People typically eat to satisfy hunger, or because it tastes good. But food can serve another purpose. The substances in the foods that you eat can drive different physiological functions. In an effort to understand this, I like to envision the following analogy. Think of your body as a “toolbox”, and the foods you consume as the “tools”. Your body uses the tools in the toolbox to “tune it up” and help it to run efficiently. So, it is important, especially as an endurance athlete, to make sure that your toolbox is equipped with a large variety of useful tools! You can’t repair a car, if the only available tools are a hammer and a screwdriver. The job may require a wrench, crow bar, blow torch, several different sized screws, etc., to fix it.
So how does food relate to this toolbox analogy? When you eat food, it is disassembled and the nutrients are utilized to perform different jobs within the body. Specifically, plant foods, foods that are derived from the earth and include nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. All of these are rich in a variety of nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Plant foods also contain a wealth of phytochemicals, which give fruits and vegetables their beautiful array of colors, and some of their tasty qualities.
Examples of phytochemicals include lycopene in tomatoes, beta-carotene in carrots, and ellagic acid in raspberries. It is estimated that there may be as many as 10,000 different phytochemicals in nature, although the exact number remains unknown. Minimally processed plant foods are our dietary source of phytochemicals.
So why are these phytochemicals important to you? When consumed, they perform a variety of functions within the body. Studies indicate that they may delay, or even prevent, the onset of chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease. Some phytochemicals may decrease inflammation, while others act as antioxidants, to protect DNA and cell membranes from damage. The phytochemicals found in blueberries and cherries may even aid in recovery from workouts.
So, what is the best plan for optimal health in endurance athletes? As we always do at the Core Diet, use what nature provided to heal your body quickly and effectively! Eat nutrient dense, minimally processed, plant foods. And, lots of them! Phytochemicals work in a synergistic manner, meaning their combined effects are greater than their individual effects. This means you need to eat a variety of whole, nutrient-rich plant foods daily. I don’t mean eat an apple, a banana, and orange every day. I recommend eating a large variety of different colored fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains, seeds, and beans, each and every day. Make a “South Western-inspired salad”, with fresh mixed dark greens, yellow, orange, and red bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, shredded carrots, corn, mango, cilantro, black beans, avocado and salsa – yum!
A few tips:
- Aim to eat at least one fruit and vegetable of every color, from white (garlic or cauliflower) to purple (blackberries or eggplant) everyday.
- Aim for 8-10 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables each day.
- Purchase one new fruit, vegetable, or whole grain every time you shop to increase the variety of plant foods consumed.
- Have different types of frozen vegetables, and add them to scrambled eggs.
- “Juice” with Swiss chard, beets, kale, ginger and add an apple for sweetness.
- Make a fruit smoothie with frozen mango, pineapple, tofu and mixed berries.
- Add chia seeds, flax seeds, or wheat germ to yogurt.
- Don’t forget to eat fresh and dried herbs, as they are rich in phytochemicals, too!
Remember to make your toolbox versatile and ready to “tune up” your body by eating your varied colors of plant foods. Your body will only have the variety of tools available if you eat them. That way, after a long bike ride and brick run, you have the tools needed to “patch the tire”, and get yourself back up and running as soon as possible!
Brooke Gowdy is a Registered Dietitian working with triathlon coach Jesse Kropelnicki of TheCoreDiet.com and QT2Systems.com. She holds a Bachelors and Masters degree in Nutrition. The Core Diet is a sports nutrition specialty group working with athletes from age groupers to world class professionals. Visit their website TheCoreDiet.com to explore how they can add a nutrition component to your own training, or coaching business and help you or your athletes achieve better body composition, health, and performance.