15 Performance Enhancing Foods

Steroids.  Testosterone.  Human Growth Hormone.  These performance enhancing substances are prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) when present in the body in high concentrations.  Did you know that you can reap the benefit of these and other performance-enhancing substances, however, in a completely legal–and healthy–way through food?

Here are 15 performance enhancing foods to add to your diet:


Oats contain saponins, or chemical compounds, that produce a steroid-like effect.  The saponins in oats boost testosterone levels by increasing levels of luteinizing hormone, which is the hormone responsible for initiating testosterone production.  Boost your testosterone levels by eating a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast. 


Wild Game

Tap into the muscle-building power of creatine by adding wild game to your diet.  Creatine allows an athlete to work more intensely during an exercise session and is especially beneficial to weightlifters because it recycles adenosine triphosphate (ATP) back into the muscles quickly, allowing for more repetitions before fatigue sets in.  Wild game is the richest dietary source of creatine, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.  Game meats include venison, buffalo, rabbit, elk, boar, ostrich, moose,  and wild duck.

Free Range or Grass Fed Meats

Don’t have access to wild game?  Creatine is also found in domestic meats, with the highest concentrations in free range meats.  Look for free range chicken, turkey, lamb, veal, pork and fish.



Quinoa is a natural ZMA supplement.  ZMA is a supplement made up of zinc, magnesium aspartate, and arginine.  It is used by athletes, including weightlifters, to support the immune system, enhance muscle recovery, boost muscle size and strength, and promote better sleep.  One cup of quinoa contains one-third daily value of zinc, full RDA of Magnesium and 1.7 g of Arginine.  Quinoa is also one of the only plant foods that is a complete protein, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids the body needs to build lean muscle.



Celery is a natural testosterone supplement.  Studies show that even the smell of celery can increase testosterone levels in the body.  Celery also offers plenty of vitamins and minerals.  One cup of celery offers nearly 45 percent of the daily value of vitamin K.  It also serves as a good source of vitamin C, potassium, folic acid, dietary fiber, calcium and vitamin B6.


Chocolate Milk

Are you playing multiple sports or doing two workouts a day?  Drink a glass of chocolate milk after the first session to improve performance in the second session.  In a study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, a group of cyclists drank three different recovery beverages following an interval workout.  Four hours later, the cyclists performed another workout.  The cyclists who drank chocolate milk as their recovery beverage cycled 49% longer and performed 57% more work in the second workout than cyclists given a carb-replacement beverage.



Turkey is high in beta-alanine, an amino acid that reduces acidity in the muscles.  During high-intensity workouts, such as weightlifting, acidity in the muscles increases when glucose breaks down into lactic acid, leading to fatigue.  A study published by the American College of Sports Medicine confirms that beta-alanine buffers this acidity, which allows an athlete to perform  high intensity exercise longer before tiring.  With 2 grams of beta-alanine per 3 oz. cooked serving, turkey breast is an excellent choice for increasing beta-alanine in the body

Cod Liver Oil

You might be surprised to hear that vitamin D is not really a vitamin, but a steroid hormone that is produced when the body is exposed to the sun.  The best source of vitamin D is sun exposure.  If you do not live where it is sunny year-round, however, you can supplement with fish liver oils, such as cod liver oil, which contains 227% of the vitamin D RDA per tablespoon.  Alternatively, you could eat 3 oz. of salmon (75% RDA), but you would have to eat fish almost every day to get enough vitamin D.



Glutamine, the most prevalent amino acid in the human body, may boost human growth hormone (HGH) levels according to a study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  Glutamine is available in a variety of protein sources, including soybeans and kidney beans.  Beans are also rich in folate, a B vitamin that fuels muscle growth, and copper, which strengthens tendons.  Add a serving of beans to your soup, salad, or dinner plate to spark a rise in HGH.


Leafy Green Vegetables

Weightlifters often take nitric oxide supplements to support muscle growth and athletic performance.  Nitric oxide is involved in many cell processes, including the widening of the blood vessels, or vasodilation. Wider blood vessels means faster delivery of nutrients and oxygen to working muscles during exercise, which enhances exercise performance.  Leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, chard, kale and lettuce are particularly high in nitrates.  Don’t like salad?  Toss a handful of baby spinach into the blender with some orange juice and frozen fruit.  You won’t notice the spinach in this tasty shake!



A study from Texas A&M found that subjects who consumed 3 whole eggs following a weightlifting program for 12 weeks gained twice as much muscle mass and twice as much strength as subjects eating no eggs or just one whole egg per day.  The cholesterol in eggs supports testosterone development, which leads to big gains.  Keep in mind, however, that the study was conducted on adults, so youth athletes should adjust their egg consumption accordingly.


Cottage Cheese

Tyrosine is an amino acid that may improve performance in stressful situations.  Tyrosine does not directly improve athletic performance.  However, studies confirm that it may benefit healthy individuals exposed to demanding situational conditions, such as an athlete at a weightlifting competition.  A one-cup serving of cottage cheese contains 1833 mg of tyrosine, and can promote calmness when stress levels rise.


Beets A study conducted at Kansas State University found that athletes who drank beet juice experienced a 38 percent increase in blood flow to muscles, especially “fast twitch” muscles that affect bursts of speed and strength.  Researchers attributed the results to nitrates found in beets.

If eating beets does not appeal to you, consider these 10 Kid Friendly Beet Recipes.


Olives  Oleuropein is a compound found in olives and olive oil that helps the body use proteins more efficiently.  In a study published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, rats that had a protein-rich diet retained no less than 46 percent more protein when large amounts of oleuropein were added to their food. In addition, they produced 250% more testosterone and less cortisol, often referred to as the “stress hormone.”  The same results may not hold true for humans, but olives are still worth adding to your diet.  Olives are a rich sources of antioxidants, iron, calcium fiber, copper, vitamin E, vitamin K, and choline.



Peanuts are high in leucine, a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA).  BCAAs are broken down in the muscles instead of the liver, enhancing energy production and muscle synthesis during exercise.

A study reported in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that six weeks of leucine supplementation significantly improved both endurance and upper-body power in competitive rowers.  Another study reported in the Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology found that consuming leucine right after a workout stimulated muscle recovery and muscle protein synthesis.

For youth athletes, peanuts offer the additional benefit of high calories.  Each half-cup (73-gram) serving of peanuts contains around 425 calories.  So if you’re having a hard time getting enough calories to drive your muscle gain, eating peanuts could be a good way to get some extra calories and nutrients.  Try some of these peanut butter packed No Bake Energy Bites for a post-workout treat.

Final Considerations:

  • Dietary supplements can boost athletic performance.
  • The supplement industry is not regulated, however, which means that no one monitors the manufacture of dietary supplements.
  • Sometimes manufacturers put banned substances into their products without listing them on the labels, and athletes get flagged for doping.
  • Athletes are liable for any banned substances in their bodies, whether they know about them or not.
  • Finally, research on dietary supplements is generally performed on ADULT athletes, not youth athletes, so any side effects may be greater for younger athletes.

So what does this mean for you?

You might be better off eating real food than fueling your body on supplements.  Real food contains nutrients within their whole food matrix, making it easier for your body to absorb the nutrients and less likely that you will overdose or experience bad side effects.

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