The 5 spices essential for your New Year exercise regime
The New Year sees many of us embarking on new exercise regimes as we try to shift the excesses of winter from our waistlines and get our health back on track for the year ahead. Whatever your chosen programme, you’ll no doubt also be considering some positive dietary changes to support your goals.
However, all too often I see the focus being based solely on the macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins and fats whilst some really important micronutrients – vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and anti-inflammatories barely get a mention. Make no mistake, the following five spices should be an essential part of your new programme from now on and here’s why…
Firstly, any form of exercise is likely to increase your breathing and heart rate, which is essential for keeping your heart, lungs and circulation healthy, but it also comes with the slight downside of causing increased oxidative stress within your body.
In short, oxidative damage can speed up your ageing process and has also been identified as a trigger for cancer, Alzheimer’s and a range of cardiovascular diseases. The most obvious way for us to defend ourselves from these negative effects is to increase our dietary intake of natural foods that are rich in antioxidants.
Whilst we produce our own antioxidants internally it is rarely enough to effectively combat all of the harmful ‘free radicals’ generated from the increased intake of oxygen during exercise.
Secondly, any injuries suffered during exercise will cause acute (short term) inflammation. Remember that pain = inflammation! Indeed, all exercise involves a degree of short-term pain anyway but over exercising can lead to chronic inflammation, which becomes more complicated to recover from and can in turn trigger further health problems.
So, without sufficient nutrition, regular exercise can cause anything from premature ageing of the skin to slow recovery from injury. This is why it is particularly important to increase your intake of foods that are naturally rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatories.
The five spices listed below will make a great start. They are cheap, easy to find and will add a whole world of flavour to your meals. Spices like these are also essential to help avoid dietary boredom, which might otherwise mean you’re less likely to keep eating healthily.
I would strongly advise that if you have an old unloved spice rack it might be time to have a full clear out before refreshing your stock. They tend to loose their flavour and potency over time once opened so generally they should not be kept for any more than 6 months.
Garlic has been used as a potent natural medicine for many centuries, favoured by many ancient cultures including the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. It’s powerful antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties meant that it has been regarded as a unique and well trusted medicine throughout history, even the first remedy of choice during outbreaks of typhus, cholera and the plague.
It is a sulphur compound called allicin that is mostly responsible for these natural antibacterial and antibiotic effects, which have been backed up by in vitro studies. Allicin is also is a potent antioxidant that helps to protect heart health and some evidence suggests that garlic can help lower blood pressure as well as levels of LDL cholesterol.
Quercetin is another important compound found in garlic, which has anti-inflammatory properties. Indeed some studies have shown garlic to work in a similar way to pain medications like Ibuprofen, shutting off the pathways that lead to inflammation.
Garlic also contains hydrogen sulphide, another powerful antioxidant that helps increase blood flow, thus reducing potential blood clotting which could eventually lead to a heart attack or stroke.
It is also worth noting here that the Olympic athletes of ancient Greece took garlic as a performance enhancer and most Greek athletes continue this tradition today. Interestingly studies on rodents have shown that garlic can help improve exercise performance although this potential benefit for healthy humans has been studied far less.
Use it in:
Garlic can be easily used to enhance the flavour of so many savoury dishes but my suggestion would be learn how to make a simple red lentil dhal where you can use both garlic as well as one of our other wonder spices, turmeric. A lentil dhal makes a great meal with rice or as a side dish to help recover from exercise. The lentils offer a good serving of protein, minerals and fibre with minimal fat.
Ginger contains potent anti-inflammatory compounds known as gingerols. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Pain indicated that these anti-inflammatory properties help to ease post exercise muscle pain.
Other studies have shown ginger to be highly effective in reducing pain and swelling for sufferers of arthritis and equally as effective as ibuprofen in the relief of menstrual cramps for women. As well as eating ginger regularly for these benefits you can also use it in other ways.
For example if your exercise sessions leave you with joint pains then drop some ginger essential oil into your bath to help relieve aching muscles and bones.
Also of interest is the research that suggests that ginger extracts offer antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-tumour properties that may be effective in preventing both colorectal and ovarian cancers.
Use it in:
Fresh ginger is most commonly used in traditional Asian and Caribbean cooking but it can also taste great in fresh juices and in fact my favourite juice recipe is simply 2 apples, 1 lime and a 1-2cm cube of ginger. Very zingy and really refreshing!
The most important reason why cinnamon features on this list is due to its positive effect on blood sugar regulation, which in turn helps to us to stay lean and healthy. Cinnamon is rich in the mineral chromium, which helps to improve insulin sensitivity, insulin being the hormone responsible for shuttling energy from our food (in the form of glycogen) out of the blood and into the cells.
Effective blood sugar regulation basically means we are less likely to store any excess energy in the form of adipose tissue (fat cells), which typically starts to form around your liver area and then your waistline.
The other health benefit for athletes is that cinnamon has been proven to be yet another spice effective in combatting oxidative stress, reducing inflammation and easing muscle pains. Furthermore it also appears to inhibit tumour growth, thus making it another effective natural medicine for helping to prevent cancers.
Use it in:
As an alternative to sugar on your porridge or also as a natural sweetener for any breakfast or post workout smoothie. Using it like this in the morning should help set you up for the day by stabilising your blood sugar levels. You’ll be less likely to experience sugar cravings.
Traditionally used in Central and South America, cayenne pepper was also once cultivated as a natural medicine, used to treat a number of digestive disorders. However, what I find really great about this distinctive pepper is that it comes with the handy little trick of increasing thermogenesis within the body (heat production) and this heat requires calories as an energy source.
A compound called capsaicin, found in all chilli peppers, is what helps the body to burn off excess body fat in this way. The double whammy here is that studies have shown how capsaicin also works as an effective appetite suppressant.
Good news if you’re trying to lose weight and stay lean! Cayenne pepper also appears to help boost aerobic capacity by increasing the maximum volume of oxygen that you can use during exercise, known in athlete’s circles as your VO2 Max. And if all that wasn’t enough, this wonder spice also offers anti-inflammatory properties, cardiovascular benefits as well as immune boosting vitamins A and C.
Use it in:
Dried cayenne pepper powder has a distinctive deep red colour although it is certainly not as spicy as its colour suggests. Whilst it has got a little kick to it, it’s still pretty mild so I happily use it in a variety of dishes – anything from your scrambled eggs or omelette to a post workout smoothie. Try this one: 1 banana, 1 large handful of spinach or kale, 1 tablespoon of organic natural yoghurt, 250ml almond or coconut milk, juice of 1 lemon or lime, small pinch of cayenne pepper.
Blend all ingredients together with a few ice cubes. Serve and enjoy!
Like the other spices here, turmeric has long been used for its anti-inflammatory properties and features prominently in both Chinese and Indian traditional medicine. These days all sorts of athletes are increasingly using turmeric since its great for aiding in recovery.
Studies have shown that turmeric enhances muscle growth and repair whilst inflammation from muscles, joints and other damaged tissues is significantly reduced. It also has numerous benefits to cardiovascular health.
Curcumin is the natural phenol found in turmeric that gives it these fantastic anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Perhaps even more significant are the increasing number of studies into curcumin’s ability to inhibit cancer cell growth. This has led to some natural health experts now claiming that it is the single most potent anti-cancer medicine.
Use it in:
I often like to add half a teaspoon of turmeric into my post workout omelettes or as a little added colour and flavour to a simple salad dressing. For a quick healthy snack or side dish, you can also try sautéing some small cauliflower florets with a teaspoon of turmeric for around five minutes.
Take them off the heat and then drizzle with a little olive oil, add a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds for extra crunch and finally season with a little salt and pepper.