As a runner, your go-to daily fare is probably pretty healthy: pasta, lean meat, salad. But simple food swaps—yogurt instead of skim milk, olive-oil vinaigrette instead of fat-free dressing—can pack more nutrients into every bite.
"Nutrient density means foods have a high nutrient content relative to their calories," says Marisa Moore, R.D., L.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "They are the most efficient way for runners to fill up on essential vitamins, minerals, and carbohydrates." Making nutrient-rich foods the main focus of every meal means runners can properly fuel up for workouts without worrying about adding on pounds.
How can you tell if a food is high in nutrients? In general, the less processed it is, the more nutrients it will provide. Adding fresh fruits and vegetables is the easiest way to improve any meal, since most are low in calories but high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Certain food pairings improve a meal's overall nutritional value by "unlocking" other nutrients, says Elaine Magee, M.P.H., R.D., author of Food Synergy: Unleash Hundreds of Powerful Healing Food Combinations to Fight Disease and Live Well. When you buy packaged foods, scan the nutrition label for double-digit Daily Values for fiber, vitamins, minerals, and protein. "The goal," says Moore, "is to get the best nutrition you can every time you eat."
MEAL: Oatmeal with milk and a sprinkle of brown sugar
MAKEOVER: Oatmeal with almonds, strawberries, and low-fat yogurt
NUTRITION BOOST: "Oatmeal is a good option for runners," says Moore, because its whole-grain carbs are rich in B vitamins, which help convert proteins and sugars into energy. A recent study also showed that B vitamins may help build and repair muscle and red blood cells. Substitute low-fat or fat-free yogurt for milk: Cup for cup, yogurt delivers more protein, potassium, and calcium.
Skip the brown sugar and sweeten your oatmeal with fresh or frozen strawberries, which are high in vitamin C and will boost calcium absorption from the yogurt. Add crunch with almonds, a good source of vitamin E and monounsaturated fats.
MEAL: Turkey sandwich on a baguette with lettuce and light mayo
MAKEOVER: Whole-grain wrap with turkey, spinach, tomato, and pesto
NUTRITION BOOST: Whole-grain breads contain more fiber and B vitamins than white varieties — even crusty baguettes. Instead of sliced bread, choose a wrap, which makes it easier to fold in more vitamin A and K-rich spinach. Eaten with tomato and turkey, spinach completes a trio of B vitamins that's been shown to help build red blood cells and protect against heart disease.
Pesto, made with olive oil, basil, and pine nuts, adds a healthy serving of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. A recent study showed that when eaten with vegetables, these fats improve the absorption of beta-carotene (found in spinach) and other nutrients.
MEAL: Whole-wheat pasta with marinara sauce
MAKEOVER: Whole-wheat pasta with marinara sauce, white beans, broccoli, and grilled chicken
NUTRITION BOOST: Pasta and beans is a traditional Italian pairing that delivers far more fiber, protein, iron, and calcium than noodles alone. "Anywhere you can add beans, go for it," says Magee, because they're relatively low in calories but pack a big nutritional punch. Chicken offers additional protein to fuel recovery; plus, it helps the body use the iron contained in beans. "Meat, poultry, and fish act as absorption enhancers to make the iron in beans more available," says Moore.
Broccoli adds lots of calcium, vitamins A and C, and high amounts of sulforaphane, which has cancer-fighting and anti-inflammatory properties. "That's great news for runners, who put extra demands on their knees," says Magee. (To get more sulforaphane, sprinkle broccoli sprouts, which look similar to alfalfa sprouts, into your sauce.)
Post-Race Celebration Dinner
MEAL: Ribeye steak, salad with fat-free dressing, and diet soda
MAKEOVER: Top sirloin steak with capers; mixed greens with carrots, sunflower seeds, and vinaigrette; red wine
NUTRITION BOOST: A recent study showed that antioxidants found in capers may help prevent cell damage that results from digesting meat—damage linked with a higher risk of cancer. Choose round or sirloin cuts, which are lean but still high in iron. Use an olive-oil vinaigrette on your salad to improve the absorption of nutrients in carrots and greens.
Sunflower seeds are high in vitamin E, an antioxidant that's valuable for runners because it protects cells from oxidative stress. Red wine may boost the antioxidant effects of vitamin E and may inhibit the growth of certain cancers.