The air is abuzz with excitement as the Summer Olympics get underway. With the opening ceremony kicking off today (Aug. 5), let’s take this time to learn about a whole different set of superstars: the foods and nutrients that keep us healthy, ready to attack any fitness goal and go for the gold!
Water is a true undefeated champion when it comes to fueling your fitness. Proper hydration is the foundation to victory, whether you’re a casual gym-goer or an elite Olympic weightlifter.
Water performs a number of vital functions in our bodies. In addition to making up the majority of our organs and tissues, water transports nutrients through our cells for absorption and processing–especially important before and after exercise, as nutrient stores are constantly being depleted and refilled.
Water also protects and lubricates our joints by hydrating the cartilage between our bones, stopping painful bone-on-bone contact when engaging in physical activity.
Lastly, water regulates body temperature during exercise through perspiration, which prevents cramps and heatstroke. Look to a variety of choices for hydration, including water, sports drinks, sparkling water, or fruit juices.
Functional foods beat out the competition by packing a serious nutritional punch in a small package. Functional foods provide intrinsic health benefits beyond simply the value of their individual nutrients.
Yogurt and other fermented dairy products act as probiotics by introducing “good” bacteria into our digestive systems, which can improve immune function and nutrient absorption. Soybeans have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease while lowering LDL and total cholesterol, in part due to their high flavonoid (a class of compounds found naturally in plant foods) content. In addition, soy products such as tofu and soymilk can also help preserve bone mass, an important attribute that makes it a great choice for active individuals. Budding research suggests that some flavonoids, specifically those found in kale, onions, and apples, can even augment endurance and aerobic performance.
Unsaturated fats will always have a spot on the podium. Often referred to as “healthful fats,” this nutrient group includes mono- and polyunsaturated varieties. Unsaturated fat is truly a team player that brings a variety of health and fitness benefits, especially in terms of cardiovascular health.
A diet rich in unsaturated fat can lower LDL (“bad” cholesterol”), triglycerides, and even the risk of coronary artery disease. Cardiovascular health is key to any fitness routine. Fat also acts as the main energy source for low intensity long-distance and endurance exercise, producing roughly three times more energy per molecule when compared to glucose.
Good sources of unsaturated fat include olive oil, canola and other vegetable oils, avocados, fatty fish such as tuna and salmon, nuts and seeds.
The grains group is the MVP that gives us the endurance and strength for physical activity. The two major categories within the group are whole grains (unprocessed grains which include all parts of the plant), and enriched refined grains (processed and nutrient-enhanced grain products in which the bran and germ have been removed).
Whole grains typically contain more fiber and are associated with improved cardiovascular and digestive health. Enriched refined grains are fortified with additional iron and B-vitamins, including thiamin, niacin, and riboflavin, which are vital components of energy production. However, both types of grains provide us with carbohydrates, which are converted to glucose and stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. Glycogen is consumed as a rapidly-releasing energy source during high intensity exercise, so it is important to refuel with grains after strenuous exercise.
Sources of grains include rice, cereal, pasta, bread, and crackers. Try to choose whole grain products for at least half of your daily grains intake.
Protein is unmatched when comes to building muscles. While sometimes protein is thought of as singular in function, it actually does more for our fitness than helping us achieve bulging biceps.
Protein is necessary for manufacturing different hormones and enzymes in our bodies. These compounds play an integral role in muscular growth and development, appetite regulation and energy production.
Protein has been shown to be an effective tool in achieving satiety and weight management. Increased protein consumption can also greatly enhance bone density and strength, reducing the risk of fractures or breaks during physical activity.
Choose beans, soy, dairy products like yogurt, seafood, and lean cuts of beef and poultry to power up your protein intake.
While each of these nutrients or food categories is a star player in their own right, fitness and health are a team effort. Remember to consume a balanced diet with foods from each group in order to achieve a winning result.