks multitasking power foods. Freeze them overnight, take them to the beach or gym in your cooler with ice and enjoy. You will feel instantly refreshed by your nature-made popsicles.
New research has shed light on another food that packs a punch for environmental offenders—cherries. Gram for gram, a tart cherry has some of the most powerful antioxidant action of any fruit or vegetable. Consuming these morsels is easier said than done however, with tart cherry juice serving as your best option. Most health food stores sell tart cherry juice, but when concentrated, the juice loses most of its power. Look for fresh or frozen juice options to get the biggest benefit. While tart cherries remain the most powerful type of cherry, close behind are other varieties like bing and red cherries that are much easier to find at your local grocery store.
To prevent inflammation, overuse injuries and soreness, antioxidants need to be consumed throughout the day. Adding berries to yogurt in the morning, throwing some dried fruit or strawberries in a salad or having a delicious blueberry crisp for dessert will allow a fresh platoon of warriors every couple of hours. Throughout the day, a body needs at least five servings of fruits and vegetables to fill its antioxidant quota. Eating a variety of colors ensures that all vitamins and minerals are accounted for. With summer well on its way, take advantage of local farmers markets to pack your day full of functional foods.
Busy schedules, intense training and school or work often make fueling a side show rather that the main event. From apples to zucchini, the foods we choose should provide us with more than just a calories. With a little effort, the foods that you eat will be working for you: decreasing your time spent in recovery and increasing your time spent honing your skills.
Originally published in August 2011