Quinoa and bulgur are so last year. Try these four lesser-known grains high in performance-boosting attributes.
You probably already know that, nutritionally, whole grains trump refined grains—that’s why you load your grocery cart with brown rice, whole-wheat bread and oatmeal. But maybe you’ve become a bit blasé about these familiar items. Thankfully for carbohydrate-craving triathletes, it has never been easier to find a marvelous assortment of whole grains on store shelves or in bulk bins. Look for them at any well-stocked health food/natural food store, or try Bobsredmill.com or Lotusfoods.com. Many of the following grains have the goods to boost performance and awaken a bored palate. Here are four great grains to stock in your pantry.
Load up on antioxidants with: Black rice
Black rice, an heirloom variety of rice cultivated in Asia with a rich, sweet nutty taste and chewy texture, is the new bastion of the health-food movement. According to scientists at Louisiana State University, black rice, or more accurately, deep purple rice, possesses a surfeit of anthocyanin antioxidants, molecules that sweep through a body looking to knock out disease-provoking free-radicals. These are the same antioxidants responsible for the fetching hues of blueberries and blackberries. Athletes should seek out antioxidant-rich foods to help with muscle repair during training.
In the kitchen: As a general rule, you should simmer 1 cup black rice with 1 3/4 cups water for about 30 minutes. It can make a powerful addition to salads, pilafs, tabbouleh, stir-fries or even sushi rolls. For a healthy dessert, mix cooked black rice with coconut milk, palm sugar, ginger and diced mango.
Build muscle with: Amaranth
Similar to quinoa, the protein in amaranth is considered “complete,” meaning it contains a full arsenal of amino acids to help build bodily tissues such as muscles. The itsy-bitsy, nutty-flavored beige grain is also packed with fiber, bone-building phosphorus and magnesium. A number of studies suggest that diets high in magnesium can slash diabetes risk by improving insulin sensitivity. Bonus: Like black rice and teff, South American amaranth is gluten-free.
In the kitchen: You can toast amaranth grains in a dry saucepan until they pop like miniature popcorn, which adds textural contrast to salads, soups, stews and stir-fries. Or pour milk into a bowl of popped amaranth for a twist on cereal. Mixed with cinnamon, nuts and dried fruit, amaranth porridge is another smart breakfast option. Simply add 1/2 cup amaranth to 1 1/2 cup water and simmer for about 25 minutes until you get a porridge-like consistency. Amaranth flour can add a nutritious boost to muffins, pancakes or waffles.
Fight fat with: Spelt
A relative of wheat, spelt has a pleasant chewy texture and tastes both nutty and sweet. This ancient whole grain is packed with fiber—8g in each cooked cup. By keeping you feeling satisfied so you don’t overeat as well as preventing rapid rises in blood sugar, a high-fiber diet can go a long way in keeping a Buddha belly at bay. In fact, a recent study published in Archives of Internal Medicine that followed subjects over a nine-year period found that the men and women consuming the most fiber (29.4 grams per day for men and 25.8 grams for women) were 22 percent less likely to die from chronic disease than those consuming the least (12.6 grams per day for men and 10.8 grams for women). Other nutritional notables include iron, magnesium and zinc to bolster your immunity. Though spelt contains gluten, some people who are wheat-sensitive find it easier to digest.
In the kitchen: Spelt is a great substitute for rice in burritos, or try it in soups, salads and veggie burgers. To cook, place 1 cup of spelt berries in a saucepan along with 3 cups of water and simmer until tender, about 45 minutes. Spelt flour can replace whole-wheat flour in baked goods, but make sure to add additional liquid since the flour absorbs more water. Also try spelt pasta as your next post-workout meal.
Boost energy with: Teff
This prized Ethiopian staple derives its name from the Amharic word teffa, meaning “lost.” A fitting moniker considering 150 teff grains weighs about the same as a single kernel of wheat, so they are easily lost without careful pouring. The diminutive size of teff means that the nutrient-packed germ and bran constitute a larger percentage of its mass than other whole grains, making it a nutritional heavyweight with impressive amounts of fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, iron and immune-boosting zinc. Iron is part of the machinery that helps deliver oxygen throughout the body, including muscle cells, so it’s a must-have mineral to keep energy levels up. In fact, some credit a diet heavy in the teff-containing flatbread injera for some of the amazing athleticism of the Ethiopian distance runners.
In the kitchen: The rich flavor of teff marries well with other bold flavors such as dark maple syrup, cloves or hazelnuts. Teff can be cooked into a breakfast porridge similar in consistency to Cream of Wheat. Or use it in place of cornmeal for a riff on polenta. Also try incorporating teff flour into pancakes and baked goods.
Matthew Kadey, M.S., is a freelance writer and registered dietitian based in Canada.