What's one overlooked food that all lifters and fitness fanatics should be eating? We ask 12 of our experts. Their answers will surprise you.
What's one overlooked food that everyone should be eating?
Benjamin Johnson – Fitness and Nutrition Coach
Butter is one food that everybody should be eating.
Problem is, most people still think butter is strictly taboo. Get out of the '90s! Saturated fat isn't cholesterol's kiss of death, and enjoying butter isn't going to derail your progress.
Truth is, butter is one of my favorite fats – for both flavor and fitness. For one, it's utterly delicious. But it's more than that. With the vitamins, minerals, healthy fat (including a great ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids), and good cholesterol, butter can help with everything from cell, brain, and nervous system function to boosting metabolism, immunity, and even vision.
It doesn't matter if you're looking to crush a new PR or step on stage, butter's got your back. – Benjamin Johnson
TC Luoma – T Nation Editor
If any food is a true superfood, it's sauerkraut.
It's smelly and vile tasting and a lot of people stuff it under their chair cushion when it's fed to them, but if any food can change your overall health, it's sauerkraut.
Sauerkraut is definitely something you should be eating because it's both a probiotic and prebiotic. In other words, it plants beneficial bacteria in your gut and then simultaneously feeds them with sugars that, while indigestible to us humans, are pure manna from heaven to bacteria.
Having a healthy balance of bacteria in your gut is important for a variety of reasons:
- They can send chemicals to the brain that cause serotonin to be released, thereby creating calmness.
- They can actually prevent insulin insensitivity and keep you lean.
- They can thwart inflammation and, as a result, prevent a vast proportion of the inflammatory diseases that affect man.
This last point is particularly important. All kinds of human activities and habits affect your immune system, including diet, medications, infections, stress, and wayward hormone levels. All of these things affect the health of the intestines by creating a limited or incomplete population of bacteria in your gut.
And, without a proper balance of bacteria, the bad diet, medications, etc. cause the intestinal lining to become more permeable so that invaders – whether they be bacteria, viruses, or even organic or inorganic particles – can enter the bloodstream and cause any one of hundreds of conditions or disease states.
What's needed is a food that will start to set things right, a food like sauerkraut. It's probably the reason why millions of sauerkraut-eating Germans haven't collapsed in the streets from their obsessive taste for different types of cancer-causing sausages.
Granted, the normal gut of any human contains thousands of different types of bacteria, and sauerkraut generally only contains four (leuconostoc mesenteroides, lactobacillus brevis, pediococcus pentosaceus, and lactobacillus plantarum). However, research suggests that these four good bacterial horsemen create an environment conducive to the growth of other bacteria. In other words, the rising bacterial tide lifts all bacterial boats.
So eat your sauerkraut. Eat it every day. Here are some caveats, though:
- Only buy sauerkraut from the refrigerator section of the grocery store. If a sauerkraut product's been on the shelf for any length of time, chances are the bacteria are inviable or dead.
- If the package reads, "pasteurized," express your annoyance by throwing it against the wall.
- Store sauerkraut in the refrigerator when you bring it home, too. (While it appears sauerkraut can be frozen for up to 4 months or so, the survival rate of its bacteria in frozen conditions probably depends on a whole host of factors that are difficult to predict.)
- Don't cook your sauerkraut because cooking kills the bacteria. You can, however, warm it gently.
Try eating 3-4 ounces a few times a week, but even a few tablespoons will have some positive effect. If you have trouble dealing with the acidic taste, many people eat it with sliced up apples, or a spritz or two of apple cider vinegar. You can also add chopped up bacon to it, as bacon would make even a dead rodent palatable. – TC Luoma
Travis Hansen – Athletic Trainer
Trout. It's probably not the first source of protein that comes to mind, but based on its vitamin D content, you should definitely consider it.
First, vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin (absorbed more easily in the presence of dietary fat), which is convenient since trout is a fattier fish. Sunlight may be your best bet for satisfying daily vitamin D needs, but trout can give you moderate to high doses of Vitamin D3 (also called cholecalciferol) specifically. This is huge if you're not getting enough sun exposure.
What's the big deal with vitamin D3? For starters, muscle has vitamin D receptors, which means that once it's converted into the active form, D3, it has the capacity to act directly on muscle tissue. More specifically, D3 can down-regulate myostatin (a protein which inhibits muscle growth) which can help increase muscle growth.
Vitamin D3 is superior to other versions of vitamin D, (like vitamin D2 or "ergocalciferol") in terms of elevating vitamin D in the body. It's also the active form of vitamin D. Whether through sunlight radiation or specific food consumption, there are several enzymatic reactions that occur in both the liver and kidneys which ultimately result in a highly functional, powerful, and useful micronutrient.
Research has shown a positive correlation between vitamin D levels and athletic performance, as well as force and power production. D3 increases the sensitivity of calcium to binding sites of a muscle responsible for muscular contraction.
Most people don't get enough sunlight and miss out on the opportunity to absorb a necessary precursor to vitamin D. So selecting foods that contain it can fill in that gap and help boost your health and performance.
Baking seems to be the ideal form of meal prep for trout and other fatty fish containing vitamin D, since it may help preserve precious IU's. – Travis Hansen
Chris Shugart – T Nation CCO
Buckwheat is a true superfood and it's one source of carbs even the carb-phobic should feel good about eating. (Seriously guys, eat a carb. You look like an extra in a zombie movie.)
In spite of the name, buckwheat isn't wheat, so there's no gluten or possible craving-causing exorphins to fret about. It's actually a fruit seed and is classified as a "pseudocereal" or "pseudo-grain" much like quinoa. Buckwheat also has a low glycemic index if that's something that still keeps you up at night. (It shouldn't unless you're very fat and very sedentary.)
Along with phytonutrients and other healthy stuff, buckwheat contains chiroinositol which helps with glucose metabolism and cell signaling. It also appears to be better than oatmeal or wheat cereals when it comes to heart health and reducing "bad" cholesterol, plus it has anti-inflammatory properties.
Since buckwheat grows quickly, very little (if any) pesticides have to be used. And while you don't really eat buckwheat for protein, the protein it does contain has all eight essential amino acids.
Buckwheat tastes great as a hot cereal and it's extremely filling, scoring very high in satiation studies. That means a little goes a long way, making it a great food when you're keeping your calories in check.
The easiest way to make a hearty bowl is to buy dry cream of buckwheat (sometimes sold as "creamy buckwheat"), found in health food stores. Just add water and it microwaves perfectly in 3-4 minutes. Toss in a couple of scoops of Metabolic Drive®, some fruit or nuts, and you may never eat oatmeal again. – Chris Shugart
Paul Carter – Strength and Bodybuilding Coach
Ginger. The more you look into ginger, the more you realize what a dynamic superfood it really is.
Ginger not only helps soothe the digestive tract, which is why it works very well in fighting nausea, but it's also loaded with a natural anti-inflammatory compound called gingerols (which may help fight cancer) and helps to suppress inflammatory compounds as well. Chronic inflammation is linked to just about every serious health issue known to man.
There was also a study linking ginger and reduced muscle soreness (possibly due to the anti-inflammation properties), which would also mean faster localized muscle recovery post workout. It's also great in regards to satiation, so adding it in during very difficult dieting phases can be beneficial in keeping the crazy cravings away.
When you add all of these factors up, it's hard to fathom that someone who's serious about the quality of their health, diet, and training isn't including ginger in their diet on the regular. – Paul Carter
Mark Dugdale – IFBB Pro Bodybuilder
Eat more fermented vegetables.
I'm not talking about the shelf-stable sauerkraut, which is pasteurized. Not that there's anything wrong with eating dead vegetables, but the health benefits and their implication to athletes and fitness-minded individuals of consuming raw, live, probiotic, fermented vegetables is what I'm talking about.
Gut health via the proper balance of good bacteria within the body coupled with prebiotic fiber from which the healthy bugs can proliferate will likely be the great nutritional story of the next decade.
Various studies continue to shed light on the many benefits associated with healthy gut flora including an improved immune system, favorable changes in body composition, and even positive improvement in metal health disorders.
The gut is truly at the center of multiple bodily functions and there's no better probiotic powerhouse than fermented vegetables. While relatively easy to make at home, most health oriented grocery stores like Whole Foods carry a wide assortment of fermented vegetables, kimchi and even drinkable brine obtained from the fermenting process. – Mark Dugdale
Erick Avila – Strength and Conditioning Coach, Nutritionist
Organic, grass fed beef liver is the one food any serious strength or power athlete should stop overlooking.
Beef liver wasn't always overlooked, in fact liver tabs were staples in the supplement stacks of bodybuilding legends like Arnold, Zane, and Gironda. Ounce for ounce, liver is the most nutritionally dense food you can find in nature.
It's unfortunate that liver has become so overlooked since it's a rich source in many micronutrients that athletes commonly have deficiencies in or spend tons of money supplementing. Consider B vitamins. Pro athletes turned to vitamin injections and vitamin drips where one of the primary components in the cocktails are B vitamins.
Liver happens to be one of the most potent sources of B, especially B-6 and B-12. B vitamins play a role in carb metabolism, fat utilization, and maintaining high iron levels. All of these things directly impact energy levels and the ability to recover from training.
Liver is also a great source for all of the fat soluble vitamins, A, D, E, and K, which play important roles in maintaining a strong immune system and regulating hormone levels. Mineral deficiencies can also become quite common for athletes undergoing intense training regimens, namely iron for females and magnesium for males. Liver provides a high source of calcium, iron, phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, and zinc. These minerals are vital for oxygen transport, muscle contraction, and maintaining the body's normal fluid balance.
The macronutrient quality of liver is excellent as well. Look up its amino acid score sometime. This is a measurement which assesses the quality of a protein depending on its number of essential amino acids. A score of 100 indicates that something is a complete protein. Beef liver has a score of 152.
Lastly, liver is a good source of essential fatty acids EPA and DHA. These fatty acids have been shown in studies to play roles in increasing lean body mass, reducing body fat, and decreasing time to muscle fatigue. – Erick Avila
Mike Roussell, PhD – Nutrition Scientist
Kefir is a nutritional powerhouse that most lifters ignore or don't even know about.
It's a drinkable cross between milk and yogurt. Kefir is loaded with good bacteria that help keep your digestion in top shape so that you can you can extract all the calories and nutrients from the massive amounts of food your body needs. The good bacteria also strengthens your immune system.
Kefir has more protein than milk or regular yogurt. And the lactose in it, which many people can have trouble with, is essentially non-existent because the good bacteria in the kefir pre-digests it for you. It also has calcium and vitamin D, two nutrients for bone health so that your body can continue to withstand the pounding of intense training. I consistently see my athletes having low intakes of these two nutrients.
I use kefir in shakes instead of water to get in more calories and a punch of extra nutrition. – Mike Roussell, PhD
Chris Colucci – T Nation Forum Director
Lifters need to stop overlooking chicken thighs.
Bodybuilding and chicken breasts go together like chest day and flat benching. Long-standing tradition says that one always goes with the other, but just like there are plenty of great ways to hit your pecs, there's an excellent animal protein left underrated.
Compared to chicken breasts, chicken thighs offer the same high-quality protein. (To be fair, thighs do have a few grams less protein per serving, but it's a bite or two difference and basically a non-issue.) Thighs have more healthy fats, including a decent amount of saturated fat to help hormone function and overall satiety.
Because of the higher fat content, they're more forgiving to cook, so you don't have to choke down another dry, overdone chicken breast. Thighs are also less expensive, up to 30% cheaper, so you get more nutrition bang for your literal buck.
Try this simple, nutrient-dense recipe: Brown both sides of a few skinless chicken thighs in some oil or butter, then take the chicken out and cook some sliced peppers and onions in the same pan. Once the vegetables start to soften, put the chicken back in and dump in a bunch of chopped tomatoes. Throw in some smashed garlic cloves and red pepper flakes. Let it all simmer together on low heat for about an hour. Done.
You just made a fast and easy version of chicken cacciatore. High protein, some good fats, and loaded with vegetables. Great for building muscle and dropping body fat, also great for date night. Breasts get all the attention, but you really should give a good pair of thighs a chance. (We're still talking chicken here.) – Chris Colucci
Jade Teta – Integrative Physician, Naturopath, Coach
A buffer food – a food you love that doesn't derail your goals in the gym.
This is a food that, when eaten, satiates and satisfies in the moment. More importantly, it's a food that takes the edge off and allows for more beneficial, healthy foods to be eaten later – one that helps you reach your goals.
For most, this is counterintuitive, yet is a critical understanding. Many people think to themselves, "I will only eat foods that are healthy, fat-loss or fitness oriented foods and avoid anything else." Of course this works for a time (usually a very brief time), until you find yourself bingeing on all the off-limit foods.
Setting foods as "off limits" is like the psychological experiment where you tell someone NOT to think of a white elephant. Once you say that, it'll be all they can think about. The same thing holds true for food. Set something as "off limits" and it will soon become "on limits" in unlimited quantities.
Instead, think about which foods you like that keep you balanced and stable. An example, for me, is banana. When I eat it, it gives me just enough sweet, fills me up and provides good quality, stable energy. So much so it makes eating better foods later much easier. I used to avoid bananas, because they had "too many carbs" and, as a result of avoiding them, I ate even more carbs than I would otherwise... fat and salt too.
So the one food you must be eating is a buffer food – a food you really enjoy that your body enjoys too and your efforts in the gym improve as a result. – Jade Teta
Dani Shugart – T Nation Editor
Squash may not be overlooked, but it doesn't get the appreciation it deserves.
I'm big on volumizing food – eating things that are nutritionally dense and make you feel more satisfied with fewer total calories. A lot of people seem to think this can only be accomplished with salads and high-fiber cruciferous vegetables, but there are a lot of foods (gentler on the digestive tract) that can do the same.
Yes, there's a place for roughage, but I don't recommend volumizing every single meal by turning it into a pile of vegetation. With the popularity of certain diets, many people are discovering that their bodies have a threshold of fibrous veggies. They can only take so much before they start experiencing more drawbacks than benefits.
Squash does have some fiber in it, but it also contains a lot of water and some starch. Many varieties will have a small amount of sugar in them too, but they're so filling that you wouldn't be able to consume enough for it to make a dent in your physique.
It's the perfect carb if you're trying to lose fat without feeling hungry. And it's the perfect carb if you're NOT trying to lose fat but just want a delicious meal. Even the healthiest squash dish can look, taste, and smell like food-porn.
Winter squash varieties are awesome as a soup base or in a thick chili. Butternut is actually great in brownie, cookie, and pie recipes. If you're strapped for time, any squash is delicious grilled. Try acorn squash thinly sliced and baked with a spritz of oil, some salt, and cinnamon; or try it mashed-up in a pot on Thanksgiving. If prepared right, it's as good as mashed potatoes.
The varieties and the ways to prepare squash are pretty much endless, so choose what's in season and learn to cook it in as many ways as possible. Just don't forget the salt. – Dani Shugart
Mike Sheridan – Nutrition and Fitness Coach
Organ meats are always overlooked.
Aside from avoiding foods and behaviors that cause harm, optimal health and performance ultimately comes down to how well-nourished we are.
Conventional advice tells us this is achieved with plenty of fruits and vegetables, but animal products are actually the most nutrient dense foods. And not surprisingly, they're also cleverly packed in a highly-absorbable (bio-available) format for humans – unlike their plant-based counterparts that are commonly wrapped up in anti-nutrients which disrupt absorption and can't be properly converted to the essential nutrients we need.
- Plant-based omega-3 fatty acids (ALA) are poorly converted to the long-chain animal-based variety (DHA).
- Heme (or ferrous) iron is the best available source of iron for humans, and it's only obtainable from animal source foods.
- Cobalamin, the form of B12 usable by humans, can only be obtained from animal products, and the plant-based form (cobamide) actually blocks its absorption.
Of these animal products, organ meats are the most nutrient-dense, providing enough nutrition to make everything else in the diet almost unnecessary, and quickly taking care of the most common nutritional deficiencies (b12, iron, etc):
|Carrots (100g)||Beef Liver (100g)|
|Calcium||3 mg||11 mg|
|Phosphorous||6 mg||476 mg|
|Magnesium||4.8 mg||18 mg|
|Potassium||222 mg||380 mg|
|Iron||0.6 mg||9 mg|
|Zinc||0.05 mg||4 mg|
|Copper||0.04 mg||12 mg|
|Vitamin A (retinol)||N/A||53,400 IU|
|Vitamin D||N/A||19 IU|
|Vitamin E||0.1 mg||0.6 mg|
|Vitamin C||6 mg||27 mg|
|Thiamin||0.05 mg||0.3 mg|
|Riboflavin||0.05 mg||4 mg|
|Niacin||0.6 mg||16 mg|
|Panthothenic Acid||0.2 mg||9 mg|
|Vitamin B6||0.1 mg||0.7 mg|
|Folic Acid||24 mcg||145 mcg|
|Biotin||0.4 mcg||96 mcg|
|Vitamin B12||N/A||111 mcg|
Organ meats are the only quality source of preformed vitamin A (retinol) which, other than small amounts in fish, egg yolks and grass-fed dairy, we have no other way of accessing since the conversion of the carotenoids (provitamin A) found in vegetables to the usable human form is almost non-existent (at 0-3%).
Unfortunately, wrapping your head around consuming organ meats can be tough. So, here are some tips on how to sneak them into your diet:
- Start with less gamey livers before beef, like chicken or lamb.
- Soak the liver in something acidic, like lemon juice or vinegar.
- Don't eat or cook it whole. Slice it or grate it while frozen.
- Hide it in other foods and dishes, like ground beef or a stir fry.
- Buy a high-quality beef liver supplement. Put it in anything (shakes, etc).
Deficiency symptoms – bone loss, poor growth and development, low hormone production – seem to occur at anything below 1500-2500 IU per day. This suggests that you can get away with only 1-2 servings of high-quality beef liver per month if you're already eating plenty of fish, eggs, and dairy.
For those concerned with vitamin A toxicity, it's about as rare as overdosing on vitamin D. And ironically, it's more common in those that are vitamin D deficient.
According to a 2003 review paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Myhre et al), supplemental vitamin D increases the toxicity threshold of vitamin A by 175,000IU's per day!
So, just be sure you're getting plenty of sunshine (or supplemental vitamin D) with your organ meats. This will ensure you're enjoying the health and performance benefits from the most nutrient-dense food on the planet with no ill-effects. – Mike Sheridan
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