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Functional Foods, Part II

By Monique Ryan

This is part two in the series of including functional foods in your diet. Part one is available here.

The functional athlete

As a triathlete, you likely consume plenty of functional foods, whether designed for improved hydration, electrolyte replacement, increased endurance, enhanced recovery or immunity, and muscle building. Along with many products that are backed by a vast amount of scientific research, there are those that have been launched ahead of the research or which cannot be supported by sound scientific evidence and that often make grandiose claims. But when used properly in the right amounts at the right time, functional sports nutrition products are indispensable for training and racing.

So what are the top functional foods for triathlete focused on optimal health and performance? We have listed some of our favorites below.

  1. Fruits and vegetables for their wide variety of nutrients, high nutrient content, and their fight against heart disease, cancer, and eye disease.
  2. Whole grains for the nutrients they provide and for being such a great source of GI regulating fiber.
  3. Oatmeal and oats, and dried beans and peas for being great sources of water soluble fiber and helping to lower LDL cholesterol.
  4. Fish and fish oil for being the best source of omega-3 fatty acids and offering protection against heart disease, inflammation, and a number of other health related problems.
  5. Probiotics and prebiotics for their role in GI health.
  6. Sports drinks for fluid, carbohydrate, and electrolyte replacement during training and racing.
  7. Recovery drinks that provide over half a gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight and over 10 g protein when consumed in the minutes after hard training for their replenishment of fluid and fuel and a high level of convenience.
  8. High quality protein supplements that can be consumed with carbohydrate before and after resistance training to facilitate muscle building.

Preventing age-related macular degeneration

AMD is the leading cause of blindness in older Americans, and currently affects over 1.75 million individuals over the age of 40. Six to eight percent of persons over age 75 have an advanced form of the disease. In this condition, there is gradual destruction of the part of the retina responsible for the central vision that is required for tasks such as reading and driving. Symptoms include blurred vision and blind spots that become progressively worse. Incidence of this disease is expected to increase as the baby boomer generation ages.

Antioxidants seem to play a major role in eye health. Beta-carotene is not the only carotenoid that you should increase in your diet. The phytonutrients leutin and zeaxanthin, as well as vitamins C and E, and the mineral zinc seem to also play major roles in eye health. Recent research on people with healthy eyes has found that certain foods offer a protective effect from developing AMD. Study participants who consumed the most fruits, vegetables, and whole grains had a 35-percent lower risk of developing AMD than those who are the lowest amounts, while supplements provided no further protective effect. While high-dose antioxidant supplementation poses some risk (such as increased risk of lung cancer when smokers take beta-carotene supplements), increasing your intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains does not. Lutein and zeaxanthin give fruits and vegetables many of their vibrant colors. They are also naturally present in your retina, where they function to screen out ultraviolet rays and prevent eye damage by also acting as antioxidants. Many good food sources of vitamin C and beta-carotene often contain lutein and zeaxanthin. Check with your physician first before taking high doses of these supplements.

Fruits and vegetables can also help prevent cataracts, another debilitating eye condition. One study tracked 40,000 women for 10 years. Participants who consumed over three-and-a-half servings for fruits and vegetables daily had 10 to 15-percent less risk of developing cataracts. The more of these food sources they consumed, the lower was their risk. 

It soy confusing

Soy intake has increased in the American diet over the past two decades in the form of tofu, tempeh, miso, soybean oil, soy milk, and soy meat alternatives ranging from burgers to meatballs. Soy protein, like animal protein, is considered a complete protein that provides all the essential amino acids. Another key compound in soy is isoflavones, which have been researched extensively for their possible health benefits in regards to heart disease, bone health, and menopausal symptoms. Soy products can vary in the amount of isoflavones they provide.

Recently soy has undergone a bit of an identity crisis after the American Heart Association (AHA) reviewed the wide body of research on soy. Soy was not found to be a sure-fire bet for preventing heart disease. The AHA, however, still recommends including soy foods such as tofu, soymilk, soy nuts or products with textured soy protein for a source of high quality, cholesterol free protein, that is low in saturated fat, and high in fiber and vitamins. The AHA also recommends against taking soy or isoflavone supplements. But soy lovers should carry on with consuming soy foods, and the good news is that when soy replaces half the protein in the diet, LDL cholesterol levels do fall. Be aware that you may continue to see soy intake and heart health claims on food labels, as approved by the FDA in 1999 based on evidence at that time. 

The same AHA review of the literature also contends that soy offers no relief of menopausal symptoms, and no benefit for bone health or in preventing breast or prostate cancer. However, a recent study review from researchers in Japan and China concluded that regular intake of isoflavones did boost bone health. However, soy and breast cancer presents another side of the isoflavone debate. It may be that soy needs to be part of our diet starting in adolescence to offer some protective benefit from cancer. But there is also some concern that the hormone-like isoflavones may affect adult women negatively and  actually fuel existing cancer cells or trigger a recurrence of breast cancer. Women at high risk for breast cancer are currently advised not to consume isoflavones in large amounts.

The next step

Clearly the point of functional foods is to receive beneficial nutrients in the best form possible. Antioxidant laden cookies should not be substituted for good fruits and vegetables. Because safety as well as effectiveness is a concern, many experts are also concerned that products with medicinal properties like herbs should not be added to soft drinks, breakfast cereals, and snack foods, where quality and proper dosing is not assured.

Of course it is expected that food biotechnology will affect whole foods and continue to change the supermarket landscape, breeding plants to provide even higher doses of beneficial ingredients, such as cruciferous vegetables superdosed with sulphoaphane. But another emerging field of interest is the concept of nutrigenomics, or the science of applying the human genome to nutritional recommendations to more precisely improve personal health. While highly personalized nutritional recommendations sounds very promising, research is very preliminary and it will be years before effective recommendations can be made.

Monique Ryan, MS, RD is the author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes, 2nd edition (VeloPress 2007). Click here to view more about the book or purchase. She was a member of the Athens 2004 Performance Enhancement Teams for USA Triathlon and USA Cycling Women’s Road Team. She is owner of Personal Nutrition Designs and offers her sports nutrition “E Program” at