Eating quality calories at every meal can be difficult, but for athletes it's necessary to do so as often as possible to reap maximum performance benefits on the field and in the weight room. Getting adequate amounts of protein is important for gaining lean mass, but it's not the only nutrient needed to build up muscle tissue. Your body's largest energy supply comes from carbohydrates.
The following three superfoods—so-called because of their carb content and remarkable nutritional properties—are great sources of energy and extremely easy to incorporate into your diet, either in a carb-loaded meal before a workout or in a post-workout snack.
With 39 grams of carbs per cup, quinoa should be considered a staple. Commonly considered a grain, it's actually a relative of leafy green vegetables like spinach and Swiss chard. Quinoa is high in fiber [eight grams per cup], iron [important in oxygen production and flow to muscles], zinc, vitamin E, selenium and even protein—containing all of the amino acids essential for muscle growth. Its nut-like protein protects against muscle fatigue, containing particularly high levels of the amino acid lysine [required for tissue growth and repair], riboflavin [essential for proper energy production and sturdy metabolic function in brain and muscle cells] and magnesium [relaxes the blood vessels and promotes cardiovascular health]. Bonus: quinoa also has high levels of manganese—a key nutrient and antioxidant that helps your body synthesize fatty acids and cholesterol.
Like rice, quinoa is quick and easy to prepare, taking only 10 minutes on the stove; and it can be eaten by itself or mixed with vegetables. Tasty tip: once cooked, sprinkle parmesan or shredded mozzarella cheese on top. It also makes a great breakfast food, mixed with a little milk, nuts, fruit and/or cinnamon.
The best Thanksgiving carbohydrate to eat all year round, one sweet potato will fill your "orange food" quota for the week, delivering approximately 41 grams of carbs, depending on size. Packed with calcium, potassium, iron, vitamin C and vitamin E [one of the few fat-free sources of this vitamin], sweet potatoes have more beta carotene than any other fruit or vegetable. With a remarkably low glycemic index, they are digested and absorbed gradually for sustained energy throughout a workout.
To prepare, simply pierce the potato with a fork a few times and pop it into the microwave for three to five minutes. Or for sweet potato fries, cut the potato into thin slices; place on a baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil and salt; and roast them in the oven at 375 degrees for approximately 30 to 35 minutes, until browned.
Other dark orange vegetable standouts include pumpkin, carrots, butternut squash and orange bell peppers.
Berries pack an incredible amount of antioxidants in a small package, but watermelon, although it's often overlooked, delivers more bang for your buck. Best eaten in its peak season of summer, watermelon is 92 percent water—great for hydrating and flushing impurities from the body—yet it supplies extensive amounts of nutrients, very few calories and 12 grams of carbs per medium slice. Possessing anti-inflammatory properties, watermelon has loads of antioxidants, as well as potassium, vitamins A, C and B. It's most notable and concentrated nutrient, however, is the cartenoid lycopene, of which it contains 40 percent more than tomatoes. Lycopene is widely recognized as a cancer-fighting compound, and its antioxidant function helps protect cells [including muscle cells] from oxygen damage. Bonus: L-Citrulline in watermelon converts into another amino acid, L-arginine, which is partially responsible for increased blood flow and may play a role in making certain proteins and pumping them through the body.
Sources: whfoods.com, webmd.com
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock