In the face of countless diets, health fads, and supplements, it can be hard to decide what to eat to support your fitness goals. But if you’re trying to figure out how to build a healthy habits, the answer might be simpler than you think.
While eating different types and colors of fruits and veggies is the best way to ensure you get a variety of nutrients, you’ll still reap benefits if you play favorites. “When people put [food recommendation] lists together, they’re too clever and try to give you surprising foods or exotic foods because they don’t want it to be mundane,” says sports nutritionist Matt Fitzgerald, author of Racing Weight and Diet Cults. “But the problem is, eating is something you have to do three times a day every single day. There’s something to be said for foods that are functional and support athletic performance, but you want them to be familiar, affordable, and accessible,” he says.
To make things easier for you, we’ve rounded up the best foods for cyclists in a healthy grocery list you can jot down and take with you to the store. Then stock your kitchen up to have good-for-you foods and delicious meals whenever hunger strikes.
There are few vitamins and minerals that aren’t in spinach. It’s rich in potassium, magnesium, iron, calcium, and vitamins B6, B9, E, C, and K.
“Athlete or not, you should be eating more vegetables than anything else,” says Fitzgerald. “Spinach is a great staple because it’s so versatile. You can have it raw in salads or cooked on its own. It’s pretty much the only green that blends well: You can put it in smoothies without them tasting nasty.”
Filled with protein and fat to keep you full on longer rides, peanut butter is an easy go-to. But if you really want to up your nutrient intake, try a peanut butter and spinach (yes, spinach) sandwich.
It’s an admittedly unusual choice, but Jeanne Smith, R.D., a nutritionist in Easton, Pennsylvania, recommends “peanut butter and spinach sandwich on whole-wheat raisin bread for breakfast. You get carbs from the bread, green veggie with tons of nutrients from the spinach, and protein and fat from the PB, which has staying power. This breakfast will keep you fueled through a long ride, shouldn’t cause stomach issues, and tastes delicious!”
If you’ll be planting your butt on a desk chair, not a saddle, Smith recommends starting your day with plain, non-fat Greek yogurt with your own fruit and honey added.
“Any fruit will do, but blueberries are especially nice for their antioxidant properties,” she says. “Greek yogurt is very high in protein and pretty portable. Adding your own sweetener lets you control those empty calories.”
Rich in healthy fats, fiber, and protein, these nuts are made for more than snacking. Use slivered almonds as a topping for oatmeal or yogurt, add them to muffin recipes, whole almonds as a snack, or use almond flour in place of regular flour in pancakes.
Smith recommends chocolate milk as soon as your ride is finished. “It contains protein and the right carbohydrate-to-protein ratio that has been shown to aid muscle recovery and repair after a strenuous workout.”
With more potassium than a banana, avocados are rich in heart-and-waistline healthy monounsaturated fats as well as hunger-suppressing fiber.
[Related: An Avocado-Rich Breakfast Can Help You Feel Fuller for Longer]
“I have nothing against the potato—I have a whole chapter to its defense in Diet Cults,” Fitzgerald says. “But if I could only take one tuber to a desert island, it would be a sweet potato. It has lots of antioxidants, and is a little more nutritionally well-rounded than the white potato.”
Blueberries are tiny but loaded with antioxidants, fiber, vitamin C, and vitamin K. For a real treat, try cooking blueberries with a touch of maple syrup and pouring over pancakes or waffles.
“Watermelon is great, and so is any food that has a high water content,” says Fitzgerald. “Fiber and water add volume without adding calories.”
Loaded with antioxidants, fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, and potassium, broccoli is a true powerhouse veggie.
[Related: 5 Recipes to Fuel Every Kind of Ride]
Rich in anti-inflammatory fats, salmon makes a great stand-alone dish as well as addition to any salad.
“Protein is critical to get your amino acids that help in muscle recovery and repair after exercise,” says Diane Rigassio Radler, Ph.D., R.D., an associate professor of nutrition at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “Chicken is great, just because it is easy and ubiquitous. Fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, or sardines, delivers heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids.”
Pickles and other fermented foods (such as kimchi and sauerkraut) are loaded with probiotics, the good bacteria in your gut that impact your immune function, mood, digestion, and even your weight. Full of sodium, some cyclists even eat them as a mid-ride snack, to help replenish their electrolytes.
“Tomatoes are high on my list,” says Fitzgerald. “They’re a decent source of carbohydrates, which cyclists obviously need, and rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants.” Another advantage of tomatoes, is that they’re not calorically dense—calorie for calorie, they’re more filling than, say ice cream or bread. “Part of eating for optimal performance is eating to get leaner, so it’s smart to shift toward less calorically-dense food,” he says.
“Dark chocolate promotes healthy arteries, in moderation, and it’s rich in antioxidants,” says Fitzgerald. “Most people find it very satisfying in small amounts, and don’t feel compelled to eat a lot. I have a little square a day and that does it for me. It’s also a mood enhancer, which is nice!”
Looking for an adult beverage to enjoy with dessert? Pop open the Cabernet. “The health benefits of alcohol [in moderation] come from the alcohol, so anything with alcohol will provide the benefits,” Fitzgerald says. “But red wine has other nutrients as well.” Steer clear of mixed drinks, he says, which often have large amounts of added sugar.
Packed with fiber, beans do much more than help to keep you regular. They may also help to regulate blood sugar, improve cholesterol, and bolster overall gut health. Add them to chili, mash them into dip, use them to replace some of the ground beef in tacos and other dishes, or sneak them into brownie and other dessert recipes.
Is coffee good for you? You bet. In addition to perking you up, coffee may help to drop your risk for heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. For an extra health boost, try kicking things up by adding spices to your coffee grounds before brewing. For every scoop of ground coffee, add ¼ teaspoon of either ground cinnamon, cardamom, or turmeric to the filter.
The active ingredient, allicin, may help to keep cholesterol levels low, protect your cells from oxidative damage, and normalize blood pressure and blood sugar. Raw, minced garlic offers the most health bang for your buck. Add it to fresh, homemade salsa, stir into ranch dressings, use minced garlic and olive oil as a topping for toast, or mash it into guac.
Rich in antioxidants, honey provides a great sugar substitute in smoothies, oatmeal, marinades, or beverages.
[Related: Is Honey Good For You?]
Health benefits of beets include natural blood pressure reduction, a boost in energy and brainpower, and a hefty dose of antioxidants and fiber.
In one study of 261 people with osteoarthritis of the knee, people who took ginger extract twice a day had less pain—and therefore, needed fewer painkillers—than those who didn’t take ginger. Ginger may also lower cholesterol, help prevent blood clots, and help control blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes.
Research shows that adopting the Mediterranean diet—which features olives, as well as nuts, vegetables, and fish—may be the most protective dietary move you can make.
Full of fiber and light on calories, popcorn is a great snack option. If you’re feeling a bit wild, you can punch up your health benefits by eating pop caulicorn.
Tart cherries contain anti-inflammatory compounds that boost your brain health, ease stress, and help you fall asleep faster. Plus, they can reduce uric acid levels, which is good news for your post-ride recovery.
[Related: 5 Ways to Minimize Muscle Soreness]
Eggs are healthy, despite the warnings you used to hear about them being high in dietary cholesterol. Eggs are good for your eyes, brain, and waistline, and since they’re packed with protein, they’ll keep you full between meals.
Don’t be fooled by their small size: health benefits of chia seeds are huge, and include aiding digestion, building strong bones, and keeping your heart healthy. Use them to top yogurt or oatmeal or make a chia seed pudding.
People worldwide have sipped tea for thousands of years because of its many health perks. Tea relaxes your muscles, soothes stomach issues, and may even help you live longer.