Maybe you focus on foods that are nutrient dense. If so, that’s good.
However - on it’s own, that means very little. nutrient density is useless if you can’t absorb those nutrients. In other words - if you think the nutrition you eat is the nutrition you absorb, you’re deceiving yourself.
Food absorption is a resource intensive, stressful, distracting job for the body. If you want to recover faster, burn fat or gain muscle - eat foods that minimise effort and maximise the absorbed nutrients.
Some foods are good at this, and some absolutely suck. Spirulina is great at it. I’m going to explain why.
What is Spirulina?
Spirulina is little more than Pond Algae. It was used for hundreds of years by several ancient cultures - the Chinese, the Kanembu of Central Africa, who called it Dihé, and the Aztecs, who called it Tecuitatl.
The Spanish invaders of 1524 noted that the Aztecs collected the Spirulina (correct name Athrospira) that grew on the lake surrounding their capital city, dried it in shallow pits and packed it into cakes. They used it like bread and the Conquistadores compared it to cheese.
After the destruction of the Aztec culture, Spirulina was lost to the west - until the 20th Century, when it was ‘rediscovered’. again. Now, it’s being hailed as a superfood of the future by both NASA and the UN.
Spirulina isn’t actually a plant - it’s bacteria
But…it behaves like a plant.
It’s this that makes Spirulina rank astonishingly high in terms of nutrient dense, bioavailable food.
Although it’s commonly classed as Algae, Spirulina is a bacteria - that photosynthesises (Turns sunlight into energy).
This gives it special advantages. Normally, it’s plants that photosynthesise. However, plants have cell walls that are made of cellulose, and cellulose is difficult to digest.
Bacteria don’t present this problem. Its cell wall is thin and absorbable - meaning the nutrients Spirulina offers are much more absorbable.
NOTE - A similar supplement, Chlorella, offers little in the way of absorbable nutrition. The cellulose walls mean chlorella highly unbioavilable. For this reason, people often damage the cell walls of Chlorella to make them more accessible.
The attributes of bacteria and photosynthesisation together means it has an astonishing nutritional profile that is extremely easy to absorb. Foods with a superior cost-benefit ratio like this are a secret weapon for athletes - because the effort of absorbing food takes away from every process in the body.
For example, the absorbable protein levels of Spirulina vs the effort it takes to absorb is off the charts.
Although you would be hard-pressed to consume more than a few grams of spirulina at a time, its protein content is an enormous 50 - 70%, which includes all 12 essential amino acids. Compare that to beef, which is 26% protein.
In terms of absorption, Net Protein Utilisation (NPU) is 53-61%, and it has a digestibility of 83-90%. Spirulina's Protein efficiency rating (PER) is between 1.8 and 2.6.
Translation: These numbers show that no other food can compete with Spirulina in terms of available protein. But since Spirulina is so filling, it’s hard to eat enough to really capitalise on this. It is worth pointing out that Primal26 has a PER of 3.6, however, Spirulina is also full of unusual micronutrients that are highly bioavailable.
The blue-green colour of Spirulina is due to various antioxidant compounds. Unlike some green vegetables, it doesn’t need cooking to break down cellulose - and this means these compounds survive. Here are three of the best.
Chlorophyll - You know when people say a food has ‘Green Energy’? What they’re trying to say is Chlorophyll. This is the byproduct of Photosynthesis and is what makes plants green. They’re normally talking about raw vegetables, though - and the Chlorophyll is locked in cellulose-bound chloroplasts, unlike Spirulina as we've already mentioned.
Chlorophyll has some serious health benefits. It’s a very potent detoxifyer, and its makeup is very similar to Haemoglobin, which is the molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen. Unsurprisingly, it's been linked to red blood cell health.
Phycocyanin This is the blue pigment in Spirulina, and it has some serious anti-inflammatory, detoxification and immune-boosting effects. It’s very hard to find in other foods, and is available as a separate supplement. When you can just eat Spirulina, though, there’s little point.
Carotenoids Carotenoids are precursors to vitamin A - Spirulina is high in a wide range, including Beta Carotene. Like the other pigments, they have high antioxidant properties and can also prevent age related macular degeneration. Spirulina is a superb source of a Carotenoid called Zeaxanthin.
GLA - Gamma Linoleic Acid
GLA is a unique form of the fatty acid Omega-6 and is found in mother’s milk and does the opposite of what Omega-6 is known to do: It decreases inflammation. For that reason it’s often taken as an anti-aging remedy, and Spirulina is a superb source. And guess what? GLA is extremely bioavailable - it normally has to be synthesised from Linoleic acid. If you’re an athlete and want to recover faster, decreasing inflammation should be your priority.
Vitamin and Mineral Content
Spirulina contains very high amounts of iron, as well as copper, zinc, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, manganese and selenium.
It also has good amounts of vitamins K1, C, E and various B vitamins. Note that Spirulina is often held to have high amounts of vitamin B12. That was great news for vegans, since until then, B12 was impossible to obtain from non-animal source products. Turns out it still is. Spirulina contains psuedovitamin B12 - which is biologically inactive in humans.
(credit - William Ismael/Flickr)
The bitter truth is that all digestion causes some inflammation, but Spirulina causes very little and even works to reduce it, turning into a soothing gel in the gut. This allows the gut to heal and inhibits pathogenic bacteria. Spriulina contains over 2000 digestion-aiding enzymes and of course contains buckets of Chlorophyll, as well as being well-known for being effective at removing heavy metals from the body. Less toxins equals less inflammation.
Spirulina is also worth eating if you practice Intermittent Fasting - the starvation response responds more to nutrients absorbed than calories eaten, and for this reason Spirulina is extremely satiating while containing very little calories and being slow and easy to digest. The result is a hunger restricting effect which lasts for hours, with a steady supply of nutrients. Eat Spriulina to extend your morning fast or if you’re just restricting your calories.
I suggest consuming 2-5 grams of Spirulina a day. This offers an abundance of nutrition in exchange for minimal digestive stress. As I’ve outlined above, this is key to improving your overall health - especially if you’re an athlete.
Oliver von Herder is a Martial Artist and is the creator of www.NutrientFocus.com, a blog about going beyond the Paleo diet and adapting the work of Weston A. Price for athletes. Eating with a Nutrient Focus means hacking food absorption to minimise stress and recover faster.