Dried fruits like prunes, raisins, dried apricots, etc. are high in carbohydrates, antioxidants and minerals. You could also lump dates into this category. Generally, I wouldn’t advocate for consuming large quantities of these foods except during or immediately after training sessions, simply because they have a high caloric density and can easily provide a moderate to large glycemic load (i.e. a spike in blood glucose). Their high antioxidant and mineral content will help reduce the oxidative stress of hard training and should help improve the acid-buffering capacity of your body as well as spare bone and muscle from unnecessary loss. Actually, prunes and raisins are among the most antioxidant rich foods around, and like all foods in this category, are great recovery food.
Omega 3 Rich Fish Oils
Omega 3 fatty acids are known to be good for you insofar as they may reduce inflammation, the risk of heart disease, the risk of certain cancers, and improve immune function. As with many things of this sort, there is more study required to confirm what may be helped by increasing dietary intake of Omega 3 fatty acids and to what extent, but there seems to be a lot of good evidence that proves sufficient for a number of reputable sources to recommend eating fatty, cold-water fish like salmon on a regular basis and/or to supplement with fish oil capsules. The oils are probably good for circulatory health, cholesterol profiles, joint inflammation and probably inflammation generally, and it’s hard to think that it isn’t worth going out of your way to include fish in the diet on a weekly basis or maybe to include a fish oil supplement.
Milk and Yogurt
Milk and yogurt, especially their low-fat varieties, are an excellent source of protein and calcium. The calcium in milk may or may not be as useful to you as that found in fruits and vegetables, but is probably quite good for you nonetheless. Most important, though, is the high protein content and the large insulin response to dairy consumption, and possibly also the addition of healthy bacteria to your digestive tract (i.e. the probiotic cultures in yogurt).
Milk and yogurt have excellent protein that is complete and therefore more useful to you than any single source of protein from plant sources. And, because of it’s large inslulin response in your body, milk and yogurt are great recovery foods because insulin in the hours immediately after a moderate to hard workout will help your body recover more quickly and completely than consuming foods that don’t elicit as large of an increased production of insulin.
Generally, I wouldn’t advocate for or against milk in the athlete’s general diet, but in the context of the first hour or two after a hard workout, I would consider milk to be among the better foods available to you if you can digest it well.
Of course, almost all vegetables are pretty great at some things related to human nutrition, but spinach in particular is among the best sources of calcium, potassium, magnesium, beta-carotene (from which Vitamin-A can be derived), and a few B-vitamins. It is among the most alkaline foods you can eat; it may be the most alkaline commonly available. And, it has a good cross section of amino acids… For its potential role in maintaining proper nerve function, acid buffering capabilities, and preventing bone and muscle wasting, it seems very worth while to try to include spinach in the diet at least every couple of days, if not daily.
Cocoa is reported to have powerful antioxidant properties, lowers blood pressure, and has a little caffeine and one or more other chemicals that behave similarly (e.g. theobromine). As an antioxidant, it may help reduce the oxidative stresses related to aerobic training and exposure to pollution and the like. As a source of theobromine and caffeine, it acts to dilate blood vessels (hence the blood pressure lowering effects), as well as stimulate the nervous system, and may be a mild performance enhancer for that reason. Theobromine relaxes smooth muscles (like those in your bronchial tubes), and may therefore ease breathing for better performance or to help alleviate the symptoms of asthma or exercise-induced asthma. It’s also supposed to help reduce your risk of heart disease… And according to wikipedia, is banned from horse-racing because the stimulant effects of theobromine are more pronounced with horses.
Also, because cocoa has said properties, it may aid in recovery, as antioxidants and caffeine both should improve recovery. There’s at least one popularly cited study that has looked at chocolate milk and evaluated its merits as a recovery drink. Basically, the study found that it was as good for recovery as any product marketed as a recovery drink. That could be largely due to the fact that dairy milk itself is a great recovery food with lots of quality protein and electrolytes, and reportedly creates a greater than expected spike in insulin after its consumption… and of course, if you add sugar and cocoa to milk, the resulting beverage is perfect for recovery if it is well tolerated by the athlete.
Generally, it’s healthy and most people think it tastes good, so I would suggest considering adding it to recovery shakes, warm cereals (like oatmeal), or having hot cocoa made with real cocoa powder.
Cinnamon is highly antioxidant and increases the body’s sensitivity to insulin and is supposed to exhibit an antioxidant response in the body. It also acts as a blood thinning agent by limiting blood clotting, so it’s best added to food in moderation. It is generally tasty and regarded as good for you, but with regards to athletics, it may make sense to include it in a variety of meals that include carbohydrate or at least on occasion in recovery meals, where the body’s insulin response and sensitivity to insulin is key in getting the body ready for the next hard training session.
Cayenne and other spicy foods are anti-inflammatory, and have a variety of vitamins in moderate quantities, most notably Vitamin A. Cayenne is said reported to improve circulation and digestion, slightly increase metabolism, and have antimicrobial properties that may or may not have a positive influence on human health. I’ve come across a variety of miscellaneous tidbits about spicy foods and cayenne in particular (probably because it’s high in capsaicin, the common “hot” chemical in spicy foods), and they’ve led me to believe having spicy foods in your diet is probably pretty good for you.
Also a good source of a few vitamins and minerals, exhibits strong antioxidant effects, and is higly alkaline, though you may not consume large enough quantities to make a huge difference. Oregano is one of those food items that’s probably quite good for you, and tastes good, so you might do well to add it to salads, stir-fries, tomato dishes, or whatever sounds good.
Garlic is reported to be good for heart and circulatory health, reduce the risk of certain cancers, and exhibits some antimicrobial properties. Wikipedia lists a number of potential benefits associated with garlic consumption, as well as other sources, ranging from increasing testosterone production, increasing resistance to cold and cough symptoms, increased thiamine absorption, etc. As with cayenne, there is an abundance of suggestive evidence and studies that indicate a number of potential highly positive effects that may result from consuming garlic. Like most things of this sort, studies on garlic have shown mixed results, but with a lot of potential for good effects and no known ill effects, it generally makes sense to include things like garlic and various spices in the diet.
Tea is rich in antioxidants, has some caffeine and caffeine-like compounds, may reduce cancer risk and risk of heart disease, improve dental health, improve bone density, and other such things. Generally regarded as healthy and included in many diets around the world for centuries, tea is probably a good thing to include in your diet at times. Because of the caffeine in tea and its associated effects, I prefer to consume tea before or after exercise. Before, it may provide small performance enhancing benefits because caffeine and related compounds are known to increase fat-burning and improve performance. After, caffeine has been shown to enhance recovery of lost glycogen stores. In both cases, the antioxidants and general health effects of tea seem like they should be pretty great.
I would point out that the tannins in tea and coffee reduce your absorption of iron and other nutrients, so it’s probably best not to consume tea at all meals, especially immediately before or after an iron-rich meal. Obviously, iron intake and absorption is key for endurance athletes because of its role in oxygen transport in both hemoglobin and myoglobin (the binding proteins in blood and muscle that grab onto oxygen and allow you to do any and all metabolism). Consuming tea too often may have the undesired effect of reducing the amount of iron you absorb and put to use in your blood and muscles. For that reason, I’d avoid consuming tea when you’re going to have an iron rich meal (e.g. one that includes red meat or liver).
Although it is very dangerous for your health to overconsume iron, it is hard to do so unless you are using supplemental iron, but if you are, it is probably easy to do if you are not careful. For that reason, I would definitely recommend talking with your doctor about whether or not supplementing with iron is a good idea before you consider adding an iron supplement to your diet. Blood tests may be key in determining whether you have any deficiency of iron and may or may not benefit from adding some to your diet.
Similar to tea, coffee has caffeine and appears to have a lot of peripheral health benefits. Like tea, it also reduces iron absorption, and some people find that it upsets their stomach, makes them jittery, tense or irritable, or has other undesirable effects. Consumption of coffee, like tea and other items on this page, has been shown to reduce your risk of certain diseases and be generally quite good for you, but of course, if you don’t like it, or are adversely effected by drinking coffee, don’t worry about it.
Coffee is a popular drink that has a strong presence in our culture and in cycling culture specifically, but some people (athletes included) have a strong preference to avoid it. Whether or not you like coffee, see it as a healthy drink, or see it as a potential performance enhancer, feel free to include coffee in your diet, or not. If you don’t like caffeine, consider including decaffeinated coffee in your diet. I personally like coffee, but prefer not to consume much caffeine most of the time, so will choose tea for its lower caffeine content and decaffeinated coffee sometimes. Or, on occasion, I’ll enjoy some regular coffee, and am still figuring out exactly how to use or avoid coffee and caffeine with relation to my athletic pursuits.
Rich in antioxidants, polyphenols, flavonoids and resveratrol, moderate wine consumption is linked to lower risk of heart disease, and has mixed indications of reducing the risk of other diseases. At the very least, wine in moderation should protect your heart, and some people speculate that the chemicals in wine (especially resveratrol) may improve performance through more investigation by researches will be needed to confirm or contradict such ideas.