Athletes and the Beige Food Diet

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.

Chicken Myths

At the 2011 Food Media Seminar, sponsored by the National Chicken Council and US Poultry and Egg Association, I got the chance to eat a lot of great chicken dishes (see picture of Charlotte Jenkins Gullah Jerk Chicken–a Lowcountry Cuisine classic). I also thought about some of the myths about chicken so let’s set the record straight.

Myth 1: Always buy chicken labeled as “hormone free” or “natural” to get the healthiest bird for your family.

The truth is that the word “natural” means nothing on a food package and no hormones are used in any chicken products. So, saying a package of chicken breasts is hormone-free is like saying that bag of potato chips has no cholesterol–no potato chips contain cholesterol (cholesterol is found only in animal foods) and no chicken sold in the US is fed hormones to fatten it up. You may prefer to buy organic poultry but you don’t have to spend extra money to get hormone-free chicken.

Myth 2: All chicken is pumped full of sodium-containing liquids.

Some chicken does contain liquid that can increase the sodium content, but not all. If you are reducing sodium look at the label to find out if the product is “enhanced” or “marinated” which might indicate there is added sodium. Choices abound in the meat counter of the grocery store so read labels to find sodium content (make sure to take your reading glasses as all food labels can be hard to read for those of us over a certain age!)

Myth 3: Boneless, skinless chicken breast is the healthiest of all chicken parts.

It might be the lowest in total fat, but, to steal line from presenter and registered dietitian, Colleen Pierre, “don’t be afraid of the dark.” Chicken thighs are popular with chefs as they are more flavorful than white meat; nutritionists like dark meat because it has 24% more iron and 3 times the zinc as white meat. Iron and zinc are two nutrients that are often low in the diets of children and adolescent girls so break out of the white meat chicken rut and try boneless chicken thighs or drumsticks. Kids love drumsticks–they come with their own handle.

Myth 4: Chicken skin should always be removed before cooking.

Cooking chicken with the skin on helps seal the juices and makes the chicken meat more tender and flavorful. More than half of the fat in chicken skin is monounsaturated fat–the healthy kind of fat. So, leave the skin on when cooking and remove the skin at the table to cut extra calories while saving flavor.

Myth 5: Wings are always a high-fat choice in restaurants.

Ever see “boneless” chicken wings on the menu? Turns out the “boneless chicken wings” are not really wings–boneless chicken breast is used and just called wings. So, if you really want wings…look for boneless wings (preferably baked, not deep-fat fried!)

For more information on chicken and some great recipes, visit