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We think all food is super, but some foods really do have super-food properties—meaning they can reduce inflammation and improve performance.
Tart Cherry Juice
Full of antioxidants and quercetin (a polyphenol), tart cherry juice “can increase run performance and decrease post-race inflammation,” says Ashley Reaver, a registered dietician and the lead research scientist for the athlete blood-testing company Inside Tracker. A 2010 study in Medicine and Science in Sport found marathon runners who drank tart cherry juice had less inflammation and better strength recovery post-race than the group that got a placebo. Reaver’s prescription? “Drink 12 ounces of unsweetened tart cherry juice two times per day, for five days leading up to the event, the day of the event, and two to four days after the event, to help reduce muscle damage and aid recovery.”
Oats and Soy Protein
“The strongest evidence for functional foods exists with improving metabolic health—things like cholesterol or glucose reduction,” Reaver says. Oats have been shown to help reduce LDL cholesterol, the type that contributes to fatty buildups in arteries, increasing heart attack and stroke risk. In 2016, the British Journal of Nutrition did an exhaustive review of studies on oats and cholesterol. It found that again and again, study results matched. Diets high in rolled oats, which contain a type of fiber called beta-glucan, resulted in lowered LDL cholesterol. Soy protein, meanwhile, may help improve a whole host of blood glucose and lipid markers. A 2016 review of studies found regular soy protein supplementation improved fasting serum insulin, blood pressure, and LDL cholesterol.
They can turn your pee red and your good PRs into great ones. That’s because they’re full of naturally occurring nitrates. Once in the body, “nitrates are turned into nitric oxide which can improve blood flow to muscles,” Reaver says. A 2017 review of studies found that beetroot supplementation didn’t help with time trial performance, but it did significantly improve time to exhaustion among endurance athletes. So if you want to go long, drink up. How much? Studies have shown some improvement with as little as 5 ounces taken about two-and-a-half hours before a workout.
Load up that spaghetti sauce when you’re meal prepping. “Garlic contains allicin, which has antifungal and antiviral benefits. This may aid in cold and flu protection, and may support maintenance of the immune system,” Reaver says. Plus, it may even help fight stomach cancer. A 2016 paper in Anti-Cancer Agents in Medicinal Chemistry found consuming garlic regularly prohibited the growth of cancer cells in the stomach—likely because of allicin’s antimicrobial properties.
A serving of Brazil nuts contains “about 800% of the daily recommended value of selenium,” Reaver says. Selenium is critical for thyroid function, hormone metabolism, and may protect the body from oxidative stress—a byproduct of heavy training. Plus, endurance athletes may need more, as they may shed it during long workouts. A 2018 study done in Spain found that runners who ran to exhaustion had lower concentrations of selenium in their urine post-run than when they’d started the day.
“These are high in magnesium and iron. Magnesium is important for maintaining muscle, immune, and bone health. Iron provides the necessary building blocks for oxygen transport throughout the body,” Reaver says. A 2017 review published in Nutrients found magnesium helped athletes with everything from improving lower leg power and quadricep torque to possibly even enhancing glucose availability.