The 12 super foods covered here will take your health and athletic performance to the next level! If you’re looking for the secret to a long, healthy life, lean body, energy levels, laser-focused concentration and mental processing— then take a trip to your local grocery store.
Salmon is rich in the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are primarily known for their role in heart health, yet are also important for your brain and eyes. EPA and DHA decrease triglycerides (fat in the blood) and blood pressure. This relationship between fatty fish, like salmon, and triglycerides is dose-dependent— the more salmon you eat, the more your triglycerides will drop. People who eat a diet loaded with fatty fish have lower rates of death from cardiovascular disease (diseases of the heart and blood vessels). Just one to two servings of fatty fish each week could reduce your risk of death from heart disease by an astounding 36 percent and death from all causes by 17 percent. For women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, there’s an added benefit: eating at least 8 ounces of DHA-rich fish each week means you’ll have a healthier baby.
Other options: If you aren’t in love with salmon, try mackerel, herring, halibut, lake trout, sardines or anchovies. Not into fish? Pick up a fish oil supplement.
Blueberries are an excellent source of vitamin C and are good for healthy skin, bones and immune function, and are a good source of fiber, which will helps prevent constipation while also helping lower your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans consider vitamin C a “nutrient of concern”— one that Americans aren’t getting enough of through diet. Emerging research also suggests blueberries help protect the heart from some of the damage experienced during a heart attack while also helping repair the damage. Blueberries are also good for your brain. Over a decade of animal research shows blueberries improve memory while a small study in older adults found those given blueberry juice scored higher on a memory test compared to adults given a placebo.
Other options: Aside from blueberries, pick up other blue, as well as dark purple, fruits and vegetables. Regularly eating (or drinking) foods with blue and purple antioxidants helps improve artery health, leading to greater blood flow throughout your body.
Olive oil is a staple in Italy and Spain where the Mediterranean diet, one that relies on olive oil for cooking, is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and improved brain health. Replacing dietary saturated fats, such as butter or shortening, with olive oil may help reduce risk of coronary heart disease. Replacing other cooking oils with olive oil may help lower blood pressure and improve blood cholesterol. Use olive oil in moderation, because it is high in calories. There are some sketchy companies out there that mix cheaper quality oils with olive oil to lower their costs. Make sure you’re getting good quality olive oil by looking for a seal of approval from the USDA Quality Monitoring Program or the North American Olive Oil Association (NOOA).
Other options: For baking, cooking, stir-frying and other high heat cooking, consider almond, hazelnut, peanut or pecan oil.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could bite into a rich, smooth, dark piece of chocolate with complete confidence that you were doing something good for your body? Dark chocolate is made from cocoa powder— the defatted powder from cacao beans. Cocoa powder contains flavanols, a group of antioxidants responsible for the association between dark chocolate consumption and improvements in blood pressure. Unfortunately, you can’t rely on the percentage of cocoa or cacao in a bar as an indicator of total flavanol content.
Other options: Flavanol-rich cocoa powder (CocoaVia) supports cardiovascular health and also improves blood flow in the brain as well as some aspects of brain functioning. Cocoa powder that is Dutched (processed with alkali or sodium bicarbonate— it should say this on the label) has a lower flavanol content. Also consider ReservageTM CocoaWell® True Energy (more flavanols than CocoaVia; product contains caffeine) and Baker’s unsweetened baked chocolate bar. ConsumerLab.com found both are high in flavanols and low in cadmium (a metal that is harmful for the body).
Beets come in brilliant shades of dark red, yellow and orange and have a nice sweet, earthy flavor. They are a good source of potassium for nerve and muscle functioning as well as healthy blood pressure, vitamin C and fiber. Beets are also among the highest dietary sources of nitrates. Nitrates are compounds that increase the body’s production of nitric oxide, a gas that expands blood vessels to accommodate greater blood flow. Regular intake of high-nitrate foods can help lower blood pressure and improve blood vessel functioning. If you drink 16 ounces of beetroot juice (containing 300 to 500 mg of nitrates) two-and-half to three hours before you hit the gym, you may notice a bump in energy thanks to greater blood flow to working muscles. There’s one caveat: antibacterial mouthwash will kill the bacteria in your mouth that are necessary for the first step in nitric oxide production.
Other options: Celery, arugula and spinach are good sources of nitrates.
Ginger soothes an upset stomach and helps ease symptoms of motion sickness. Make ginger a regular part of your culinary creations and you’ll also benefit from its ability to decrease muscle soreness after tough bouts of exercise.
Other options: Combat excess muscle soreness with tart cherry juice.
One serving of sunflower seeds will help you meet one-half of your daily vitamin E needs— a nutrient that most Americans aren’t consuming in recommended amounts (a “nutrient of concern” according to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans). Vitamin E protects your cell membranes (including muscle cells) from damage, supports immune functioning and helps expand blood vessels to accommodate greater blood flow. Vitamin E deprived muscle cell membranes do not heal properly, yet a healthy balance is important. Get enough but not too much of this vitamin, as both deficiency and excess may impair your training gains. Plus, more than recommended amounts will not improve athletic performance.
Other options: Snack on almonds, pine nuts and peanuts to help you meet your vitamin E needs.
Kefir is a tangy cultured milk product made by fermenting milk with several bacteria and yeasts, making it rich in beneficial bacteria called probiotics. There are many types of probiotics and each one may have specific benefits such as supporting digestive, vaginal or immune health. Kefir is an excellence source of calcium and vitamin D (a “nutrient of concern”) for bone health as well as several B vitamins (your energy vitamins). Calcium is another “nutrient of concern”— one many Americans aren’t getting enough of through their diet. Opt for plain kefir or mix a little flavored kefir (generally high in added sugars) with plain kefir for taste but less sugar. If you are lactose intolerant, you may find that kefir is easier on your stomach than milk because enzymes in the bacteria help break down lactose.
Other options: Though most yogurts don’t contain the wide array and number of probiotics as kefir, they are a great option as well. Other probiotic-rich foods include unpasteurized sauerkraut, miso soup, naturally fermented pickles and sourdough bread.
Pumpkin seeds are one of the best sources of magnesium, a mineral that is so widely under-consumed the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans labeled it a “nutrient of concern.” Magnesium keeps muscles and nerves functioning properly and is also necessary for energy production. Pumpkin seeds are also an excellent source of zinc, a mineral important for immune health and wound healing.
Other options: Sesame seeds and Brazil nuts are also excellent sources of magnesium. For a magnesium-packed meal, brush firm tofu (also a source of magnesium) with sesame oil and coat with sesame seeds before stir-frying.
Garlic adds favor without calories to a wide variety of dishes. When used in a marinade or incorporated into beef, fish, chicken or turkey patties, garlic helps limit the formation of nasty compounds that cause cancer in animals, heterocyclic amines (HCAs). HCAs are formed when your protein-rich food is cooked. High dry heat leads to more HCAs formed, so make sure you add garlic to any meat, poultry or fish you throw on the grill or in the smoker.
Other options: Rosemary and Caribbean spices also decrease HCA formation.
In your local grocery store, tucked in a remote refrigerator between tofu and non-dairy “cheese,” you’ll find long, thin light brown colored sheets of tempeh. Though it isn’t always easy to find, the search is time well spent. Tempeh is fermented soybeans. Unlike tofu, tempeh includes the whole soybean, so it is higher in protein, fiber and vitamins. Tempeh is also an excellent source of iron (for oxygen delivery throughout your body), magnesium and vitamin B6 (an energy vitamin) and good source of calcium.
Tempeh has a firm, chewy texture and slightly earthy, bean-like taste. Replace deli meat with tempeh, try it sautéed in sesame oil and garlic, grilled or served on top of salad.
Other options: Pick up plain or flavored tofu.
Consider adding green peas to your rice pilaf, pasta dish, casserole or stew. Green peas are an excellent source of fiber and vitamin C, good source of vitamin A (important for your eyes and a “nutrient of concern”) and also contain decent amount of magnesium, vitamin B6, folate (a “nutrient of concern,” folate helps build healthy new cells and prevents some birth defects) and iron. Look for pea protein in bars and protein powders. It boosts a leucine (the key amino acid that turns on muscle building and repair) content equivalent to whey protein and will give you the same muscle-building results as whey protein.
Try peas in multiple forms, including pea protein powder, split pea soup and peas mixed into burritos, wraps and other dishes.
Other options: Consider yellow whole or split peas. They have a similar nutrition profile to green peas.
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