Like Lou Ferrigno’s Incredible Hulk, the supplements in the green-foods category are lean, mean and, of course, green. These nutrient-dense, low-cal ingredients are tough on regulating total health inside the body. The antioxidant and disease-fighting power of the ingredients in this category are what make them a powerful weapon in any athlete’s arsenal of health-promoting foods.
Green foods are, you guessed it: green. But it’s more than just the color of the food that gives “green food” superior status, according to Mark Timon, MS, clinical nutrition, at Canaan, Conn.-based Vibrant Health. “The concept of a ‘green food’ in the dietary supplement industry carries with it the understanding that it is not only green but also nutrient dense,” Timon explains. “At the top of the list of such foods are parsley and the cereal grasses. Each of these foods is decidedly not succulent, meaning they are not pumped up with water, sugars, starches or fats. You can think of them as the power-packed, lean athletes of the plant kingdom.”
The high nutrient content of various green foods is what many researchers suspect gives them their super health-promoting properties. Although the bulk of research on different types of green foods is preliminary, it has set a solid foundation for continuing research in humans. The studies show green foods, like chlorella, spirulina and barley and wheat grasses, are potent antioxidants that possess anti-disease properties, and they also help the body’s ability to clear toxins.
The overall health-promoting benefits of green foods are the basis for why they can help athletes, and the benefits can include “endurance, strength and faster recovery,” Timon says. “As each cell is provided the trace nutrients it needs to function at optimal efficiency, cells will have no trouble producing energy on demand, thereby boosting strength and endurance,” he says. “It follows that cellular waste, generated during a workout, will be more efficiently expelled from the cell and that tissue repair will be more speedily accomplished.”
Two water-based green foods — chlorella and spirulina — have been studied for just these effects, in fact. Researchers in Turkey reported that both these single-celled algae can enhance athletic performance as well as benefit overall health. The 2001 report indicated that chlorella and spirulina can be used as nourishment after exercise and a means to prevent disease.
Chlorella is a single-celled algae that exists in several varieties, some native to freshwater and some to the ocean. Species derived from both sources have shown potent antioxidant properties, which is important for athletes to help scavenge the electron-stealing free radicals that are produced as a natural byproduct of exercise. By “squelching” free radicals, antioxidants may help improve recovery after exercise, not to mention protect against lots of diseases.
Chlorella’s impressive list of benefits includes effects against diabetes — it can enhance the effectiveness of injected insulin and protect against diabetes-related cataracts. Chlorella also appears to be a promising weapon in the fight against cancer. Not only has it shown the ability to “kill” existing cancer — it promotes cell death in cancer cells — but the antioxidants extracted from chlorella also can act to prevent cancer.
Studies have shown that chlorella also helps the body clear certain toxins. In particular, chlorella has proved to be helpful against dioxins, a group of hundreds of carcinogenic chemicals that are formed during various manufacturing processes, and they get into our bodies from the foods we eat — primarily meat and dairy. To get rid of them, the body has to eliminate them in waste because they can’t be digested. Enter chlorella. Animal research reported in the April 2005 Chemosphere showed that Chlorella pyrenoidosa prevents dioxin accumulation in the body by inhibiting absorption from food and reabsorption of dioxins already stored in the intestinal tract.
Another water-derived supplement that falls into the green-foods category is spirulina, a blue-green algae that grows in the shape of a spiral and is a rich source of protein, vitamins, amino acids, minerals and other nutrients. Like chlorella, spirulina has a long list of suspected benefits. Researchers reporting in the October 2008 Current Pharmaceutical Biotechnology said that the microbe has therapeutic functions, including antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic and anti-diabetic, and that eating the algae seems to help promote healthy intestinal microflora — also known as probiotics, which are the bacteria that ensure healthy digestion.
In addition to microalgae, the green-foods category also contains the cereal grasses — like alfalfa, barley, Kamut, oat, rye and wheat. If left to grow, these grasses eventually produce grains, but they’re harvested before that, when chlorophyll, protein and vitamin content are at their highest. Like water-derived green foods, the land-based functional foods have strong antioxidant properties.
The flavonoids — that is, water-soluble plant pigments — from young barley leaves have more antioxidant oomph than vitamin E, according to a 2007 report in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Another study showed that the antioxidant effects of a barley-leaf extract help protect against vascular diseases in patients with Type 2 diabetes. Not only that, but barley-leaf extract also appears to lower cholesterol.
Wheat-grass juice has been a specialty offering in juice bars for years, and proponents tout it for use against the common cold, as well as for digestion, blood sugar disorders and even cancer. Research on wheat-grass juice specifically shows that it can, indeed, improve digestion. It also has shown its use in improving heart health by lowering total and LDL cholesterol — that’s the bad one — and triglycerides.
All in all, the supplements that make up the green-foods category are pretty super — hence their sometime designation as super foods. Like green foods, the category of “super foods” tends to be highly nutritious and sparsely caloric. “Super foods go beyond just their core green-food components to include complementary ingredients that expand the overall nutritional, health and energy benefits of the final product,” Timon says. “They should be formulated to maximize the bioavailability of all nutrients.” This is why choosing the right mix of ingredients becomes important.
Getting the right mix of nutrient-dense, low-cal foods — like green foods — promotes an optimal state of physical fitness, similar to the typical state our ancient hunter/gatherer ancestors maintained. “What happens when you start feeding the Paleolithic being inside,” Timon says, “is that it will then generate energy, clean out the trash, grow muscles and think clearly. In short, the whole body starts operating well.”