4 Superfoods for Athletes: Are You Eating Them Incorrectly?

4 Superfoods for Athletes: Are You Eating Them Incorrectly?

Do you put spinach in your smoothies? Do you know how you might be screwing this up? These are the best superfoods to eat to enhance your training and make the most of your training with proper nutrition.

There is at least one character trait that every Spartan shares: high expectations. Whether it’s in regards to the efficiency of a new exercise or the nutritional wallop of a pre-race meal, Spartans simply expect more than the average person. But as you may know, food can be confusing. As a dietitian, I work with Spartans to make sure that their nutrition works just as hard as they do, and there are a few mistakes that I see repeatedly. This also applies to the superfoods to eat — they pack a punch for recovery, but you should be cooking and digesting them properly.  So let’s talk about them, okay? Here are four bona fide health superfoods that people often get wrong.

Related: 5 Superfoods You’ve Never Heard Of (+ How to Eat Them)

Superfoods to Eat + Nutritional Mistakes to Avoid

Superfoods to Eat #1: Protein Powder

protein powder superfoods to eat

Be it whey, casein, or plant-based in origin, protein powder supplies easily absorbable amino acids that help quickly repair torn muscle and assist anabolic results. The convenience of a powder can also ensure that you’re able to time your protein intake to your workouts, where it can have the biggest impact. But it’s important to understand that your body can only handle so much protein at a time. In the nutrition community, we call this the “ceiling effect.” It implies that if you’re wolfing down too much powder, you’re just wasting money and filling your body with excess calories that could be converted to fat.

Related: 5 Snacking Strategies to Help You Squeeze in More Protein

The Mistake: Overdoing it. Some people believe that when they’re trying to build muscle, there’s no such thing as too much protein. But multiple studies have shown that more is not always be better. One of those studies, published in the Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, found that 23 grams of protein achieved a “near maximal effect” on your body’s protein fractional synthetic rate (translation: the most muscle repair you can achieve with the least amount of muscle breakdown). Even at the high end of the spectrum, it’s safe to say that taking in more than 30 grams of protein at one sitting will have no additional anabolic effect.

Make It Count: Check you powder’s label, and scoop just enough to add 20 to 30 grams of protein within 30 to 45 minutes of a moderate- to high-intensity exercise. Or, of course, you can always earn your protein the natural way—from foods like eggs, fish, and chicken.

Superfoods to Eat #2: Flaxseeds

flaxseeds superfoods to eat

Once considered a fringe health superfood, flaxseed has now gone mainstream, thanks in no small part to its payload of fiber, phytochemicals, and omega-3 fatty acids. Plus they taste good: The seeds are mildly nutty in flavor and extremely versatile. You can use them in cooking or baking, add them to salads, mix them into sauces or stews, or add them to your morning oatmeal. But—are you digesting them properly?

The Mistake: Skipping the grind. If you eat your flaxseeds whole, you’re just flushing them down the toilet—literally. Your body is incapable of breaking down the hulls of the seed, so unless you grind them before ingestion, they simply pass through your digestive system intact. You’re not only wasting money; you're also missing out on critical nutrients.

Make It Count: If you buy flaxseeds whole, drop them into a blade-style coffee or spice grinder before using them. And store whatever you don’t use in the fridge or freezer—the seeds are prone to oxidizing (especially once they’re ground), which can impact both the nutrition and flavor. For health improvements—e.g. better cholesterol levels—I tell my clients to aim for 3 tablespoons of flaxseed per day. This is easily done with a tablespoon at breakfast (try stirring them into your eggs), topping salad with a tablespoon at lunch, and mixing one more tablespoon into your stir-fry for dinner.

Superfoods to Eat #3: Yogurt

yogurt superfoods to eat

The yogurt aisle continues to grow bigger every year. What used to be a basic breakfast food has expanded into a well-known source of nutrition that is now being enjoyed all day long. And it’s no surprise; yogurt is a delicious and versatile superfood. And a quick survey of my clients indicates that people are choosing yogurt for two primary reasons: probiotics and macronutrients, like protein. These intentions are good, but if you’re not a savvy shopper, you could be getting more, or less, than you bargained for.

Related: Get Off the Crack: 8 Ways to Cut Sugar from Your Diet

The Mistake: Choosing your yogurt hastily. The truth is, not all brands are loaded with probiotics, and many are actually more like milkshakes than the nutritional heroes the claim to be. If you choose the wrong yogurt—and there are plenty of junk options at every supermarket—then you’re adding nothing of value to your microbiome, the bacterial culture in your gut that contributes to good health. Instead, you might be adding to your waistline. A serving of unsweetened superfood yogurt has 4 grams of natural milk sugars. But often I see labels that list 21 grams of sugar, or more. That’s 17 grams of added sugar. That’s more than 4 teaspoons. So much for a health superfood.

Make It Count: Look for yogurt that’s unsweetened, and then scan the label for the words, “active live culture.” It may even list the active strains bifidobacterium and lactobacillus—powerful probiotics that will deliver the nutritional payout you expect. And if you must go with a sweetened or flavored yogurt, at least check the nutrition facts label. Anything with more than 8 grams of sugar per serving isn’t a health superfood. It’s a dessert.

Superfoods to Eat #4: Spinach

spinach superfoods to eat

Spinach is easy to find on the average superfood list. Used in salads and smoothies, spinach has a reputation as a muscle-building hero. Credit goes to the leafy vegetable’s concentration of non-heme iron, which is an essential component of the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin that fuels your lungs and muscles. Spinach itself is always a smart choice, but pair it with the wrong foods and you may be reducing its impact.

Related: Spinach: Low Calorie, High Density

The Mistake: Eating your spinach superfood with coffee or tea. It turns out that both caffeine and the tannins in coffee and tea can bind to non-heme iron and prevent it from being absorbed. In a couple old studies from the 1980s, tea was shown to be the bigger of the two culprits, blocking iron absorption by 62 to 64 percent. Likewise, coffee blocked non-heme iron absorption by 35 to 39 percent.

Make It Count: Truth is, if your iron levels are good, then the coffee and tea effect is probably not detrimental. And even when you drink them alongside spinach, the leafy greens still deliver tons of other nutritional wonders. But if you’re low on iron—or you just want to maximize spinach’s impact—avoid drinking coffee or tea within two hours of eating it. Actually, avoid coffee or tea with 2 hours of eating any iron-rich food, including beans or nuts. Another thing you can do to increase non-heme iron absorption is to pair it with foods rich in ascorbic acid (vitamin C). So consider a spritz of lemon on your next spinach salad.

Dial in your nutrition. Here's the free Spartan Meal Plan