It is very easy to get caught up in all things ‘calories’ and ‘macros’ and forget that for short and long term health, performance and body composition we really do need so much more than just this!
So here is a 101 of key food groups for active individuals, and how to get them (plus a few related food concepts!):
Iron is essential to support energetic function, as it is needed to transport oxygen around the body, and also produce the energy in our muscles to power them to move as fast as possible!!
Athletes and the recreationally active may have higher than average iron requirements, because they are more likely to have higher total blood volume and red blood cell count as a result of training adaptations. And more red blood cells = more iron needed. This is going to be most significant in sports requiring a big aerobic ‘engine’, like endurance sports. Plus, iron is lost in sweat, so the more you sweat the more iron you are likely to lose! AND in running and other sports where the body ‘pounds’ against a surface, the body can also lose more iron through the damage to red blood cells on impact. AND if that wasn’t enough, athletes may not absorb iron from the diet as effectively in the hours after exercise: the inflammatory response that occurs after exercise increases the levels of an inhibitor of iron absorption in the gut.
Haem iron is the form of iron most easily digested, absorbed and utilised in the body. This is the form found in animals and yeast. Non haem iron is the form found in plants. This is harder for the body to digest and utilise. As we currently understand it, up to about 40% of haem iron consumed may be absorbed. In contrast, only about 5% of non-haem iron may be absorbed.
If you are a meat eater, easy ways to obtain iron:
Include red meat at least three times a week, for example using beef jerky as a snack, or using ham in sandwiches, if you don’t tend to cook it in main meals
Egg yolks are turkey are also sources (although not as rich in iron), and so you can supplement red meat intake with these foods 3-4 times a week
If you are plant based, it may benefit you to:
Include iron rich plant foods daily, as the iron is less accessible. These include dark leafy greens and legumes
Consider the use of nutritional yeast as a topper on salads or stirred into soups, stews and other hot dishes (it has a slightly cheesy taste), for a source of haem iron
Consider using iron fortified foods, e.g. iron fortified cereals and breads. Fortified foods are also a very useful source, so you could aim to choose breads and cereals that have been fortified with iron (check the ingredients list to see if iron is included).
Calcium is important for bone, nerve and muscle function – so both health and performance! As a result, athletes and the recreationally active may have higher than average requirements as bones, motor nerves and skeletal muscle are all working at a higher rate!
The richest source of calcium in the diet is dairy. If you eat dairy, aim to consume daily. For example: cow’s milk or Greek yoghurt with breakfast, and cheeses or sour cream toppings in lunches and dinners.
If you have a lactose intolerance, up to 12g lactose spread in 4g doses across a day are typically still tolerable. Low lactose dairy includes Greek and Skyr yoghurt and hard cheeses.
If you do not eat dairy, aim to include more that one plant based source of calcium daily. Dark leafy greens, legumes, nuts and seeds are all sources. However, the calcium can get trapped in the fibre of these if they are not well cooked and so pass out through the body without being absorbed. So including cooked sources of these across the week (which breaks down some of the resistant fibre), or using smooth nut butters and peanut butter (which has a similar effect) can help access calcium.
Fortified foods (as with iron) can be very useful. Here, the calcium is typically more accessible. For example using fortified plant milks, breads and cereals. Look for ‘calcium’ containing compounds in the ingredients list.
I would typically not recommend supplementation with iron or calcium unless an individual has a known deficiency that cannot be addressed through dietary change. If you have not had a blood test to determine levels of each of these recently, I would recommend undertaking one with your GP. And if you do supplement, I would recommend having a blood test twice yearly to ensure levels remain within the normal range and are not tipping above this.
Omega 3: EPA + DHA intake
The key omega 3s are EPA and DHA. These have roles in everything from blood vessel health, to muscle function, to immune function. So we definitely want to try and stay topped up!
The only dietary sources of EPA and DHA are oily fish. Plant based omega 3s (ALA) are converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but very inefficiently.
Current recommendations are to include oily fish in your diet (unless pregnant or breastfeeding), or the UK government recommends a daily supplement of omega 3s containing 250-500mg EPA+DHA (microalgae derived for a plant based source, or oily fish derived). Store in the dark in the fridge to avoid degradation of the supplement into something that is not useful in the body.
Fruit and veg intake
We typically say aim for at least 600g a day. This supports getting the full range of vitamins, minerals and fibres they offer. This is important to long term health and performance as it ensures the body can function effectively. Some fibres even have a role in blood sugar and cholesterol regulation!
Strategies to increase intake if you find you are always under this include:
Topping breakfast cereal or porridge with a large handful of fruit
Adding a piece of fruit to a morning snack
Adding a side salad or piece of fruit to lunch picked up on the go
Adding a packet of steamed frozen veggies to dinner
Adding a side of vegetables or salad when eating out
Ensuring 7 days x 600g = 4.2kg fruit and veg is included in the weekly shop
Always having frozen fruit and veg in the freezer, so you are never caught short
Using tinned tomatoes as a base for sauces and soups in the week
Five colours of fruit and veg
Across every few weeks, we aim to include all five colours of fruit and veg (green, yellow, red, orange and purple). Different colours typically correspond to different vitamin and mineral spectra. So by eating all colours we help ensure we obtain all the relevant vitamins and minerals that fruit and veg contain.
If you find your shopping basket is all one colour, consider switching up two to three items each week to another colour and over the course of two weeks you will have hit all colours!
As a summary:
Red fruit and veg includes: strawberries, apple, tomatoes, red peppers
Purple fruit and veg includes: blueberries, blackberries, plums, figs, aubergine, red cabbage, red onion, radishes, beetroot
Green fruit and veg includes: apples, pears, green peppers, cabbages, broccoli, mangetout, green beans, broad beans, spinach, courgette, lettuce, cucumber
Yellow fruit and veg includes: banana, pineapple, yellow peppers, cauliflower, brown onion
Orange fruit and veg includes: orange, mango, melon, orange peppers, carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin
So there you go! A summary of key nutrients and how to get them : ). Enjoy!