Start Strong, Stay Strong, Finish Strong: Optimizing Performance through Food
Improving your performance is easier than you think. Performance is defined as a person's ability to accomplish an action, task or function. It can be measured by the degree of success of different missions; physical fitness scores, academic achievements, work performance and even day-to-day household duties. The Performance Triad is a comprehensive plan to improve readiness through maintaining, restoring and improving health. It aims to promote optimal performance through adequate sleep, physical activity and optimal nutrition.
Did you know that what and when you eat not only influences your waistline? How you nourish your body with foods also has tremendous, impact on your mental and physical performance throughout the day.
It all starts with breakfast. Those who eat a well-balanced breakfast perform better at school and work. Eating a balanced breakfast provides more energy throughout the day, improves ability to focus, contributes to higher test scores and helps with maintaining a healthy weight.
A balanced breakfast should include a source of lean protein, whole grains, fruits or vegetables, and calcium rich foods.
- Scrambled eggs, sliced avocado on warm whole grain toast with a glass of calcium-fortified orange juice.
- Frosted shredded wheats (with cow milk or soy milk) and your favorite fruits.
- 1 to 2 packets of flavored oatmeal, sliced fruit and a Greek yogurt.
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole grain bread, a glass of milk, and a crisp apple.
Timing matters. Boosting your metabolism is one of the benefits of eating breakfast first thing in the morning. Plus, it gets your system going.
It is important to refuel throughout the day so you can handle what work and life throw your way. A balanced lunch keeps you focused, boosts energy levels, decreases stress and reduces mid-afternoon cravings for sweets.
- Whole grain wrap with turkey, cheese, veggies, a side of hummus with mixed bell peppers, fresh crunchy carrots, and celery.
- Soup and sandwich: a can of your favorite low-sodium soup paired with half a panini.
- Healthy frozen dinner with a side of microwaveable rice and a fruit cup packaged in water or light syrup.
Do you feel groggy or in a fog on some days? Apart from being filling, low in calories, loaded with vitamins and minerals, and friendly on the waistline, fruits and vegetables provide many brain health benefits. For example, the powerful antioxidant, anthocyanin, (found in berries, grapes and purple colored vegetables) is shown to enhance mental performance. Eating purple fruits and vegetables (blackberries, blueberries, grapes, red onions, plums, red cabbage, purple potatoes, eggplants and prunes) increases your focus.
Other great brain foods include whole-grains and foods rich in omega-3 such as fatty fish, specialty eggs, walnuts, chia and flax seeds
Refueling enables your body to properly recover so it is physically and mentally ready for the next mission. Fruits, vegetables and lean proteins repair the body and mind from daily challenges.
- Pita pocket stuffed with baked falafel, tzatziki sauce, your choice of veggies and seasoned sweet potato fries.
- Baked lemon pepper salmon, glazed carrots and roasted red potatoes.
- Stir-fry: Rice, mixed veggies and chopped seasoned chicken tenders with low-sodium soy sauce
Sources of protein
Protein is the body's building block; it repairs body tissues that are damaged throughout the day. Your body's protein requirements can be fully met from foods. Great sources of protein are fish, poultry, soy, eggs, dairy, beef, beans, nuts and whole grains.
Fruits and vegetable goals
The Performance Triad encourages everyone to aim for at least eight servings of fruits and vegetables per day. A great way to do this is to choose fruits and vegetables in place of sweets and chips most of the time and aim to make your plate half fruits and vegetables for most meals.
Choosing fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season and combining them with frozen fruits and vegetables can keep you on top of your game, your budget, and provide variety during meals and snacks. Check out the lists of seasonal fruits we've provided to get you started:
- Winter: Apples, rutabagas, cabbage, brussel sprouts, carrots, celery, kale, leeks, lemons, oranges, parsnips, pears, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, winter squash (ex: spaghetti squash, butternut, acorn, pumpkin, etc.)
- Spring: Asparagus, collard greens, mushrooms, lettuce, peas, spinach, strawberries, radishes and blueberries
- Summer: Pineapple, blackberries, raspberries, cantaloupe, watermelons, cherries, cucumbers, mangos, okra, peaches, plums, eggplant, green and waxed beans, tomatoes, and apricots
- Fall: Bell peppers, broccoli, brussel sprouts, garlic, ginger, grapes, onions, sweet corn, pears, potatoes, spinach, turnips, cranberries and apples
Enhancing mental and physical performance is a vital goal for the Performance Triad. Fueling for performance prevents disease and protects the body for any mission. Although this article mainly focuses on nutrition, optimal health and performance includes obtaining seven to eight hours of quality sleep, a variety of physical activity, and nutrient-rich foods where we eat, work, play, and shop.
For more information, visit the Performance Triad website.
About the authors: Maj. Benjamin Wunderlich is the nutrition lead for the Performance Triad; Whitney Carrington is a Performance Triad coordinator and fellow through Oak Ridge Associated Universities. Both work at the Office of the Army Surgeon General in Falls Church, Virginia.