As the story goes with most fitness professionals, my career in the fitness industry started out at as being nothing more than a gym rat.
I had graduated from UNH and just finished a medical internship that I hated. I was broke and suffering from the post-college “What am I going to do with my life” conundrum. Thankfully, I had my workouts, which kept me sane, and in somewhat decent shape.
When I moved back home, I joined a local gym. Pretty standard cookie-cutter kinda place: lines of treadmills, with just as many bench press racks to match, a protein shake bar with a tacky neon sign above, and the staple group of muscle-head guys taking up far too long wrapping their knees to bust out 2 crappy reps on the squat rack.
It was awesome.
Cliché. Cheesy. And a people- watchers paradise. I’ve always said that co-ed gyms are one of the best places to observe social and human dynamics. Bars on a Saturday night come in at a close second, followed by airports, DMV’s and wedding receptions.
To make a short story even shorter, the main trainer at the gym noticed me one day working out and complimented me on my form.
“You should be a trainer here. I’ll talk to my manager.”
And as the saying goes, “the rest was history.” This happened on a Wednesday, I met with “Charlie” on Thursday, and by Friday, I was taking clients.
Kinda scary if you think about it. Granted, I did have my degree in Exercise Science, I didn’t have a certification and was solely relying on my experience as a Division I rower and my charm to sell personal training.
And wouldn’t you know, I was very good, very quickly.
Ok, so you’re probably wondering what the hell this has to do with my headline:
Ditch the Supplements: My Top 11 Superfoods
But this story has a big role and I’m just about to get into it.
Working as a trainer at a commercial gym was my first exposure to the bodybuilding culture, protein shakes and of course, supplements.
And believe me, I’ve tried quite a few:
Creatine. Protein poweders. CLA. ALA. Chromuim picolinate. L-glutamine. BCAA’s. ECGG. Cinnamon. Fish oil. Flax oil. Fat burners. You name it, I’ve probably tried it…except of course, any form of exogenous hormones like insulin, GH, testosterone or the like.
I had a pill box that would rival that of any found in a nursing home. It was an expensive, ridiculous and time-sucking habit.
Fast-forward 6 years, trial after error, success after mistake, and I’ve learned a lot about life, and a little about fitness and nutrition.
One of the main things I have learned, is to Keep It Simple…Stupid. Especially when it comes to food and supplements. I say ditch the supplements, and use your food to manipulate change instead.
And from what I’ve learned in my own body, here are the foods that are a staple in my diet and the ones that I rely on to keep my body lean, fit and somewhat sexy:
My Top 11 Superfoods
1. Coconut oil.
One of my favorite benefits of coconut oil is the fact that it naturally boosts the metabolism by increasing the way your body uses your thyroid hormones. Meaning, you burn more fat because your body is more efficient at using T3 and T4, hormones which are released from the thyroid gland and which are responsible for regulating metabolism.
Coconut oil is also made predominantly of medium-chain triglycerides which although are a saturated fat, do not have a negative effect on cholesterol and has actually been shown to suppress appetite as well as reduce the risk of atherosclerosis (a)
On top of all this, coconut oil also contains lauric acid which is known to have anti-microbial, anti-fungal and anti-parasitic qualities. That means coconut oil helps keep your gut clean.
I not only cook with coconut oil (I fry my eggs, and sautee my meats and veggies in it) but I also use it as a skin moisturizer as well as a mouthwash. Using it to cleanse your mouth this way is known as oil pulling, which could be a whole other blog post all in its own.
This stuff rocks my world for many reasons and the main one being that gelatin is a pure form of protein and it can be used as a protein powder alternative in shakes, something that I missed when I first removed dairy from my diet.
Unlike muscle meat (which we rely far to heavily on for protein sources), gelatin contains a high amount of glycine, lysine and proline. These are all non-essential amino acids that help increase collagen, cartilage, and rebuild muscle tissue.
Not only is gelatin a great way to replenish the body after a workout but it has also been shown to help reduce inflammation, reduce joint pain and help to sooth the digestive tract. On top of all that, gelatin also helps to promote healthier hair and skin, which, in my book means gelatin can actually make you sexier. Boo-yeah.
To give you an idea of how you can use gelatin, here’s a sample protein shake recipe I use as a quick breakfast or as a recovery drink after a tough workout: Chocolate Banana Recovery Shake
3. Papaya (and pineapple)
I don’t eat much fruit, but when I do they’re usually pretty sweet. And I find that personally, my body does really well with tropical fruits like papaya, pineapple, mangos and bananas. Perhaps its the Filipino in me…
What’s great about papaya and pineapple specifically is that they both contain digestive enzymes that help break down protein. Papain found in papaya, and bromealin fround in pineapple.
If you can’t adequately break down protein, it’s very difficult for your body to extract and utilize the amino acids in all the healthy meats you’re eating. It’s great that you’re eating 100% grass-fed meat, but if your body can’t break it down, it kinda defeats the purpose.
Having healthy digestion, with enzymes being a part of that, means you don’t have to eat as much volume of food since your body is super efficient at utilizing the foods that you are eating, thus creating a highly-efficient metabolism. This is especially important if you are looking to shed a little weight and lose some body fat, since chances are you’ll need to eat more protein.
To help with digestion, eat a couple of slices of pineapple or spears of papaya prior to a meal.
4. Bone broths
Growing up in the Philippines, it was not usual for us to eat fish broth…for breakfast, for lunch and for dinner. Not conventional to what most Westerners would consider a typical breakfast, but all traditional and primitive cultures incorporate some form of bone broth in their diets.
I first learned about this concept after being introduced to the work of Weston A. Price, and from reading Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, an excellent nutrition resource for traditional recipes. Much like the concept of gelatin powder, drinking broths made with the bones of the animal not only provides us with amino acids not found abundantly in muscle meat, but also provide us with chondroitin sulfates and glucosamine, ingredients used in expensive supplements to treat arthritis and joint problems.
The healing effects of bone broths have been known for centuries so it’s no coincidence that matzo ball soup has been nicknamed Jewish Pencillin. There is just something magically wonderful about bone broths, and soups that have been made with bone, cartilage and marrow of the animal.
One of the best ways I incorporate bone broths into my diet is with a crock pot. Throw a whole chicken in the crock pot with some veggies and you have homemade chicken soup. Or, throw some beef shanks with some potatoes and, voila. Homemade beef stew.
You can follow my Easy Crock pot Beef Stew recipe here to get you started.
5. Pasture-raised eggs
I’ve always considered eggs to be a little slutty: They’re easy, fairly cheap, and you can do a lot with them. All the reasons why I love them.
Aside from providing a great source of protein, about 6 grams per egg and choline, eggs are super convenient and make great snacks. Whether hard-boiled on it’s own, in a salad, fried, scrambled, omlette-ed, or even eaten raw, eggs are a staple in my diet.
Not to mention eggs are the main ingredient in one of my favorite holiday drinks: egg nog.
6. 100% organic grass-fed beef
Unlike commercial farmed beef which are fed grains, corn, sawdust, poop and God-knows what else, 100% organic grass-fed beef have been found to contain higher levels of CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid found in beef and dairy products, and which has been shown to help decrease body fat. (1, 2)
Not only do I enjoy grass-fed beef for this reason, I feel better knowing that the meat I’m eating are coming from animals that are fed appropriate diets.
CLA with the combination of ALA was one of my “must-have” supplement combos back in the day, and had I known about grass-fed beef then, I could have saved myself a ton of money.
Since I removed dairy getting the adequate amount of calcium was somewhat of a concern. However, after 3 years of not eating dairy products, I’ve found other great sources of calcium, and one being kale.
For a more extensive list, here’s a recent blog I wrote about non-dairy sources of calcium: How To Get Calcium Without Eating Dairy.
Not only is kale a great non-dairy source (link to my article) for calcium, but it is also high in Vitamins K, A and C. It’s a highly nutrient dense green full of antioxidants
Kale is great to use in green smoothies or to throw in pasta sauces, stews, soups, or even sauteed with a little olive oil and garlic.
8. Coconut milk
Like it’s sister coconut oil, coconut milk provides many of the same health promoting and fat-burning benefits.
What I also love about coconut milk is that I can use it as a milk alternative in baking recipes and even in shakes.
I much prefer coconut milk even over rice and nut milks. One, making almond milk can be a chore, and I’m the store-brand versions of nut milks often contain carrageenan and other fillers and chemical emulsifiers.
I was first introduced to dates a few years ago when a good friend of mine who was attempting a raw vegan diet (I’ll reserve my opinion on this matter for another time) made “raw” brownies using dates and walnuts. Although they weren’t exactly like the real thing, I thought they were pretty tasty and realized how much I loved dates.
I keep a box of dates in my refrigerator and use it primarily as a pre-workout snack and as a post-workout carbohydrate source. Since they are very highly glycemic, they give me that quick source of energy right before a workout and the much needed carbohydrate replenishment after a workout.
Here are some ideas you can use with dates: Paleo Chocolate Balls, Raw Brownies, in shakes, stuffed with almonds or walnuts, or even wrapped in bacon.
10. Butternut Squash
Aside from the foliage, chunky sweaters and riding boots, one of the best things I love about New England in the fall are all the wonderful squash varieties.
I totally love butternut squash. High in Vitamin A, Vitamin C and fiber, butternut squash is a great side dish either roasted, mashed, or even pureed as a soup.
One of my favorite ways to prepare butternut squash is to first roast it in the oven (peeled and diced), and then mash it with a little coconut milk, cinnamon, and vanilla. You could even add a little maple syrup if you wanted to get wild.
It’s pretty low carb too which makes it an excellent choice if you are looking to lean up. By the way, did you know butternut squash is actually considered a fruit?
11. Sweet potatoes
Love me some sweet potatoes, and I always have them on hand in my pantry. They are an excellent source of beta-carotene, high in fiber and are an excellent carb choice.
I pretty much stick to eating them like you would a regular baked potato, although my favorite way to eat them is through the pie-version (if you like pumpkin pie, you will LOVE sweet potato pie).
When I do feel like having a little something sweet, or when those sweet cravings pop up once a month I put some coconut oil on a hot baked sweet potato, drizzle some maple syrup and sprinkle pumpkin pie spice on top…and BAM! faux-sweet potato pie.
Basically when it comes down to it, if I were to stock up for a nuclear fall-out, these would be my foods of choice. Not only because I love the taste of them, but for all the awesome fat-burning, and kick-ass health benefits they provide.
But I’m curious, what is on your list of superfoods?
Let me know in the comment section below.
I’d love to see your list.
Here are the references and resources I used to write this blog:
1. Efficacy of conjugated linoleic acid for reducing fat mass: a meta-analysis in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 May;85(5):1203-11.
2. Conjugated linoleic acid supplementation for 1 y reduces body fat mass in healthy overweight humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Jun;79(6):1118-25.
3. Sweet Potato Nutrition Facts: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2667/2
4. Medium Chain Triglycerides: http://www.nutritionreview.org/library/mcts.php
5. Weston A. Price, A New Look At Coconut Oil: http://www.westonaprice.org/know-your-fats/new-look-at-coconut-oil
6. Papain Data: http://www.sigmaaldrich.com/life-science/metabolomics/enzyme-explorer/analytical-enzymes/papain.html
7. Weston A. Price, Broth is Beautiful: http://www.westonaprice.org/food-features/broth-is-beautiful
8. Gelatin Found To Reduce Joint Pain in Athletes: http://www.bsu.edu/news/article/0,1370,-1019-632,00.html
Sirena — this so helpful, and explains in detail a lot of the premises of the LBC. You know, although my thyroid levels always test fine– I really think that many of my health/nutrition problems come from having had thyroid cancer and being on a synthetic thyroid supplement. They say it’s the only human hormone that can be truly replaced by a synthetic one, but I have my doubts. Every single one of my health problems began after my thyroid was removed. But the expert doctors say it’s fine. I wonder where I could get some good help for this? Must reasearch. Oh dear. I wish I could fall in love with your superfoods. So many of them I don’t like (kale, sweet potato) and others I have problems with– chicken broth make me bloat. I haven’t tried beeff bone broth yet– does it have that effect. Is there hope for me yet, Sirena? Still at the very beginning of my journey, and my body is insisting that it’s not healthy yet.
I beyond doubt appreciate your articles and blogs.coconut oil
Love the article girl! I’m actually planning on making Kale Chips today :). Another staple in our house is spinach. I literally throw it in everything. Pasta, eggs, smoothies, salads, whatever. We always have a big container of it. And also? Loooove sweet potato pasta sauce – if you haven’t tried it it’s a must!
Did you say sweet potato pasta sauce?????
It’s amazing – Mike made up the recipe, but his has baked sweet potatoes, cream (you can find a substitute I’m sure!), garlic, olive oil, parmesan cheese (just a small amount so you can omit), and nutmeg. Puree it all in a food processor and it makes an amazing thick sauce. Add whatever else – I like sausage and spinach in it, too!
Whoa, that sounds awesome. I’m going to give it a shot this weekend. Do you serve it with pasta, too??
Yup, definitely over pasta. Let me know how it comes out!
Interesting list Sirena. I am wondering what your take on flax and chia seeds are?
Thanks Amy. IMHO – both are OK, but not necessary. While flax is high in alpha linoleic acid and Omega 3, I don’t feel it’s imperative to have. But, that of course is up to you decide, your health your decisions.
I do recommend against flax seed oil (especially cooking with it!) since it’s mainly a polyunsaturated fat which means it can turn rancid and oxidize easily when heated which can cause inflammation and the production of free radicals in the body.
Thanks I have to admit I want to like coconut products (water, oil, etc ) but I’m not a huge coconut fan but I might try the oil
Yeah, I hear ya. It can be a strong flavor, if you’re not used to it. They do sell coconut oil that doesn’t have a strong flavor, however, they usually use deodorizers to mask the smell….which aren’t my fave.
FYI here is my favorite place to order online: http://www.tropicaltraditions.com/virgin_coconut_oil.htm