Performance Enhancing Nutrition Series Part I: Tart Cherry

One of the many fascinating things about nutrition is its ability to strengthen, heal, and augment our health. Utilizing nutrition to help our bodies achieve all the above is certainly not a new concept. However, in our current state of nutrition, we often focus too much on the foods to restrict neglecting to focus on foods that really augment our body’s success in life and athletic pursuits.

In this Performance Enhancing Nutrition Series, we will take a deep dive into the components of different foods that show promise in enhancing our sports performance, recovery and/or whole body health. First up is tart cherry.

TART CHERRY

Tart cherries and tart cherry juice are an abundantly rich source of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory polyphenols. Because exercise causes oxidative stress, inflammation, and muscle damage it has been proposed that these compounds in tart cherries may help both strength and endurance athletes by reducing muscle damage, reducing pain levels, improving recovery, bolstering the immune system, and improving sleep.

Potential Benefits and/or Claims *see end for references

Lessen Muscle Damage

Reduce Pain

Improve Recovery

Improved Sleep Duration & Quality

Bolster Immune System

Dosage and Food Form 

The immediate allure of tart cherries, for me, is that they can be taken in whole food form – we don’t need them to be processed into a supplement. I firmly believe in turning to whole foods first. That is if the researched dose of the beneficial elements of a food can be healthfully obtained through the whole food. And, tart cherries can.

Dose: 50 tart cherries

Frequency: 1-2 times daily

Timing: varies depending on desired benefit.  Research on recovery often gives athletes tart cherries over an acute time period, centered around a competitive event. Typically around 4-5 day prior to and 2-3 days post event. 

Most researchers use the ‘equivalent of 50 tart cherries’ once or twice daily. Naturally, my nutrition nerd curiosity got the best of me and I wondered how the different forms of tart cherries stacked up- by nutrition, cost, and added ingredients. So, here it is:

Tart Cherry Product Serving Size * Cup Equiv. Calories Carbo- hydrates Fiber Added Ingredients Price per serving
Cheribundi Regular 8 oz 1 130 32 0 Apple juice $1.63
Cheribundi Light 10 oz 1 1/4 100 26 0 water, Reb A $2.05
Cherry Bay Orchards, concentrate 4/5 oz <2 Tbsp 64 15 0 $0.50
Dried Tart Cherries, sweetened 46 gm 1/3 151 37 1.2 sugar, oil $1.53
Dried Tart Cherries, unsweetened 44 gm 1/3 141 33 3.3 $2.00
Tart Cherries, canned in water 151 gm scant 1 cup 96 22 3.2 water $1.75
*equal to 50 tart cherries

Please note: the information in the table above is representative of the nutritional value and price of these products as provided by their customer service and sales in Jan 2018. There are many different brands of tart cherry products – this is a small sample of the brands which are easily accessible to athletes with transparent tart cherry concentration information. I purchased all these products – no compensation was provided for including.  

DSC_0750

Pictured are 50 tart cherries: sweetened, unsweetened, and canned

The information provided in the table above are things that, as a dietitian, I feel may weigh into someones choice of using one avenue of cherry consumption vs another. If you are unsure which is best for you and your training, or you’re wondering when you should eat/drink your cherries, contact me.

Concerns or Unknowns

There may be a time during training when we do not want to override our body’s stress response by providing exogenous antioxidant sources  – say during the build up phase of training, where we do not want to blunt the bodies natural physiological adaptations to training. However, more research is needed on this and it may be less of a concern when consuming a whole food product vs a mega dose antioxidant supplement.

Only one study has been conducted on non-land athletes, and it did not show a benefit to consuming tart cherries. This raises the question, are tart cherry compounds less beneficial to athletes who aren’t going through the wear and tear of a land athlete? Is there a differing oxidative stress load in aquatic athletes that may be responsible for the lack of benefit? Perhaps.

Long term benefits? Research hasn’t explored this in depth. It would be interested to see more studies on joint pain and tart cherry intake in athletes over a 3-4 month training period. There is some anecdotal ‘word on the street’ that professional and Olympics athletes are using tart cherries in this manor.

Final Thoughts 

There’s no doubt that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory components of tart cherries are beneficial to our bodies. Current research shows promise that tart cherries could be an advantageous addition to an athletes diet in various ways. For many athletes, the allure is the proposed alternative of using tart cherries in place of NSAIDs.

With this being consumed in a whole food form, the potential benefits certainly outweigh the very minimal risk. And, when taken at the appropriate times during training, could certainly give a well trained athlete the edge they are looking for.

Research

Bowtell et al. Montmorency cherry juice reduces muscle damage caused by intensive exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011;43(8):1544-1551.

Howatson G et al. Influence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010;20(6):843-52.

Howatson G et al. Effect of tart cherry juice on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality. Eur J Nutr. 2012;51:909-916.

Kuehl et al. Efficacy of tart cherry juice in reducing muscle pain during running: a randomized controlled trial. J Intern Soc Sports Nutr. 2010;7:17.

Bell et al. Montmorency cherries reduce the oxidative stress and inflammatory responses to repeated days high-intensity stochastic cycling. Nutrients. 2014;6:829-843.

Vitale KC. Hueglin A. Broad E. Tart cherry juice in athletes: a literature review and commentary. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2017 Jul/Aug;16(4):230-239.

Schumacher HR et al. Radomized double-blind crossover study of efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in treatment of osteoarthritis (OA) of knee. Osteoarthritis & Cartilage. 2013;21:1035-1041.

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