Athletes, especially female athletes, eat what I call the “beige food diet.” A typical recall from a female distance runner? Oatmeal, boneless skinless chicken breasts, soy milk, yogurt, bananas, granola bars, wheat bread, peanut butter, and maybe some beige sweets, like vanilla wafers. These athletes are not vegetarian but they fear red meat…specifically beef.
For those athletes who are not vegetarian (and I don’t really see many who are), I encourage them to eat lean beef a couple of times a week. Many female distance runners have poor iron stores, and according to the Office of Dietary Supplements, female athletes and distance runners have the highest risk for iron depletion and iron deficiency. Athletes with iron depletion usually have normal hemoglobin and hematocrit levels but low levels of ferritn or storage iron. Often the first thing they ask me about is taking iron supplements but I take a “food first” approach and encourage iron-rich foods, like lean beef. 3-ounces of lean beef provides 14% of the daily value for iron or 2.5 milligrams of iron compared to only 1.7 milligrams in boneless chicken breast. Beef also provides quality protein, zinc and vitamin B12 needed by athletes. The iron in beef is in the heme form and 15-35% is absorbed and is unaffected by other food components; by comparison non-heme iron found in cereals, grains or beans is poorly absorbed and can be affected by food components like fiber and phytate.
I encourage female athletes to learn about the 29 lean cuts of beef (downloadable wallet card from the beef website makes it easy to choose lean meat when grocery shopping.
I also explain that ground beef can be lean but the label information is tricky (fat is expressed as percent lean to fat so while 80% lean sounds good, it can have 13 grams of fat per serving). Choosing 95% lean gives all of the nutrient benefits of beef with only 6 grams of fat per serving. And, by comparison 85% ground turkey has 13 grams of fat with less iron than lean beef.
I suggest that when traveling and eating with the team, that they choose lean beef like a petite filet at a steak house or beef and broccoli at an Asian restaurant as healthy options to provide good quality protein for recovery while boosting intakes of iron and zinc.
When athletes ask about iron supplements I explain that iron is a pro-oxidant and should never be taken in high doses without a blood test to determine the need for supplements. It is important to be monitored when taking iron as it can be toxic in large doses without proper monitoring. Another plus for food…no need for a blood test and monitoring when eating healthy foods that nourish the body and fuel muscles for sport.