Today I'm talking about a big nutrient for athletes, especially for female athletes: IRON. Iron comes in two forms, heme-based iron and non-heme iron. Because heme-based iron the form used in the human body, our bodies absorb iron much more readily from heme-based sources, which come from animal products, in comparison to plant based non-heme sources. This is because once it's consumed the body has to convert the non-heme iron into heme-iron. Because of this fact it can often be difficult for some people to keep their iron levels up based on vegetarian food alone. As you may have noticed, I love vegan food, but found that I have to eat fish in addition to taking an iron supplement to keep my iron levels in the healthy range.
So, why is iron so important? Well, without iron, the body can't make hemoglobin, which is the compound that allows the red blood cells to transport oxygen to your muscles. Iron deficiency anemia is characterized by a constant state of oxygen deprivation, fatigue, and and inability to repair injured muscle tissues. Even a mild iron deficiency can really hurt your athletic performance and ability to recover between workouts. Last March, after two years of chronic injury and fatigue, I was diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia and since starting to take iron supplements and learning how best to maximize my intake and absorption of iron I have started to feel like my old self. I had my best racing season in years and finally made it through a whole season with one single overuse injury! You'll notice that iron deficiency is more common in women and this is because blood loss in any form depletes your iron stores so under normal circumstances, women need about twice as much iron as men.
Many people believe red meat to be the best source of heme-based iron, but this is just not true. Oysters, mussels, and clams have 5x as much heme-based iron as red meat. If you are committed to truly vegetarian sources of iron (i.e. you even omit sea creatures that don't have eyes), there are still ways to maximize your absorption of non-heme iron. Spinach, lentils, black beans, soy beans, whole wheat, and oats all have more than 10% of your recommended daily value of iron and absorption can be increased if you consume these foods with a source of vitamin C. Here, vitamin C acts as a reductant to help reduce the non-heme iron to a more bioavailable oxidation state. Additionally, coffee, tea, and dairy products strongly limit your absorption of iron so should be avoided when you are eating iron rich foods. This site is a decent non-medical source on the iron content in various foods.
Muscle Pasta (Get it?? It's a pun!)
1 package pre-cooked mussel meats
1 package baby bella mushrooms, sliced
garlic and crushed red pepper
1/2 package whole wheat or brown rice pasta
Sautee your mussel meats and mushrooms in olive oil, adding garlic and crushed red pepper to taste. Meanwhile boil water to cook pasta according to the directions on the package. The mussels and mushrooms should be done around the same time as the pasta (9- 11 minutes plus 5 minutes to reach boiling). Serve the mussels and mushrooms over the pasta with additional olive oil and nutritional yeast (or parmesan cheese, but remember that cheese does limit iron absorption). Add a spinach salad topped with a lemony dressing on the side for an extra iron boost!