I hate to be the one to have to tell you this.
But you should always listen to your mother.
What I’m trying to say is, make sure that you eat plenty of vegetables, especially if you want to get a better value out of your workouts. According to recent research published in the February 2011 issue of Cell Metabolism (you can find a summary in Science Daily at ), the nitrates in vegetables — especially green leafy vegetables like spinach, parsley and kale — can make the mitochondria in body cells work more efficiently, causing people who consume more nitrate to take in less oxygen while they are exercising.
If you are interested in bodybuilding, you probably already know that mitochondria are organelles inside the body’s cells. Their job is to convert molecules of food nutrients into energy that your body can use — to work out, or do anything else. Some authors call the mitochondria “cellular power plants.” Anything that helps your mitochondria to work more efficiently will likely improve your workouts.
Don’t go thinking that you’re going to get out of eating vegetables by finding a nice inorganic nitrate supplement, either. First of all, it wouldn’t be easy to find one — until recently, nitrates were thought to be toxic, and in fact, they may be toxic at high levels, so don’t experiment. But equally importantly, the nitrates in green leafy vegetables work well precisely because they are not taken as a supplement. Nitrate in food is processed in part by bacteria in the mouth — which would be bypassed entirely if you tried to get it by popping a pill. In fact, as an aside, scientists noted that powerful antibacterial mouthwashes, by killing bacteria in the mouth, might block vegetables from having a beneficial effect on mitochondria.
But if you don’t like green leafy vegetables, scientists think that you might do as well with two or three red beets, or with certain fruits, as with a plate of spinach.
But guess what else is in green leafy vegetables, especially parsley, spinach, and asparagus? Glutamine — an amino acid that is commonly taken as a supplement by weightlifters. Glutamine is an amino acid that is heavily used by the brain and muscles, is an anti-inflammatory, and also tends to reduce sugar cravings. Getting glutamine from vegetables is safer and less expensive than taking a nutritional supplement (safer because the toxicity level for glutamine in supplement form has not yet been definitely established). To maximize glutamine content in your vegetables, though, be sure to eat them raw, and as fresh as possible. In asparagus, in particular, glutamine levels fall the longer you wait after harvest to eat it. You will probably want to cook your asparagus, but try to cook it lightly — just a little gentle steaming or grilling.
Glutamine is an amino acid, and amino acids, as you may know, are the building blocks of protein. So one would expect green leafy vegetables that are high in glutamine to be high in protein in general — another nutrient that is often supplemented by bodybuilders — and one would expect right. A cup of asparagus, for example, contains 5.3 grams of protein. (In case you’re interested, it will also give you 29 percent of your vitamin A and 73 percent of your vitamin C for the day, as well as three grams of fiber.)
Parsley and spinach aren’t quite as high in protein — about a gram of protein per one cup of raw spinach, and almost two grams per cup of parsley. On the other hand, though, a cup of spinach or parsley isn’t much. You can easily throw three cups of greens (let’s say half spinach and half parsley, so getting towards five grams of protein) into a blender, add three frozen bananas (giving you another four grams of protein), two cups of almond milk (almonds being another favorite weightlifting food and adding two grams of protein), and toss in whatever powdered supplements or oils (or even a raw egg) that you like to have in your regimen. Mix it all together and, leaving out your powdered supplements, you’ll have nine grams of good quality, bioavailable protein, and plenty of nitrates and glutamine, all in a delicious green smoothie — the perfect pre-workout drink.
Need more protein or are trying to gain weight? Not a problem — make the smoothie your beverage and have a meal with it. Fast, easy, nutritious — I’m telling you, you need to make a video of the whole process, drink your beautiful green smoothie, and send the video to your mother.
Not a believer yet? Here is what raw vegan bodybuilder Storm Talifero says about the effects of his diet on his workouts: “As a bodybuilder I reached my all time high at the age of 50….I was 201 pounds on the raw vegan diet. We were living in Canada and I had started eating some really rich raw vegan foods to produce more body fat to ward off the cold and it worked really well. I was able to swim in the winter seas off of Vancouver Island….Even within the raw vegan diet there is a huge amount of latitude that can be obtained as far as muscle mass by making changes to what and how much you eat and exercise. One of the greatest things I have learned from all this is that I really didn’t need to eat as much as I thought I did, even though I am eating a 100 percent raw vegan diet.” (Talifero, Storm. “Aging with muscle on the raw vegan diet.” Ekaya Institute of Living Food Education, The Garden Diet. .)
No matter what supplements you are taking or how scientific your approach to bodybuilding may be, always remember that whole foods provide you with many of the same nutrients in a safe, bioavailable format that can help to carry your supplemental nutrients where they need to go — straight to your body’s cells where your mitochondria will know just what to do with them.
About the Author: Brett Warren is a biochemical engineer from Boston, Massachusetts who develops sports supplements for . He has done extensive research on nutrition and is an expert on nutraceutical science. He also has a passion for fitness and health. Brett’s work at is supplemented by an active family life with plenty of gym time and outdoor recreation.