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Nourish Your Brain for Top Performance

By Ryan Hutmacher and Sara Haas

We cross train, endure brick workouts and swim endless laps in the pool.  Our aim is to stay in shape fueled by foods that maximize triathlon performance.  As athletes, we spend a great amount of time focused on training and feeding our bodies, but often neglect the one organ that controls everything - our brain!  Consuming plenty of foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids and rich in antioxidants may improve overall brain functioning.

Studies show that Omega-3 fatty acids are extremely important for brain health, especially concerning memory and performance.  As the control center, we depend upon our brain power to get us through both physical and mental exhaustion during training and competition.  Naturally, certain foods can boost brain power.  Good sources of unsaturated, omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, lake trout, mackerel, anchovies, tuna, and halibut.  Your body can also convert another fat known as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) into Omega-3 fatty acids in small amounts.  This is good news, especially for vegetarians or people who do not consume fish. Good sources of ALA are plant-based and include ground flaxseed, flaxseed oil, walnuts, walnut oil, canola oil, soybeans and pumpkin seeds. 

"Antioxidant" is a buzzword in the nutrition world these days and for good reason.  Research shows that these powerful little compounds pack a healthy punch, especially concerning brain power.  Antioxidants are vitamins, polyphenols, minerals and carotenoids that protect against inflammation and help neutralize free radicals.  Free radicals are negative by-products of chemical reactions involving oxygen that occur in your body from exposure to environmental factors like the sun and pollution, as well as from normal body processes.  These free radicals attack healthy cells and make them less stable.  This damage causes the cells to not work properly, leading to the development of certain diseases such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's. Why does this concern you as an athlete?  Antioxidants protect all the cells throughout your body, especially your brain cells.  Keeping these cells healthy keeps your body functioning at its peak.  Athletic performance can fluctuate from time to time and by paying closer attention to your perceived exertion rate you may be able to find out why.  Just as accountants assess financial stamina with the saying, "The numbers don't lie", the same is true for our nutrition with the "bottom line" being performance.

So, along with Omega-3 rich fish, fill up your refrigerator with foods rich in antioxidants like blueberries, cranberries, sweet cherries, raspberries, prunes, beans, artichokes, spinach, russet potatoes, pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, ground cloves, ground cinnamon, oregano, dill, thyme, rosemary, and peppermint.  Aim to consume 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables each day, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, to ensure you're getting your daily dose of antioxidants.   

Looking for ideas on how to incorporate these foods in your diet?  See the recipes below for dishes inspired by this topic.

Caramelized Onion and Spinach Frittata 
Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 3/4 cup yellow onion, julienned
  • 1/4 tsp thyme
  • 1/2 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • 1 cup yellow onions, medium dice
  • 1 cup red bell pepper, medium dice
  • 6 cups (6 ounces) baby spinach
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 16 egg whites, well-beaten, seasoned before cooking
  • 4 oz goat cheese, crumbled
  • 1/4 cup basil, chiffonade
Procedure

To make caramelized onions: Heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until they are tender and beginning to brown. Stir in the thyme and red wine vinegar and season to taste with salt and pepper.

For the frittata:  Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees.  In a large oven-proof non-stick pan, sauté the peppers in oil until tender. Add the spinach and wilt; make sure to let excess moisture evaporate. Add the oregano and stir to combine everything well. Remove ingredients from the pan and reserve. Wipe out the pan, reheat and cover generously with pan spray, and add the egg whites. Quickly add the onions and pepper mixture.  Push down to equally distribute into the egg white, but do not stir. Top with the crumbled goat cheese. Finish in the oven until the egg whites are completely cooked.

Garnish with basil chiffonade and serve.

Sesame-Crusted Tuna Steak Salad with Ponzu Dressing
Serves 4

Ingredients
  • 4 (6 ounce) tuna steaks
  • 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup sesame seeds, white and black combined or white only
  • 4 oz arugula
Marinade
  • 1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tsp freshly grated ginger

Ponzu Dressing

  • 2 1/2 Tbsp brown sugar, light, packed
  • 2 Tbsp orange juice
  • 2 Tbsp rice wine vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp fresh lime juice
  • 1 tsp Tamari
  • 1/2 tsp dark sesame oil
  • 1/8 tsp crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 tsp minced garlic
  • 2 Tbsp freshly grated ginger
  • Salt, to taste

Procedure

To marinate tuna: In a large zip-top bag, combine the soy sauce, sesame oil and fresh ginger, seal the bag and give a good shake to mix the ingredients.  Add tuna steaks, turning within bag to coat, and marinate in refrigerator for about 20 minutes.

To prepare ponzu dressing: In a separate bowl add the brown sugar, orange juice, rice wine vinegar, lime juice, Tamari, sesame oil, crushed red pepper, garlic and ginger.  Whisk well and reserve.

To prepare tuna: Place the sesame seeds on a plate.  Remove tuna steaks from marinade bag; coat the steaks in sesame seeds on all sides, pressing the seeds into the steak so they'll stick.

Heat pan over medium high heat.  Add oil and let it heat until it shimmers.  Sear the tuna on each side, about 2-3 minutes.  Set aside.

To serve: Plate tuna on top of bed of arugula and drizzle with ponzu dressing.

Minted Pea Soup
Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbs olive oil
  • 1 leek, cleaned well, white and pale green parts only, chopped
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 1 lb fresh shelled peas (about 3 1/2 cups) or 1 (12 oz) package frozen peas
  • 1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp white pepper
  • 1/2 cup fresh mint, chopped
  • 1/4 cup plain low-fat yogurt, preferably Greek-style

Procedure
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat.  Add the leeks and onion and cook until softened and nearly translucent, about 5-8 minutes.  Stir frequently to prevent browning.  Adjust heat if necessary.

Add the thyme sprig and stock to the saucepan and bring up to a boil.  Add the peas and reduce heat to a simmer.  

Allow to cook for about 8-10 minutes or until peas are tender.  (If using frozen peas, cook until just heated through, about 3-4 minutes.) Once cooked, remove from heat and add the salt, pepper and mint.

Take the soup off of the heat.  Remove the thyme sprig.  Take the soup off the heat  and allow to cool slightly* or until warm to the touch.   Place the cooled soup in a blender (or process with a hand mixer) and pulse until pureed.  Return to the soup to the pot, reheat if necessary.

Before serving, whisk in the yogurt and garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.

*Note — It is not advised to puree hot items in a blender due to the build of pressure generated from the steam.  Be safe and allow your soup to cool slightly to prevent injuring yourself.

Chef Ryan Hutmacher is owner of Centered Chef Food Studios in Chicago, Ill.  Centered Chef is a wellness focused culinary consulting and educational firm that fuses nutrition with culinary arts.  With a focus on natural ingredients, Ryan celebrates the idea reinventing "health food", proving that nutritious and delicious are equally attainable.  His expertise is notable within the marathon and triathlon community in Chicago, as well as within the corporate sector. 

Along with his staff dietitian and co-writer, Chef Sara Haas (RD/LDN), Ryan appears both locally and nationally on television stations like WGN Superstation, where they give practical solutions to preparing food both easily and healthfully. 


 

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