Almonds are well known to have multiple health benefits, but there’s now evidence that they have fitness perks, too. A new study published in Frontiers in Nutrition has found that adding almonds to your diet can help your body recover from exercise. A study of 64 adults, split into two groups—one that ate almonds, one that ate the caloric equivalent in a cereal bar—showed that the group that ate almonds had biomarkers that indicate improved muscle recovery, including reduced post-exercise fatigue and tension, and higher levels of strength. They also reported feeling less sore.
However, it’s not like the subjects just shoved some almonds in their mouths post-workout and had miraculously refreshed muscles. They ate two ounces of almonds (or about 46 individual nuts) every day for four weeks.
“People treat food too much like a pill, or think that there's a magical effect, but it just doesn't work that way with diet” the study’s lead author, David C. Nieman, DrPH, FACSM, a professor and the principal investigator at the Human Performance Laboratory at Appalachian State University, says. Instead, Dr. Nieman explains, health researchers have found with diet changes in general that “you enter into a pattern and then you stick with it and then you'll receive health benefits. And what we're showing is that there are recovery benefits, too.”
Researchers measured the blood and urine of the subjects for various types of metabolites (the substances produced as a result of our metabolism working, like when a muscle goes through micro-tears during exercise) before they started the experiment, immediately after intense 90-minute workout sessions, and for four days following the workouts. The presence of certain metabolites can serve as “biomarkers” that indicate fatigue or inflammation in muscles.
“We had the good one [metabolite] go up, the bad one go down,” Dr. Nieman says. “It was a very strong finding that was impossible to be due to chance. The almond intake basically shifted the production of mediators that regulate immunity, energy, and inflammation.”
Strength measures, as well as reports from the study’s subjects, were also more positive in the almond group.
Though the study was performed by independent researchers including Dr. Nieman, it was sponsored by the Almond Board of California. However, Roxana Ehsani, RD, CSSD, a board-certified sports dietitian, thinks the methodology and findings are legitimate.
“It’s great news for active people, and shows eating whole foods such as almonds are beneficial for recovery post-exercise, and that there’s no need to rely on highly-processed foods post-workout to get the nutrients needed for recovery,” Ehsani says.
"There's no need to rely on highly-processed foods post-workout to get the nutrients needed for recovery." —Roxana Ehsani, RD, CSSD
Why might the nuts have had this strong effect? Almonds contain carbs, protein, and fat, which Ehsani describes as the “trio of nutrients needed for optimal recovery.” They also have phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium—electrolytes that can get depleted from sweating.
“Magnesium and calcium are essential for optimal muscle function,” Ehsani says. Dr. Nieman also points to vitamin E, amino acids, and “polyphenols” (molecules present in the almond skins) as possible reasons almonds are beneficial.
Dr. Nieman hopes the study inspires people to view nutritious foods, and not just sports drinks or protein powders, as an important part of preparing your body for and recovering from exercise. He notes that the study is in the top five percent of all articles viewed on the Frontiers in Nutrition website. That might have something to do with the rise in optimization culture which so often has us treating our bodies like machines we can fine tune to maximize physical fitness.
But Dr. Nieman says hey, if you’re looking to “optimize,” almonds are a great way to go.
“It's helping your body get through the stress a little bit easier,” Dr. Nieman says. “That's about as much of a life hack as you can get right there.”
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