Let’s talk about your nuts. Right-oh… I know what you’re thinking… and no, I don’t mean the Jatz Crackers kind. I’m talking about the ones that grow on trees!
Every athlete, or generally health conscious individual for that matter, knows nuts are good for them. But do you know specifically why? If not, here’s the low-down on what I think are the top 8 nuts every endurance athlete should be eating:
Almonds are a broadly nutritious option. They have high vitamin E and fibre, provide a good amount of protein and are high in calcium and potassium. The presence of manganese, copper and riboflavin helps in energy production and metabolic rate. They also contain both linoleic and linolenic acids which reduce inflammation in the body. This is great because generally anyone training for an endurance sport will be generating inflammation.
Pistachios are packed with antioxidants and are especially helpful for eye health. They have great levels of selenium. Selenium helps the immune system and is anti-inflammatory. Pistachios also have high potassium, beta carotene and vitamin A. In fact, a 30g serve (a small handful) provides about 320mg of potassium. That’s what you’ll find in around half a banana. Keep your potassium levels up and you could wave bye-bye to unexplained cramping. They are a low-calorie nut, so they can help with weight loss if you’re trying to lose a few kg’s before race day without compromising energy.
They have a high number of antioxidants, vitamins C, E and A, calcium, magnesium, potassium, copper and beta carotene and are pretty good on the iron too. They have a high percentage of monounsaturated fat and some of the lowest of saturated fat. They are high in fibre but lower in protein. And they also have a high amount of B vitamins. Hello my old friend Nutella!
Peanuts are very nutritious. They contain high levels of antioxidants, including resveratrol which is great for heart health (the same stuff is also found in red wine). They provide a great protein hit and are high in folate and other B vitamins, selenium, magnesium and vitamin E. They are higher than most nuts in saturated fat but high in polyunsaturated fats as well. Natural peanut butter that is low in sugar and salt (make your own to be sure) is actually higher in vitamin E, potassium, protein and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats than peanuts alone. Finally, peanuts contain arginine which is the pre-curser amino to nitric oxide. Trust me, as an athlete, you want nitric oxide!
Walnuts have the highest amount of good polyunsaturated fat and are the only nut that has high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Walnuts also contain an essential amino acid that can help fight high blood pressure. Walnuts are high in antioxidants, beta carotene, vitamin A, B vitamins and provide decent amounts of selenium, magnesium and copper. Research has shown that they can lower LDL cholesterol by up to 10% and help repair damage to the heart after heart attack, as well as lowering the risk of blood clots. They support bone health, improve metabolism and can prevent the growth of cancer cells in the body.
Pecans are high in antioxidants, vitamin A, beta carotene and monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. They are about even with other nuts in fibre content and other nutrients, particularly zinc, so don’t feel bad if you add a little pecan pie to your diet (go easy on the sugar though). Like all nuts, one handful translates to ingestion of a really broad range of nutrients. Science could never mimic via a synthetic multivitamin what nature provides from nuts.
The health benefits of cashews include a healthy heart, strong nerve and muscle function, improved bone and oral health, relief from diabetes, anaemia and gallstones. By offering antioxidant defences, they also aid in the formation of red blood cells and encourage a better immune system. Cashews are actually from the same family as pistachios. Probably the biggest benefit from cashews is that they contain tryptophan which helps the brain produce the happy hormone serotonin. It is said that two large handfuls will provide a therapeutic dose of tryptophan equivalent to that found in Prozac. Be careful though as two large handfuls in one sitting is also a big dose of calories and fat, albeit good fat.
Take a look at the following table for a good birds-eye view of each nut and what they offer. Depending on your nutrition goal, this table will help you chose the right nut for the job!
As you can see, all the nuts discussed offer a myriad of similar nutrition benefits. In fact, choosing a handful of nuts every day offers the best multi-vitamin you could ask for. Nature is much smarter than us. We only get the most out of vitamins, minerals, aminos and macros when we ingest them in exact ratios. Ingesting these things from natural foods ensures those ratios are perfect and that your vitamins and minerals are accompanied by all the co-factors needed to support your body.
I believe everyone should include nuts in their diet for this reason. However, as an athlete, you should be paying particular attention to supporting your body through good nutrition. Let’s face it, look at all the added stresses your body receives from throwing in all that swimming, cycling or running on top of day to day life.
For shorter training sessions (less than 90 minutes) nuts make a great pre-workout food. However, always combine them with a nutritious carbohydrate source as only carbohydrates can fuel your muscles.
I personally don’t recommend fat-based foods too close to long and intense training sessions or event days. Athletes that I work with are taught to cycle fat and fibre intake to correlate with training and events as mis-timed fats can cause gut issues and mis-timed fibre can cause… well… I’m sure I don’t have to explain what mis-timed fibre can do to an endurance athlete!
As a post-workout food nuts provide some protein for muscle repair with 6-8 grams per serving depending on the nut. They also provide good fats that the body needs to take care of joints, tendons, facia and skin. They should be paired with carbohydrates and protein to ensure optimised recovery.
Some good nut-carb-protein combinations include:
My athletes are taught to finish off intense training sessions or events with a smoothie made from a particular collagen protein that I work with, along with coconut water, 2 serves of fruit, 1 serve of veggies, 1 serve of any nuts and a spoonful of raw honey or maple syrup. This provides the perfect balance of macros with a full spectrum of nutrients in a form that the body can quickly and easily absorb. And knowing what you now know about nuts, I am sure you can see why we include them as a critical part of an athlete’s diet.
Loren Turnbull of Elite Fit Food is a Sports Nutrition Coach assisting people to improve athletic performance and well-being by making good nutrition choices. Loren believes everyone should have the information they need to live a healthy life. Follow Elite Fit Food for nutritional ideas that you can use in everyday life.