It's true: Spinach is muscle fuel. But not because it instantly turns you lean and sexy. Researchers from Rutgers University found that a compound in the leafy green increases protein synthesis by 120 percent, helping your muscle tissue to repair itself faster after you work out. The problem, however, is that you’d have to eat Popeye-sized quantities to experiences dramatic results (we’re talking almost 2 pounds of the iron-packed veggies a day). The good news is that spinach isn’t the only food that can help you to look and feel better than ever--even when you're not exercising.
The right fitness foods help burn fat, build muscle, and even boost your cardiovascular health. Ready to eat your way to better results? These 8 great foods and drinks are guaranteed to make any type of exercise you do more effective—long after you’ve broken a sweat.
PINEAPPLE AND PAPAYA
Good for: Muscle recovery
Both of these tropical fruits are loaded with bromelain and papain, enzymes that not only help break down proteins for digestion but also have anti-inflammatory properties to speed up your post-workout recovery.
Good for: Cardiovascular fitness
Australian researchers found that cyclists who took fish oil for 8 weeks had lower heart rates and consumed less oxygen during intense bicycling than a control group did. The fatty acids in fish oil need to become incorporated into muscle and heart cells to have an effect, and that takes weeks of consumption—so either take fish oil pills each day, or try to eat fish rich in fatty acids multiple times a week to see similar results.
PB&J or PASTA WITH MEAT SAUCE
Good for: Muscle building and repair
The perfect post-weight training repast has about 400 calories, with 20 to 30 grams of protein (to build new muscle) and 50 to 65 grams of carbohydrates (to repair old muscle). Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or a small bowl of pasta with meat sauce fits that formula.
Good for: Waist-trimming
Lean meats are a great low-calorie source of protein, and scientists at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, found that eating more protein may reduce the fat around your midsection. People who ate 20 more grams of protein every day than the group average had 6 percent lower waist-to-hip ratios.
(For a list of foods to avoid—whether fitness is your goal or otherwise—check out our slideshow of the 30 worst foods in America).
8 OUNCES OF CHOCOLATE MILK
Good for: Hydration
The best sports drink may come from a cow. British researchers found that milk does a better job than water or sports drinks at rehydrating the body after exercise. Why? To begin with, milk has more electrolytes and potassium. The addition of chocolate gives milk the perfect balance of carbs, protein, and fat for speedy muscle recovery.
Good for: Pain relief
University of Georgia scientists revealed that taking a caffeine supplement (equal to two cups of coffee) after exercise reduces muscle soreness more than pain relievers can. Caffeine blocks a chemical that activates pain receptors.
Good for: Endurance
Drinking cold water before and during exercise can help improve your endurance. In a British study, cyclists who drank about 30 ounces of a chilled drink in the half hour before riding in a hot, humid environment—and smaller amounts as they rode—were able to bike 23 percent longer than riders who downed lukewarm liquids. Drinking cold water may be the most direct way to reduce core body temperature, so it takes you longer to heat up and slow down.
Good for: Muscle recovery
Brazilian scientists found that participants who consumed three cups of green tea every day for a week had fewer markers of the cell damage caused by resistance to exercise. So drinking a few cups every day may help your muscles recover faster after an intense workout.