Coloring Between the Lines

You’ve had it.  You’re not even going to wait to make it a New Year’s resolution, the time has arrived to overhaul and upgrade your diet. You’re not talking just in terms of weight loss and over all health, but eating for peak performance.  How you fuel your body is an integral part of every fighters training program.  You understand that a healthy diet is essential in muscle gain and recovery and you’re ready to take it to the next level.  The only question is….HOW?  That’s the part that most athletes get hung up on.  Knowing you need to eat better is obvious.  How to do that is the challenge.  It’s easy to enter the supermarket with the best intentions of buying healthy food and eating right, but if you’re like most people, you become overwhelmed by the endless isles of products, brands and colors that line the shelves. In fact, grocery stores in general are designed to lure you away from making healthy choices.  So what you really need is an easy-to-follow game plan.  Just like you have when you enter the ring, you need a well-devised strategy.  It may not be something you follow to the letter.  You will adapt it to your own style, put your own spin on it and tailor it to your specific needs, but a good strategy sets the stage for success.   Here are a few easy tricks you can implement to keep your healthy food choices simple, stress free and easy-to-follow:

The first tip is to Stay on the Ropes…shop primarily on the outside perimeters of the store, avoiding the end caps and the freezer sections. On the outside perimeters of the store is where you’ll find the healthiest food choices like fruits, vegetables, meats and eggs. The interior of the store is going to have more of your processed, pre-packaged foods such as potato chips, ice cream, cereal and generally most unhealthy foods. This is not a “fixed rule”, but a good, general guideline to follow to make navigating the market easier.

Next, Be Colorful.  Select foods with the deepest, most vibrant colors to get the most natural vitamins and nutrients. If you think about it, something that the unhealthiest foods such as potato chips, white bread, or anything fried, have in common is that they all are dull in color. They tend to be beige or white and lack that same colorful vibrancy that you find in fresh fruits and vegetables. In fact, different colored foods are often linked to specific health benefits.

For example:  Red fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, watermelon, and pink grapefruit all contain Lycopene, a natural plant pigment that has been shown to reduce the risk of several types of cancer. Cooking with tomatoes will actually increase the ability of the Lycopene to be absorbed by your body. So topping off your pasta with some home-made spaghetti sauce will give it a healthy boost.

Green fruits and veggies get their color from a natural plant pigment called Chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is extremely helpful for detoxifying the body.  It is all natural so it is safe and gentle on your system. Lutein is a chemical also found in greens like celery, green peppers, cucumber, and can be very beneficial in keeping your eyes healthy and reducing the risks of cataracts. So if you want to see those punches coming clearly…get in your greens.

Blue and Purple produce gets its color from plant pigments called Anthocyanins. These Anthocyanins can be found in blueberries, grapes, and raisins and they act as powerful antioxidants to help protect your cells from damage. They can also improve memory function, so throw some blueberries, blackberries, or raisins into your morning cereal or oatmeal for that added antioxidant value.

Finally, you have white fruits and vegetables that get there color from Anthoxanthins. These contain natural chemicals such as Allicin, which can lower blood pressure and is said to help ward off stomach cancer. Some white produce such as bananas and potatoes can be a great after workout snack because they provide high levels of the mineral potassium.

And the last point in your game plan is to Take Calculated Risks.  You may not always eat perfectly and make the best health choices, but control the times when you “cheat” or stray from your diet.  Try not to operate in extremes, but make food choices that you can live with on a consistent basis.  Don’t eat salads for three days and then eat three Big Macs in one day because you craved it. Make food choices that work for you, but that are practical.  You’re needs as an athlete are undeniably greater and require more vitamins than a typical, less active person, so try to stick to a game plan that includes as many colorful fruits and vegetables as you can stand. Strive to get a wide variety of colors from fresh foods. Above all, remember…the more color in your diet, the more likely it is that your body is receiving all the necessary nutrients it needs to function optimally.

Every time you walk into the gym or into the ring, the last thing you want to be worrying about is what you have in your belly or what you’re carrying around your midsection.  At the same time, you don’t want to spend precious minutes out of the gym trying to figure out what is best to eat or not eat.  Hopefully these few quick tips will make your grocery shopping a bit easier and will help you lay out a strategy that works as well in the kitchen as it does in the ring.

Spencer Ward is a Nutritionist with the Acupuncture Center in Overland Park KS.