Sure, there might be times when nothing sounds better than a Twinkie or slice of cheesecake. But in addition to indulging, you can use that last course to improve your fitness—if you choose wisely. These are four desserts that promise to assist with muscle recovery, reduce inflammation, increase endurance, and boost your immune system.
This perennial dessert favorite packs a big health punch. A 2006 study, for instance, found that consuming dark chocolate has cardiovascular benefits. Other studies have demonstrated that the flavanols in dark chocolate—compounds found in plants—also have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and even memory-boosting properties.
Most notably for athletes, dark chocolate increases the availability of nitric oxide in the blood, which improves blood flow and decreases blood pressure. Better blood flow means your muscles will get fuel and oxygen more efficiently, increasing endurance and decreasing recovery time.
Another study (in mice) found that nitric oxide, combined with exercise, led to significant muscle gain.
How much should you take? If you want to use dark chocolate to boost your endurance during a long workout, try eating 100 grams of it two hours before your workout. Researchers found that men who did so had higher plasma insulin and glucose concentration during a 2.5-hour bike ride, giving them more energy and quicker muscle repair.
Looking for a cool summer treat? A study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in May found that drinking a blueberry smoothie before and after weight lifting accelerated muscle recovery.
Researchers recruited 10 females who were all about 22 years old. On the morning of the study, the women warmed up for five minutes on an exercise bike, then performed five max-efforts of concentric, eccentric, and isometric quad exercises. Later that evening, they returned to perform 300 eccentric quad reps in order to induce muscle damage.
Some of the women drank smoothies made with 200 grams (about seven ounces) of frozen New Zealand blueberries, a banana, and about a cup of apple juice, while others drank a placebo smoothie with no blueberries. They all drank one smoothie in the morning before exercise, one in the afternoon at lunchtime, and one directly after the final workout in the evening.
While there wasn’t a big difference in either group’s strength during the workout, researchers observed that the women who drank the blueberry smoothie experienced faster recovery from the strength exercises than the women who didn’t.
So treat yourself to a blueberry smoothie for a guilt-free dessert. It may even help you recover faster from your workout.
Pomegranates have long been touted for their antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and heart-healthy properties. (As we’ve examined before, anti-inflammatory foods may help improve your fitness.) But perhaps one of the fruit’s best advantages for an athlete is its ability to boost the immune system.
While many studies have shown that moderate exercise improves immune function, others have demonstrated that high-intensity endurance training can suppress it. That leaves dedicated endurance athletes more susceptible to sickness.
One way to boost that immune system: drink pomegranate juice. One study found that drinking about 3.5 ounces of the juice three times per week strengthens the body’s immunity.
For a fun, immuno-boosting dessert, try making pomegranate popsicles. Just pour pomegranate juice into popsicle molds, stick them in the freezer, then enjoy. Or, if you want to get creative, combine pomegranate juice with our number-four dessert, Greek yogurt, for a tangy treat.
Like pomegranate juice, the probiotic bacteria found in yogurt can help athletic performance by improving the body’s immune function. Probiotics have also been shown to enhance recovery from fatigue and maintain a healthy gastrointestinal tract.
Greek yogurt has a thick, creamy texture, and typically has up to twice the protein and half of the sugar of American yogurts. That nutritional profile may benefit athletes looking to maintain or lose weight, as protein has been shown to satiate hunger better than carbs. Also, you’ll be less likely to reach for more food after downing a Greek yogurt, as eating foods high in protein suppresses energy intake for up to three hours.
So try a Greek yogurt for a satisfying immune boost. It may even help you reach your goal race weight.