Why Athletes Should Eat Local
How to best fuel your body based on where you live
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Athletes constantly think about food—not just what they eat but also where that food comes from. Although eating local—consuming products grown within 50-to-100 miles of where they’re purchased—has long enjoyed popularity, eating native foods, or those indigenous to the area before transporting seeds and crops was possible, has only recently gained more traction. Doing so nearly guarantees that you get foods in their most nutrient-dense form and with higher levels of antioxidants, says Hilary McClafferty, co-director of fellowships in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona. Read on to learn how to create the perfect performance plate in every part of the country.
The desert is full of plants and trees that function as nutrient-rich food sources, says Chad Borseth, retail manager at Arizona-based Native Seeds/Search. In cuisine across the region, you’ll find the fruit and pads (nopales) of prickly pear cactus, beans from mesquite trees, tepary beans, chia, chiles, piñon nuts, corn, and amaranth (a grain similar to quinoa).
How Athletes Benefit: Nuts, chia seeds, and complex grains are known for their superfood-like status among endurance athletes. But the rest of the Southwestern loot provides nutritional benefits as well. Tepary beans are packed with protein and iron to help athletes feel fuller longer and provide long-lasting fuel, and one serving of prickly pear provides ten grams of quick-digesting carbohydrates, McClafferty says.
The Meal: Cactus Enchiladas (Recipe from Native Seed/Search)
- 8 cleaned prickly pear pads
- 3 to 4 cooked cups of tepary beans (or any beans)
- 2 cups enchilada sauce
- 1/2 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese
Boil prickly pear pads for three to five minutes. Drain. Mash beans and spread on each pad. Layer in a flat casserole dish. Cover with enchilada sauce and top with grated cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes or until beans and sauce are warm and cheese is melted.
Tasty Tip: Use red or green chiles (or both) to add spice and flavor to your Southwestern meal. Heat also means capsaicin—a proven metabolism booster—for an added benefit.
How Athletes Benefit: In addition to being full of Omega-3s and protein, salmon contains potassium, an electrolyte that helps prevent cramping, says Barbara Lewin, sports nutritionist and owner of Sports-nutritionist.com. Berries contain polyphenols—plant compounds that contain antioxidants—like immune-boosting vitamin C to help reduce inflammation and muscle soreness. Lewin adds that the iodine found in seaweed helps regulate thyroid and hormone production, which is critical in energy maintenance.
The Meal: Blueberry Balsamic Glazed Salmon (From The Wholesome Dish)
- 1/2 cup fresh blueberries
- 5 to 6 springs fresh thyme
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 2 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
- 4 salmon filets
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
In a small sauce pot over medium heat, add blueberries, thyme, sugar, balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Boil for 15 minutes. Preheat oven broiler to high. Pat salmon filets dry with paper towels. Sprinkle both sides of fish with salt and pepper. Place fish skin side down on aluminum foil–lined baking sheet. Brush thin layer of glaze onto salmon, and place fish under broiler for three minutes. Brush additional layer of glaze and repeat. Serve on a bed of seaweed.
Tasty Tip: Spread lingonberry jam on your favorite bakery-bought bread. “They contain some of the highest amounts of quercetin, which studies show may reduce your risk of lowered immunity after intense exercise,” Lewin says.
Thanks to a farm-friendly climate and proximity to the Great Lakes, options abound in this region. Pile your plate high with wild rice, trout, morel mushrooms, tart cherries, leeks, black hickory nuts, and plenty of fresh berries like blueberries, wild strawberries, or low-bush cranberries pre- and post-workout.
How Athletes Benefit: The hickory nut, similar to a pecan, is filled with healthy fats that promote satiety, Lewin says. The fish oil found in trout helps reduce inflammation, muscle soreness, and joint stiffness after a tough workout. It’s also rich in vitamin D (great for athletes who live in an area where the sun doesn’t always shine) and Omega-3 fats. Wild rice has double the amount of protein found in brown rice, making it an excellent choice for athletes looking to build lean muscle mass, Lewin says. Don’t forget to add the leeks, since they contain prebiotics that aid in digestion and are jam-packed with antioxidants.
The Meal: Trout Baked in Foil (From New York Times Cooking)
- 4 small rainbow trout
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 4 to 8 sprigs fresh thyme
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Cut aluminum foil into four squares, each three inches longer than your fish. Oil the dull side of each foil square and place trout, skin side down, on each. Season with salt and pepper. In a bowl, combine tomatoes, garlic, one teaspoon olive oil, and salt and pepper. Spoon over trout filets and place one or two sprigs of thyme on each. Fold up foil loosely and crimp edges together to make a packet. Place on baking sheet and bake for ten to 15 minutes.
On the side, serve wild rice, leeks, morel mushrooms, and a mixed salad of assorted berries, black hickory nuts, and greens.
Tasty Tip: Lewin recommends a tart cherry juice spritzer—equal parts cherry juice and club soda—to aid recovery. It’s refreshing and can help reduce muscle damage, pain, and inflammation.
New England/East Coast
Easy access to water makes oysters, crab, and cod affordable and accessible here. Fiddlehead ferns, ramps (wild onion), and low-bush blueberries grow native in New England as well. Although potatoes didn't originate here, they’re well matched to the stonier, rougher soil of the East Coast, says Larry Pltecher, owner of Vegetable Ranch, a certified organic farm in Warner, New Hampshire, so you’ll find plenty of nutrient-rich spuds in this part of the country.
How Athletes Benefit: Cod is a source of lean protein and selenium, a trace mineral that supports the immune system and cognitive function. Add a baked potato to your dish to replenish potassium lost through sweat and provide quick energy to speed recovery after a tough workout.
The Meal: Baked Lemon Cod (From What’s Gaby Cooking)
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- 3 tablespoons butter, melted
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon lemon-pepper seasoning
- 4 cod filets
- 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
- 2 teaspoons zested lemon peel
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a shallow bowl, mix lemon juice and butter. In a separate shallow bowl, mix flour and seasonings. Dip filets in lemon juice mixture and then in flour to coat both sides. Place the prepped fish in a 13×9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray. Drizzle with remaining lemon juice mixture. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until fish just begins to flake easily. Broil for last 60 seconds. Garnish with parsley and lemon zest.
Serve with baked potato and stir-fried ramps and greens.
Tasty Tip: For a sweet snack, grab a handful of low-bush blueberries, which are rich in the antioxidant anthocyanin. “It helps reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the body,” Lewin says.
It’s not all deep-fried and Cajun-inspired food down South. This region has its share of fruits, vegetables, and seafood. In the Southeast, you’ll find Seminole pumpkin, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, grits, and cabbage palmetto. In the South, you’ll find wild plum, elderberry, crawfish, and pecans.
How Athletes Benefit: Lewin loves using Seminole pumpkin with her athletes. It’s a good source of beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A in the body and can help strengthen athletes’ immune systems.
The Meal: Seminole Pumpkin Soup (Recipe courtesy of Chef Don Splain, executive chef at Food and Thought in Naples, Florida)
- 1 5-pound Seminole pumpkin
- 6 ounces dried boletus mushrooms
- 8 ounces hearts of palm
- 6 wild onions
- 4 wild leeks or wild garlic
- 3 to 4 cups water, plus 1/4 cup
- Pinch of salt
Cut pumpkin in half and remove seeds with a spoon. Prepare seeds for roasting by removing the pulp and spreading seeds on a sheet tray to roast later. Place the squash, cut side down, into the roasting pan. Roast at 375 degrees for 25 minutes. Add tray with seeds to the oven and roast with pumpkin for another 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, simmer one cup of water. In a bowl, pour water over the mushrooms, letting them soak. Slice the wild leeks and wild garlic crossways. Place them, along with 1/4 cup water, into soup pot. Heat until aroma and flavor is released, then turn off heat.
Remove mushrooms from the water, saving water for mushroom broth. Remove the pumpkin and seeds from the oven while chopping hearts of palm. Scoop the pumpkin into soup pot and add 3 to 4 cups water. Add mushrooms and mushroom broth and cook on medium-high while stirring and chopping pumpkin to reach desired consistency. Add salt to taste and hearts of palm. Garnish with pumpkin seeds.
Tasty Tip: Sunflower seeds may be tiny, but they’re rich in vitamin E, protein, and other vitamins and minerals. Lewin suggests eating them raw or roasted as a stand-alone snack or adding them to salad dishes.