Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Once upon a time, it was simple to go grocery shopping, but every week, there seems to be a new hyped-up food or magic metabolic elixir fighting for a spot in your shopping cart.
Forget Instagrammable food trends and focus instead on functional foods, those that continually produce results both in and out of the gym. Choosing your foods wisely will improve performance, body composition and energy levels. Here are our picks for the most awesome scientifically supported foods for athletes, as well as some we think are overrated.
Your morning brew just got a whole lot sweeter: In a recent study, scientists found that drinking caffeinated coffee before a high-intensity workout like sprinting or weight training boosted performance by reducing the rate of perceived exertion and increasing energy. The most effective, scientifically determined dose of caffeine is about 300 milligrams; any more than that and you could actually impair rather than improve performance. Additionally, one serving of coffee contains more antioxidants than many other things in your diet, making it one of the healthiest beverages in the world.
Beets (aka Beetroot)
Beets are packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents that help athletes recover faster. They are also an all-natural source of nitrates, which are converted to nitric oxide in the body, opening blood vessels and allowing more blood, nutrients and oxygen to be delivered to muscles, improving performance, recovery and tissue repair. Researchers tested the effects of drinking beet juice preworkout in sprinting sports like running, cycling, BMX and speedskating. Athletes who drank half a cup (4 to 5 ounces) of beet juice reduced the time it took them to reach peak power, which meant better acceleration during their high-intensity sessions.
Egg whites are a great low-cal source of protein, but if you’re still pitching out all the yolks for your morning omelet, you may be missing out. Scientists had subjects eat either three whole eggs or five egg whites (the equivalent of 18 grams of protein for each) after a leg workout. Those who ate the whole eggs experienced greater protein synthesis than those who ate egg whites alone, which means more muscle growth. The suggested reason: The nutrients in the yolks helped facilitate the synthesis process better than egg whites alone.
Cottage Cheese and Greek Yogurt
Greek yogurt and cottage cheese are great sources of bone-building nutrients such as calcium, as well as casein, a form of protein that contains a lot of leucine, the amino acid shown to have excellent muscle-building potential. A diet rich in protein such as casein promotes fat loss because your body has to work harder to digest, therefore burning more calories and boosting metabolism. A ¾- to 1-cup serving of cottage cheese or Greek yogurt makes a great snack any time of day.
Just as there are probiotic bacteria in your gut that keep you healthy and improve digestion, there are also bad bacteria that can proliferate, causing inflammation and illness. In order to nurture the good while exterminating the bad, you should eat probiotic foods such as yogurt as well as seaweed, which contains a rare carbohydrate that feeds and nourishes the good bacteria. A recent study published in the journal Nature revealed that a diet rich in nori, the kind of seaweed used to make sushi rolls, helps the good bacteria in the gut thrive, creating an optimal environment for healthy digestion. Experts recommend eating about 5 grams of seaweed per day, but unless you live in Japan, that is probably a tall order, so enjoy a sushi hand roll or two whenever you get the chance.
For some reason these days, people fear fruit, especially bananas. However, one medium banana contains only about 100 calories, 27 grams of carbs and 4 grams of fiber. Bananas also offer the perfect blend of carbs and electrolytes such as potassium and sodium needed to fuel workouts — more than any commercial sports drink. In fact, researchers compared bananas to sports drinks both before and during endurance activity and heavy-exertion workouts. While both improved performance and energy, bananas also helped reduce inflammation, which means better recovery after a strenuous workout.
Bone broth is the new postworkout phenomenon — and with good reason. This low-cal beverage is rich in chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine, the structural components of joints, as well as collagen, the protein that promotes healthy bones, skin, hair and nails. It also contains a myriad amino acids that promote muscle building and repair and several that support metabolic function such as glycine, glutamine and arginine. Athletes also may use bone broth after training to replenish fluids and lost electrolytes, such as sodium, magnesium and potassium.
Peanut Butter Powder and Reduced-Fat Peanut Butter
Sounds good in theory — peanut butter minus some of the calories — and using the powder in your shaker bottle postworkout is a breeze. However, the very thing you’re eliminating from peanut butter is the most beneficial of its nutrients: the fat. Regular peanut butter contains a wealth of heart-healthy fats as well as vitamin E, and choosing a reduced-fat or powdered version robs you of those healthy nutrients. Additionally, the fat removed from a lower-fat product is usually replaced by sugar, corn syrup solids or other starchy fillers, so in the end, it’s not a reduced-calorie food at all. So while there are some valid uses for the powdered version — since it does contain some quality protein and other vitamins you need — if you are eating peanut butter for its full spectrum of health benefits, stick with the real, sticky thing.
Artificially Sweetened Products
It’s tempting to enjoy sweets without the added sugar and calories, but what are you really putting into your body? Turns out, those colorful little packets may be holding you back from reaching your fat-loss goals. Artificial sweeteners have been shown in numerous studies to induce an insulin response, despite the lack of actual glucose (sugar) in the food. Continually inducing this response can lead to insulin resistance, a metabolic nightmare that prevents the body from breaking down fat as fuel. If a lean physique is your goal, skip the sugar-free products and get used to drinking your coffee black — or with just a touch of real sugar.
The movement toward a more plant-based diet has made nondairy yogurt more popular. But while tasty, this sub-in does not compare nutritionally to regular yogurt. Nondairy yogurts can be made with soy, almond and/or coconut milks and contain little to no protein. Also, manufacturers often add sugar and artificial thickeners to improve the flavor and consistency of the product. Unless you’re allergic to dairy, then skip these alternatives and stick with regular or Greek yogurt or give Icelandic Skyr a try — it’s slightly thicker than Greek yogurt and less tangy.
If you’re drinking almond milk for a protein boost, you’re pinning your tail on the wrong donkey butt. While it does contain plenty of vitamins and minerals, almond milk has only 1 gram of protein per serving as compared to about 8 grams in a cup of dairy milk. If lactose is your qualm, check out some of the new, alternative products popping up on shelves. For instance, ultra-filtered milk is regular milk that is passed through a series of filters that remove specific, individual components, resulting in a product with more protein and calcium, less sugar and no lactose. There’s also A2 milk, which contains the A2 form of beta-casein, the protein that makes up about 30 percent of the protein in cow’s milk. A2 milk is digested more easily, resulting in very few symptoms of stomach discomfort, gas, bloating and diarrhea.
Move over butter — MCTs (medium-chain triglyceride) are claiming that spot in your Bulletproof Coffee. Because of their structure, MCTs are easily digested in your liver, where they have been shown to produce a thermogenic effect. Adding coconut oil — which is about 65 percent MCTs — or straight MCT oil to your coffee is believed to accelerate fat loss, boost energy and improve well-being. This may very well be true. However, MCT oil is not a magic weight-loss pill, and in fact, overdoing it can cause weight gain. In the end, MCTs are still fats and are highly caloric by nature, so be conservative with their use and don’t rely solely on them to strip your body of fat.
Commercial Acai Bowls
Acai in and of itself is awesome and contains loads of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals as well as fiber, protein and healthy fats. However, an average 16-ounce acai bowl from a restaurant or commercial establishment has about 41 grams of sugar* — and this is without any toppings or add-ins at all. Instead of getting one out and about, make your own at home: Buy unsweetened frozen acai berries and blend them with your favorite frozen fruits and a splash of water or milk. Toss in a scoop of protein powder or plain Greek-style yogurt for a protein boost.
*A small-size bowl from Planet Smoothie
Is it legit or pure hype? The verdict is still out. Researchers have not found enough evidence to show that alkaline water — which is rich in alkalizing compounds such as calcium, silica, potassium, magnesium and bicarbonate — has the ability to neutralize the acid in your bloodstream, enabling your body to better metabolize nutrients. If better pH balance is what you’re after, drink mineral water instead, or simply toss a little baking soda and/or lemon juice into tap water to make your own alkaline water on the cheap.