When the conversation turns to superfoods, inevitably you’ll hear about the usual suspects, including blueberries, salmon, pomegranate juice, broccoli and the latest Amazonian berry du jour. But there are a number of other less flashy, and often less pricey, foods at the supermarket that get overlooked, yet contain an abundance of nutrients or antioxidants that runners need to sustain peak performance.

Canned Sardines

A star among its canned fish brethren, oft-overlooked and unfairly maligned sardines are packed with omega-3 fats to help quell inflammation, protein to repair and build lean body mass, vitamin D to bolster immune defence and calcium to build bones of steel. Plus, levels of nasty contaminants such as mercury are very low in this fish. Different brands have different tastes, so try a few canned sardines to find the one that pleases you the most and add them to pasta dishes, whole-grain crackers and sandwiches. Or simply peel the tin and grab a fork. To save on calories, choose sardines packed in water instead of oil.

Beet Greens

While most people toss beet greens straight into the compost bin, they just might be the healthiest part of the vegetable. For a mere eight calories per cup, you get a laudable amount of the antioxidants beta-carotene and vitamin C, plus vitamin K. In addition to its role in helping blood clot properly, vitamin K is vital for healthy bones, thereby helping safeguard against sidelining stress fractures. Beet greens are best enjoyed gently sautéed with some garlic, sea salt and sesame oil. Or add them to soups, stir-fries and pasta dishes.

Wheat Germ

It’s crazy to think that this flaky cast-off from the process that transforms whole wheat flour into the nutritional dud refined flour is actually the most nutritious part of the grain. Also, it’s ridiculously cheap. The antioxidants selenium and vitamin E which help protect muscle cells from free-radical damage, potassium to assist with muscle contraction, B vitamins used for energy production, blood sugar-controlling magnesium and zinc to keep the immune system working strong, are among the multitude of nutrients in wheat germ. It’s also a surprisingly good source of protein, with each quarter cup providing seven grams of this muscle-builder. Look for wheat germ in the refrigerator section of health food stores and toss it into your baked goods, oatmeal and post-run recovery shakes.

Beer

Red wine may grab all the headlines when it comes to alcohol with health perks, but a cold brewski is no slouch either. Beer has been shown to raise beneficial HDL cholesterol levels, which reduces heart disease risk. Scientists at the University of California at Davis discovered beer, especially pale ale, is a stellar source of silicon, a compound that helps keep bones strong. What’s more, cracking open a cold one gives you plenty of hop derived flavonoids, antioxidants that disarm cell-attacking free-radicals. Still, moderation is important, so males should try to drink no more than two beers a day while women should attempt to limit their consumption to a single bottle or can. For cooking purposes, lighter style beers such as pilsners and lagers work well in recipes calling for white wine while more robust ones including porters and stouts can enrich stews, chilies and chocolate baked goods.

Popcorn

This whole grain – yes, whole grain – is perhaps the best snack food nobody is eating, save for at the theatre when it often becomes an overpriced calorie bomb. Food scientists at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania recently discovered that popcorn has an antioxidant capacity on par with that of fruits and vegetables. In addition, popcorn eaters take in about 250 per cent more whole grains and 22 per cent additional fibre in their daily diets than non-popcorn eaters, according to a Journal of the American Dietetic Association study. Pop plain popcorn (corn should be the only ingredient) on the stovetop, in an air popper or microwave and jazz it up with a variety of toppings such as smoked salt, cayenne pepper, curry powder, even shaved Parmigiano cheese or dark chocolate.

Coconut Oil

Because of its high saturated fat content, this tropical oil has been deemed a health pariah by various health organizations. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Most of the saturated fat in coconut oil is in the form of lauric acid – a medium-chain triglyceride that is easily used as energy but is difficult for the body to store as fat. Case in point: a 2008 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study that administered four to five teaspoons of a medium-chain oil or olive oil daily to subjects for four months found that those consuming the former lost more body weight and fat mass than those exposed to the olive variety. More reason to cook with coconut oil is that lauric acid also has anti-bacterial properties and, unlike animal-origin saturated fat, may reduce harmful LDL cholesterol while simultaneously increasing beneficial HDL levels. Coconut oil is an excellent baking oil and with a smoke point higher than other vegetable oils, it is an even better option for sautéing.

Potatoes

Deemed a waist-thickening waste of calories during the low-carb era, the potato is actually well stocked with a number of vital nutrients, including fibre, iron, vitamin B6, vitamin C, magnesium and potassium. If you run regularly you’ll lose the electrolyte potassium in your sweat, so it’s important to seek out dietary sources such as potatoes and wheat germ for replacement. Researchers in the U.K. discovered that the humble potato contains molecules called kukoamines, believed to help lower blood pressure. It’s true that starchy potatoes rate high on the glycemic index, meaning they tend to raise blood sugar quickly when eaten on their own. But if you eat them at mealtime with some protein or fat, which slows down digestion, this becomes a moot point.

Matthew Kadey is an Ontario-based dietitian, nutrition writer and recipe developer. Find him at mattkadey.ca or muffintinmania.com.

RECIPE

Sardine Cakes

Serves 2

½ lb. potato (about 1 large), peeled and diced

2 cans sardines in water, drained

2 green onions, sliced

¼ cup parsley, chopped

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tbsp grainy mustard

1 large egg

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/3 cup wheat germ

1 tbsp coconut oil

Steam or boil the potato until very tender. In a food processor, mix together the potato, sardines, green onion, parsley, garlic, mustard, egg, salt and pepper until well combined. You could also do this with a fork or potato masher in a large bowl. Form into 4 patties and coat both sides with the wheat germ. In a skillet, heat coconut oil over medium heat. Add the sardine patties to the skillet and cook for 4 minutes per side, or until well browned. Serve with sautéed beet greens and a cold lager, pilsner or wheat beer.

Nutritional Information (per serving)

475 calories

31 g protein

41 g carbs

22g fat (10 g saturated)

5 g fibre

456 mg sodium

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