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Performance enhancing foods

When looking for the competitive edge against other athletes, some will resort to innovative strategies.  It's no surprise that through studying the power of foods, we have discovered that there's considerable scientific literature out there about foods that increase strength, endurance, or both.  Here's a look at what the science says.

Nitrates are compounds found in green leafy vegetables and beets.  They promote vasodilation (the relaxation and opening of blood vessels) and have been shown to improve athletic performance.  It's logical to assume that nitrate-containing foods would improve athletic output and recovery.  But do they?

Most studies have been done with beet juice, or beet root powder, a nitrate power house, but lately new studies with whole beets have shown the same benefits.  They have been found to vasodilate, that is to relax blood vessels, which in turn lowers blood pressure, and oxygen cost during exercise. This means that we can exercise more with less oxygen.  

In one study, a shot of beet juice before freediving let divers stay underwater for 4 minutes, about a half minute longer.  Similar studies showed the same in runners, where they ran faster for the same amount of breathed oxygen.  These findings have caused athletes from all levels to start supplementing with beetroot before competitions.  Studies on whole beets show the same results in runners.  The beetroot group not only ran faster, but with slower heart rates, and reported less exertion.

If I don't like beets, what are the other foods containing nitrates?

Green leafy vegetables are packed with nitrates.  Frozen spinach was tested and shown to decrease arterial stiffness and pressure, by relaxing blood vessels, in the same way that beets do.  Although great for athletic performance, beets and spinach aren't the most convenient of foods.  They really don't fit well in your pocket, but fennel seeds do, and they're also packed with nitrates, making them a cheap, lightweight and convenient way of carrying nitrate rich foods, for hiking for example.

Added nitrates, which are found in ham, bacon, deli meat and hot dogs are actually bad for you.  They're turned into nitrites which increase the risk of health complications, like cancer.  Natural nitrates in vegetables are turned into nitric oxide, a compound with protective properties.

Here are other great foods high in nitrates that can help boost your athletic performance.  They promote endothelial function, they increase blood vessel relaxation and blood flow to target organs, which in the athlete's case, is muscle.

  • spinach

  • bok choy

  • lettuce

  • carrots

  • mustard greens

  • cabbage

  • broccoli

  • eggplant

  • garlic

  • citrus fruits

  • beets

  • pomegranate

  • nuts and seeds (they contain arginine, which increases nitric oxide production)

  • watermelon

Fun facts for athletes

Multiple studies comparing vegetarians (not vegans) against meat eaters in a variety of endurance events have shown statistically significant superiority of the vegetarian groups.  Of the many hypotheses explaining this is the abundance of antioxidants in the vegetarian diet, offsetting the accumulated oxidative stress accumulated during exercise.  These results have been seen in a study where the consumption of berries, in particular blueberries, were associated with lower measures of oxidative stress when taken before or after a workout.  This may not only lead to quicker recovery after workouts, but also quicker recovery during workouts.

The ketogenic diet is primarily used for weight loss, but how does it affect athletes?  Studies have shown negative performance effects on endurance athletes and negative effects on muscle mass in crossfit athletes.  Decreases in bone density also put the high level athlete at risk of bone fractures.  In conclusion, keto diets seem to have deleterious effects on the endurance and strength of athletes.

Studies specifically on beans have shown a decrease in baseline heart rate equivalent to that of 250 hours on a treadmill.  Now whether this is attributable to the presence of beans or lack of meat, having been booted out by the beans, is still not clear, but we get the point.  The main hypothesis is the vegetable protein and fiber in the beans, and these findings can maybe be extrapolated to all legumes, like beans, chickpeas and lentils.

Studies measuring endothelial (the endothelium is the lining of our blood vessels) compared the blood vessel effects of exercise against the anti-inflammatory spice Turmeric.  The endothelial function in the exercise group was greatly improved, pretty much exactly like was seen in the turmeric group.  Ideally, we'd do both, and studies combining both show additive effects on endothelial function, which is the capacity of the blood vessel to relax, dilate and open to provide more blood flow to muscles that need it during exercise.  No studies have yet to be done to test the hypothesis that turmeric supplementation could improve athletic performance, although it has already been shown to improve recovery.

After reading all of the above, here's the main conclusion: the plant-based diet in itself is performance enhancing.  It's as simple as that.

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