Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Brain Benefit: A handful a day can keep Alzheimer’s away. A study done on a large group of elderly people found that those who regularly consumed nutrients such as unsaturated fats, vitamin E and folate from nuts were less likely to develop the disease compared to those who didn’t.
Best bets: Walnuts and almonds.
Training Benefit: Repairs muscle damage. Regular bouts of intense exercise, for all its glory, do produce some free radicals that can lead to soreness. Nuts are loaded with post-exercise defense nutrients such as vitamin E, magnesium, folate and fiber. Plus, the protein (four to six grams per one-ounce serving) strengthens immunity.
Brain Benefit: Helps you recall useful digits. Phone numbers, pin codes, gym lock combinations – if you forget them often, eat beef. Volunteers in an Australian study were better able to memorize long number sequences, after two weeks of supplementing their diet with five grams of creatine monohydrate (equivalent to one pound of red meat). The researchers say that having higher creatine levels in the brain ups thinking capacity overall.
Training Benefit: Burns fat, builds muscle. Red meat is the best source of iron and zinc. You need iron for oxygenating your muscles and zinc for immune support to help you recover, repair and grow after exercise. For even more bang for your nutritional bite, buy grass-fed beef. It’s a significant source of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which has been shown to reduce body fat by helping you maintain insulin sensitivity.
Brain Benefit: Beats the blues and bolsters memory. People who eat the most fish are less depressed, shows population studies. One study found that of more than 3,000 participants, those who ate tuna and other types of fish at least three times per week had a significantly lower risk of age-related memory loss and stroke. DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid obtained from fatty fish, powers up brain cell membranes and improves memory and learning.
Training Benefit: By reducing the release of certain inflammatory markers in the blood, omega-3 fats help ward off a host of ailments. More omega-3 fats in the diet can favorably increase these fats in muscle cell membranes, which makes the cells more “fluid” allowing for quicker delivery of nutrients in and out of the cells. This may translate to a faster metabolism to aid performance and speed up weight loss.
Brain Benefit: A bite-sized piece fights off fatigue. Chocolate lovers rejoice! Eating it may boost alertness, according to research from the University of Nottingham. Flavanols found in cocoa are responsible for aiding mental acuity by boosting blood flow to certain areas of the brain for up to three hours according to the study. However, the researchers note that this effect is most felt in a sleep-deprived state.
Training Benefit: Wards off fat buildup. Rich in catechins, dark chocolate may aid weight loss since catechins can help to increase thermogenesis, the calories you burn while digesting food. What’s more, the more bitter the chocolate, the more fat-burning catechins they contain.
Best Bet: One ounce of 82 percent extra-dark chocolate.
Brain Benefit: A cup a day keeps your mood at bay. Beans, peas, legumes and especially lentils are the richest whole-food sources of folate, a B vitamin that strongly affects mood and cognitive function. Folate is necessary for building new brain cells, and falling short on folic acid could lead to an increased susceptibility to oxidative damage of brain cells. In fact, a folate deficiency has been observed in up to 38 percent of patients diagnosed with depression.
Training Benefit: Builds muscle, quells cravings. One cup of beans contains 16 grams of muscle-building protein and a good dose of magnesium, which aids nerve function. Plus beans have about 16 grams of appetite-controlling fiber.
Brain Benefit: Boosts the happy hormone. Carbohydrates stimulate the release of serotonin, the famed hormone that makes you feel calm, sometimes sleepy and better able to tolerate pain. Only whole grains, not the processed kind, provide vitamin B-6, which helps serotonin work better. According to a study in the Journal of Neuroscience Nursing, a lack of B-6 can cause nervousness, irritability and even depression.
Training Benefit: Aids muscle repair and fat burning. Whole grains offer immune enhancing zinc, plus vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps ward off post-exercise oxidative stress. To top it off, whole grains have just the right amount of magnesium and manganese to help ensure that carbs are used immediately for energy instead of being stored as fat.
Brain Benefit: Keeps your mind nimble as you age. There’s no getting around it: getting older makes your brain more vulnerable to oxidative stress. But studies show that anthocyanins from blueberries offer antioxidant and anti-inflammatory power that reduce the damaging effect of aging such as Alzheimer’s and other age-related diseases. Other components of blueberries have also been shown to improve memory, focus and concentration.
Training Benefit: Nurses post-exercise damage. Because exercise increases your metabolism and causes you to breath in more oxygen, you naturally create more free radicals in your body. Fortunately antioxidants in blueberries have been shown to help counterbalance some of that oxidative stress, so you have a lower chance of getting sore muscles.
Brain Benefit: Improves memory. The antioxidant cocktail contained in leafy greens (vitamin C, beta- and alpha-carotene and vitamin K), has been shown to boost memory and the ability to learn new tasks from past examples (something called concept learning) in older people. So when you’re gray and still active, performing new training moves will be a cinch.
Training Benefit: Fights inflammation. Maybe advertisers should start putting pictures of athletes on leafy green vegetables instead of on cereal boxes. Studies have shown that active people who don’t eat many antioxidant-rich foods have higher levels of perceived exertion and inflammatory markers than athletes who do eat a diet rich in vegetables and fruits.