The 10 Best Comfort Foods for Athletes

Faves tweaked to optimize performance and recovery

Feb 8, 2016
Outside Magazine
The 10 Best Comfort Foods for Athletes

Some of your favorite comfort foods are also great workout fuel.    Illustration: Rui Ricardo - Folio Art

Comfort foods don’t have to be the enemy. All it takes is a few smart tweaks to turn high-calorie, high-fat snacks into performance fuel. We caught up with sports nutritionist Sarah Koszyk, founder of San Francisco-based nutrition consultancy Family. Food. Fiesta, to find out how to get maximum nutrition from some unlikely places. Here are our 10 favorites, approved for athletes:  

1. Hot Chocolate

The tweak: Make it dark

Cacao contains polyphenols, antioxidants that protect cells from tissue damage—including facial skin fried in the winter sun. But “dark chocolate has the added benefit of magnesium,” Koszyk says, a mineral that plays a role in getting oxygen to muscles. “It’s important for electrolyte balance.” Not only that, but combined with skim milk for some protein makes this recovery beverage just as good as standard chocolate milk. 

2. Waffles and Maple Syrup or Honey

The tweak: Don’t tweak.

You’re probably aware that pocket-sized versions of this comforting breakfast staple have already been marketed as sports foods. As have packets of honey and maple syrup. So combine them all for quick, delicious energy. “Honey has vitamin B6, which is great for maintaining a good mood,” Koszyk says. Something all endurance athletes need when workouts get tough. 

3. Mashed Potatoes

The tweak: Make them sweet

As in sweet potatoes, mashed up. “They’re full of antioxidants and the orange color comes from beta carotene, which gives extra protection to skin, eyes, and bones,” Koszyk says. They’re an excellent source of carb energy before and during exercise. Try slurping them out of a Ziploc bag in place of gels. Just be sure to leave the skins behind if you’re sensitive to fiber while exercising.

4. Nut Butter

The tweak: None. Just eat it.

Feel like a big spoonful of peanut, almond, or cashew butter? Go for it. Especially if you’re heading out for more than two hours. “Protein helps with the uptake of carbs,” Koszyk says. Not to mention the fat and fiber can keep you sated, and nut butters are filled with inflammation-fighting antioxidants. Grab single-serve packets like Bogg’s and Justin’s for an on-the-go power-up.  

5. Chili

The tweak: Swap lean turkey for beef

Brown lean turkey in olive oil for quality protein and healthy fats. Then pile in the veggies, stewed tomatoes, and red kidney beans for extra antioxidants, minerals—including magnesium—and protein. Delicious recovery meal achieved.

6. Pizza

The tweak: Go light on the crust and cheese

Koczyk could not envision pizza as a healthy food, but in its original Italian incarnation, we think it can get pretty close. Go for a whole-wheat thin crust, tons of veggies, and skip the cheese. Or go for potent cheese, like feta, and use it sparingly. Throw on some grilled chicken for extra protein.

7. Lasagna

The tweak: Vegify it

Try using layers of eggplant, yellow squash, and zucchini instead of plain pasta. Eggplant in particular is loaded with that magical pick-me-up vitamin B6, as well as magnesium, and filling fiber. 

8. Meat Loaf

The tweak: Make it with oats

Swap the traditional white bread filling for oats and you’ll gain a great source of fiber, bone-fortifying calcium, and potassium, an electrolyte that helps with muscle contractions. If you’re feeling iron deficient, make it with lean beef like ground sirloin to cut back on saturated fat. Otherwise opt for even leaner turkey breast. 

9. Fried Chicken

The tweak: Bake it in almond flour

All the benefits of almonds—antioxidants, fiber, protein—with far less saturated fat than frying. Bonus: the almond fat helps keep the chicken moist so you’ll still get that crispy-on-the-outside, juicy-on-the inside sensation fried chicken lovers crave.

10. Apple Pie

The tweak: Skip the crust

Baked apples don’t need much to be tasty. Try drizzling a syrup made of cinnamon, nutmeg, maple syrup, and corn starch on apples before popping them in a slow cooker, like this recipe recommends. The apples themselves contain quercetin, a substance that may help enhance endurance. For a comfort food triple whammy, try putting peanut butter and these cooked apples on a waffle. 

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