You can run mile after mile and lift weights until the cows come home, but if you don’t fuel your body with the right foods, you won’t get the fitness gains you’re aiming for. Most people make those critical food decisions in the grocery store, but with thousands of products available — and literally dozens of choices of everything from canned fish to cereal to yogurt — food shopping can be a daunting task. Even experienced fitness-minded shoppers can be stymied, particularly if they’re on autopilot, still tossing the same foods in their carts as they were five or 10 years ago. Nutrition science has advanced considerably and so have the options, from organic to exotic imports.
So let us take you on a grocery-store tour to help make your choices clearer. Here’s our aisle-by-aisle guide to the best foods you might be overlooking.
It might be time to take a cue from the French and add some sophistication to your cheese selection. According to scientists in Britain, the ripening process that produces oozy, molded cheeses like brie, Roquefort and Camembert can boost levels of anti-inflammatory compounds to help fend off coronary woes. This may help partly explain the historically low rates of heart disease in France despite liberal intakes of saturated fat — a phenomenon commonly called “the French paradox.”
Upgrade: Tart Cherry Juice
If George Washington had been more of a nutritionist, he would never have chopped down his father’s cherry tree. It turns out that tart cherries and the juice they make are brimming with polyphenol antioxidants that have been shown to reduce muscle damage and pain after exercise. For the biggest antioxidant wallop, be sure to look for brands that list cherry juice before any other juice (such as apple) in the ingredient list. Cut with seltzer or coconut water if it’s too tart for your liking.
Upgrade: Ground Bison
Bison (aka buffalo) has a slightly sweeter flavor than beef, making it a tasty red-meat alternative. A 2013 study published in Nutrition Research found that consuming bison results in less of a rise in blood triglycerides, inflammation and other heart-disease risk factors than consuming beef. Differences in rearing methods and nutrition profile, including a healthier fat profile, may explain this benefit. Similar to beef, bison is a stellar source of protein, energy-boosting iron and creatine, a compound that revs up your workouts — and your muscle gains.
For your next PB&J sandwich, consider swapping out the peanut butter for almond butter. The latter contains higher amounts of cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fat, as well as the bone-building trio of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium. As almond butter becomes increasingly popular, more brands are popping up with add-ins like flax and chocolate, so just make sure the one you purchase does not come with a lot of sugary baggage.
Brimming with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and beneficial fats, pistachios should be a regular addition to your shopping cart. But if their delicious flavor and crunchy texture make it hard to avoid polishing off a bagful in one sitting, opt instead for pistachios that are still in their shell. You’ll get just as much nutritional goodness but with less of a calorie overload. Because you have to shell them, you’ll likely consume less. Scientists at Eastern Illinois University found that the extra work of shelling pistachios caused people to consume 41 percent fewer calories than when they snacked on the shelled nuts. Yet they still felt just as satisfied and full after their snack.
Upgrade: Very Dark Chocolate
Chock-full of antioxidants shown to improve heart and brain health, dark chocolate is one of the best snack-food options at the supermarket. To reap chocolate’s full benefits, consider selecting bars made with 70 percent cocoa or more. A bar with 50 percent cocoa will have a higher sugar-to-antioxidant ratio than a bar with 70 percent or higher cocoa. If you find darker chocolate too bitter, slowly work your way up the ladder to a higher cocoa percentage so that your taste buds can become accustomed to the stronger taste. So for a couple of weeks, nibble on a bar with 60 percent cocoa before moving to a bar with 75 percent cocoa.
Upgrade: Frozen Peaches
With respect to juicy goodness, winter peaches from South America are mere shadows of locally sourced summer fresh ones. So consider packing your freezer this winter with subzero peaches and other fruits instead. Out-of-season fresh fruits like blueberries can lose some of their nutritional firepower during prolonged shipping from farm to store and during subsequent storage. In contrast, frozen fruits are harvested at peak ripeness, when they are more nutrient dense, and are quickly flash-frozen, which locks in their vitamins, antioxidants and flavor.
Fat-Free Salad Dressing
A little fat is needed to goose your salad’s potency. A 2012 Purdue University study found that the monounsaturated fat in oils like olive, avocado and canola can bolster absorption of the disease-fighting antioxidants in vegetables like carrots, spinach and tomatoes. Why? Many of these antioxidants are fat-soluble, meaning they need a little fat to be properly absorbed. The upshot is that you should toss bottled dressings made with oil and vinegar into your shopping cart and leave behind bland fat-free versions, many of which are swimming in added sugars.
Upgrade: Dried Beans
Canned beans are convenient but have a couple of things going against them. They are notoriously packed with high amounts of sodium, and the cans they come in are often lined with bisphenol A, a chemical linked with increased diabetes risk and hormone disruption. On the flip side, those inexpensive bags of dried beans come sans salt and sketchy BPA. Simply soak dried beans overnight and then simmer them until tender for a healthy dose of protein and fat-fighting fiber.
Consider tomatoes grown minus chemicals a worthwhile splurge. A 2012 Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry study discovered that organically grown tomatoes pack a bigger antioxidant punch than their conventionally grown counterparts. The study authors surmise that tomatoes grown organically have a tougher go of things, so they need to activate their own defense mechanisms, including phenol antioxidants, to survive. One of these antioxidants is lycopene, which has been shown to help fend off certain cancers, including that of the prostate.
Bacon isn’t going to garner too many accolades from nutritionists, but there is a way to have your bacon and eggs and eat it, too. With regular bacon boasting about 13 grams of fat in a single-ounce serving, you’re better served going with Canadian bacon, which comes from the leaner back of the pig and contains a mere 2 grams of fat. What it lacks in saturated fat, Canadian-style bacon makes up for with protein, containing a solid 6 grams of the muscle sculptor in a single-ounce serving. If possible, select brands made without potentially harmful nitrates.
Upgrade: Boneless Pork Loin Chops
While chicken breasts are a convenient way to load up on protein, they aren’t particularly lauded for their great taste. So if you’ve OD’d on the bird, request a few boneless pork loin chops at the butcher counter instead. Not only are they more flavorful and nearly as lean as chicken breast, but they are also richer in several important nutrients like vitamin B-6 and selenium. You can basically prepare them like you would chicken breasts — try grilling or pan-frying.
Upgrade: Greek Yogurt
Tangy, velvety Greek yogurt is worthy of a resounding Opa! This thick and creamy great white is laced with about twice the amount of protein as traditional yogurt types. In fact, a typical 6-ounce serving of a plain Greek yogurt packs in as much as 18 grams of protein, about the same amount found in 3 ounces of chicken breast. This makes Greek yogurt an excellent dairy option if you’re looking to sprout more lean body mass. Each delicious spoonful also serves up probiotics, healthy bacteria that are thought to improve digestive and immune health. But watch out for the emergence of faux Greek yogurts. Traditionally, the creamier taste of Greek yogurt comes by straining away excess moisture, not by including thickeners such as cornstarch. Also, steer clear of fruit-flavored versions to avoid spooning up too much gut-busting sugar.
Upgrade: Broccoli Sprouts
Broccoli is one of the most nutritious things you can toss into a salad, but its sprouts may be even better. Crisp broccoli sprouts are very young broccoli plants that resemble alfalfa sprouts with a peppery bite. The sprouts contain up to 100 times more of the phytonutrient called sulforaphane, which has been shown to have strong cancer-busting effects, than mature broccoli heads. It’s thought that sulforaphane can elevate levels of the body’s protective enzymes. Pile raw sprouts atop your salads, stir-fries, soups, sandwiches and scrambled eggs. Look for broccoli sprouts in the vegetable section of most supermarkets.
Upgrade: Corn Tortillas
Those packages of 6-inch corn tortillas made with whole corn flour are higher in fiber and lower in carbohydrate calories than most wheat-based tortillas. This makes them a better option for your lunchtime sandwiches. Try stacking one with canned sardines, diced organic tomato and a handful of broccoli sprouts.
Upgrade: Hot Multi-Grain Cereal
As long as you’re not spooning up the sugar-laced instant variety, a bowl of warm oatmeal is a great way to start the day. But why not change things up by adding some diversity to your cereal bowl? Multi-grain cereals like Bob’s Red Mill provide a nutritious mix of whole grains like oats, barley and rye so you’re exposed to a wider variety of essential nutrients to keep up your fitness gains. They also tend to be slightly higher in waistline-whittling fiber than regular oats. Only choose brands that don’t include any added sweeteners.
Upgrade: Omega Eggs
The old saw “You are what you eat” is just as true in the case of chickens as it is for us. By altering hens’ diets to include omega-rich foods such as flaxseed, farmers are able to produce eggs with two to three times more omega-3 fatty acids. That’s a significant boost when you ponder that a Washington University School of Medicine (St. Louis) study found that these phat fats may help ramp up muscle protein synthesis. Further, Swedish scientists found that cracking open omega-3–enriched eggs can improve cholesterol numbers and blood-sugar control. Read labels carefully to make sure the omega bump is coming from docosahexaenoic acid as opposed to alpha-linolenic acid, a less-potent omega fat without the same proven health perks.
Upgrade: Canned Sardines
There are a boatload of reasons to reel in canned sardines more often. They have about the same levels of muscle-building protein as canned white tuna, but compared to big-brand tuna, sardines harbor higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and bone-building calcium and vitamin D. South Korean researchers recently discovered that higher intakes of vitamin D may ease muscle damage and the inflammation associated with stiff workouts. Ocean conservation programs also praise sardines for being a more eco-friendly choice and one that is less plagued by contaminants like mercury. Canned sardines vary greatly with respect to flavor (i.e., some taste much too “fishy”), so try a few to find a brand that pleases your taste buds most. A good place to start is the exceptional tinned swimmers from forward-thinking Wild Planet.