From Soil to Sport: Sweet Potatoes to Power You

by Hannah Meier

As the temperatures slowly, and not so consistently, increase in Boston this spring, more of us will find ourselves out in the field, on the trails, or on the sidewalks soaking in the sunshine and working up a sweat. Even if you aren’t competitive, you have probably noticed the difference in how you feel during, and after, exercise when you are—or are not—properly fueled. Look no further for easy and delicious recipes to power your active spring using the grad student’s pantry staple: The sweet potato!

 

Photo: Hannah Meier

Photo: Hannah Meier

Feeling our best, and performing our best (who wants to be that person in a soccer game to miss a pass because you’re too fatigued to run for the ball?) is contingent on having the right amount of fuel to use for energy during activity. Nutrition beforehand is important to power your workout or game, and nutrition afterward is crucial for making physical improvement, gaining strength and replenishing tired tissues. Sure, you may be able to get through a game or a run without thinking about nutrition, but I bet you a million bucks (really) that you’ll make strides with appropriate nutrition.

 

Sweet potatoes come close to what I view as an athlete’s ultimate food. Rich in carbohydrates and easy on the stomach, they provide a spectrum of nutrients that help convert calories to available energy for our cells (ex. B-Vitamins), along with a generous amount of potassium, which is an essential electrolyte for heart and muscle function that can be lost in sweat. One medium (about 5” long) sweet potato provides 10% of the daily value for iron, which is a nutrient of concern for many athletes, especially women. Compared to white potatoes, orange sweet potatoes are rich in Vitamin A as beta-carotene, and provide more of the vitamin than a cup of carrots. Why should athletes or active people care about Vitamin A? During exercise, our tissues can become damaged and more prone to forming free radicals, especially in long, intense endurance training. Beta-carotene, as a powerful antioxidant, combats this free radical formation, keeping cell membranes better intact and less prone to destruction.

What about fiber? While sweet potatoes, like many vegetables, contribute to an adequate fiber intake, the average potato contains about 4 grams of fiber, mostly from the skin. This amount of fiber helps to slow down digestion enough to prevent sharp spikes in blood sugar. This keeps both our hunger and our cells satisfied, with sustained energy for hours. Athletes or competitors looking for a snack to eat less than an hour prior to their event could remove the skin to avoid the digestive slow-down that fiber provides. Many of the nutrients are found in the flesh of the potato, so removing the skin does not take away all the nutritional benefit of the tuber.

Since sweet potatoes offer a powerhouse of beneficial nutrients for exercise, I came up with four ways to dress them up before and after a workout. Feel free to use regular white potatoes or even purple potatoes. All potatoes provide a mix of nutrients valuable for exercise, but the darker the color, the more concentrated the antioxidants you’ll get. These recipes use medium sweet potatoes that were roasted in the oven for about 45 minutes at 375˚F. Just wrap each potato in foil, place on a baking sheet, and throw in a hot oven. They are ready when they are slightly soft to the poke of a fork.

 

Before Exercise

Before exercise, the goal of nutrition is to provide a boost of fuel for your muscles to burn for energy. While glycogen, the stored form of carbohydrate, is typically available, having full stores is crucial if you plan to exercise for longer than 2 hours. Even for shorter events, providing a boost of nutrition leading up to your workout can stimulate better performance. Combining carbohydrate sources with protein increases the satiety factor and provides your body a boost in amino acids to have available for protein re-synthesis.

Pre-Race Burrito

Inspired by many athlete’s favorite pre-race meal, the burrito bowl, this sweet potato highlights traditional burrito ingredients, which happen to be wonderfully rich in carbohydrate. This meal is a bit fiber-heavy thanks to the beans, so should be consumed at least 3 hours before exercise, or the night before an early start. The corn sauce is a recipe adapted from food blogger Pinch of Yum, and breaks down the corn’s fibrous coating so the carbohydrates are more easily available to be absorbed. Peppers and onions contain natural sugars that provide quick energy and delicious sweetness, as well as an additional boost of antioxidants. A little bit of Greek yogurt rounds out the potato with a bit of easily digested protein.

  

Photo: Hannah Meier

Photo: Hannah Meier

 

Makes 1 Serving

INGREDIENTS

  • One medium – large sweet potato, baked
  • 2 Tablespoons corn sauce (recipe below)
  • 1/4 Cup black beans, cooked or canned
  • ¼ Medium red pepper, sliced
  • ¼ Medium Onion, sliced
  • Salsa
  • Plain Greek yogurt of choice

Total Time (after baking potato) 10 minutes

DIRECTIONS

  • Cut baked sweet potato in half, lengthwise and set aside (reheating if necessary). Mash the flesh with a fork.
  • In a pan with a little oil, sauté the pepper and onion slices on medium heat until desired softness.
  • Top sweet potato with onions and peppers, black beans, corn sauce, salsa and Greek yogurt.
  • Enjoy!

CORN SAUCE RECIPE

Inspired by Pinch of Yum

Makes about 8 Servings (2 tablespoons each)

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 cup corn kernels, from fresh or frozen (I used Trader Joe’s frozen Fire Roasted Corn)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh garlic
  • 1/2 cup water, milk, or broth (I used almond milk)
  • 1 tablespoon butter or olive oil

Total Time: 15 minutes

DIRECTIONS

  • Heat the butter or olive oil in a pan over medium heat.
  • Sauté garlic until fragrant. Add the milk and stir to form a creamy mixture.
  • Add corn kernels and sauté for another 5-10 minutes until very soft.
  • Transfer to a blender or food processor and puree until very smooth.

 

After Exercise

After exercise, along with hydration, the primary goals with nutrition are to provide your muscle cells with a replenishing dose of carbohydrate to store as glycogen, and amino acids from protein to aid in muscle tissue repair and growth. The post-exercise meal is also a chance to load up on vitamins and minerals that keep body processes functioning normally at the higher intensity that exercise demands.

Sweet Recovery

For those with more of a sweet tooth, sweet potatoes are a nourishing way to satisfy it. This sweet potato is topped with dark berries, rich in polyphenol antioxidants and natural sugars to reach muscles quickly. Almond butter provides a bit of protein and salt, which is an electrolyte athletes need to replace after very sweaty workouts. Full fat ricotta cheese rounds out the potato with easily digested dairy protein and a bit of satiating fat, without the overpowering taste and extra sugar that yogurt provides. Feel free to substitute more nuts and seeds for the cheese to make this vegan.

Photo: Hannah Meier

Photo: Hannah Meier

Makes 1 Serving

INGREDIENTS

  • One medium – large sweet potato, baked
  • 1/2 cup mixed berries of choice (aim for dark, bright colors; I used a frozen berry blend, thawed)
  • 1 tablespoon salted almond butter
  • 2 tablespoons ricotta cheese

Total Time (after baking potato): 5 minutes

DIRECTIONS

  • Cut baked sweet potato in half, lengthwise and set aside (reheating if necessary). Mash the flesh with a fork.
  • Top with berries, almond butter and ricotta cheese.
  • Enjoy!

 

Savory Recovery

For those of us who don’t crave sweet things post-workout, a sweet potato can still provide a canvas for a savory meal. This potato provides a rich carbohydrate base to refuel muscles and serves as the base for protein powerhouse eggs and hemp seeds, plus red cabbage and carrots for extra antioxidants and avocado for healthy fats. Top with hot sauce if desired—especially if you got sweaty and need to replace lost sodium.

Photo: Hannah Meier

Photo: Hannah Meier

 

Makes 1 Serving

INGREDIENTS

  • One medium – large sweet potato, baked
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 – 1 cup shredded red cabbage (I used a Trader Joe’s bagged mix)
  • 1/3 of a medium avocado, sliced or mashed
  • 1 tablespoon hemp seeds (or sunflower seeds)

Total Time (after baking potato): 10 minutes

DIRECTIONS

  • Cut baked sweet potato in half, lengthwise and set aside (reheating if necessary). Mash the flesh with a fork.
  • Whisk the egg well in a bowl, making sure to incorporate lots of air for a fluffier texture.
  • In a pan with a little oil over medium heat, sauté the cabbage until soft. When cooked, push cabbage to the side of pan to make room for the scrambled egg.
  • Spray the pan with a bit of cooking spray to prevent sticking, and add the whisked egg to the pan. Scramble the egg until cooked through.
  • Top sweet potato with cooked cabbage and scrambled egg, avocado, and hemp seeds.
  • Enjoy!

 

Rest Day

Everyone needs a day off to let the body truly recover, fully top off glycogen stores, and repair damaged tissues. Despite being often overlooked in terms of sports nutrition, rest days are an important opportunity to supply your body with nutrients in high-demand. So do some yoga stretching, cook up this Buddha Bowl inspired potato and go to bed early—your body needs it!

Yoga Night Buddha

This is a meal full of plant-based power. As always, the potato is a base rich in Vitamin A and is topped with a trio of steamed broccoli, carrots and edamame that provide their own chorus of plant chemicals (phytochemicals), vitamins, minerals, and even protein (broccoli and edamame are some of the higher-protein vegetables). Tempeh (fermented soy) is the primary protein source of the meal, and is ideal for rest days when quick digestion is not necessarily the goal. Likewise, plant proteins are broken down more slowly in our bodies than animal proteins and reach muscles at a slower rate. Finally, a delicious peanut sauce brings the dish together with the unsaturated fat our body needs to absorb many of the ingredients’ fat-soluble nutrients.

Photo: Hannah Meier

Photo: Hannah Meier

 

Makes 1 Serving

INGREDIENTS

  • One medium – large sweet potato, baked
  • 1/2 Cup Broccoli, steamed
  • 1 small carrots, sliced or shredded (about 1/4 cup)
  • 1/4 Cup edamame, fresh or frozen
  • 1/4 Block Tempeh, sliced
  • Peanut sauce (recipe below)

Total time (after baking potato, including peanut sauce): 15 minutes

DIRECTIONS

  • Cut baked sweet potato in half, lengthwise and set aside (reheating if necessary). Mash the flesh with a fork.
  • In a steamer or pan with just enough water to cover the bottom, add broccoli, carrots, and edamame and steam until cooked through to desired softness.
  • In a pan with a little oil over medium heat, sear tempeh slices for ~2 minutes on each side, until cooked through.
  • Meanwhile, make peanut sauce (recipe below).
  • Top potato with steamed veggies, edamame, and peanut sauce.
  • Enjoy!

Makes 1 Serving

PEANUT SAUCE INGREDIENTS

  • 1 Tablespoon peanut butter
  • 1 Teaspoon rice vinegar
  • 1 Teaspoon reduced sodium soy sauce or liquid aminos
  • 1 Teaspoon water
  • ½ Tablespoon honey
  • Optional additions: ground ginger, red pepper flakes, garlic powder

DIRECTIONS

  • In a liquid measuring cup or bowl, whisk ingredients together until well blended. If the peanut butter is very thick, you may need to add more water to thin out the mixture.
  • Season to your taste. Add ginger for a bit of sweetness, red pepper flakes for heat, or garlic powder to make it more savory.

 

Hannah Meier is a registered dietitian and second-year student in the Nutrition Interventions, Communication and Behavior Change program at Friedman. She works one-on-one with undergraduate Jumbo athletes and sports teams at Tufts University, educating them on fueling for their best performance and mastering the fundamentals of nutrition for an active life.

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