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Cycling nutrition: Why you need rainbow stripes on your plate

24 Jan 2020

Words Michael Donlevy Photography Danny Bird

Red foods for heart health

‘Different colours represent different vitamins and minerals, and each colour has specific health-giving antioxidants,’ says Mayur Ranchordas, performance nutrition consultant and reader in nutrition and exercise metabolism at Sheffield Hallam University.

‘Red foods contain lycopene, which helps protect against cardiovascular disease and can reduce blood pressure.’

This is key as you age, when heart disease can develop without you even knowing it.

‘Lycopene can also protect against certain cancers, notably of the prostate, breast and kidneys, and it’s good for cyclists because it can protect against skin cancer.’

Tomatoes are a great source of lycopene. Try pomegranates for fibre and vitamins A, B and C, as well as calcium, potassium and iron. Chillies are also rich in vitamins, although you’re unlikely to eat too many of them in one go…

Yellow foods to stave off illness

Yellow and orange foods contain plenty of beta-carotene. ‘Its primary benefit is to enhance immune function,’ says Ranchordas. ‘Endurance exercise can compromise your immune function and leave you more prone to illness and infection, and cyclists often spend a lot of time in the saddle. Your Sunday ride is likely to be longer than the time most people would spend running or swimming.’ 

Beta-carotene is also converted into vitamin A, which is good for eye health – something that’s important when concentration is key.

Bananas in particular are a great ride food, as they’re packed with natural sugars and electrolytes, are good for your heart and are easy to unzip on the bike. Oranges are packed with vitamin C, which as well as boosting your immune system helps to repair tissues after exercise, while turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory, which can aid recovery.

Green foods to fight ageing

Green foods are known for containing large amounts of carotenoids, phytonutrients that are loaded with antioxidants. ‘They’re also responsible for giving leafy vegetables a dark green hue,’ says Ranchordas.

As a group, carotenoids help to fight ‘oxidative stress’, the metabolic process that produces those free radicals when you exercise hard. Oxidative stress also contributes to ageing and age-related health issues – the sort of things that can keep you off the bike if you don’t look after your health. Carotenoids also contain acetylenics, a group of metabolites that are believed to promote wellbeing and boost immunity.

‘A key point here is that all of these foods and their antioxidants interact with each other, so it’s important not to simply opt for one food colour over another. That interaction is a big reason why you should make your plate as colourful as possible.’

Blue foods for recovery

Blue and purple foods are rich in zeaxanthin and lutein. ‘Zeaxanthin neutralises free radicals and plays a role in reducing inflammation and delayed onset muscle soreness [DOMS], which are both common after a hard or long ride,’ says Ranchordas.

‘Like beta-carotene, zeaxanthin and lutein are both good for eye health – lutein is believed to function as a light filter that protects eye tissues from sunlight damage,’ he adds.

Blueberries are among the best fruits for antioxidants, while for a time beetroot and beetroot juice were trumpeted as so-called ‘superfoods’.

‘Beetroot contains nitrates, which have been found to enhance endurance performance by increasing blood flow to working muscles,’ Ranchordas adds. Maybe just don’t pack them in your jersey pocket.

White foods to stay strong

White foods – particularly garlic – are rich in allicin, effectively a form of natural antibiotic that can protect against and fight infection, as well as reduce inflammation.

‘This is key because, when combined with beta-carotene, you’re giving your body the best possible protection,’ says Ranchordas. ‘Allicin is also microfungal, so can protect against ailments such as athlete’s foot, and is believed to reduce heart rate, which increases the flow of nutrients to the muscles while you’re exercising.’

Onions and leeks contain many of the same benefits, but it’s garlic that, like beetroot, has been labelled a ‘superfood’. Ranchordas isn’t impressed. ‘I’d rather people ate “superdiets” than “superfoods”.

You want to eat a good balance of carbs, protein and healthy fats, with a “rainbow” of fruit and veg of all different colours. Do that right and you don’t need fads.’