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Super Foods for Super Women

By Monique Ryan

If you want to feel like Superwoman this race season, fueling up with nutrient-powered foods and smart supplementing has positive payoffs.  Quality eating provides nutrients that boost your immune system, and supercharge your performance. Supplements build upon your best food choices and provide an edge on the race course. All the food and supplement strategies outlined below work for the guys as well, so eat up!

First with Foods

Go Green and Orange and Red

Dark green vegetables are packed with the antioxidant vitamins A and C, and beta-carotene, and also important minerals such as iron and calcium. They are also a great source of immune boosting plant substances called phytonutrients. Stellar sources are kale, chard, collard greens, bok choy, broccoli, and beet and collard greens.  These vegetables are also a great source of vitamin K, which a growing body of research indicates could be just as important as calcium for healthy bones.  Vitamin K may increase bone mass and reduce incidence of fracture through its role in producing an active form of a bone-building protein called osteocalcin.

Beta-carotene is one of hundreds of carotenoid pigments that give fruits and vegetables their red and orange colors. Carotenoids are also abundant in green vegetables. They act as antioxidants and protect our immune system and heart and eyes from disease. Super sources of carotenoids include apricots, cantaloupe, carrots, red grapefruit, red pepper, papaya, mango, pumpkin, and sweet potato.  

Fruity delights

Our planet comes armed and loaded with a hefty supply of super-fruits.  While not as exotic as other choices, berries are colorful sweet little powerhouses packed with flavonoid phytonutrients, vitamin C, potassium, and fiber though their phytonutrient content is one of the best reasons to consume berries. Anthocynanins are powerful antioxidants that give berries their deep color. Ellagic acid found in raspberries may prevent cancer and the proanthocyanins in blueberries and cranberries can help prevent urinary tract infections.

Super fruits and their juices are also boast high antioxidant levels. Acai, goji, pomegranate, mangosteen, and noni fruits and their juices are heavily touted for their high antioxidant content. More data is needed to confirm that these pricey liquids offer additional or unique health benefits over other antioxidant laden foods, but expect to see more on the market.

Fishing for health 

Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid  (DHA) have a wide potential of health benefits including prevention heart disease, and decreasing internal inflammation. Aim for at least two servings of fish weekly. Look for foods fortified with both EPA and DHA. Great fish sources that are also lower in mercury include wild salmon, herring, sole, cod, haddock, tilapia, and whitefish.

Getting the Bees

Important functions performed by B-complex vitamins include energy production, hemoglobin synthesis, building and repair of muscle tissue, and a role in immune function. Training may increase your requirements for riboflavin and B6. Female athletes who have lower calorie intakes may also have marginal intakes of both these B vitamins, as well as folate. Good food sources of riboflavin include milk, yogurt, eggs, leans meats, and whole grains. B6 is found in animal foods such as meat, fish, and poultry, as well as bananas, walnuts, and whole grains. Folate is essential for the synthesis of new red blood cells, and repairing damaged cells and tissues, so keep eating your leafy greens, fortified grains, legumes, and nuts. B12 is also needed for RBC formation and DNA synthesis, and is found almost exclusively in animal products, so vegetarians should consume foods fortified with B12.

Second with Supplements

Vitamin D

Expect to hear a lot about vitamin D in the next decade. Not only do we know that it is equally important to calcium for building and maintaining strong bones, but an expanding body of research indicates a potential link to prevention of both autoimmune and chronic diseases, and certain cancers, including breast cancer. Every cell in the body has a receptor for active form, 1,25-dihydroxy-vitamin D. Many experts recommend having blood levels of 25-hydroxy-vitamin D tested (this reflects both dietary intake and vitamin D made from sunlight), as current recommendations for 400 IU of vitamin D are likely too low, with many individuals over age 40 years being vitamin D deficient. Food sources are rather limited, but include fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines, as well as fortified milk, yogurt, orange juice, and cereal. Wisely using sunscreen when training outdoors does block vitamin D production, so a good alternative is consuming vitamin D3 (the active form) combined with calcium and/or from a multivitamin for intakes of up to 800 IU daily from food and supplementation.

Protein supplements

Timing and portioning protein intake properly around both resistance training and endurance training sessions is another important nutritional strategy. If muscle and strength building is still a focus, make sure that you consume 20 g of high quality protein with a moderate amount of carbohydrate, about 25 g within the hour before resistance training.  You can also consume this protein and carbohydrate combination in the hour after resistance training to optimize your strength building efforts. Post- endurance workouts or speed workouts, consume at least half a gram of carbohydrate per pound of body weight, but consider adding in 10 to 15 g of protein for recovery. For back to back workouts have the right mix on hand. An energy bar or recovery drink providing the right amounts of carbohydrate and protein can be consumed between endurance and resistance training to keep you fueled properly for specific workouts.

Future Considerations


Training not only depletes energy reserves, but also dings your immune system, making you more susceptible to infection. In the meantime your body is experiencing more oxidative stress, muscle damage, and inflammation. Newer research is now looking at the effects a phytonutrient called quercetin, because of its antioxidant, anti-inflammatory properties, as well as influence on immune function. Food sources include apples, onions, berries, leafy green vegetables, hot peppers, red grapes, and black tea.  A study at Appalachian State University provided forty trained male cyclists 1000 mg quercetin or a placebo for 3 weeks before, during and 2 weeks after a three day period of intense training (3 hours daily). Cyclists experienced a significantly lower incidence of upper respiratory tract infections during the two week period following the intense training when receiving the quercetin.


Besides affecting your immune system, intense training, particularly longer distance running, can affect your gastrointestinal system. Researchers in Helsinki, Finland provided both male and female runners with either a probiotic supplement called Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG or a placebo during three months of training and up to a marathon. There was no difference in the incidence of respiratory infections or GI symptoms between the groups, however, the lactobacillus supplement seemed to shorten the duration of GI symptoms during both the training period and during the two weeks after the marathon.  


Recently the American College of Sports Medicine updated their position stand on The Female Athlete Triad and made new recommendations for screening, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment. The Triad describes an association between disordered eating, amenorrhea, and osteoporosis seen in female athletes, particularly in sports emphasizing a lean physique. Each of these three conditions is now recognized to represent the severe and unhealthy end of spectrum, with optimal energy availability, optimal bone health, and normal hormone levels at the healthy end of the spectrum. An athlete’s condition can move up and down the spectrum based on her diet and training. Low energy availability is the factor that impairs bone and reproductive health whether it is unintentional, intentional, or related to an eating disorder. Most adverse effects appear to occur below 30 kcal/kg (14 kcal/lb) of fat-free body mass per day.  Treatment includes a multidisciplinary team and should include a physician, nutritional counseling and monitoring under a registered dietitian to increase energy availability, and psychotherapy for eating disorders.

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


Kekkonen, R  et al.  The effects of probiotics on respiratory infections and gastrointestinal symptoms during training in marathon runners. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metaboslim. Vol. 17, no 4, August 2007.

Luden, N. et al. Postexercise Carbohydrate-Protein-Antioixidant Ingestion Decreases Plasma Creatine Kinase and Muscle Soreness. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. Vol. 17, no. 1, Feb. 2007.

Woolf, Kathleen, et al. B-vitamins and exercise: Does exercise alter requirements? International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. Vol. 16, No. 5, October 2005.

Candow, Darren, et al. Effect of whey and soy protein supplementation combined with resistance training in young adults. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. Vol. 16, No. 3, June 2006.

The Female Athlete Triad. Position Stand. The American College of Sports Medicine. Medicine in Science in Sport and Exercise. 2007.

Nieman, D., et al. Quercetin reduced illness but not immune perturbations after intensive exercise. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise, Vol. 39, no 9, pages 1561

Green, M. et al. Carbohydrate-protein drinks do not enhance recovery from exercise induced muscle injury. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. Vol. 18, no 1, Feb 2008, pages 1-18.