Achieving your fitness goals doesn’t rely on exercise alone; what you eat is crucial too. Your food needs to provide the nutrients that give you energy and allow you to perform at your best, as well as to restore your muscles and help you recover after a workout.
Of course, eating fresh foods – especially lots of fresh vegetables and fruit – is an important part of this. But there are also a few healthy ‘staples’ that every fitness lover should keep in their cupboard. They can help you make a quick healthy meal when you get in from a workout, or a nutritious snack to eat on the go, and provide lots of those energy and muscle-restoring nutrients. With this in mind, Nutritionist, Cassandra Barns gives green light to essential cupboard staples for all those fitness fanatics out there!
Tinned beans and pulses
Beans, lentils and chickpeas have a lot going for them as a store cupboard staple. They’re a great mix of carbohydrates and protein, both of which are needed to restore your muscles after a workout. They’re a good way to quickly and easily add some extra protein to salads, soups, stews and even stir-fries, and are a particularly important source of protein if you’re vegan or vegetarian. To make a quick meal or snack, mix drained lentils with a peeled and sliced avocado, diced spring onions, halved cherry tomatoes, olives and chopped ham (optional), drizzle with lemon juice and olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt and ground black pepper.
If you work out early in the morning, a big bowl of oat porridge can make a perfect post-workout breakfast. Nairn’s Gluten-Free Porridge Oats (£1.99) provide slow-releasing carbohydrates to help replenish your muscle glycogen (the energy stored in your muscles) and are a good source of magnesium, which may support muscle recovery and relaxation. Stir in chopped nuts, raspberries or sliced strawberries, and cinnamon. Porridge can also be a good ‘emergency’ supper on the odd occasion you come in really late from a workout and don’t have time to prepare a meal.
We’ve already seen the benefits of getting your carbs and protein together in the form of beans and pulses. Well, now you can get this combination from your pasta too. Clearspring’s Green Pea and Quinoa Pasta (£2.89) provides 21 g of protein per 100 g compared to around 12 g in standard wheat pasta and only 8 g in brown rice pasta. This makes it fantastic as part of a meal for refuelling after a workout. Use it in place of any ‘normal’ pasta.
These should be in everyone’s cupboard, but particularly if you’re into your fitness. They’re a great source of protein for restoring your muscles and building strength. They contain lots of omega-3 fats, which may help with reducing inflammation – particularly helpful if you’re sore after a workout or want to recover faster. (Note that tuna provides protein, but not the beneficial omega-3s!) Sardines are also one of our best non-dairy sources of calcium – if you eat the soft bones. Calcium plays a vital role in muscle function and energy as well as keeping our bones strong.
“Oatcakes make a perfect pre-workout snack: try them with a teaspoon of peanut butter and a few slices of banana. Nairn’s Rough Oatcakes (£0.99) provide easy-to-digest carbohydrates that are released in a controlled way, giving you sustained energy rather than causing you to crash in the middle of a workout. They can also be great to carry with you for post-workout refuelling if you know you’re not going to eat a meal for a few hours.”
Believe it or not, intensive exercise can have a negative effect on your gut health. So eating foods that are rich in easily absorbed nutrients and are gentle on the gut can be particularly helpful after a workout. This is where traditional fermented foods come in, as the fermentation process can increase their nutrient levels, as well as making them easier to digest. Two great store cupboard staples are miso paste and umami paste. Try Clearspring’s Japanese Umami Paste (£4.49, www.clearspring.co.uk), which is made with organic, natural ingredients – soya sauce, cultured rice and spices. It can be used directly as a dip or condiment with a few oatcakes or carrot sticks, or added into stews, stir-fries or sauces. It’s a great way to quickly and easily add flavour and a nutrient boost to your food – perfect when you come in late from a workout and don’t want to spend hours preparing a meal.
Nut or seed butters
Nuts and seeds are good sources of restorative protein and healthy fats. They’re rich in minerals too, including magnesium and calcium that support energy, muscle function and bone strength, and zinc for the immune system. Nut or seed butters (which are simply nuts or seeds ground to a creamy paste) make a fantastic tasty, filling snack when combined with complex carbohydrates such as oatcakes. Rather than peanut butter, go for almond, walnut, cashew nut, hazelnut or pumpkin seed butter, as they have a better nutrient content and a superior profile of healthy fats. But because they’re so delicious, it’s easy to overdo nut butters – keep it to a teaspoon or two at a time rather than half the jar
Mixed nuts and dried fruit
This combo makes another great on-the-go snack – ideal when you’re coming out of work on the way to the gym, or after a workout to tide you over until your next meal. You get the benefits of the protein, healthy fats and minerals in the nuts combined with the energy-restoring carbohydrates in the fruit. Save money by buying a big bag to keep in your cupboard and dividing it up into smaller servings to carry with you.
Honey is not just sugar! Honey can also have healing, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Manuka honey – which is produced by bees that pollinate the manuka bush – is renowned for its antibacterial activity in particular, and has become a popular natural remedy for coughs, sore throats and other mild infections. This can be particularly relevant for athletes and fitness fanatics, as intensive exercise can temporarily suppress the immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to coming down with a bug. Manuka honey can be added to a homemade green smoothie to add sweetness, stirred into natural yoghurt or porridge with some nuts and seeds, or just taken off the spoon. But keep it to a teaspoon at a time, as it’s still high in sugar.
Pea protein powder
Protein powders can be a great way to top up your protein intake. Whey protein powder is a popular choice with gym-goers and athletes, of course. But pea protein is a winner too. It’s suitable for vegans (who are often in particular need of extra protein) and those with a dairy intolerance. It’s more filling than whey protein. And because it has a neutral flavour and high tolerance to heat, you can add it to warm or hot foods such as soups, stews and porridge to give them a protein boost, as well as using it in shakes and smoothies. All in all, a great store cupboard staple! Try Nature’s Plus Pea Protein powder (£22.50) an organic pea protein that’s free from sweeteners, sugar and artificial additives.