Athletic Edge: don’t let that hard work go to waste!
I’ve been an athlete-hobbyist my whole life!
Athletics and dance classes at school. Gym, running, more dancing and aerobics through high school and college. And I kept moving after — gym, yoga, dancing, rollerblading, walking a lot, cross-fit, pump, calisthenics. There never has been a time in my life when I stopped working out. Even after my motorbike accident when I couldn’t walk for a while and broke 6 ribs and punctured my lung — in a month, as soon as I could walk and breathe without pain I started a simple exercise program.
Movement has always been a HUGE part of my life! Without movement I’m not myself not just physically but also mentally and emotionally — I hear the same from many of my friends, leaders and change-makers. Movement and exercise are a part of who we are! We might put our brain on a pedestal often but brain evolved through movement and in response to movement. It’s been shown by studies that the more flexible and diverse person’s movements are — the more flexible and diverse their brain is. How we move changes how we think, how we feel, how we experience the world and ourselves!
Many people these days don’t make the time to move and exercise, looking at it as a have-to chore best-to-be-avoided till it hurts or till our butts and bellies don’t fit our favorite jeans anymore. But as you can see the purpose of exercise is so much bigger than aesthetics — it defines who we are in all areas of our life!
The purpose of this post is not to convince you to give your movement/exercise practice another chance of becoming a permanent part of your life but mostly to share with you a few eating practices that I’ve learned will deliver nutrients to make your exercise practice more effective and less exhausting, more joyful and less chore-like.
Let’s talk about nutrients that many of us statistically are deficient in, nutrients that are essential for enjoyable exercise practice and great results! Great exercise practice is not just about training and recovery — it’s also about eating foods full of nutrients that allow us to:
- Make and have more energy
- Build better endurance and stamina
- Support our immune system
- Build leaner stronger bodies
- Lose and use our body fat efficiently
- Maintain upbeat energy, physical and mental state for many years ahead
You see, it’s not enough to eat enough calories or even “clean” foods, not enough to eat all the protein you can eat (and drink) — it’s equally important to eat essential vitamins and minerals to be able to use that protein, that energy, or fats and carbs to support speedy performance, muscle growth, recovery, our athletic pursuits and life.
For example, if we don’t eat enough zinc (primarily from animal foods especially oysters and other shellfish) — we won’t be able to use the protein we eat from any other sources because zinc is needed for protein synthesis, synthesis that’s needed to maintain and build muscles, to create enzymes for different metabolic processes, to recover and re-build different structures in our body for optimal health and living experience.
Or if we don’t eat enough iron — we won’t be able to make red blood cells that carry oxygen to all of our cells and tissues to make energy and to breathe. And how can we be great athletes or even effective human-beings without enough energy? Everything in life is about energy we have!
To be nutritionally honest — most of the nutrients we need would come naturally in our meals if:
a) Our food system was nutrient-focused instead of calorie/convenience/sales-focused.
b) We didn’t play “food wars” eliminating whole food groups for no good reason, not realizing that with a whole food group we remove a whole range of essential nutrients.
c) We had an eating culture/fooducation that would habituate nutrient density of our meals in appropriate for human health amounts.
But because it’s not the case and most products are very nutritionally poor and there’s no proper fooducation of what a balanced healthy diet looks like translated into daily meals — we end up living in the world where food calories are more abundant than ever and more and more people are getting more and more deficient in key nutrients.
The nutrients below aren’t just essential for an athlete in you — they are essential for everyone’s health. Athletes, people who exercise regularly will usually require more of them and will suffer faster when there’s not enough — low energy, low performance, ineffective recovery, injures, compromised immune system, hormonal imbalances, mood swings, elevated inflammation and stress levels, poor sleep, poor muscle growth and adaptability, nervous system fatigue, compromised gut health to name a few.
So let’s get fooducated to avoid this suffering as much as possible and have fun exercising and getting fit!
*All percentages of nutrients are calculated for myself, a 33-year old female, 166cm height. Males in most cases will need a bit more of everything, except for iron. Requirements for other groups — age, pregnancy, special health conditions might vary more.
*In the data below I focus on specific functions of the nutrients more meaningful for athletes but those functions are not at all the only functions of the nutrients mentioned! There are many more.
Many of my athletic clients want to build muscles and they keep asking me how much protein they need. But not one of them asked me which foods contain zinc.
Zinc is essential for protein synthesis. It doesn’t matter if you eat loads of protein when you don’t have enough zinc to use it. The more muscle you want to build and maintain — the more zinc you need.
Zinc is essential for thyroid and sex hormones. For our immune function (intense exercise compromises our immune system).
But just protein synthesis alone is a life-changing function! We need to build protein molecules in our body for just about everything.
Best sources of zinc?
ZINC SUPERFOOD: Oysters, 40g = 120%
- Shellfish, 150g:
- Whelks — 140%
- Crab — 75%
- Mussels — 30%
Meat, poultry, organ meats, 240g:
- Beef — 75%
- Pork, turkey, chicken, dark and lean meat — 30–40%
- Calf, veal liver — 160%
- Chicken liver — 45%
- 1 egg — 5%
*Lean and brown meat always has the most zinc VS fat and white meat.
- Beans, lentils, 100g dried — 30–40%
Seeds, nuts, 30g:
- Pumpkin — 20%
- Sunflower, sesame seeds, cashew nuts — 13%
*Zinc from plant sources is poorly absorbed making it much less available. Plant-based sources will require 50%+ more of our daily need. So instead of 100% from plant sources you’ll need to hit at least 150%.
Many of you might think (I used to think that), that the more energy we eat in foods — the more energy is going to be available to us. But it’s not always the case at all!
To extract energy from foods we need many B vitamins to be available. To make it into the kind of energy we can use we need oxygen in our cells and tissues, oxygen that needs to be delivered by red blood cells. And to make red blood cells we need sufficient iron. And if we don’t get enough absorbable iron? We’ll have no energy even though we might be eating a lot! And without energy? No great workouts! (And our brain won’t function very well either. And we’ll be cranky and craving a cookie).
What are the best sources of iron?
IRON SUPERFOOD: Duck Liver, 60g — 100%
- Calf, veal liver, 150g — 100%
- Chicken liver, 150g — 70%
- Oysters, mussels, 150g — 50%
- Lean beef, duck dark meat, 240g — 30–35%
Veggies and other pulses:
- Jerusalem artichoke, 150g — 30%
- Arrowhead, 150g — 22%
- Arrowroot, 150g — 19%
- Soya beans, dried, 100g — 88%
- Lentils, dried, green and brown, 100g — 62%
*Just like with zinc — plant-based iron is not that great. We’ll need at least twice as much. Also, iron and zinc are best absorbed with acidic and vitamin C-rich foods, like sauerkraut, some lemon juice, or broccoli, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts.
CALCIUM + D
Besides being essential for bone and teeth health, did you know that calcium makes the contraction of muscles possible, heart and stomach muscles including? Also calcium is essential to produce nerve impulses transmissions? As you can imagine without great muscle contraction function, without our nervous system firing at top speeds — there’s no great workouts and athletic results!
And vitamin D? It makes calcium absorption and distribution to the right places possible!
You kind of need both to get it working.
CALCIUM SUPERFOODS: Aged cheeses, Parmigiano, Pecorino, Swiss, 40g — 40%
- Canned sardines, with bones, 1 can 90g — 58%
- Canned salmon, with bones — 27%
- Softer cheeses, 40g — 20–30%
Whole milk, a glass:
- Sheep — 43%
- Cow — 30%
- Goat — 25%
- Yogurt, regular, plain, 150g — 30%
- Greek, plain, 150g — 20%
- Sesame seeds, 30g — 20%
*How bioavailable calcium is? Bones — the best, dairy — 2nd, seeds — 3rd.
Sun: April/May — September/October, 11am — 3pm, 10 mins when it’s sunny, 3 times per week should give enough to store for winter in the Northern Europe and America, the closer to the equator the more months and more daytime is viable to get and store vitamin D. The lighter our skin is (genetically) the easier we store vitamin D and the less time we need.
VITAMIN D SUPERFOOD: Cod liver, 30g — 200%; cod liver oil, 1TBSP — 200%
Fatty fish, 150g:
- Mackerel — 252%
- Eel — 233%
- A can of salmon — 210%
- Herring, carp — 190%
- Cod roe, 100g — 100%
- Salmon, fillet — 86%
- Sardines, canned — 25%
Need more energy?
You might be eating all the calories you want but without B vitamins in those foods you might as well be eating nothing — no B vitamins and you’ll feel fatigued no matter how many calories you eat. Physically and mentally fatigued. No motivation, no willpower, no drive and no energy to work out or do anything.
B vitamins are essential for mental performance and resilience, for the health of our nervous system and proper muscle recovery. There are 8 of them and all of them very important for anyone but especially for an athlete or someone with a big physical and/or cognitive load.
There are 8 of B vitamins them, to get all of them daily without overloading on other nutrients that might not be great (like vitamin A and iron in livers) it’s best to consume a variety of animal and plant foods.
Beef lean, 240g — 30–120% of most B vitamins, add a serving of oats (whole) and you’ll cover almost all of them in great amounts except for biotin (B7) and folate (B9).
For biotin, folate and nutrients like vitamin A and iron — I highly recommend to eat 10 oz or 300g of chicken liver weekly. Make one big chicken-liver meal a week your new routine and you won’t have to worry about B vitamins too much, especially folate and biotin hard to find in many other foods.
For additional folate I recommend to eat well-prepared (soaked and thoroughly cooked) beans 2–3 times per week.
Pork is quite high in all B vitamins except for biotin and folate that we discussed prior. It covers 45–200% of 6 B vitamins with a 240g or 8oz serving.
Chicken is quite good too but just like beef you’ll need to get some oats (a cup), or a couple of servings of potatoes or beans, or a couple of handfuls of hemp, sesame seeds or peanuts.
Seafood will vary but usually is a great source of B vitamins, although to hit the full profile I’d highly recommend to make that chicken-liver meal happen once a week.
Why am I not talking that much about grains and other plant sources?
When not fortified, by themselves without any animal products you’ll have to eat like a kilo or couple of pounds of them daily to hit the meaningful amount on paper, but with all that fiber and anti-nutrients it’s very questionable what’s gonna be absorbed (not even mentioning all the carbohydrates that most people won’t be able to handle without negative health consequences).
Potassium is one of the electrolytes, a major one, we need a lot of it — 4.7g. Not many micro nutrients we need grams of, and potassium is one of them. It’s crucial for electrical charges our cells, our nervous system, our brain initiate to communicate between each other and keep our body-machine running — all our internal organs and systems, our muscles — everything. You go low on this one and you’ll hit the wall, and no energy bar or red bull will save you.
Where do we eat it from?
Most potassium foods are also good sources of magnesium (see below), that’ why I’ll combine them here, mentioning specific foods rich in just one nutrient along the way.
POTASSIUM SUPERFOOD: Palm hearts, 150g — 50%
MAGNESIUM SUPERFOOD: Pumpkin seeds, 30g — 60%
When cooking most veggies with water — you’ll “lose” lots of potassium in this water, consume it too!
- Avocado, 1 fruit, 220g — 20%, 18% [Potassium, Magnesium]
- Banana, 1 fruit — 7%, 9%
- Apricots, damsons plums, 200g — 12%, 7%
- Button mushrooms, 200g — 17%, 7%
- Potatoes, regular and sweet, 200g — 16%, 12%
- Arrowhead, 200g — 40%, 32%
- Arrowroot, 200g — 20%, 16%
- Swiss chard, 200g — 17%, 25%
- Spinach, 200g — 15%, 47%
- Broccoli, 200g — 17%, 14%
- Brussels sprouts, 200g — 20%, 5%
- Black beans, dried, 100g — 30%, 50%
- Red kidney beans, dried, 100g — 29%, 44%
- Lentils, green and brown, dried, 100g — 20%, 35%
Animal foods, 200g, cooked:
- Salmon — 18%, 19%
- Chicken liver — 12%, 12%
- Chicken meat — 17%, 17%
- Beef lean — 15%, 14%
Magnesium is involved in more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body:
- helps produce energy, essential to the activities of every cell
- protein synthesis for muscle building and not only
- relaxes muscles and nerves
- calms the mind
- helps with calcium absorption
- regulation of blood pressure & heart rhythm
All of which are important for an athlete and any other human-being alive!
The good news is, even though, at first glance it all can look complicated — we can simplify it into eating patterns, and it won’t be complicated anymore.
We want to make sure that we eat about 1–1.5 pounds, 700–800g of vegetables a day from that list, distributing them throughout your meals.
I love my after-workout potassium-rich fruit platter on top of that — I recommend that habit to everyone for recovery and the best electrolyte delivery.
One day a week eat chicken liver.
Make a couple of days a week rich in beans and starchy tubers like sweet potatoes.
On other days of the week eat some:
- Fatty fish and cod liver
Don’t forget to add calcium-rich foods or mineral water (as I do) on a daily basis — that really matters for your performance.
For snacks eat 2–3 servings of peanuts, hemp, sesame, pumpkin seeds.
Eat your avocados.
Add sauerkraut or your other favorite fermented food, 10–15g a day for gut health.
Add a bit of dried/rehydrated wakame/kelp for iodine, healthy metabolism and thyroid.
And you’ll be healthy like a bull, as they say in Russia.
The most important thing is to create your own patterns that work in your life based on what you just learned, patterns that are easy to maintain.
Make them a part of your routine and most probably you won’t have to worry about any supplements any time soon.
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