I've had the dubious pleasure of eating lunch or dinner with hundreds – maybe thousands – of bodybuilders, weight lifters, athletes, and fitness bunnies and the undeniable truth is that almost all of them eat like crap.
Despite what they might think, a chicken breast and some steamed rice is not a healthy meal, and that's what they eat most of the time, occasionally substituting a potato for the rice. Sure, it's a lot better than what most Americans cram down their gullet, but it sure doesn't feed the machine.
These assorted athletes and wanna-be athletes are able to function adequately on their fowl dinner, but that's because the body can take a lot of abuse. I remember reading an article about a Japanese man who had survived for 15 months on nothing but popcorn. Think his nutrition was adequate? Well chances are yours ain't much better, bubba.
My diet has rarely been beyond reproach, but doggone it, I'm getting better about it; a lot better. I've consulted the writings of our own resident nutritionists – Berardi, Lowery, and Barr – in addition to books like SuperFoods by Steven Pratt, M.D., and I've come up with my own list of 13 "Power Foods." However, I didn't look at foods as a nutritionist; rather, I looked at them from the perspective of my training as a microbiologist.
Each food was chosen because it appears to have incredible, almost drug-like effects on human physiology. While I make no guarantees (there isn't a nutritionist alive who can), eating these foods often will quite likely change your health and change your life.
These are foods I buy each week, usually on Sunday. I buy specific quantities and my goal is modest: to finish off the amount I bought by the next Sunday. Maybe it's a little sloppy or haphazard, but who the hell has the time to plan and prepare each meal?
My way is simple. And it works.
Here are my choices in no particular order, along with the reasons why I've included them and the amount you should try to eat each week:
In 1992, a study conduced at Johns Hopkins found that broccoli consumption prevented the development of tumors by 60% and it reduced the size of tumors that did develop by 75%.
Clearly, broccoli, like Stacy's mom, has got it going on.
Broccoli contains more polyphenols than any other common vegetable. It also contains large amounts of indoles, which are potent estrogen blockers.
Other super powers possessed by broccoli include an ability to boost the immune system, build bones, fight birth defects, and to ward of degenerative eye diseases.
- Ways to eat them: You might want to consider buying broccoli sprouts when they're available as they're 10 to 100 times more powerful than mature broccoli spears. To eat them, use them in stir-fry dishes or puree them and mix them in soup. Of course, there's always my way, which is to steam them and serve drowned in olive oil and blanketed with red chili flakes.
- How much to eat: 1/2 to 1 cup daily
Ordinary salmon wear pocket protectors and study to be engineers. Wild salmon, on the other hand, go to raves and listen to that crazy salmon music.
Nahh, I'm talking about eating salmon that were raised in the wild, like Alaska. Farm-raised salmon are fed corn and grain and they develop fatty acid profiles that aren't much different than most of our animal food sources.
In other words, the farm-raised variety is woefully deficient in Omega-3 fatty acids, which is pretty much the whole reason you'd want to eat them in the first place!
Sadly, most of the time when you order salmon in a restaurant, you're getting the farm-raised variety. It's best to ask before you order.
Most of you are well aware of the beneficial effects of salmon oil, but here's a mercifully brief refresher course in case you're not.
Salmon oil reduces the risk of coronary artery disease; controls hypertension; controls inflammation; prevents cancer; prevents degenerative eye diseases, and it may well boost your metabolism, making it easier for you to lose fat.
Keep in mind that the Omega-3 fatty acids in fish are, obviously, marine based, and that the Omega-3 fatty acids found in walnuts and flaxseed are plant based. As such, it's best to include both kinds in your diet.
- Ways to eat it: Bake it, broil it, steam it. Or just buy Salmon oil capsules or bottled liquids.
- How much to eat: 24 ounces (3 8-ounce servings)
- Note: Biotest has their own extremely pure Omega-3 fatty acid product, Flameout®.
Most of you probably know that the vast majority of beef in the US is corn-fed. Hell, they advertise it like it's a good thing: "We have corn-fed beef at $9.99 a pound!"
Well it's not a good thing.
Here's what I wrote about the subject in a previous article:
"Nowadays, most cattle spend an average of 60 to 120 days in feedlots where they're fattened up before being slaughtered. Obviously, most of us know that heavily marbled beef isn't exactly part of a healthy diet but there are other things going on that you need to know about. Feeding cattle corn instead of grass drastically upsets the balance of essential fatty acids found in their meat.
"The modern American diet is criminally short on Omega-3 fatty acids and these fatty acids, when consumed in optimal amounts, can potentially prevent coronary artery disease, hypertension, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, and various inflammatory and autoimmune disorders. Conversely, the American diet is high in Omega-6 fatty acids. While Omega-6 fatty acids are important to health, too, bad things happen when the ratio of these fatty acids is altered; namely, the aforementioned maladies.
"Many scientists guess that man evolved eating an Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acid ratio of 1 to 1 from both meat and plant sources. An acceptable modern day ratio would be approximately 3 to 1. Trouble is, corn-fed cattle, in various studies, have exhibited ratios of 21 to 1, 11 to 1, and 20 to 1. Not good. Grass-fed cattle, on the other hand, exhibit ratios of 3 or 4 to 1.
"Similarly, the meat from grass-fed cattle contains significantly higher amounts of CLA, which supposedly lowers the risk of cancer."
I hope one part of that sunk in, the part about grass-fed cattle having a ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 of 3 or 4 to 1.
That makes grass-fed beef about as good a food as wild salmon. And we weight lifters shouldn't forget that grass-fed beef contains relatively large amounts of creatine. Maybe that's why we feel stronger when we eat it.
Lastly, grass-fed beef has a lot less saturated fat than corn-fed, and that in itself is noteworthy.
- Ways to eat it: What, I gotta' tell you how to make a steak?
- How much to buy: 24 ounces (3 8-ounce servings)
People who eat walnuts have fewer heart attacks. One study actually found an inverse relationship between walnut consumption and all deaths.
I don't know how a walnut could keep you from being hit by a runaway streetcar, but I do believe it's one healthful little nut. Walnuts are one of the few rich sources of plant-derived Omega-3 fatty acids (alpha linolenic acid), thus complimenting the animal-derived Omega-3 fatty acids we get from another Power Food, salmon.
They're also high in plant sterols, which reduce cholesterol. Combine that with their arginine-powered ability to keep the insides of blood vessels smooth and you can understand their effect on heart health.
In addition to all that, they're the nut with the highest anti-oxidant activity, and they contain rich amounts of magnesium and copper, two minerals that are typically deficient in the American diet.
- Ways to eat them: By the handful, on top of a Grow! pudding, or on top of a salad.
- How much to eat: 8 ounces (1-ounce or one small handful a day)
Hell, if it were socially acceptable, I'd go to the bar and order a whisky with an olive oil chaser. That's how much I like this Power Oil.
A health study in 2005 compared the effects of different types of olive oil. The first type, "extra virgin" contains the highest amount of polyphenols, while the other olive oil was a lesser blend containing one-fifth the polyphenols in the first type.
Those using the extra virgin olive oil on their bread exhibited a marked increase in arterial wall elasticity, while those that ate the lesser stuff exhibited no change.
- Lesson learned: use extra virgin olive oil.
Aside from making arterial walls more elastic, olive oil has many of the same benefits that walnuts do.
As far as bodybuilders and other athletes are concerned, adding olive oil to your meals is a necessity in that most of us, in an attempt to balance out our fat intake, have increased saturated fatty acid intake and Omega-3 intake while neglecting monosaturated fats like olive oil.
While other oils contain their fair share of monounsaturated fats, olive oil is the king with 72% of its fatty acid compliment being monounsaturated.
Want to control your food intake and lose fat? Steam some vegetables and drown them in olive oil and red chili flakes and serve with your favorite cut of meat. This simple act, done 5 to 6 times a week, will melt the pounds off.
- Ways to eat it: By the tablespoon, on a salad, in a Grow! shake, or poured over your steamed vegetables.
- How much to eat: 3 Tablespoons a day
If for some reason, you stubborn person you, were to only eat one food from my list, this is the one I'd recommend.
This humble little berry contains a greater number of antioxidants than any other known fruit or vegetable. Just one serving contains more antioxidants as five servings of carrots, apples, broccoli, or squash.
Just a couple of years ago, the Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who ate one cup per day had a perpetual increase in the amount of antioxidants in their blood. Maintaining this physiologic state, they guessed, probably plays a big role in the prevention of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and degenerative eye diseases.
There's also a study that's probably of particular interest to readers of this site: people who ate large amounts of blueberries every day performed 5 to 6 percent better on tests of motor skills than a control group.
- Ways to eat them: Buy them dried, fresh, or frozen (they're not a crop that's heavily treated with pesticides, which is often of concern when buying dried fruits) Turn them into a jam and spread them on toast. Throw them into the blender with your Grow! Mix frozen ones into your oatmeal.
- How much to eat: 1 cup a day
Flax seeds are, bar none, the best source of plant-derived Omega-3 fatty acids. Including them in a diet that contains reasonable amounts of saturated fats (about 30% of fat intake), reasonable amounts of olive oil and walnuts (about 30 to 40% of fat intake), and a combination of plant-derived Omega-3 fatty acids and animal or marine based Omega-3 fatty acids (grass-fed beef and salmon) along with a modest amount of Omega-6 fatty acids is probably the perfect prescription.
In addition to being a rich source of plant-derived Omega-3 fatty acids, flaxseeds also contain fiber, protein, and magnesium. They also contain lignins, which are phytoestrogens.
While I know the mere mention of phytoestrogens is enough to make you want to mainline a quart of pure Testosterone, a small amount of phytoestrogens isn't a bad thing. In fact, I've seen men lose their bitch tits simply by including flaxseeds or flax oil in their diet.
- Ways to eat them: Make sure you grind your flaxseeds – the nutrients are difficult to absorb from the whole seed. Once they're ground, store them in small airtight jars and sprinkle them on your oatmeal, your salad, or into your Grow! shake.
- How much to eat: About two tablespoons a day. That means you can grind up about a half-cup at a time.
I don't expect you to go out every October and hoard pumpkins. Canned pumpkin is available all year round and the canned version is actually more nutritious than the raw version.
What makes pumpkin so cool is its synergistic blend of phytonutrients. In fact, pumpkin contains the richest supply of carotenoids known to man.
These carotenoids are suspected to modulate immune responses, enhance cell-to-cell communication, and protect against various cancers. One carotene in particular – alpha carotene – is even suspected by some to slow aging.
While you might assume that pumpkin is glycemically incorrect, you're probably thinking about the pumpkin puree that Granny uses to make her pies. Pure canned pumpkin, on the other hand, has only 42 calories a half-cup, along with 5 grams of fiber, which is more fiber than most breakfast cereals.
- How much to eat: 1/2 cup 3-4 times a week
The next time you order a salad, screw the typical Romaine salad or worse yet, the iceberg lettuce salad; spinach is where it's at.
Spinach is another one of those vegetables whose nutrients and phytonutrients display a wonderful synergy.
Consider that spinach contains carotenoids like zeaxanthin and beta-carotene, along with antioxidants like CoQ10 and glutathione, and the insulin modulator alpha lipoic acid. Not only that, but spinach is fairly rich in plant-derived Omega-3 fatty acids, too.
All of this equates to a vegetable that lowers homocysteine levels, risk of degenerative eye disease, and many types of cancer. In fact, there are epidemiological studies that show that the more spinach eaten, the lower the risk of almost everytype of cancer.
- Ways to eat it: Spinach is a vegetable that should be eaten both raw and cooked. Cooking it makes the carotenoids more bioavailable, but it degrades Vitamin C and folate, so eating a combo of cooked and raw seems to be the best bet. Cook spinach in an omelet, or steam it and add olive oil and salt. Or make a raw salad and top it with walnuts and olive oil.
- How much to eat: 18 ounces (raw) per week
Tomatoes are on my list for one main reason, or rather, one main nutrient: lycopene. This member of the carotenoid family could be the silver bullet in preventing prostate cancer.
Consider the 1995 study that showed men who ate ten or more servings a week of tomatoes reduced their risk of prostate cancer by 35% and their risk of aggressive prostate cancer by 50%.
And while quite possibly being as potent an anti-oxidant as beta-carotene in general, lycopene is also thought to raise the skin's natural SPF (sun protection factor).
Unfortunately, this chemical is rare in foods so the next time you see a ripe, juicy tomato, give it a hug.
Unbeknownst to most, though, is that the coveted lycopene is bound up in the cell walls and fiber. That means that you pretty much have to eat cooked or processed tomatoes to get at the lycopene. That also means that tomato paste, barbecue sauce, and ketchup are valid sources of lycopene. Yipee!
- Ways to eat it:Since lyopene needs fat to get it into the bloodstream, it's best to eat your tomatoes or tomato products with a bit of olive oil. You can also use sun-dried tomatoes in sandwiches, in addition to using salsa to top your meat dishes. And of course, there's always pizza.
- How much to eat: 1 serving per day of processed tomato and 3-4 servings per week of fresh tomato
Hey, it's practically the leanest piece of meat on the planet. It's inexpensive and has a nice array of nutrients including the exotic selenium, but everybody in the business just loveschicken.
Chicken must have a helluva' good PR man because turkey is clearly superior in so many ways.
Want to know how lean turkey is? Three ounces of flank steak – the leanest beef available – has 4.5 grams of saturated fat. An identical amount of turkey has only 0.2 grams of saturated fat.
We called chicken to provide us with its stats, but nooooo. At the risk of sounding cliché, chicken was chicken.
- Ways to eat it: The same way you'd eat chicken.
- How much to eat: As much as your ever-lovin' heart desires or your wallet can afford.
My grandma Olga, a famous Finnish Powerlifter, once told me, "Little one, take care of your gastrointestinal tract and it'll take care of you."
Then she struck me with some salted herring.
Still, the lesson stuck with me.
Gastrointestinal problems are likely at the root of a lot of health problems. After all, if you can't digest food, assimilate its nutrients, and dispose of waste, what good are Power Foods?
Enter yogurt. And I'm talking about plain non-fat yogurt, not frozen yogurt or any of those sugary concoctions that are faintly disguised desserts.
A microscopic view of the beasties in yogurt
Yogurt that contains live active cultures of bacteria encourages the growth of "good" bacteria and hampers the growth of the "bad".
Once you do that, you might help your body fight cancer, allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowl syndrome, ulcers, and diarrhea.
You might even increase nitrogen retention, so that you'll build more muscle from the proteins that you eat.
While live-culture yogurt is considered a "probiotic" in that it contains living beasties, you also need to ingest "prebiotics," which are nondigestible food stuffs that the beasties live on.
Luckily, a lot of the Power Foods I've listed contain prebiotics (broccoli, spinach, flax seeds, etc.).
- Ways to eat it: Mix a tablespoon or two into your Grow! shakes, or add to oatmeal.
- How much to eat: 1 cup per day
Mushrooms contain zinc, essential amino acids, and a host of vitamins, but I'm not really interested in all that.
The reason I've labeled Shiitake mushrooms as a power food is because they appear to possess some pretty interesting anti-viral properties, including some much-desired anti-cancer powers.
In fact, the Japanese have licensed a Shittake extract called Lentinan as an anti-cancer drug. It's shown promising effects on bowel, liver, stomach, lung, and ovarian cancers.
Apparently, Lentinan stimulates the production of T lymphocytes and natural killer cells.
Proponents of mushrooms like the shittake and others collectively call these fairly mysterious anti-viral and immuno-enhancing compounds Host Defense Potentiators (HDP).
While the proof of their powers isn't conclusive yet, I'm willing to make a small leap of faith and continue to include these 'shrooms in my diet.
- Ways to eat them: Chopped up and thrown into spinach salads or an omellete.
- How much to eat: 3 ounces per week
Off to the Grocery Store
You might think some of my recommendations as to quantity are unrealistic or just plain hard to achieve. That's okay. Do the best you can. It's like when complete newbies ask me how often they have to train to get into a reasonable semblance of shape.
I tell them once a week is better than zero times a week; twice a week is better than once a week; three times a week is better than twice a week....
The same goes for my dietary recommendations. Eat the foods on the list as often as you can. Once a week is better than zero times a week; twice a week is better than once a week....
Of course, the better you adhere to the training program or the nutritional program, the greater are the rewards, be they in physique, athletic ability, or iron-clad health.
- Luoma, TC, Luoma's Big Damn Book of Knowledge, Penguin Books, 30th edition, 2005.
- Pratt, Stephen, M.D., and Matthews, Kathy, SuperFoods, Harper, 2004.