Harvest of Champions

Foods of Wonder

Mar 1, 2003
Outside Magazine

Packed with good stuff: watermelon

THEY'RE CALLED whole foods, and you're lost without them, friends. Problem is, few of you are paying attention. "Athletes are definitely eating more processed and packaged foods," says Liz Applegate. As a nutrition consultant to U.S. Olympic teams and author of the Encyclopedia of Sports and Fitness Nutrition, she should know. In the flood of performance-nutrition products on the market now, what started out as fortified nutrition for use during competition has, in many cases, become a large part of an athlete's daily diet. Athletes have become very good at managing their macronutrient intake (carbs, protein, and fat) with the help of a refined diet, but it's often at the expense of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.). "Energy foods are wonderful," says Applegate. "They give you exactly what you need when you're exercising. They just don't give you what you need to live on." The word whole, as it relates to food, describes vittles that are as close to their natural state as possible. Lest you fear that opening your dietary door to whole foods means chasing raw brussels sprouts with a wheat-grass smoothie, allow us to set the record straight. There's a far more palatable path to whole-foods enlightenment, and it's lined with whole-grain bread and pasta, unprocessed meats (sorry, deli turkey doesn't cut it), beans, and, most important, a smorgasbord's worth of fruits and vegetables.

"Whole foods, and fruits and vegetables in particular, are packed with thousands of substances that protect them from the world they live in— things like ultraviolet light and nasty bacteria in the soil," explains Applegate. "And since we live in the same world, it follows that those foods will supply us with the same protection."

OK, that makes sense. Chief among these protective substances are phytochemicals, powerful antioxidants that counteract the cellular damage all exercise inflicts. It's oxidative damage—the breaking down of muscle tissue by vicious atom clusters called "free radicals"—that makes you sore. Along with microtears in the muscle (which stimulate new muscle growth), they turn you into a groaning couch potato the day after a hard workout. (And before you pop an ibuprofen to ease that pain, see "The Pulse") This isn't just about boosting your blood sugar with a bowl of pasta after you exercise. By bolstering your diet with foods rich in phytochemicals, you take care of your depleted energy needs and may even shorten the time it takes to recover from hard workouts. And as we all know by now, the faster and more completely you recover, the sooner you can return to peak form.

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