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WHEN YOU think of foods that build muscle, what’s the first nutrient that comes to mind? We’d bet cold cash your answer was protein. But building muscle is about more than just maximizing muscle protein synthesis—you also want food that will up your energy to work out longer, decrease inflammation to help your muscles recover faster, and shred fat to uncover every ripple.
So what foods have the macro and micronutrients to do all this? Superfoods.
There’s no scientific definition of a superfood, but most nutritionists consider the category to be superstar food that far exceeds basic nutritional content. “To me, superfoods are quite simply the cleanest, most powerful, antioxidant-rich, phytonutrient-rich, vitamin-rich foods that have been shown to provide health benefits,” says Manuel Villacorta, R.D., founder of the Whole Body Reboot App and author of Peruvian Power Foods.
Because working out is so taxing on your body, it opens the floodgates for free radicals and oxidative stress to wreak havoc. “Mangos are bursting with over 20 vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, the latter of which can help protect the body against the production of free radicals and other effects of oxidative stress,” Villacorta says. That means the tropical fruit can help your system and muscles recover faster—and get you back in the gym sooner. Plus, mangos are a source of quick-digesting carbohydrates, he adds, making them perfect for an immediate, rapid energy boost before a workout. Eat them raw, add to smoothies, or use them to top off a bowl of yogurt, Villacorta recommends.
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2. Chia seeds
Don’t underestimate these tiny seeds for a second. Chia seeds are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which means they are a natural anti-inflammatory—great for helping your muscles recover after a workout. And since they hold 10 times their own weight in water, they’re also ideal for hydration, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, nutrition consultant for the Chicago Cubs and author of the forthcoming book, The Superfood Swap. In fact, researchers at the University of Alabama found that a chia seed drink enhanced endurance in runners just as well as traditional Gatorade—but with far less sugar and more Omega-3s.
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With six grams in just one egg, these are a great source of high-quality, muscle-building protein, Villacorta says. “Plus, eggs are a good source of vitamin B12, riboflavin, and folic acid, which provide more energy for a prolonged workout.” Plus, folks who traded bagels for eggs in the a.m. saw the most weight loss, studies have shown (not that you needed a study to tell you that one).
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4. Sweet potato
These orange tubers are a powerhouse of nutrients, from carbohydrates to minerals to antioxidants. For starters, they have about 84 grams of carbs per cup, so they’ll keep you fueled during a long workout or replenish your energy stores after. And since they’re low on the glycemic index, they can help prevent blood sugar spikes (and therefore weight gain). “Sweet potatoes are also a good source of potassium, delivering about 14% of your daily value in one cup. Studies have shown that potassium plays a role in both muscle tissue repair and preventing muscle fatigue,” Villacorta adds.
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5. Garbanzo beans (Chickpeas)
“No one thinks about beans when it comes to exercise fuel, but for long-lasting energy, beans are excellent,” Villacorta says. Garbanzo in particular packs roughly 9 grams of protein and 27 grams of carbs per half cup—a combination great for pre-workout fuel and post-workout muscle building. Garbanzo beans are also rich in iron, providing about 15% of your daily value. “Research has shown that insufficient iron supplies can reduce the oxygen transport capacity of your body, therefore decreasing performance and endurance,” he adds.
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6. Greek yogurt
Greek Yogurt is like the superman of healthy food. We’ll start with the most obvious reason why: It’s jam-packed with protein (typically around 17g per cup), particularly casein, which is one of the best types for your body to leverage to build muscle. And because of this high protein count (which is practically double that of regular yogurt, by the way), yogurt is a great food to keep you full and avoid unnecessary snacking, says New York-based nutritionist Jessica Cording, RD. Yogurt also provides calcium, noteworthy since research has linked the nutrient to less weight gain. “Plus, the probiotics in yogurt benefit your GI tract health, which has been studied for its potential role in weight management,” Cording adds. Just stick with plain as the flavored varieties are chock full of sugar.
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7. Tart cherries
The main superpower of this superfood: Its anti-inflammatory properties, Blatner says. A study from Oregon Health & Science University found that runners who drank tart cherry juice for a week prior to a race, as well as on race day, experienced significantly less muscle pain and had less inflammation than guys who received a placebo. What does that have to do with getting swole? Less inflammation means less soreness, which means you can get back to the gym sooner. “Tart cherries also help with sleep, which means a better workout recovery,” Blatner adds. The OHSU researchers also point out that tart cherries (also called Montmorency or sour pie cherries) have the highest anti-inflammatory content of any food, including blueberries, and have the same enzymes as pain killers like ibuprofen.
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“Salmon is a great source of protein—35 grams in a six-ounce fillet—as well as anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty oils, which are great for post-exercise muscle recovery,” Villacorta explains. In fact, a study in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that guys reported less post-workout muscle soreness when their body was full of omega-3 acids compared to guys who were low in the nutrient. Meanwhile, a 2014 study from Italian researchers found that omega-3 fatty acids can improve protein metabolism when combined with an anabolic stimulus (like physical activity, protein, insulin) while a similar study from an Australian team found the same protein and anabolic stimulus combination improved lean body mass.
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“Don’t let this little seed fool you—quinoa has amazing nutritional content that makes it a real superfood,” Villacorta says. Its power comes from its ideal balance of carbs and proteins. With all nine essential amino acids, quinoa is considered a complete protein, meaning it maximizes muscle protein synthesis post-workout. It is also a complex carbohydrate (46 grams per cup) which is metabolized at a slower rate, giving you longer-lasting energy for your workout, Villacorta explains. Plus, quinoa contains vitamins C and E, which help prevent free-radical damage from your workout, he adds.
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This native Peruvian plant grows in the Andes and resembles a rough stone the size of a walnut—but the tiny herb will knock you out with nutrients. “Maca is rich in amino acids, phytonutrients, and a variety of vitamins and minerals. Plus, studies have shown it increases glucose in the bloodstream, which helps supply energy for continued exercise,” Villacorta says. A pilot study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found cyclists who took maca supplements for 14 days improved their speed on a 40-km ride (and their sexual desire—bonus!). Maca also functions as an adaptogen—a natural substance that helps the body adapt to stress—so it enhances adrenal function to increase energy, reduce stress, and create an overall revitalizing effect, he adds. Villacorta recommends adding the powder to your pre-workout shake for an extra kick of energy.