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 "tool box" and the foods you consume as the "tools". Your body uses the tools in the tool box to "tune it up" and help it run efficiently. So it is important, especially as an endurance athlete, to make sure your tool box is equipped with a large variety of useful tools! Just think, you can't repair a car if the only tools available in the tool box are a hammer and a screwdriver. You might need a wrench, crow bar, blow torch, several different sizes of screws, etc to fix the car.
So how does food relate to this tool box 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, vegetables and fruits, are rich in a variety of nutrients including fiber, minerals and vitamins. Plant foods also contain a wealth of substances called phytochemicals. Phytochemicals give fruits and vegetables their beautiful array of colors and some of their taste qualities.
Examples of phytochemicals include lycopene in tomatoes, beta-carotene in carrots, ellagic acid in raspberries. It is estimated that there may be as many as 10,000 different phytochemicals in nature, although the exact number is not known. Minimally processed plant foods are our dietary source of phytochemicals.
So why are these phytochemicals important to you? They perform a variety of functions in your body when consumed. Studies indicate that they may prevent or delay the onset of chronic disease such as cancer and heart disease. Some decrease inflammation, others act as antioxidants to protect DNA and cell membranes from damage. While some phytochemicals in blueberries and cherries may aid in recovery from workouts.
So what is the best plan for optimal health for endurance athletes? 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. By this I don't mean eat an apple, a banana and orange every day. I recommend you eat a large variety of different colors of fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, seeds and beans everyday. 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 per 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 veggies 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, make your tool box versatile and ready to "tune up" your body by eating your 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”!