It’s easy to envy the chiseled, uber-lean physiques of professional athletes and assume they subsist on protein powders, energy bars or other supplements to maintain their competition-ready shapes. But as a sports nutritionist who’s worked with numerous elite-level athletes including cyclists, swimmers, triathletes and CrossFit competitors, I know they achieve optimal results from consistently eating nutritious, real foods, like these 10 powerhouses:
There are plenty of good reasons why most athletes love bananas. One study reported that eating half a banana every 15 minutes during a cycling time trial test was as effective as drinking a sports drink with the same carbohydrate content every 15 minutes. If you’re active, bananas are a great option to fuel your muscles while providing antioxidants and other nutrients that sports drinks lack – without any added sugars.
Eat to win: Enjoy bananas on their own or slice and eat them with toast, oatmeal or cereal before exercise or blend them into a recovery smoothie after your workout.
With 6 grams of protein in one large egg and all nine muscle-building essential amino acids, eggs are considered the gold-standard for quality protein. They’re one of the few food sources to provide leucine, considered the most essential amino acid for muscle protein synthesis. Research indicates that eating 20 to 30 grams of leucine-rich foods like eggs promotes muscle recovery and growth post-exercise. Eggs also provide 13 other essential nutrients, all for 70 calories per large egg.
Eat to win: An egg-based breakfast is a great option to keep your hunger in check well into your day. Post-workout, enjoy an egg salad sandwich or egg and potato scramble for the perfect combo of quality protein and carbs.
3. Greek Yogurt
Greek yogurt is strained to make it thicker and more concentrated so it provides more protein per ounce than regular yogurt. A serving has about 20 to 25 grams of protein – equivalent to 4 ounces of lean beef – making it a post-workout must-have.
Eat to win: Use Greek yogurt in recovery smoothies, mix it with fruit and oats for a snack or scoop it on top of oatmeal for a satisfying first meal.
If you’re most sore a day or two after workouts, eating more anti-inflammatory foods after exercise may help reduce pain, improve mobility and accelerate recovery. Mangoes contain several anti-inflammatory compounds, including vitamin C, beta carotene, gallic acid and gallotannins. A cup of mango packs in 100 percent of your daily vitamin C and 35 percent of your vitamin A for just 100 calories.
Eat to win: Enjoy mango salsa with meat, seafood or poultry to boost the absorption of iron. For breakfast, add sliced mango to your oatmeal or make this performance-enhancing chia-mango pudding.
Many top athletes fuel up in the a.m. with a hearty bowl of oatmeal, muesli or overnight oats. Oats provide slow-to-digest complex carbohydrates and have a carb-to-protein ratio of 4 to 1 to help provide sustained energy. A cup has 150 calories, 27 carbs, 6 grams of protein and no added sugar. The combo of wholesome carbs and protein keeps athletes fuller, longer.
Eat to win: To start your day, enjoy oats with berries and Greek yogurt or nut butter. Overnight oats can be packed in your gym bag for a wholesome recovery meal. To up the protein for recovery, add in a dollop of nut butter or Greek yogurt.
Carbs are the body’s go-to fuel source for working muscles, and reams of research prove that getting an adequate amount of quality carbs in your diet can be a performance-enhancer. One study of marathon runners reported that those who ate more than 3 grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight ran, on average, 13.4 percent faster than runners who ate fewer carbs. Pasta is favorite for professional athletes because it’s a nutrient-rich complex carb that provides steady energy, thanks to its low glycemic index. A cup of cooked pasta has 200 calories, 42 grams of complex carbs and 7 grams of protein.
Eat to win: Partner pasta with other healthy power foods, such as lean protein and veggies, like in this Buddha bowl recipe.
More than 1,000 research articles document the benefits of pomegranates and its juice. Not only is it rich in vitamin C and potassium, preliminary research reveals that the antioxidants in the fruit are good for your muscles too. Results from two recent studies, for example, show that active people who drank pomegranate juice daily had improved muscle strength post-exercise.
Eat to win: Use pomegranate juice with fresh or frozen fruit, leafy greens and protein powder (or Greek yogurt) for a superfood recovery smoothie.
8. Nut Butters
Nut butters provide long-lasting energy and have fueled many athletes on to win world championships and Olympic gold medals. The stick-to-the-ribs sandwich staples provide mostly unsaturated fat, but also have protein and B-vitamins, which help convert food into energy.
Eat to win: Use your favorite nut butter on toast, on top of oatmeal, blended into recovery smoothies or smeared on top of your favorite fruit.
Recent studies reveal that raspberries contain compounds that may boost the production of nitric oxide, which increases oxygen delivery to muscles. In addition to being fiber-rich, raspberries are also a top source of powerful antioxidants, including vitamin C, as well as anthocyanins and ellagitannins. Mounting evidence suggests they may increase your body’s antioxidant defense system. After strenuous endurance, strength training or high-intensity interval training like CrossFit, antioxidants may help repair muscle tissue damage and temper inflammation.
Eat to win: Whiz up an antioxidant-packed recovery smoothie made with affordable frozen raspberries (which are nutritionally on par with fresh), pomegranate juice, Greek yogurt or protein powder and baby greens.
To help your muscles recover faster after exercise, athletes pay attention to high-quality protein and anti-inflammatory compounds. It’s no surprise, then, that many athletes eat a lot of salmon, which is one of the best source of inflammation-reducing omega-3s. Three ounces of salmon provides more than 1,000 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids and 17 grams of protein for just 175 calories.
Eat to win: Substitute salmon for ground beef when you grill burgers for a recovery benefit.