Great question, Nicole: “what is the importance of eating fruits and veggies for the athlete?”
Remember sitting at the dinner table and Mom saying, “Now (insert your nickname here) eat all your vegetables; they are good for you.” Mom was right! And as the years have gone by, and research has progressed, we are learning more and more about the health benefits of fruits and vegetables; ESPECIALLY FOR ATHLETES!
Fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains, nuts and legumes, contain valuable nutrients called phytochemicals. Phyto (meaning plant) chemicals are naturally occurring chemicals that have been associated with the prevention of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure (to name a few.) Athletes may be at high risk for these diseases, because of a process called oxidation. Oxygen is, of course, essential for life, but a small percent of it may become harmful as it is transformed into free radicals. Free radicals are very unstable. As these free radicals try to stabilize themselves, damage is done to cellular and molecular structures. This damage is called oxidation. When oxidation occurs, the cells lose their protective cell membrane, putting our bodies at risk for disease.
So why are athletes at a higher risk, you ask. Great question! Think about your last training run. Remember breathing harder than usual? The harder breathing is causing you to take in more oxygen to accommodate and increase your lung capacity. That is the purpose of a training run, right? Right! However, along with the training benefits, some of the additional oxygen is also being changed into those nasty free radicals…A more immediate result you may see (feel) is inflammation (sore muscles, joint pain, etc)! Inflammation is also a result of oxidative damage to your cells. What is an athlete to do? Eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes!
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes are antioxidants. Antioxidants are free radical scavengers; molecules that stabilize the free radicals. That is a good thing! The next question, is how many? The general recommendation for is 4-5 fruits, 4-5 vegetables, and 11-13 (or more) servings of WHOLE grains a day. Add in nuts and legumes for a balanced food plan. On hard training days, throw in a few more fruits and vegetables, immediately following your work-out! What kind? Try to eat a rainbow of colors. The different colors of fruits and vegetables, along with the vitamins and minerals, actually contribute to the preventative properties. So, variety is the key…
The book, Superfoods Rx by Pratt and Matthews, lists these “foods as dramatically better than others for health and longevity:” beans, blueberries, broccoli, oats, oranges, pumpkin, soy, spinach, tomatoes, and walnuts (along with salmon, turkey, tea and yogurt). These are great foods to include as often as possible, but not to exclude others.
My challenge for you is to eat as many different colors and varieties of fruits and vegetables as you can this next month. Next month we will talk more specifically about the health benefits of each group.
Until then-Play hard and Eat well!
p.s. Don’t forget to thank your mom!