I am sure that all of us as children were brought up to believe that spinach gives strength and power as it was Popeye’s magic potion. Ever wonder why? Spinach is an excellent source of iron!
Iron is a mineral essential to life; its role is to transport oxygen to all cells and working muscles by means of a blood protein called Hemoglobin. Having said that I leave it to you to conclude what a deficiency in iron could do to a swimmer’s performance… Fatigue, lack of energy and chronic infections are among the most relevant symptoms, and just imagine what that would translate into performance wise.
You might wonder why I decided to discuss this topic today; swimmers and performance athletes in general are at a higher risk of developing iron deficiency due to the increased breakdown of red blood cells among these athletes. Female swimmers are even more at risk due to the monthly blood losses of menstruation, putting female swimmers at an even higher risk.
So where can we find iron in food and what should we do maximize its absorption. Iron sources are split into “heme” (present as part of hemoglobin in animal sources such as meats) and “non-heme” sources (present without hemoglobin in plants sources).
Organ meats (such as liver), red meats, poultry and fish are rich sources of heme iron and they are best absorbed by the body; whereas beans, dark leafy vegetables (spinach, rocket, kale…), dried fruits and some nuts are sources of non heme iron.
Plant sources of iron are absorbed less efficiently than animal sources of iron; below are some tips to enhance their availability:
– Meat factor: combining a non heme source of iron with little amounts heme iron increase absorption by 2-3 times.
– Vitamin C: absorption of non heme iron is enhanced by vitamin C. So squeeze some lemon on your spinach or combine your meals with a fresh salad.
If you don’t like meat and you’re worried about not getting enough iron, try an iron rich smoothie with spinach, orange juice, some yogurt and berries; a delicious iron rich mix for the veggie lovers.
Having said that, swimmers, remember to include an iron source in each meal!by