Swellness Blog


Can Food Help Make You More Flexible?

nutrition wellness Jun 17, 2024

Photo by Ella Olsson

Many factors influence how pliable your muscles and connective tissues are, from your DNA to your daily yoga practice. Can food help make you more flexible?

Discovering how it works can take your fitness to new heights. Explore the science behind how food can help make you more flexible. 

How Does Food Affect Your Flexibility? 

Although it may sound controversial on the surface, it makes sense when you dig into nutritional science. Everything you consume affects your body’s tissues in some way, and the right diet supplies it with what it needs to function at its peak. 

Elite athletes often employ nutritionists to balance the macronutrients and micronutrients necessary for their particular discipline. However, you can achieve similar results by following a diet for flexibility, paying specific attention to your intake of certain nutrients to keep muscles and connective tissues pliable.

What Is a Balanced Diet for Flexibility? 

A balanced diet for flexibility consists of proteins, carbohydrates and fat, but the source of these macronutrients also matters. Many health experts recommend the Mediterranean diet as a basis for healthy eating, as it emphasizes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, seafood and unsaturated fatty acids, with limited dairy and red meat intake.

Fresh fruits and vegetables provide micronutrients, fiber and carbohydrates for energy. For example, deep, leafy greens are high in folate, many nuts and seeds are chock-full of magnesium, and various brightly colored veggies like red peppers provide vitamin C and phytonutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin.

Whole grains also contain filling fiber. Additionally, they take longer to digest, drawing water to your intestines to provide a feeling of fullness that prevents overeating. Protein provides the amino acids your body needs to repair muscles and connective tissues with the help of the supporting nutrients from other foods.

Seafood is a particularly good protein source, not only because it’s lean. It’s also your best source of omega-3 fatty acids, which regulate heart rhythm and prevent clotting in part by keeping your blood vessels soft and pliable. Although some plant-based foods contain omega-3s, they only have ALA. Seafood contains DHA and EPA. Your body can manufacture the latter two from ALA, but it isn’t very efficient at it.

What omega-3 does for your heart may carry over to other types of tissue, keeping muscles and ligaments more pliable.  Furthermore, many Americans consume an unhealthy balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, which may increase inflammation and make it harder to stretch.

Have you ever tried to sit “criss-cross-applesauce” with a painfully swollen knee? If so, you know how excess inflammation has a negative effect on your flexibility.

Nutrients Associated With Greater Flexibility

Your omega-3 intake is one nutrient to keep tabs on when eating for flexibility. However, you can’t rely on a singular improvement alone. Overall, balance is the biggest factor, as the nutrients in various foods interact in ways science doesn’t yet fully understand.

Other specific nutrients associated with greater flexibility in muscle and connective tissues include: 

  • Collagen
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin E
  • Zinc
  • Copper 
  • Magnesium 

Therefore, to use food to improve your flexibility, first, remember the big three: 

  • Lean proteins, especially seafood 
  • Whole — not bleached and ultra-processed — grains 
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables 

Then, ensure at least some of the food choices you make to hit your big-three requirement contain the nutrients listed above.

The Top 10 Foods to Eat for Flexibility

Here’s a handy list of 10 foods you should add to your regular diet to improve your flexibility — or at least supply your body with the nutrients necessary to do so. Your work on the yoga mat can take care of the rest.

1. Fatty Fish 

Fatty fish is your ultimate omega-3 source. If you harbor concerns about mercury, keep this rule in mind — the bigger the fish, the higher the concentration. For example, chunk light tuna is lower in mercury than albacore because it comes from the smaller Skipjack species. Other species low in mercury but rich in omega-3 goodness include:

  • Anchovies
  • Salmon
  • Atlantic mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Catfish
  • Flounder 
  • Trout
  • Haddock
  • Tilapia


2. Avocados

Did you know avocados are actually a type of berry? They’re also nutritional powerhouses, high in vitamins C, E, K and B6.

Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that whisks free radicals out of your body before they can spur inflammation, but supplementation doesn’t seem to work well — only intake through food.

3. Olive Oil 

Olive oil is widely used on hair and skin to maintain a supple, soft texture. Its proven benefits for improving heart health suggest it has similar effects inside the body, keeping your tissues pliable. Best of all, it’s a cinch to get into your diet — mix up a simple, healthy salad dressing using olive oil, balsamic vinaigrette, unflavored Greek yogurt and your favorite herbs.

4. Beets

Beets contain high levels of nitrates, which your body converts to nitric oxide. Although this free radical is harmful in high amounts, a moderate intake expands your blood vessels, improving flow. Your muscles and connective tissues need the oxygen and nutrients healthy blood flow provides to gain flexibility.

5. Leafy Greens 

Leafy greens are powerhouses of micronutrients like zeaxanthin that work with other substances in your body to promote health. Additionally, they’re rich in chlorophyll, which some research suggests has strong antioxidant properties that may speed muscle recovery after exercise. Perhaps follow that tough workout with a nice stretch and a spinach salad with salmon?

6. Bone Broth 

Add bone broth to your menu if you have joint problems that hinder your flexibility. This stuff contains high levels of the amino acid glycine, an increased intake of which may improve synovial fluid — the squishy stuff that forms part of your joint cushions.

7. Berries

Goji and açaí berries are among the best sources of vitamin A. This nutrient supports cell growth and development, encouraging healthy turnover. It’s crucial for forming various membranes, including those in your eyes. Additionally, berries are rich in anthocyanins — a particularly potent group of antioxidants for fighting inflammation. Widespread swelling decreases flexibility.

8. Citrus Fruits 

Citrus fruits have long held a special place in treating infectious diseases because of their high vitamin C content. It’s also crucial for muscle repair, especially during post-exercise recovery. However, for reasons that remain unknown to science, supplementation shows mixed — sometimes even negative — results, although adding more fresh fruits containing these nutrients improves performance.

9. Beans 

Vegans flock to beans as a non-animal protein source. For example, the popular red beans and rice is a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. Lentils and black beans are also high in antioxidants and full of fiber to prevent overeating.

10. Garlic

Here’s another top food for you if arthritis impacts your flexibility. Some doctors recommend using garlic externally by rubbing it on swollen joints to prevent further cartilage damage. Consuming it in spaghetti sauce over a plate of whole-grain pasta is a more delicious way to get your daily dose.

Hydration and Flexibility

While food can help improve your flexibility, you won’t get very far if you let yourself get dehydrated. Fortunately, many of the above foods are high in water and low in sodium, but you still must drink up. According to Rayven Nairn, M.S., R.D., L.D. — a dietician with Johns Hopkins University Student Health and Wellness — getting dehydrated can affect flexibility and speed and is crucial for healthy muscle tissue function.

How much do you need? Although it varies slightly depending on climate and activity level, many experts recommend dividing your body weight in half and drinking that number of ounces per day. Of course, you can drink more in hot conditions or while working out if you feel thirsty. 

Mindfully tuning into your body’s needs is ultimately your best guide.

How Food Helps Make You More Flexible

While it may seem odd on the surface that what you put in your mouth affects how far you can bend your knee or slide into the splits, everything in your body works together. Your food choices impact how well your muscles and connective tissues work, and the right nutrition provides your body with the raw material it needs for athletic performance.

Fortunately, eating for flexibility requires following common sense nutritional guidelines that benefit your overall health, as doing so keeps everything working more smoothly. Indulge in more of the foods above to help your flexibility, complemented by regular sessions on your yoga mat.