Can Superfoods Equal Super Performance?
Meet three of today’s superfood darlings: açai berries, beetroot juice, and curcumin. What does the research say regarding their impact on athletic performance, recovery, and overall health? Here’s the delicious news.
“Superfood” has been a buzzword for years, but it’s really more of a marketing term than an official food-industry classification. Still, superfoods generally have one thing in common: They pack a significant nutrient punch. They may be high in one nutrient in particular, or they might contain several phytonutrients, antioxidants, other vitamins, and/or minerals. And since these perks come in a small volume of mostly low-calorie food options, they have an even greater appeal in our weight-obsessed culture. Some superfood all-stars of the recent past include blueberries, dark chocolate, oats, pistachios, and dark leafy greens such as kale and spinach.
Superfoods can carry many health benefits. They may play a role in preventing serious conditions (like cancer and high blood pressure), decreasing inflammation (common in heart disease and stroke patients), increasing energy, reducing joint pain, and maintaining a healthy weight, to name just a few. (8) In this article, we’ll be shining some light on three superfoods that may play a role in enhancing athletic performance and recovery, while providing additional health benefits. First, though, a few words of caution.
Improve Your Superfood Savvy
Superfoods are great to add to an overall balanced diet. However, if all you consumed were the latest and greatest superfoods, you would be at risk for nutrient deficiencies, as well as potential toxicity from the large amounts of certain nutrients (particularly vitamins K and A) found in some of these foods. People most at risk for toxicity are those with health conditions such as thyroid disorders. A few more pointers about adding superfoods to your diet.
- Vary your selections. With some things, more is better. But with most foods, even “super” ones, more is just more. Excluding, limiting, or avoiding specific foods may decrease your nutrient variety and intake. Aim for a variety of produce, and you will take in a wider array of nutrients, not to mention flavors.What’s a healthy approach to incorporating superfoods? Figure out how you can add them to your rotation of wonderful foods. For example, when having salads you do not need to “all hail to kale” and shun other leafy greens. Instead, try mixed greens that include kale, arugula, and (a personal favorite) bibb lettuce for salads.
- Rethink supplements. As a general rule, try to consume the majority of your nutrients from food, and use supplementation to fill in gaps where increased need is indicated due to deficiency, health complications, or a desire for improved performance. Always know where your supplements come from; make sure you purchase them from certified and regulated companies. Look for those whose label indicates “USP Verified” or NSF/ANSI 173 certification. Supplements taken by athletes may also be labeled “NSF Certified for Sport,” which assures that they do not contain any ingredients that have been banned by major athletic organizations. (9)
- Do some research. As a registered dietitian, I advise caution when any food—or diet, type of exercise, etc.—touts itself as the cure-all for your weight, health, or performance concerns. Look at study results on reliable websites (ending in .gov, .edu, or .org, for instance), or talk to a registered dietitian or healthcare professional before you buy (or buy into) a particular claim, especially if it sounds too good to be true.
Açai berries, beetroot juice, and curcumin are the focus of this article. Let’s look at what the research says about these three superfoods and what benefits they may offer to athletes.
Açai berries, which come from the açai palm (typically found in South America), are a reddish-purple grapelike berry. These fruits may have more antioxidants (particularly anthocyanins) than other berries such as blueberries and cranberries. Antioxidants are important in fighting free radicals—harmful compounds that damage healthy cells and may increase the risk of cancer and heart disease.
The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (2) states that consuming the berries does have a beneficial impact on performance, as well as on health and prevention of disease. However, more research is needed to determine to what extent the impact directly relates to the açai berry.
According to the Mayo Clinic, açai berries are associated with many health claims such as weight loss, an improved cholesterol profile, increased immunity, decreased joint pain, and even improved skin appearance. Research findings regarding these claims however, are inconsistent, so further investigation is needed.
The great thing is that when açai berries are consumed as a food and not in supplement form, there is very minimal risk and possibly many potential health benefits. To incorporate them into your diet, try adding a handful of açai berries into your smoothie for a tasty and a nutritious treat.
The red beet, more specifically the beetroot juice made from it, shows promise for increasing performance and reducing blood pressure. The juice specifically has been used in many studies to determine its health and performance benefits. (3) Beetroot juice has been studied for potential benefits in improved performance by lowering the muscles’ oxygen demand and increasing muscle efficiency, specifically in endurance exercise. Also, beets are naturally high in nitrates, and increased nitrates in the body have been shown to reduce blood pressure. This has many potential benefits for overall heart health.
Beets are high in fiber, as well as vitamins and minerals such as folate and potassium. The rich coloring of beets comes from betalains, pigments with powerful antioxidant potential.
There are some potential safety concerns regarding the amount of nitrates consumed, however. Nitrates may combine with other dietary nutrients to form nitrosamines that may be carcinogenic. More research is needed for this to be definitive. The World Health Organization recommends an acceptable daily intake (ADI) of 3.65 mg/kg/day. (4)
Dosing concerns reinforce consuming this superfood in food form first (over supplements). Approximately ½ cup of beetroot juice or 15-ounce can of beets, or 1½ cups of roasted beets. Add some roasted beets to your mixed greens for a start to a delicious and nutritious salad.
Curcumin is a bright yellow compound found in the spice turmeric, as well as in ginger. This substance has been touted for its anti-inflammatory benefits for exercise recovery, as well as its ability to decrease joint pain and prevent some types of chronic disease.
In particular, curcumin is being studied for its benefits on decreased post-exercise muscle soreness (5), improving recovery between training sessions. Research is also being conducted regarding curcumin’s anti-inflammatory properties, which may play a role in cancer prevention, heart health, autoimmune diseases, and digestive disorders. Curcumin is believed to inhibit inflammatory enzymes and therefore mediate the inflammatory response. (6)
To add curcumin to your diet, try a South Asian dish made with turmeric, such as curry. If you are not a fan of curry, you can use the spice in smoothies, sprinkle it over eggs in an omelet, or mix it into hummus. . Research has found that 1½ teaspoons of turmeric is safe for consumption for anti-inflammatory properties. (7)
- “Nutrition and Healthy Eating. Acai Berries: Do They Have Health Benefits?” Mayo Clinic, 25 Mar. 2015. Web. 17 Aug. 2016.
- “Berry fruits: compositional elements, biochemical activities, and the impact of their intake on human health, performance, and disease.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry; 2008 Feb 13;56(3):627-9. doi: 10.1021/jf071988k. Epub 2008 Jan 23.
- “Nitrate-Rich Vegetables Increase Plasma Nitrate and Nitrite Concentrations and Lower Blood Pressure in Healthy Adults.” The Journal of Nutrition. 2016 May; 146(5):986-93. doi: 10.3945/jn.116.229807. Epub 2016 Apr 13.
- Rosenbloom CA & Coleman EJ (Eds.) Sports Nutrition:A Practice Manual for Professionals. 5th edition. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Chicago, IL; 2012.
- “Reduced inflammatory and muscle damage biomarkers following oral supplementation with bioavailable curcumin.” BBA Clinical. Volume 5, June 2016, Pages 72–78.
- “Antioxidant and Anti-inflammatory Properties of Curcumin.” Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology. 2007; 595:105-25.
- “Safety and anti-inflammatory activity of curcumin: a component of turmeric (Curcuma longa).” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2003 Feb;9(1):161.
- “Inflammation and Heart Disease.” American Heart Association, 18 Apr. 2016. Web. 17 Aug. 2016.
- USP Verified Mark. USP Verified Mark. NSF International, n.d. Web. 17 Aug. 2016.