There is at least one character trait that every Spartan shares: high expectations. Whether it’s in regard to the efficiency of a new exercise or the nutrition of a pre-race meal, Spartans simply expect more than the average person. This also applies to the superfoods to eat. While superfoods pack a punch for recovery, you should be cooking and digesting them properly.
Do you put spinach in your smoothies? And if you do, are you doing it all wrong? These are the best superfoods to eat to enhance your training and make the most of your training with proper nutrition.
The Spartan-Approved Superfoods List (Plus Nutritional Mistakes to Avoid)
1. Protein Powder
Be it whey, casein, collagen, 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 align your protein intake with your workouts, when 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,” which 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.
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 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 that 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 in one sitting will have no additional anabolic effect.
Make It Count: Check your powder’s label, and scoop just enough to add 20-30 grams of protein within 30-45 minutes of finishing a moderate- to high-intensity training session. Or, of course, you can always get your protein from foods like eggs, fish, and chicken.
Once considered a fringe health superfood, flaxseed has become more popular, largely because of 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 even 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 such as 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 a salad with a tablespoon at lunch, and mixing one more tablespoon into your stir-fry for dinner.
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. A quick survey of my clients indicates that people are choosing yogurt for two primary reasons: probiotics and macronutrients (including protein). These intentions are good, but if you’re not a savvy shopper, you could be getting more (or less) than you bargained for.
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 they 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 gaining fat. A serving of unsweetened superfood yogurt has 4 grams of natural milk sugars. But many yogurt options have 21 grams of sugar (or more). That’s 17 grams of added sugar, or 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 “active live culture.” It may even list the active strains bifidobacterium and lactobacillus, which are powerful probiotics that will deliver the nutritional payout you expect. And if you must go with 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.
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 if you pair it with the wrong foods, you may be reducing its impact.
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.
Make It Count: This, of course, doesn't mean you need to avoid either drink. The truth is, if your iron levels are good, then the coffee and tea effect isn't 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 spinach or any other iron-rich food, including beans or nuts. And to further increase non-heme iron absorption, pair the leafy green with foods that are rich in ascorbic acid (vitamin C), like lemon juice.