After having decided to go cold turkey on all your favourite treats as a way to kick-start 2017, many of you may be beginning to wonder how far your self-restraint will take you as we move swiftly through the new year. However, recent studies have shown that, in fact, a little indulgence may not be as bad for you as you think. Particularly when it comes to fitness, it has been argued that some of the things you crave most such as chocolate, red meat and cheese may help to supercharge results. “What you eat can give you that extra edge if you are a competitive athlete,” explains nutritionist Shona Wilkinson (superfooduk.com). “It could also make it easier for you to do specific exercise if you are just working out to help keep fit.” With this in mind, here’s our guide to indulgent foods that could help to switch your fitness up a gear.
Good news for chocoholics! Findings from a recent study by Kingston University charting aerobic performance found that epicatechin (one of the main flavanol antioxidants found in the cocoa bean) increases nitric oxide production in the body, which allows exercisers to use less oxygen when performing cardio, and helps them cover a greater distance in less time. The findings were based on consuming 40g of dark chocolate daily over a two-week period. “Additionally, chocolate milk is thought to be a great drink to help with exercise – both before and after, as it’s high in carbohydrates and protein. It also provides hydration and enough sugar from the chocolate to give you a hit of energy,” explains Wilkinson.
When it comes to improving performance, the benefits of coffee just keep on coming. “When consumed in the right way, coffee can in fact be used as a health and fitness enhancing tool,” says Wilkinson. Not only is there evidence that if coffee is consumed before a workout it can increase the amount of fat burned, it could also be beneficial when drank post-session. A study published in the American Physiological Society Journal revealed that consuming a cup of coffee with a high-carb snack following a workout helped to fuel muscles far better than simply eating carbs alone. It is also thought that caffeine helps to improve your body’s absorption of sugar, which is needed to refuel tired muscles. Other studies have been conducted which show that caffeine from coffee can improve exercise performance by more than 11 per cent.
While bread might be banned on some weight-loss diets, it gets the green light for runners – hooray! Carbohydrate is an important component of a runner’s diet, helping to maximise energy stores, so it makes sense to consume it before some sessions. Remember to choose 100 per cent wholegrain varieties over white bread as it contains more fibre, vitamins and minerals. “White bread will mess with your blood sugar levels too much, which could result in lack of energy,” says Wilkinson. On the other hand, wholegrain releases energy slowly, meaning you’ll get a longer-lasting energy hit to keep you going for longer.
Dairy products such as cheese are a great source of calcium – a nutrient that is essential for bone health. “We know that calcium is vital for good bone health which is obviously important to have when exercising,” explains Wilkinson. Runners are prone to stress fractures in the shins, heels and feet, a condition that’s more common in women than men and is thought to be a result of overtraining, which puts excess strain on the bone. Improving bone density through a calcium-rich diet can help to offset this type of bone problem. We are also naturally at risk of bone loss as we get older, so making sure you get the recommended 700mg calcium per day is advised to minimise the risk of issues such as osteoporosis later in life. This can easily be achieved by consuming two to three servings of dairy products daily.
If you love the sweet taste of raisins, you’re in luck as dried fruit is packed full of nutrients and can double up as a useful fitness aid. “It isn’t really necessary to eat anything unless you are exercising for over an hour. After the hour, you might want to think of small snacks to help keep you going. Dried fruit is ideal for this as things like raisins or sultanas are small and easy to eat on the move. They also have a high carbohydrate content, which will help with energy levels,” says Wilkinson.
Not only is steak a great source of protein, which is essential for repairing muscle tissue after exercise, it is also high in iron which could help offset fatigue in runners by helping red blood cells to carry oxygen around your body efficiently. “Iron deficiency is common in women – especially those who have heavy periods, and if you have low iron levels, you are depriving cells of the correct amount of oxygen which can result in lack of energy,” says Wilkinson. To get the most out of your steak, choose lean cuts such as sirloin to go with vegetables and sweat potatoes for a perfectly balanced meal.
There’s no need to feel guilty if you love red wine, as there’s proof that the burgundy coloured beverage is good for you! Scientists agree that the skin of red grapes is a source of the antioxidant resveratrol, which is thought to help offset harmful free radicals – a by-product of fitness. “Free radical damage is part of the normal process of living and ageing, but it does increase during extreme exercise. Our bodies are able to deal with free radicals and are very equipped to do so – however if you’re doing an extreme and intensive amount of exercise you may need to watch out for excessive free radical damage,” says Wilkinson. Experts agree that it’s beneficial to consume as many antioxidants as possible through your diet, and drinking red wine daily may help to work towards your antioxidant quota – just remember to stick to one small glass though.
Words: Louise Pyne