The famous wordsmith George Orwell quipped in his novel Animal Farm that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. Beyond the barn, the same principal holds true for food. While all food provides fuel for the body (yes, even Twinkies), some items go above the call of duty and deliver compounds that can help in your pursuit for more strength, better endurance and a fully loaded six-pack. While supplements can certainly allow you to top up on many of the compounds outlined below, you can really lay a healthy physique foundation if you know which functional foods to toss into your grocery cart. Whether you want to go from scrawny to brawny or help your midriff transform from flabby to firm, you’ll want to make sure to serve heaping portions of lycopene and DHA, among others, for dinner tonight.
The compound carnitine plays a vital role in energy production by transporting fatty acids into the mitochondria so they can be oxidized to generate energy. In other words, it’s a serious fat burner. Research from the University of Connecticut also suggests that carnitine increases levels of androgen receptors in muscle cells. Androgen receptors are what testosterone binds to in order to stimulate muscle cell growth, so the more receptors you have, the greater your growth potential.
Extra credit: Carnitine may improve insulin sensitivity by decreasing fat levels in muscle, thereby offering some protection against Type 2 diabetes.
Food sources: beef, bison, chicken, cod, whole milk, cheese
Coenzyme Q10, known by its nickname, CoQ10, is present in almost every cell in the body and is considered a potent antioxidant. A 2010 study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research discovered that CoQ10 helps preserve anaerobic muscle power during high-intensity exercise. In the study, subjects increased their anaerobic capacity on a stationary bicycle by 16 percent during the final round of a five-part workout after upping their intake of CoQ10 for two months. CoQ10 likely improves energy production in cells, helping give you a lift in the gym.
Extra credit: CoQ10 has been shown to lower levels of inflammatory markers in the body, which makes it especially heart healthy.
Food sources: oily fish (salmon, sardines and mackerel), organ meats, chicken, beef, eggs, canola oil, spinach, broccoli, wheat germ, and whole grains
There are plenty of reasons why you should reel in this omega-3 fatty acid from the fishmonger. First, it may help you get back to the gym sooner. A Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine study discovered that men who upped their intake of docosahexaenoic acid experienced less muscle pain 48 hours following a bout of resistance exercise. DHA could be effective at quelling inflammation to help do away with achy muscles and joints. Further, scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis discovered that omega-3 fats can stimulate muscle protein synthesis. DHA also may help encourage fat loss and improve muscle blood flow during exercise, which could boost your game.
Extra credit: Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that people with higher levels of omega-3s, including DHA, in their red blood cells had improved memory and thinking skills. DHA helps keep the lining of brain cells flexible, which is crucial to preventing brain fog.
Food sources: salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel, sablefish, anchovies, omega-3-enhanced eggs
As a major flavonoid antioxidant in cocoa, epicatechin appears to help give you wings. A recent University of California, San Diego, study reported that epicatechin may increase resistance to muscular fatigue during exercise. The upshot is that you can work harder for longer, thereby torching more calories. Researchers surmise that epicatechin can improve muscle-cell capillary capacity, allowing for greater oxygen transport to working muscles, which can improve their ability to perform well during intense exercise. Suddenly, indulging in a little dark chocolate seems even more guilt-free.
Extra credit: Data suggests that higher intakes of epicatechin can help keep blood pressure numbers healthy and boost brain power.
Food sources: natural cocoa powder, dark chocolate (50 percent or more cocoa), cocoa nibs, red grapes, grape juice
Almost impossible to pronounce, yes, but know this: Epigallocatechin gallate, or less-of-a-mouthful EGCG, is rapidly becoming a rock star phytochemical among the fitness savvy. Several investigations have determined that EGCG can elevate workouts by increasing muscle-cell oxygen uptake, blunting exercise-induced oxidative damage and ramping up fat oxidation, which can help whittle the middle.
Extra credit: EGCG may help shave points off your bad cholesterol numbers, making it a champion for heart health.
Food sources: green tea, matcha tea powder, white tea
Could biting into more broccoli be the answer to higher testosterone levels? While research is young, there is data to suggest that indole-3-carbinol, found in cruciferous vegetables, can stimulate an enzyme in the liver that converts estrogen into a weaker version of itself. This paves the way for testosterone to go about doing what it does best: build muscle like a pro. What’s more, a 2012 investigation in TheJournal of Nutritional Biochemistry found that indole-3-carbinol may help improve your buff-to-blubber ratio by revving up thermogenesis and preventing fat-cell expansion.
Extra credit: Studies suggest consuming more indole-3-carbinol can help you dodge certain cancers. As a supercharged antioxidant, indole-3-carbinol mops up cancer-promoting free radicals.
Food sources: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, bok choy
Lycopene is a red pigment phytonutrient in the carotenoid family. As a powerful antioxidant, lycopene has been shown to help combat the stress associated with intense training. Case in point: A 2012 study published in the Nutrition Journal had participants drink about ½ cups lycopene-rich tomato juice every day for five weeks, only to find that it helped to significantly reduce markers of oxidative stress and muscle damage in response to high-intensity exercise. Marinara sauce, anyone?
Extra credit: Lycopene has been found to reduce skin damage resulting from exposure to the sun’s UV rays, as well as slash the risk of prostate cancer.
Food sources: tomatoes and tomato products (tomato juice, ketchup and pasta sauce), watermelon, pink grapefruit, red cabbage
Once consumed, nitrates can boost levels of nitric oxide in the body. Chief among the benefits of NO for fitness enthusiasts is its ability to increase blood flow to muscles by widening blood vessels, which improves muscular contraction and delivery of oxygen, anabolic hormones and nutrients like glucose. So it should come as no surprise that a raft of studies have demonstrated that people who increased their nitrate intake witnessed improvements in exercise performance by allowing working muscles to function more efficiently. It’s in the same vein as putting premium gasoline into an Aston Martin. Further, a 2012 Swedish study discovered that nitrates in vegetables can boost the production of a set of proteins in muscles that increases their strength potential.
Extra credit: It also should be noted that higher intakes of nitrates from vegetables has been shown to help lower blood pressure numbers.
Food sources: beets, leafy greens (spinach, arugula and bok choy), fennel, cabbage, celery, parsley, leeks
Maybe it wasn’t the iron in spinach that gave Popeye his brag-worthy pipes. Scientists at Rutgers University in New Jersey isolated hormone-like phytoecdysteroid compounds from the leafy green. When they placed them on human muscle cells, they sped up growth by 20 percent. What’s more, animals became slightly stronger after a month of injecting the extract. Hopefully, research on real live humans is on its way.
Extra credit: Phytoecdysteroids may have antioxidant activity, helping to cut the risk for chronic diseases like cancer.
Food source: spinach
The much-heralded whey is one of two types of protein present in milk; the other being casein. As a rich source of branched-chain amino acids, whey is particularly helpful in building a glance-stealing physique by activating muscle-cell growth. More muscle growth translates into added strength, making you more of a champion in the squat rack. And whey also may help you solve the riddle of your expanding middle. Scientists from Switzerland found that subjects who consumed a meal rich in whey experienced an increase in fat-burning metabolism afterward compared to when a meal with higher amounts of carbohydrate was eaten.
Extra credit: Components of whey, such as beta-lactoglobulin, have been shown to bolster the immune system, making it less likely you’ll come down with the sniffles or something worse.
Food sources: ricotta cheese, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese