foods to nourish your mind as well as your body
Update: Check out part 2 of this series, where I share some brain food receipes developed by my friend and professional chef Mark McLean.
Food fuels our workouts, improves our recovery from stress and injuries, strengthens our body and mind, and supports our immune system. A good diet is the foundation for success as a combat athlete.
The super foods in this list improve memory, boost brain performance and provide essential nutrition that should be part of any combat athlete’s diet. They’re healthy, nutritious, and (I think) delicious.
Almonds have a macronutrient profile perfect for combat sport athletes, but most people don’t know that they benefit the mind as well as the body. Neelima Chauhan at the University of Illinois-Chicago gave mice with an Alzheimer’s-like disease an almond-rich diet. The mice with the almond-rich diet did much better than those fed the usual chow. In fact, almonds can actually prevent memory loss, Chauhan says.
Back to the macronutrient profile — an ounce of almonds has 6 grams of muscle-feeding protein and 6 grams of replenishing carbs. And there’s 15 grams of fats in that ounce, most of it monounsaturated (“good fat” according to the Mayo Clinic). Monounsaturated fats decrease inflammation, helping you recover from epic training sessions.
About 75% of an avocado’s calories come from fat, most of which is monounsaturated fat. Avocados are rich in a fatty acid called oleic acid, which helps build a coating of insulation in the brain, known as myelin. One of the purposes of the myelin layer is to increase the speed of brain impulses. Losing the myelin layer can lead to, among other issues, loss of dexterity, difficulty coordinating movement or balance and fatigue. Although, no double blind studies have been preformed to verify this as of yet, eating the fats in avocados might help keep this layer strong and functioning.
Good fats, as I mentioned in the almonds writeup, are also important for athletes because they help absorb vitamins, provide protection for internal organs (judo throws anyone?) and contain energy for those marathon training sessions.
Steven Pratt, MD, author of SuperFoods Rx: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life (affiliate link) calls these little morsels “Brainberries”. According to a study published in Free Radical Biology and Medicine (45(3):295-305, 2008), compounds in blueberries known as flavonoids may improve memory, learning and general cognitive function — and could slow age-related decline in mental function.
But that’s not all. For athletes, blueberries can also improve muscular rate of recovery according to a different study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. This 1-2 combo plus many additional benefits make blueberries one of the powerhouse super foods on this list.
Many might think chocolate is an unhealthy snack, when in fact, eating dark chocolate could help to sharpen up the mind. A study led by Professor Ian Macdonald of University of Nottingham found that consumption of a cocoa drink rich in flavanols — a key ingredient of dark chocolate — boosts blood flow to key areas of the brain for two to three hours. Increased blood flow to these areas of the brain may help to increase performance in specific tasks and boost general alertness over a short period.
OK, so dark chocolate boosts cognitive performance, but what about strength and endurance?
Well, a different study published in the Journal of Physiology suggests that cocoa compounds can make you stronger. Researchers gave mice a chocolate flavonoid called epicatechin, and then put them on treadmills. The chocoholic mice had 30% more leg muscle capillary density (which delivers more oxygen to muscle), and 50% more muscle protein (which makes muscle cells more efficient) than the mice that were denied the cocoa treats. That means the chocolate-munching mice had more resistance to fatigue and greater muscle power.
Coffee is kind of a double edged sword. It gives some folks the jitters or stomach discomfort. It was even believed (in 1981) that coffee could cause cancer! That study has largely been discredited according to the Washington Post (4th paragraph), and lots of evidence has come to light on the benefits of coffee … but it’s still important to avoid over-consumption and unhealthy sweeteners and creamers.
Now, for the good stuff.
A study in 2005 showed caffeine improved mental performance and reduced reaction time. In other words, you’ll remember techniques better and block that punch or shot quicker
Perhaps even more impressively, 6mg/kg caffeine taken an hour before cycling is able to improve mood throughout a 90 minute ride in a double blind study by the Carnegie Research Institute.
Just like the other super foods on this list, coffee is good for the body as well as the mind. If taken before a workout (aerobic or anaerobic), caffeine could improve your workout performance and give you an edge over your opponents.
Caffeine is highly stimulatory and a systemic vasoconstrictor. Caution should be exerted if one is either not used to caffeine ingestion or currently has high blood pressure.
With eggs, on the other hand, I don’t think there’s any more controversy. At least not amongst athletes. We eat eggs like they’re going out of style.
But I bet most athletes don’t know that yolks are a leading source of choline. Choline is a precursor for acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter involved in helping you remember things like the right way to counter a berimbolo, an over-hand right or a John Smith low single.
And, even more basically, eating protein-rich foods like eggs for breakfast leads to improved cognitive performance, according to researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.
From a physical exercise perspective dietary protein is required to promote growth, repair damaged cells and tissue and for a variety of metabolic activities. Most combat athletes will know that eggs are a fantastic vehicle for protein.
I wrote in more detail on how green tea can make you brilliant in an earlier blog post. In summary, green tea activates alpha brain waves. These are the same brain waves scientists detect when athletes, musicians, video gamers, mediators and others are in a state of flow (a.k.a. in the zone)
Not to be one-upped by its caffeinated cousin, green tea improves athletic endurance, at least in mice. Biological Science Laboratories at the Kao Corporation found that swimming times for mice were prolonged by 8-24% when fed green tea extract.
Quinoa is a grain like crop, grown for its edible seeds. My favorite fun fact about quinoa is its consideration for NASA’s Controlled Ecological Life Support System for long-duration human occupied spaceflights.
Quinoa is an excellent source of iron and iron plays a crucial role in brain function. It generates energy for the brain’s neurons, is involved in making neurotransmitters, and is used in making the previously mentioned myelin sheath. Iron deficiency has been linked to feelings of fatigue, dizziness and irritability. Luckily, one cup of cooked quinoa provides 15% of the recommended daily amount (compare that to brown rice, with only 5% of the recommended daily amount).
This super food is also a top choice for combat athletes because, unlike most grains or other carbohydrate sources, quinoa is a complete protein source — meaning that it has all of the amino acids that humans need. Typically this can only be said about animal meats! This macronutrient profile makes quinoa a perfect addition to your training diet.
Deep-water fish, such as salmon, are rich in fish oil, a blend of two fatty acids, EPA and DHA (a.k.a. Omega-3). Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for brain function.
For example, in healthy young adults given Omega-3 daily for 6 months, there were statistically significant improvements in working memory.
In another study fish oil given to a group of medical students was able to reduce anxiety by 20%.
Last but not least, salmon is just a great source of proteins and good fats; the benefits to combat athletes of both these macronutrients are discussed extensively in this blog post.
Staying hydrated can be a challenge when just one grueling practice can involve 3-5 or more pounds of water loss. Add weight cutting into the mix and you have a dangerous combination. It’s very important that combat athletes replenish water loss, in part because our brain depends on proper hydration to function optimally.
A study of healthy adolescents at King’s College London showed an inefficient use of brain metabolic activity following dehydration. In other words, it took more effort from dehydrated teenagers to complete the same tasks as teens that had plenty of water. Because the brain has limited resources, the scientists reason this is conclusive evidence that dehydration adversely affects brain activity like planning and visuo-spatial processing. Although most of us know intuitively that dehydration affects the brain, it’s good to see the science backing up our assumptions.
Even forgetting the importance of water to the brain, athletes should start any event hydrated and replace as much lost fluid as possible. Preferably with chilled liquids. Chilled fluids are absorbed faster and help lower body temperature. And when body temp goes up, athletes slow down.
From muscle repair, to protein synthesis to nutrient absorption water and hydration levels play a huge role. To put it simply, you cannot recovery properly without adequate hydration.
Are your teammates and practice partners getting the brain nutrition they need? Use the sharing links below to make sure everyone on your team can practice perfect.