Fueling for sports requires special attention to diet and adherence to the proper ratio of macronutrients—carbohydrates, protein and fat. However, athletes also have to pay attention to micronutrients—the vitamins and minerals that fine-tune their bodies for peak performance and facilitate day-to-day bodily functions.
Here are six fruits and vegetables athletes need to eat as often as possible. Make sure they’re on your grocery list!
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Foods rich in antioxidants help reduce inflammation and decrease muscle soreness. Various studies have shown the positive effects on exercise recovery of tart cherries, due to their high antioxidant properties. As you would imagine, tart cherries can have a slightly bitter taste, so mixing them into smoothies or combining their juice with seltzer water are easy ways to consume this important fruit.
Oranges are one of the best sources of Vitamin C, which can reduce exercise-induced oxidative stress and support a healthy immune system. Vitamin C also helps athletes absorb iron from plant-based foods. This is especially important for female athletes, who are more likely to be iron-deficient. Squeeze fresh orange juice on beans or lentils as a dressing, or cut orange slices to mix into a spinach salad.
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Bananas deliver easily digestible, low-glycemic carbohydrates, which provide fuel before practices or games. The are also a great source of potassium, an electrolyte that can be lost during strenuous exercise. Top a banana with peanut butter for a quick, easy and effective pre-workout snack.
Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C, manganese (for energy production), fiber (for healthy digestion), vitamin B6 (for nerve function and muscle contraction) and potassium. Saying they’re nutritionally stacked is a bit of an understatement. They’re also super easy to cook. Chop a sweet potato into a salad or mix one with scrambled eggs and spinach for a fast, healthy meal.
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According to a 2012 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, consumption of nitrate-rich, whole beetroot improves running performance due to its ability to increase dilation of the blood vessels, allowing for greater blood flow and improving oxygen and nutrient delivery to working muscles. Mix the beet greens into a salad and roast the beet to add sweetness and texture. You can also mix the beet and beet greens into a smoothie. (See recipes here).
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Dark green vegetables like spinach are full of nutrients, high in calcium, vitamin C, magnesium, zinc and iron—all important for athletic performance. Spinach is also a source of vitamin K, which helps athletes maintain healthy bones. If you get bored with plain spinach or salads, get creative. Mix fresh spinach into your next soup, or use it as a topper in sandwiches and quesadillas.