Curious George vs. Popeye

February 17, 2010

Every time I host a question/answer session with teams, every presentation I give to parents, and every nutrition discussion with athletes, ultimately involves a question about bananas, and their “magical” ability to prevent cramping. It is because they are high in potassium, right? Wrong.

Potassium aids in nerve and muscle function, as well as balancing electrolytes, which could only be one of the many causes for cramping, the most likely being ill-prepared for the particular activity (see Sparta Point 8/13/09). Even if potassium was the cause of your cramping, which is highly unlikely, the United States Dietary Association (USDA) Database has identified at least 10 other highly nutritious foods that contain more potassium than bananas. Most notably on this list are vegetables, such as winter squash and spinach, which contain over twice the amount of the potassium in bananas. Nuts are also an excellent source of potassium.

So why should athletes even eat bananas at all? Bananas are high in fiber, but most vegetables are higher in fiber as well. One of the more unique qualities of bananas is the higher sugar content, which can allow a quicker replenishment of glycogen stores that are used during exercise. However, this higher sugar content should only be reserved for after exercise. During other times, such high calorie, excessive sugar intake can lead to a host of problems for athletes, including energy and attention fluctuations (see Sparta Point 4/14/09).

Whether you have problems with cramping or not, you should be eating more vegetables, such as spinach, which are higher in potassium and fiber, while minimizing sugar content. These more nutrient dense vegetables allow more stable energy levels and better recovery through a larger host of antioxidants and vitamins.

But if you’re competing against our athletes, please continue to stuff yourself with bananas, as these fruits are very high in sugar and only moderately high in potassium.

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