By Dr. Mercola
If optimal fitness is your goal, there's no getting around your diet. That's right, fitness is not all about designing the ideal workout plan, as your diet can easily make or break an otherwise excellent regimen.
Knowing which foods and specific nutrients deliver the most bang for your buck in terms of supporting your fitness goals can go a long way.
First and foremost, however, keep in mind that while pre-packaged processed foods may be convenient, cooking from scratch using fresh unprocessed ingredients is an absolute must if you want to improve your health.
Processing tends to denature nutrients, so what you end up with is typically a far inferior version compared to the real thing.
Fitness-Boosting Foods and Helpful Supplements
Here, I'll review eight of my top picks for "most valuable fitness foods," and the featured article in Men's Fitness magazine lists another 20. I don't agree with all of their selections however, such as pasteurized milk and yoghurt, unfermented soy products, and whole wheat bread. To find out why, check out the hyperlinks provided.
The following eight however, are foods and specific nutrients that I believe are among the most helpful, in terms of supporting your fitness and overall good health. Aim to incorporate as many of these foods into your diet on a daily or weekly basis, and you'll be off to a great start. Keep in mind that all of the items on this list should be organic, and if possible grass-fed/pastured or wild.
If you're like most people—including many athletes—you're probably eating too many carbs. Your body's need for sugar is, biologically, very small. And when you consume more than you need, your body turns it into fat.
Remember, you do not get fat from eating healthy fats—you get fat from eating too many carbs (sugar). Hence, what you'll find on my list are primarily healthful fats, which is what you'll want to replace the lost carbs with for energy, along with high-quality proteins and a couple of specific nutrients that are particularly beneficial for boosting athletic performance.
Remember: you cannot exercise your way out of a bad diet, and the first step toward improving your diet is to cut out as much sugar/fructose and grain-carbs as possible, and replace the carbs with healthful fats, and a moderate amount of high-quality protein.
#1 Whole, Fresh Avocado
Avocado, which is classified as a fruit, are rich in monounsaturated fat that is easily burned for energy. As I've mentioned before, eliminating grain carbs is one of the best ways to support your health and maintain your weight, but when you cut down on carbs, you need to increase your intake of healthy fats. Avocados are an excellent source, along with organic raw butter, coconut oil, and organic pastured eggs, just to name a few.
Healthful fats provide an ideal form of fuel for sustained energy during a workout. It's far better than carb-loading for most people. I've previously written about the importance of avoiding fructose and grains before and after a workout, as sugar will negate many of the benefits you reap from exercise.
This is especially true if you do high intensity exercises, which will boost your body's production of human growth hormone (HGH). Consuming carbs within a couple of hours prior to or after such exercise will effectively prevent HGH from being produced.
There's also evidence suggesting that limiting your intake of protein can be helpful for long-term good health and the prevention of cancer. At the very least, most people are consuming far too much poor-quality protein, such as beef and animal products from livestock raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Here again, if you cut down on protein, you need to replace lost calories with healthy fats such as avocados, coconut oil, olives, olive oil, butter and nuts.
Overall, most people would do well to get upwards of 50-70 percent fat in their diet (along with high amounts of vegetable carbs, moderate-to-low amounts of high-quality protein, and very little, if any, carbs). According to the California Avocado Commission, a medium Hass avocado contains about 22.5 grams of fat, two-thirds of which is monounsaturated. They're also very low in fructose, which is yet another boon.
Avocados are also very high in potassium and will help balance your vitally important potassium to sodium ratio, and it enables your body to more efficiently absorb fat-soluble nutrients, such as alpha- and beta-carotene and lutein, in other foods eaten in conjunction. You can review additional information on avocados by visiting my What are Avocados Good For page.
#2: Organic Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is nature's richest source of healthy medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), which your body sends directly to your liver to use as energy.1 This makes coconut oil a powerful source of instant energy to your body, a function usually served in the diet by simple carbohydrates. Numerous studies have shown that MCFAs promote weight loss2 and help improve insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance. Additionally, research has demonstrated that, due to its beneficial metabolic effect, coconut oil also increases the activity of your thyroid. A sluggish thyroid is one reason why some people are unable to lose weight, no matter what they do.
Half of the fat content in coconut oil is lauric acid—a fat rarely found in nature—that could easily qualify as a "miracle" ingredient because of its unique health promoting properties. Your body converts lauric acid into monolaurin, which has anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-protozoa properties, for example.
You can add raw organic coconut oil to green juices, smoothies, and even coffee (in lieu of sugar). It's also the ideal choice for all types of cooking. In fact, it's the only oil stable enough to resist mild heat-induced damage. So, whenever you need an oil to cook or bake with, use coconut oil instead of butter, olive oil, vegetable oil, margarine, or any other type of oil called for in recipes.
#3: Wild Alaskan Salmon
Wild Alaskan salmon is an excellent source of essential animal-based omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA), high-quality protein, as well as astaxanthin and other antioxidants—all of which are important nutrients for fitness. Over the last several years, I've vigilantly warned against eating most fish, as virtually all fish these days contains dangerously high levels of mercury and other toxic contaminants. If it wasn't for the health risks posed by this contamination, fish in general would be among my absolute most recommended foods for their outstanding nutritional benefits, including high levels of omega-3 with DHA and EPA, which most people are desperately lacking in their diets.
However, there are still some exceptions, and wild Alaskan salmon is one of them, as long as its purity can be verified. This was so important to me personally; I did loads of research to find a trusted source of Wild Alaskan salmon that passed third-party testing by an independent lab. I strongly recommend avoiding farmed fish though, particularly farmed salmon, and even more specifically genetically engineered farmed salmon.
#4: Organic Pastured Eggs
Proteins are nutrients that are essential to the building, maintenance and repair of your body tissues such as your skin, internal organs and muscles. They are also the major components of your immune system and hormones. Proteins are found in all types of food, but only foods from animal sources, such as meat and eggs contain complete proteins, meaning they provide the eight essential amino acids.
Eggs, as well as the chickens they come from, are both healthful sources of protein but ONLY if raised the way nature intended. True free-range eggs, now increasingly referred to as "pasture-raised," come from hens that roam freely outdoors on a pasture where they can forage for their natural diet, which includes seeds, green plants, insects, and worms. Barring organic certification, which is cost-prohibitive for many small farmers, you could just make sure the farmer raises his chickens according to organic, free-range standards, allowing his flock to forage freely for their natural diet, and aren't fed antibiotics, corn and soy.
Testing3 has confirmed that true free-range eggs are far more nutritious than commercially raised eggs. The dramatically superior nutrient levels are most likely the result of the differences in diet between free ranging, pastured hens and commercially farmed hens. Besides high-quality protein, pasture-raised eggs also contain healthful saturated fats and cholesterol—both of which your body actually needs for optimal health.
You can usually tell the eggs are free range or pastured by the color of the egg yolk. Foraged hens produce eggs with bright orange yolks. Dull, pale yellow yolks are a sure sign you're getting eggs form caged hens that are not allowed to forage for their natural diet. Cornucopia.org offers a helpful organic egg scorecard that rates egg manufacturers based on 22 criteria that are important for organic consumers.
Ideally, you'll want to eat your eggs raw, or as close to raw as possible. Keep in mind that the closer to raw you eat them, the more important it is to make sure the eggs are truly organic and pasture-raised, as CAFO-raised eggs are far more prone to be contaminated with pathogenic bacteria like salmonella. If you choose not to eat your egg yolks raw, poached or soft-boiled would be the next best option. Scrambled or fried eggs are the worst, as this oxidizes the cholesterol in the egg yolk. Egg yolks also contain valuable antioxidants,4 which are reduced by as much as 50 percent when the egg is fried or boiled.
#5: Organic Pasture-Raised Chicken
The foods you eat after exercise produce different effects on your body's metabolism, so planning your post-workout meal is an important factor. Research has shown that aerobic exercise most effectively enhances insulin sensitivity when your post-workout meal has relatively low carbohydrate content.
After a cardiovascular workout, wait 30-45 minutes, and then consume a high-quality source of protein (whole food) along with a vegetable-type carbohydrate. An example would be a spinach salad and some chicken. The reason why you'll want to wait a bit after the session to eat is to ride the fat burning wave of your cardio session. However, waiting more than an hour is typically too long, and can start to slow down your metabolism because your body goes into starvation mode.
As mentioned above, organic free-range chicken is an excellent source of protein and essential amino acids for muscle growth and maintenance. Organic chicken is also raised without the use of antibiotics (which are often used to promote growth in confined animal feeding operations, aka CAFOs). This is another important aspect, as over half of the antibiotics fed to mass-produced farm animals, including chickens, are identical to the ones administered to humans, and overuse of such antibiotics is the primary driver of antibiotic-resistant disease. Antibiotics also kill off beneficial bacteria in your gut, which can lead to chronic gut problems when consumed on a regular basis.
#6: Antibiotic Free, Grass-Fed Whey Protein
Whey protein, which is derived from milk, is considered the gold standard of protein by many, and is one of the best types of foods you can consume before and after exercise. This is particularly true after a resistance or strength training workout, when you need a meal that can be rapidly absorbed. Here, whey protein is an ideal choice, along with a higher glycemic (fast released, starchy) carbohydrate, such as a banana. The potassium in the banana seems to help with recovery. Ideally, you'll want to consume it 15-30 minutes after your intense weight training session.
If you want, you can take 20 grams of whey protein (make sure there's no added sugar) 30 minutes before exercise, and another serving about 30 minutes afterward. This can help increase both fat burning and muscle building. According to a 2010 study,5 consuming whey protein (20g protein / serving) 30 minutes before resistance training can boost your body's metabolism for as much as 24 hours after your workout.
If you are only going to do one whey meal, then your post-workout meal is the most crucial, especially if your aim is to increase your muscle growth.
It appears as though the amino acids found in high-quality whey protein activate certain cellular mechanisms (including mTORC-1), which in turn promote muscle protein synthesis, boost thyroid, and also protect against declining testosterone levels after exercise. This is in stark contrast to athletes who load up on carbs to fuel their workouts. As mentioned earlier, "carb loading" is a mistake, particularly for people engaged in intense strength training, as you will burn carb fuel very quickly and then "hit the wall." The same goes for most people who start their day with muffins, bagels, or pancakes for example. This type of breakfast typically ignites a vicious cycle of hunger and snacking on even more carbs. And the more you continue eating these carb snacks, the more insulin resistant you become.
Since whey protein is a by-product of dairy, it's important to make sure it's derived from grass-fed, non-hormonally treated cows. It should also be minimally processed in order to preserve beneficial immuno components such as immunoglobins, bovine serum albomin, lactoferins, and other key amino acids and nutrients.
Most commercial whey products are derived from pasteurized dairy and processed with heat and acid, which destroys the whey's fragile Immuno components and damages important amino acids. Many of them also contain chemical additives, detergents and artificial sweeteners, which are known for their health shattering effects. And contrary to popular belief, artificial sweeteners actually sabotageyour weight loss efforts by impairing your ability to regulate your appetite naturally.
Astaxanthin is a natural compound that clinical studies have shown helps increase strength and stamina, decrease post-exertion recovery time, and decrease soreness after physical activity, which is why it's on this list. It's also thought to be one of the most potent antioxidants currently known, with a wide range of health benefits over and beyond those mentioned here. One of the benefits of astaxanthin that has piqued the interest of researchers though is its ability to enhance athletic performance.
Reports of significant health improvements from astaxanthin supplementation have come in from athletes all over the world. For example, Tim Marr, a professional triathlete in Honolulu, Hawaii, suffered from overuse injuries and sun overexposure from rigorously training in the intense Hawaiian sun. Since starting a natural astaxanthin supplement, he's experienced significantly fewer overuse injuries and fewer adverse reactions to the sun. Marr credits astaxanthin with helping him achieve his goals and says the supplement is now one of his favorite tools as a professional athlete. I'd say it's working—he went on to win the 2006 Pan American Long Distance Triathlon.
There are only two main sources of natural astaxanthin—the microalgae that produce it, and the sea creatures that consume the algae (such as salmon, shellfish, and krill). Most of astaxanthin's benefits come from its powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Inflammation can slow an athlete down and cost him or her valuable training days. If you are a professional athlete, you can't afford to take time off to recover from fatigue or sore joints and muscles. So anything that can reduce inflammation will undoubtedly augment your athletic capacity—and astaxanthin is one of the most effective natural inflammatories there is. It has the ability to travel to every cell, tissue and organ in your body and helps your physical performance in the following ways:
Scavenging free radicals in your energy-producing mitochondrial cells Decreasing muscle inflammation Improving visual acuity and depth perception Decreasing oxidative damage to your cell membranes and DNA Reducing lactic acid in your muscles (a byproduct of physical exertion) Improving sun tolerance and reducing your tendency to sunburn
#8: Rhodiola Rosea
The perennial plant Rhodiola Rosea has also been found to have exercise benefits. It's known as an "adaptogen," which can help your body adapt to physical, chemical, and environmental stress, and is used by many athletes for improving athletic performance6 and shortening recovery time between workouts. According to a 2004 study,7 extracts of Rhodiola rosea radix had an anti-inflammatory effect on healthy untrained volunteers, before and after bouts of exhausting exercise. It also protected muscle tissue during exercise. According to the abstract:
"Professional athletes effectively use Rhodiola rosea ('golden radix') extract as a safe nonsteroid food additive improving endurance and rapid recovery of muscles during several decades. Rhodiola rosea extract improves muscle work due to mobilization and more economic expenditure of energy resources of muscles. The use of adaptogens including R. rosea improved physical endurance of male athletes, reducing blood lactate level and accelerating recovery after exhausting exercise."
Other studies have similarly found that Rhodiola can significantly increase time to exhaustion during exercise,8 reduce C reactive protein levels and improve neuromotoric fitness.
For example, a 2003 animal study9 found that rats given 50 mg/kg of Rhodiola rosea extract along with the same amount of Rhodiola crenulata root, prolonged the duration of exhaustive swimming the rats were capable of by nearly 25 percent. This improvement was found to be due to the extracts' ability to activate the synthesis or resynthesis of ATP in mitochondria. The extracts also stimulated reparative energy processes that take place post-exercise. Rhodiola rosea was determined to be the most effective of the two extracts for improving physical working capacity.
Remember: Avoid Sugar Before, During and After Exercise!
Besides knowing which foods will help you optimize your exercise efforts, you also want to pay careful attention to what NOT to eat. To maximize the benefits of exercise, including weight loss benefits, you'll want to carefully avoid fruit juices, energy drinks, sports drinks, most energy bars, and other sweetened beverages like Vitamin Water.
These, and virtually all other processed foods and beverages, contain high amounts of sugar, including fructose, which will effectively sabotage your efforts and nullify many of the benefits of exercise. Remember, 80 percent of the benefits you reap from a healthy lifestyle comes from you diet, and the remaining 20 percent from exercise. Exercise cannot counteract the harmful effects of a high-fructose diet.
Fructose fools your metabolism and essentially tricks your body into gaining weight by turning off your body's appetite-control system. It also rapidly leads to weight gain and abdominal obesity ("beer belly"), decreased HDL, increased LDL, elevated triglycerides, elevated blood sugar, and high blood pressure -- i.e., classic metabolic syndrome.
Additionally, consuming fructose, including that from fruit juices, within two hours of a high-intensity workout will decimate your natural human growth hormone (HGH) production - a MAJOR benefit of interval training. This happens because fructose increases production of the hormone somatostatin, a primary purpose of which is to inhibit the production of HGH...
Granted, there is a small group of elite and highly competitive athletes for whom increasing growth hormone is not a primary goal. For these athletes, consuming some carbs, preferably dextrose-based, in the recovery period is probably a good idea to improve their recovery time and will help to maximize their athletic performance. Since they're competing, they're less likely to be concerned about long-term growth hormone levels. But for most others, increasing HGH through high intensity interval exercise is an important factor for optimizing health, so most of my readers will want to heed to the sugar and juice restriction.
Aside from avoiding fructose like the plague, remember to combine a quality protein with a veggie-type carb in every meal, no matter whether it's a resistance training day, an interval cardio day, or a non-workout day. However, after strength training (as opposed to cardio training), your body tends to need more rapidly absorbed nutrients and a higher glycemic (fast released, starchy) carbohydrate. Another slight difference between interval cardio and strength training days is the timing of your meal.
- After cardio, you want to wait 30-45 minutes, and then consume a high-quality protein (whole food) and vegetable-type carbohydrate. (An example would be a spinach salad and some chicken, or high-quality whey protein).
- After a resistance workout (muscle-building day), the ideal time to consume your post-workout meal is 15-30 minutes after finishing your session, in order to help repair your damaged muscles. Here, whey protein is an ideal choice as it's predigested and therefore rapidly digested and easily assimilated, along with a higher glycemic (fast released, starchy) carbohydrate, such as a banana.