ASK A DIETITIAN: Add These 6 Foods to Your Plate This Spring
The start of spring often inspires a renewed interest in healthy eating. Traditional approaches to nutrition advice typically focus on what to remove or restrict from our diets, but what if we shifted the focus to adding more nutrient-rich foods?
Here are six foods that runners and walkers should include in their diets to optimize health and performance.
While no single food or nutrient single-handedly has the power to make or break your health or performance, some do offer more nutritional "bang for your buck" than others.
By definition, a nutrient-dense food is one that offers a lot of beneficial nutrients compared to calories. More specifically, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, nutrient-dense foods provide vitamins, minerals and other health-promoting components and have no or little added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.
Research shows that dietary patterns rich in
nutrient-dense foods decrease the risk for many chronic conditions, including
diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cognitive decline and cancer.
Improve health by eating MORE food? Yes, please!
1. Berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries)
Why? Berries are naturally packed with antioxidants, including vitamin C, that prevent oxidative damage by neutralizing free radicals and decreasing inflammation. Exercise actually increases free radical formation, so athletes need higher levels of antioxidants in their diets than do people who are less active. Vitamin C is also involved in immunity, aids collagen formation and enhances iron absorption.
Another key nutrition benefit of berries is dietary fiber, which promotes heart health by lowering "bad" cholesterol, helps balance blood sugar, slows digestion and promotes a feeling of fullness, supports healthy digestion, and assists with weight management.
▪ Use frozen berries in smoothies along with bananas, a liquid of choice and your favorite protein source.
▪ Make a parfait by topping Greek yogurt or cottage cheese with berries and a handful of nuts or seeds for a balanced, satisfying breakfast or snack.
▪ Mix into baked goods, such as muffins or scones.
▪ Add to oatmeal or cold cereal for flavor, texture and a colorful nutrient boost.
▪ Satisfy a sweet tooth by enjoying berries alongside or after a meal instead of candy.
Why? Eggs are an excellent, complete protein source, containing all nine essential amino acids in the optimal proportions to support muscle growth and repair. While most of the protein is in the white, the yolk contains important nutrients including vitamin D, which assists with calcium absorption for bone health and helps regulates mood and the immune system.
If you're confused about whether eggs are healthy, rest assured that earlier research has been proven flawed. The dietary cholesterol found in egg yolks does not negatively impact blood cholesterol levels or cardiovascular health. Whole egg consumption is safe and recommended.
How? Both hard-boiled and cooked eggs are easy to use.
· Pair with instant oatmeal or a grain-based granola bar for a quick, balanced breakfast.
· Top leafy greens with hard-boiled eggs; add a grain and an oil-based dressing to complete a protein-packed salad.
· Pair eggs with a piece of fresh fruit for a snack that will curb hunger and sustain your energy.
· Post-workout, skip the supplements. An egg has six grams of protein!
· Omelets are endlessly customizable and a great way to get in an extra serving of veggies or to use up veggie leftovers, such as spinach, onions, peppers, tomatoes and mushrooms.
· Poached eggs are perfect on top of avocado toast or grain bowls to boost protein.
· Scrambled eggs only take a few minutes to make and help balance out traditional carb-rich breakfast favorites like pancakes, waffles and oatmeal.
· Remember, eggs can be enjoyed anytime, not just in the morning. Try breakfast for dinner - a personal favorite of mine!
3. Beans and Lentils
Why? Canned or dry, beans and lentils are inexpensive, shelf-stable and versatile nutritional powerhouses. They're packed with dietary fiber and provide a good plant-based source of protein, with zero saturated fat, making them heart-healthy. They also contain key minerals including potassium and magnesium that are vital to athletes because of their role in heart and muscle contraction and blood pressure control. Tip: If choosing canned beans, rinse in water to remove added sodium or look for "no sodium added" versions.
· Top leafy greens with black beans, corn, diced tomatoes, onions, peppers and cheese for a Mexican-inspired salad. Or add chickpeas to a Greek-inspired salad along with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and feta cheese.
· Use navy, kidney, white or black beans as a base for a hearty, satisfying chili. Keep things vegetarian or add ground turkey for more protein.
· Add black beans, onions and peppers to scrambled eggs; top with salsa and/or guac for breakfast or brunch.
· For a nourishing meatless meal, pair lentils with your favorite cooked grain such as quinoa, and add veggies to make a grain bowl.
· Coat with oil and roast chickpeas, lentils and edamame on a sheet pan in the oven for a crunchy snack or crouton substitute; make them savory with cumin, chili powder and cayenne pepper, or try ranch seasoning; make them sweet with cinnamon and brown sugar.
Why? The energy-rich complex carbs found in oats and other whole grains are the preferred fuel for our brains and working muscles, especially for endurance exercise like marathon training and high-intensity activities like speedwork.
Beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber found in oats, offers additional benefits including lowering "bad" LDL cholesterol, promoting cardiovascular health, aiding digestion and regulating blood sugar. Oats are also a good source of B vitamins needed for energy production and metabolism, and iron, a mineral involved in oxygen transport.
▪ Enjoy a bowl of instant or old-fashioned oats for a hearty, pre-run breakfast.
▪ Mix oats with nut butter, chopped nuts, dried fruit and other ingredients to make your own granola bars or energy bites.
▪ Use instead of or in addition to traditional flour in baked good recipes, like muffins, quick breads and pancakes.
▪ Mix with Greek yogurt, milk of choice, and sweetener to make Overnight Oats, a balanced, satisfying, prep-ahead breakfast perfect for busy weekday mornings.
Why? Salmon and other fatty fish such as tuna, mackerel and herring are rich in omega 3s, a type of polyunsaturated fat that reduces inflammation, promotes cardiovascular and brain health, decreases cancer risk and supports the immune system. Salmon is also an excellent source of protein, providing the building blocks for all the cells, tissues and organs in our bodies. Adequate protein intake is critical for athletes due to its role in supporting muscle growth and repair. It also promotes satiety, manages hunger and supports weight management, and is needed in higher amounts among older adults to offset age-related muscle loss. Salmon also contains B vitamins and iron for energy metabolism and oxygen delivery.
▪ Layer with cream cheese, tomato slices and capers on whole grain toast, crackers or a bagel.
▪ Broil or bake and enjoy with roasted potatoes and asparagus or any favorite vegetable.
▪ Add cold salmon to a green salad for extra protein.
▪ Include in a stir fry with brown rice or quinoa, mixed veggies like broccoli, carrots and snow peas, and soy sauce or your favorite marinade.
▪ When dining out at a Japanese restaurant, order sushi/sashimi or salmon teriyaki.
▪ Canned/pouched salmon is extra convenient, shelf-stable and portable.
6. Spinach and Other Leafy Greens
Why? Spinach and other dark, leafy greens are packed with a host of essential vitamins and minerals, including dietary fiber; folate, involved in metabolism and red blood cell formation; vitamin A, an antioxidant that supports vision and immunity; vitamin K, involved in blood clotting and bone health; iron, a mineral needed for oxygen transport and energy production; and calcium, essential for bone and cardiovascular health.
▪ Use pre-washed baby spinach, arugula or mesclun as the base for a green salad; add a protein, grain and healthy fat to complete the meal.
▪ Throw into a smoothie with fruit and yogurt for a nutrient punch.
▪ Sautee with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper for a nutritious side dish.
▪ Roast broccoli alongside potatoes and fish or chicken for a one-sheet pan meal.
▪ Toss bok choy into a stir fry with other Asian-inspired veggies and pair with brown rice and tofu.
▪ Brush greens with olive oil and make veggie chips using an air fryer or regular oven.
▪ Stuff pre-washed greens into sandwiches, pitas and tortillas.
▪ Use romaine or bib lettuce as a wrap for tuna or chicken.
If you are looking to optimize your health and performance while decreasing risk for chronic disease, aim to add these and other nutrient-dense foods into your diet more often - while still leaving room for other foods that you might enjoy more, even if they don't offer as much nutrition.
Alissa is an Atlanta-based registered dietitian nutritionist and certified personal trainer dedicated to helping people optimize health and athletic performance by harnessing the power of nutrition. Alissa currently offers virtual and in-person nutrition consultations, meal planning services and metabolic testing. Learn more at https://alissapalladinonutrition.squarespace.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org