Whether it’s an Amazonian super-berry or a fermented Asian beverage that tastes about as good as it sounds, we are continually being inundated by exotic foods that promise to bring better health and a trimmer waistline. But here’s the real scoop: Your local supermarket is brimming with more familiar edibles that possess a muscle-sculpting fat-obliterating prowess of their own, one that’s backed by research. Fill your grocery cart and your plate with these top 15 fitness foods to help you feel and look better than ever.
There was a time when the fitness savvy approached the fat-rich avocado as if it was laced with cyanide. Thankfully, it’s no longer off the table. The creamy flesh is a leading source of monounsaturated fat, which Austrian scientists recently determined can help shed body fat and improve blood pressure numbers, making it a heart-health champion. On top of healthy fats, avocadoes contain a smorgasbord of other beneficial nutrients, including vitamin K, potassium, folate and vitamin C, an antioxidant that helps with fat burning during exercise.
Sneak more in: Of course, guacamole rocks the nutrition department, but you also can spread mashed ripe avocado on rye crackers for a killer snack. Dice and add to a salad or taco, or slice one in half, place the halves on the grill flesh side down for a few minutes and then squirt with lime juice. To really step outside your comfort zone, Google “avocado smoothie.”
Though they are blue, there is nothing sad about these berries. Researchers at Appalachian State University in North Carolina found that daily and before-exercise consumption of blueberries by athletic individuals can reduce inflammation and muscle oxidative stress in response to intense exercise. The study’s authors surmise that sky-high levels of anthocyanin antioxidants in blueberries are responsible for the benefits. Available year-round in the freezer section of supermarkets, wild blueberries have been found to contain especially high levels of anthocyanins.
Sneak more in: Add the blue health bombs to yogurt, cottage cheese, pancake batter, salads or oatmeal. Also, toss frozen blueberries into protein shakes.
Though often overlooked in favor of canned tuna, sardines actually contain more must-have omega-3 fats — about 1.2 grams in a 3-ounce serving, compared to 0.8 grams in the same amount of white (albacore) tuna. This bargain seafood choice is also chockablock in vitamin D, which, according to a study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, is necessary for better athletic performance. The researchers believe that muscle cells may have vitamin D receptors, and when docked, the vitamin may stimulate muscle function. Consume the softened bones, and you get a payload of bone-building calcium to boot. To save calories, select sardines packed in water instead of oil.
Sneak more in: Add sardines to sandwiches, scrambled eggs, salads and pasta dishes. Or use a fork to deliver them straight from tin to mouth.
Famously hawked as a novelty product to the tune of Ch-ch-ch-chia! chia seeds are experiencing a renaissance as a so-called superfood, as word of their nutritional prowess spreads. Mexico’s Tarahumara Indians, who are known for their incredible running endurance, often consume a chia drink before endless runs to give them wings. Indeed, a recent Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study found that trained men who consumed a beverage containing equal calories from chia seeds and sports drink before a run experienced a spike in performance. Chia contains a powerful bundle of antioxidants, omega-3 fats and fat-fighting fiber.
Sneak more in: Sprinkle on cereal, cottage cheese, yogurt and fruit or vegetable salads. Blend into shakes and baked goods, or make a preworkout chia fresca by stirring together 1 cup of water, 2 teaspoons of chia seeds, juice of ½ lemon or lime and 2 teaspoons of honey.
As is the case with other cuts of poultry, lowbrow chicken thighs are a rich source of the essential amino acid leucine. A number of studies show that leucine is particularly effective at stimulating muscle protein synthesis, making it a must for those who yearn for bigger guns. The branched-chain amino acids, of which leucine is one, also have been shown to reduce post-exercise muscle soreness, which helps you get back to the gym quicker. While more expensive chicken breast meat is rather flavorless and prone to drying out during cooking, juicier chicken thighs are pleasing to the palate and, with just a single extra gram of saturated fat, aren’t nearly the nutritional villain people believe. Pitch the skin to save a bunch of extra fat calories.
Sneak more in: Try simmering skinless chicken thighs in crushed canned tomatoes, or cook up a bunch and use the meat to make protein-packed sandwiches for lunch throughout the week.
Whey protein is quickly absorbed by the body, making it the gold-standard protein at certain times of the day, like first thing in the morning and around workouts. Casein, abundant in cottage cheese, takes longer to digest, so it supplies muscles a steadier level of amino acids between meals. This makes cottage cheese a smart before-bedtime snack to help lessen muscle breakdown as you catch some zzz’s. As a dairy product, cottage cheese also supplies calcium, which may help you achieve a better buff-to-blubber ratio. Similar to yogurt, unflavored is the way to go.
Sneak more in: For a healthy, low-glycemic nighttime snack, mix cottage cheese and chia seeds. Also, mix it into pancake batters and fruit salads.
If you’re going to cheat on your diet, what better way than with dark chocolate? It’s loaded with antioxidants such as epicatechin, which preliminary research suggests can boost endurance exercise capacity by reducing muscular fatigue. By helping to quell inflammation, chocolate is also a heart-healthy indulgence. For more antioxidants and less sugar, choose bars that contain at least 60 percent cacao and keep daily portions to about 1 ounce.
Sneak more in: As if you need advice on how to get more chocolate. But OK, try shaving some dark chocolate over oatmeal or yogurt. You also can spike protein shakes with unsweetened cocoa powder.
A fixture at sushi joints, edamame are simply soybeans. Not so simple is the list of good stuff that they’re loaded with: protein, folate, vitamin K, iron and fiber — 6 grams per cup serving. Further, soy protein can be beneficial to muscle mass as well as health. A 2011 University of Arkansas investigation determined that soy protein is just as effective as the dairy protein casein at stimulating muscle protein synthesis.
Sneak more in: Find bags of frozen shelled edamame at most supermarkets. Boil and toss with smoked paprika for a winning snack, or blend cooked edamame with olive oil, salt, lemon juice and cayenne for a healthy bread spread.
Mercifully, the latest raft of research papers confirms that there is no reason to be chicken about eating eggs, as their cholesterol has little impact on heart health. Bundled up in those orbs is a powerful combination of the high-quality protein muscles crave, plus vitamin D and selenium. As a potent antioxidant, selenium may ease exercise-induced oxidative stress, U.K. researchers say. What’s more, a study published in Nutrition Research found that men who ate a protein-rich egg-based breakfast consumed significantly fewer calories when offered an unlimited buffet later in the day compared to when they ate a carbohydrate-heavy breakfast of equal calories. For extra credit, splurge on eggs beefed up with omega-3 fats.
Sneak more in: Whether poached, scrambled, fried or hard-boiled, make eggs a breakfast staple. Not just for breakfast, try veggie-laden frittatas or omelets for dinner.
Indeed, the grass is greener on the other side. A recent study by California State University researchers determined that grass-fed beef has significantly higher levels of heart-chummy omega-3 fats than its grain-fed counterparts. Other perks include fewer saturated fatty acids and pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats but more of a beneficial fat called conjugated-linoleic acid, which may increase exercise endurance capacity and fat oxidation during a workout. As a red meat, grass-fed beef is the best dietary source of creatine, which might sound familiar. Yes, the compound shown to help lifters heave more iron at the gym paving the way for muscle growth and features heavily in your workout supplements occurs naturally in meat.
Sneak more in: Increasingly, you can find steak that nibbled on turf at farmers’ markets, well-stocked butchers and some supermarkets. For the best protein-to-fat ratio, look for loin and round cuts. Also, use ground grass-fed meat for burgers, pasta meat sauce and chili.
Delightfully thick Greek-style yogurt contains twice as much muscle-friendly protein as its counterparts. A 2011 Journal of Nutrition study determined that higher intakes of protein and dairy can stimulate fat loss while bolstering lean mass gain. Similar to traditional yogurts, the Americanized Greek version can be pumped full of gut-busting sugar, so opt for plain varieties and add natural sweetness in the form of honey or fruit. May we suggest blueberries?
Sneak more in: It’s hard to beat a bowl of Greek yogurt mixed with nuts and fruit for a midafternoon snack. Also, use it in place of sour cream or whipping cream in recipes. Or try it instead of mayonnaise when making potato, tuna or egg salads.
The bastion of the health-food movement, this South American “pseudo-grain” has all the essential amino acids necessary to be considered a complete protein, in a similar vein as meat, eggs and dairy. Cup for cup, nutty tasting quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) also has more fat-fighting fiber, testosterone- and immune-boosting zinc, and energizing iron but fewer carbs than humbled brown rice. Bonus: It cooks in less than half the time.
Sneak more in: To prepare quinoa, add 1 cup of the grain to 2 cups of water or broth, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer covered until all the water has absorbed, about 12 minutes. Serve as a side dish to chicken, beef or salmon.
The gravel-voiced sailorman with mega-size forearms should have been a sports nutritionist because his favorite green could be the secret to a stellar workout. Swedish researchers have found that nitrate such as that found in spinach and other dark leafy greens can help your muscles work more efficiently during exercise, making the task at hand feel less taxing. The upshot is that eating green may help you work harder and torch more calories in the gym.
Sneak more in: Make this green giant a fixture in your salads and add generous handfuls to sandwiches and pasta dishes. Baby spinach works surprisingly well when blended into smoothies alongside sweet fruits.
The white coats at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania recently determined that, ounce for ounce, walnuts contain almost twice as much antioxidant capacity as any other commonly consumed nut, including peanuts and almonds. By mopping up nefarious free radicals, antioxidants can help you dodge a number of chronic diseases and may improve exercise recovery. Walnuts also possess more must-have omega-3 fats than other nuts in the bulk bins.
Sneak more in: Add a handful of walnuts to oatmeal, yogurt, cottage cheese and salads. And after you hit the gym, blend together 1 cup of milk, ½ cup of Greek yogurt, ½ cup of frozen blueberries and ¼ cup of walnuts for a nutty muscle-building smoothie.
Cast your line for this swimmer at the fishmonger and you’ll reel in a boatload of ultra-healthy long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. On top of being healthy for your ticker, marine-derived omegas have been shown to help tame muscle soreness after resistance training; lessen risk of exercise-induced asthma; and reduce heart rate and oxygen intake during exercise, making you more efficient on the treadmill or in the squat rack. Omega-3s also can improve muscle blood flow during workouts. It’s best to splurge for wild salmon, which has less contamination and environmental baggage — and more omegas — than its farmed counterpart.
Sneak more in: Aim to consume fatty fish like salmon at least twice per week. You also can get your fill with canned salmon and smoked salmon, the latter of which is a great alternative to deli meats in sandwiches.