• Simone do Carmo // MSc Physiology

Spice up Your Meals! - My Top 5 Choices for Athletes

A common complaint I get from athletes who want to be healthier and cook their own meals is that they find their food ‘boring’ and ‘flavourless’. But when I dig deeper into their cooking skills, I realise that they rarely use any spices. Spices are awesome: not only do they bring food to life; they also produce a host of health benefits. And lately, some studies have revealed potential athletic benefits too.

Here are my top 5 choices for athletes:

1. Turmeric comes from a root plant and is a bright yellow-orange spice commonly used in Indian cuisine. Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric and has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect. The related mechanism is thought to be the inhibition of pro-inflammatory compounds such as TNF-α. Most studies have been done in populations with medical conditions, such as arthritis, but there is some evidence from supplementation studies suggesting that curcumin may benefit athletes by reducing inflammation and muscle soreness after high-intensity exercise[1]. Although the amount of curcumin in the supplementation studies is an unrealistic amount to obtain through turmeric, I believe that if you consume turmeric regularly, it will produce some benefit.

Spice it up! Add turmeric to curry dishes, stir-fries, anything veggie or your morning scrambled eggs/omelette.

2. Cayenne is a widely-used spice and well-known for its analgesic properties. A recent study showed that acute capsaicin supplementation improved resistance training performance in weightlifters by increasing the total weight lifted and lowering the rate of perceived exertion (RPE)[2]. It is thought that capsaicin’s analgesic properties may explain the reduced RPE scores, while the increased weight lifted may be explained by enhanced central nervous system (CNS) activity, which has been shown to occur in previous studies, and its coaction with the greater muscle tension that is generated because capsaicin increases sarcoplasmic calcium release.

Spice it up! Cayenne works well with meat, eggs, legumes or any veggie protein. Just be careful with the hotness! Add little by little until it’s to your taste.

3. Ginger also comes from a root plant like turmeric and is used to complement savoury and sweet dishes alike. Ginger is widely used, especially in Asia, to treat an array of conditions, such as loss of appetite, indigestion, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting[3]. It is known to help digestion as it seems to stimulate saliva, stomach and bile secretions[3]. There are some studies showing that ginger aids recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage. One study in particular showed that daily consumption of ginger reduced pain induced by eccentric exercise by 25%[4].

Spice it up! Add ginger to your stir-fries and homemade juices/smoothies for a kick! Experiment by adding a bit of zest to your own homemade salad dressing too. It is also great as a tea with some hot water and a slice of lemon.

4. Cinnamon is one of my favourite spices that I add to sweet dishes, especially stewed apples. Cinnamon is known for its regulating effect on blood glucose due to a compound called methylhydroxychalcone polymer (MHCP). MHCP enhances insulin sensitivity, which in turn may help athletes use their glucose properly[5]. Cinnamon also delays gastric emptying rates, meaning that blood glucose does not rise sharply in the bloodstream allowing insulin to really do its job[6]. One study looked at the effect of both ginger and cinnamon on inflammation and muscle soreness in Iranian female taekwondo players[7]. The researchers found that although there was no significant change in the inflammatory marker IL-6, there was a reduction in muscle soreness in both the ginger and cinnamon groups, indicating that cinnamon may also provide pain-reducing properties.

Spice it up! Cinnamon is a great accompaniment to both savoury and sweet dishes. Try adding it to your curries, tagines, stews, smoothies, morning oats or yoghurt. It is definitely apple’s best friend!

5. Garlic is not really a spice, it’s a root vegetable. However, it is generally referred to as a spice because it provides a powerful kick to dishes. It is commonly known for its blood pressure and cholesterol-reducing effects[8,9,10]. With regard to athletic performance, a study has shown that a single dose of garlic increased VO2max and endurance performance in college endurance athletes[11]. The related mechanism is thought to be garlic’s ability to increase fibrinolytic activity that reduces fibrinogen levels. The reduced fibrinogen levels result in increased blood fluidity which in turn promotes greater oxygen and nutrient delivery to the working muscles.

Spice it up! I use garlic in pretty much every dish I cook. Alongside onion, it’s the heart of most tasty cuisines. It adds depth to savoury dishes, stir-fries, roasted veggies and sauces.So now that you have some ideas, don’t be afraid to experiment with spices. Try incorporating them more into your daily meals. They will literally bring your ‘boring’ and ‘flavourless’ food to life while offering potential health and performance benefits!

  1. Heaton, LE, et al. (2017). Selected In-Season Nutritional Strategies to Enhance Recovery for Team Sport Athletes: A Practical Overview. Sports Med, 1-18.

  2. De Freitas, et al. (2017). Acute capsaicin supplementation improves resistance training performance in trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research [Publish Ahead of Print].

  3. Kundrat, S. (2005). Herbs and Athletes. Sports Science Exchange 96, 18(1).

  4. Christopher D. et al. (2010) Black, Matthew P. Herring, David J. Hurley, Patrick J. O'Connor. Ginger (Zingiber officinale) Reduces Muscle Pain Caused by Eccentric Exercise. The Journal of Pain, 11(9):894-903.

  5. Jarvill-Taylor, KJ, Anderson, RA & Graves, DJ. (2001). A hydroxychalcone derived from cinnamon functions as a mimetic for insulin in 3T3-L1 adipocytes. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 20(4):327-336.

  6. Hlebowicz, J, et al. (2007). Effect of cinnamon on postprandial blood glucose, gastric emptying, and satiety in healthy subjects. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 85(6), 1552-1556.

  7. Mashhadi, NS, et al. (2013). Influence of ginger and cinnamon intake on inflammation and muscle soreness endued by exercise in Iranian female athletes. Int J Prev Med, 4(Supp1):S11-S15.

  8. Ried, K. (2016). Garlic Lowers Blood Pressure in Hypertensive Individuals, Regulates Serum Cholesterol, and Stimulates Immunity: An Updated Meta-Analysis and Review.

  9. Varshney, R & Budoff, MJ. (2016). Garlic and Heart Disease. J Nutr, 146(2):416S-421S.

  10. Hunter, PM & Hegele, RA. (2017). Functional foods and dietary supplements for management of dyslipidaemia. Nat Rev Endocrinol, 13(5):278-288.

  11. İnce, DI Sonmez, GT & İnce, ML. (2000). Effects of garlic on aerobic performance. Turkish Journal of Medical Sciences, 30.6:557-561.



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