“Rio likes to eat fried and unhealthy”. That’s the response I got when I asked someone who has been living in Rio for a while about healthy food suggestions.
Travelling is one of the most beautiful parts of being an athlete. But it also comes with difficulties. Every time I travel I must ask myself: “Will I find the food that keeps me in shape and makes me perform well in training or competition?”
Before my trip to Rio I had big plans in consideration of nutrition: Juice fast, plant based, gut healing diet… I didn’t know what diet to go for but I wanted to try something new.
A friend had warned me before I went: “I didn’t find anything to eat. The food is really bad over there.” It can’t be that bad, I thought. Coconuts, fresh tropical fruits, vegetables, fish, they have it all! But unfortunately, he was kind of right.
On the first morning, I found a juice bar. Soon I realized they sell sugared smoothies and my Portuguese wasn’t good enough to order more than a cheese sandwich. The alternatives on the menu were low quality burgers, fries and breaded meat. I saw the burgers, believe me, I would have rather eaten a McDonald’s.
I was lucky, the next four weeks of being there, the situation improved.
What is it that you can do to eat healthy in Rio?
What do Brazilian people eat?
Brazilian cuisine can be difficult for athletes. The typical Brazilian plate consists of beans, rice, meat, chips and farofa, a toasted cassava flour mixture that looks like beach sand and makes your meat a bit crunchier. Nothing I need on my plate, but the Brazilian people love it.
A very popular snack on the go are the Salgados, savoury fatty pastries mostly filled with ham, cheese or minced pork. Nothing you really want to eat as an athlete but if you want to try something small, try Pao de Qeijo, small tapioca balls filled with cheese.
You can find tapioca in many forms in the Brazilian kitchen. A typical “Tapioca” is a pancake only made from tapioca granulate. Therefore, it’s quite clean for athletes as a pre- or post-workout snack. You can choose a savoury filling like chicken or have it filled with fruit. Sweet is even better than savoury. Banana with cinnamon (Banana c/ Canela) and Nutella with Strawberry (Nutella c/ Morango) are the best ones. (Save the last one for your cheat day).
Another very tasty but unhealthy street food is Aracaje. The Bahian meal is a fried cowpea batter that you can have filled with different spicy compounds, onions and shrimps.
If you’re a meat eater, you won’t get past Churrasco. It’s the traditional grilled meat you will find in different variations. While you are able to get different kinds of meat and sausages, I recommend you to ask for Picanha (rump cap of beef) or Filet Mignon. The taste is very plain as the Brazilians season it with nothing else than sea salt. And they use a lot. So be careful when cutting weight, Churrasco can be very salty.
Prepare your own food!
The best control over your nutrition is to prepare your own food. Cooking is a key tool for weight management and performance diets.
When you book your trip, make sure you have access to a kitchen. I was lucky to have an apartment with a kitchen. Still, I couldn’t cook the same as at home because the access to fresh green vegetables was limited. The quality of vegetables wasn’t the best and it was also very expensive. I had gotten a few unknown leafy greens from the store, but because I didn’t know how to prepare it, it wasn’t the most delicious.
High quality meat is really cheap compared to Europe. You can get good beef steaks for a low price in the supermarket. Fish, on the other hand, wasn’t as cheap as I expected.
Also very cheap and accessible is fruit. The fruit I recommend:
- Cacao Fruit
Almost all these tropical fruits are high in cancer-killing substances and antioxidants. Take advantage of it! Besides the health benefits, they are very delicious and not comparable to what you get in Europe. By the way, the typical fruits like apple and banana are not worth buying there.
The Açai Myth
“Açai gives much energy and is natural,” a local explained to me. Brazilians love their Açai! I’ve seen Brazilian fighters eating cups of Açai before their fights. This must be their secret I guess.
After hearing so much about it for years, I had wanted to try it so bad. I heard that the purple berry from Amazonas has health benefits and you can buy it everywhere in Rio.
What you get is a purple sorbet that is sweetened with a lot of sugar or Guarana syrup. Of course, eating a cup of sugar-filled sorbet gives you a lot of energy, but is it healthy? I tried it without the syrup and sugar and the taste was plain and boring, like mixing avocado with ice cubes.
If you’re looking for a healthier version, you can ask for an Açai without sugar and Guarana but mixed with banana or pineapple. Even though you can’t expect too much from the taste, it’s a refreshing snack.
By the way, you will find the best Açai in Leblon.
Juice bars for snacks, Açai and even meals are at every corner. What are called “Sucos” in Portuguese aren’t what we recognize as juices. What they actually sell are smoothies. Most of them are with sugar if you don’t ask for sugar free.
My absolute favourite is Abacaxi com Hortela (Pineapple with mint). While some Sucos don’t taste that great without sugar, you can never go wrong with pineapple-mint. If you want something else, you better brush up on your Portuguese skills because the menus are never in English.
Here are some juices from a menu and their meanings:
Abacate = Avocado Abacaxi = Pineapple Abacaxi c/ Hortela = Pineapple with mint (the best!) Acerola (very sour) Banana c/ Aveia = banana and oatmeal Beterraba = beetroot Berinjela = eggplant Cacau = cocoa Caju = cashew (not very pleasant tasting!) Cupuaçu – a healthy yoghurty fruit Graviola – tastes just like Cupuaçu Goiaba = guava Guara-… = something mixed with Guarana syrup or Guarana drink Laranja = orange Limao = lime Maçã = apple Manga = mango Mamão = papaya Maracuja = passion fruit (very sour) Melão = cantaloupe Melançia = watermelon Morango ao leite = strawberry with milk Uva = grape Suco Verde = green juice
The best solution for eating out: Buffet
If you’re on a special diet and want to eat out, your best bet is to go to a buffet restaurant. Buffets are very popular in Brazil and for around 10€ you can get a decent-size meal of whatever food you like. Whether you want something clean or a cheat meal, the buffets are the best option.
How it works: You pay something like 3-7R$ (1-2€) per 100g of food. While entering the restaurant you get a card or piece of paper that will track how much you eat. Take a plate and fill it with whatever you like, then put your plate on the scale and hand your card to the person that weighs your food. You will then get a receipt. Enjoy your food and pay at the cashier desk when you exit.
The variety of food sometimes made it hard to decide. You can get salad, vegetables, root vegetables, lentils and beans, seafood, fresh grilled fish and churrasco meat. Even if you’re on a plant-based diet, you will find lots of food to eat. If you order meat, best ask for filet mignon without salt. Otherwise, you will get a very salty piece of meat that can leave you bloated.
The price and the looks of the restaurant doesn’t say anything about the food quality. I’ve seen big differences here. Once you have found a good buffet, stick to it.
Rio de Janeiro has plenty to offer for your cheat day. Why not have an Açai with Guarana syrup on your cheat day? The best one you can get is in Leblon. Don’t ignore the ice cream and cake in this area, it’s recommended.
Just do yourself a favour: Stick to cheat meal rules and don’t eat these low-quality burgers and chips they offer everywhere.
If you crave pizza, the best option is a Rodizio restaurant. Rodizio means the waiters walk around with plates and offer you pieces of food for an all-you-can-eat price. Usually they also offer Nutella crepes for dessert.
If you want to try something Brazilian, here are some ideas:
- Brigadeiros – little chocolate-caramel truffles, made from condensed milk and cocoa powder. You can find Brigadeiros in the traditional way or as cake, mousse or ice cream.
- Beijinho – Just like Brigadeiro, but with coconut instead of chocolate. I prefer Brigadeiros.
- Churro – Doughnut stick, coated with sugar and cinnamon and filled with chocolate, caramel or guava jam.
- Pastel de Nata – Traditional Portuguese puff pastry cup filled with pudding. I found it a bit boring to be honest.
If you struggle to find something, go to a buffet restaurant because they usually have what you want and many desserts to try on a separate dessert buffet.
Over my stay I got a few restaurant recommendations. Some of them I checked out, some I didn’t:
- Balada Mix – Rua São Clemente, 25 – Botafogo: I recommend the quinoa salad and juices. This restaurant offers a lot of clean meals and protein. A plus is that it is not loaded with salt. A minus is that the food has almost no spice and can taste a bit plain. They also have a nice breakfast buffet on Sundays.
- Delirio Tropical Rua Garcia d’Avila, 48 – Ipanema: Mainly salad and vegetables with a lot of vegetarian and vegan options. Choose the portion size and make a salad of your preference.
- TT burger: Burger chain with the best burger in Rio. If you want a burger for your cheat day, try this one.
- Famous Burger – Flamengo: If you are an MMA, stop by at Jose Aldo’s small burger restaurant. You might meet him there while eating a Lowkick-Burger.
- Hare Burger: Vegan/ vegetarian burger chain, cheap and not bad at all.
- Bibi Sucos: R. Jardim Botânico, 636 – Jardim Botânico
- Verde vício: R. Buenos Aires, 22 – Centro
- Alekrim (to go): R. Barão da Torre, 247 – Ipanema
- Verdin (to go): Av. Ataulfo de Paiva, 458 – Leblon
Feel free to comment with your recommendations. I’m happy to hear your food experience from Rio de Janeiro.