Or, as Todd Flanders would say, "iron helps us play!" :)
It's no secret that eating well makes you feel great. Taking the time and effort to mull over the nutrients going into your body and making sure you're getting everything you need - plus a few treats every now and then - is bound to get you glowing. As a vegetarian, and then as an endurance runner, it's always been about making sure I get enough protein and carbs from my preferred sources. Because I feel pretty healthy and nourished most of the time, not to mention all the fruit and vegetables I eat, I don't really worry too much about all the other nutrients because I figured my diet in general covered the important stuff.
Recently, but especially the week before last, I was feeling so exhausted. I think there's many reasons for it, mostly emotional/psychological which I'm dealing with, but I wondered whether my diet had something to do with it as well as Tom was also reporting feeling extremely tired. We've been getting enough sleep (mostly) and while not currently training for any races I'm still pretty active, but a diet low in iron can contribute to feeling fatigued. I did a bit of research about the top iron sources for vegetarians/vegans, which are, in order of highest iron content:
Butter beans (lima beans)
(sources: Livestrong and VRG)
I was surprised to realise that while my diet featured most of them there were some that were missing (I couldn't remember the last time I'd bought broccoli, for example, as it always goes off before I use it!) and I was also probably not being smart about the way I was eating these foods to get the best iron absorption possible. Did you know that while vitamin C helps you absorb iron, calcium and tannins (such as tea and coffee) can reduce iron absorption? (hence it is best to have these a few hours before a meal). Some iron rich vegetables like broccoli and bok choy also contain vitamin C, so it's win-win!
So after a scan of the pantry, a Google search for iron rich vegetarian recipes and a mammoth shop at the local Tesco, operation iron maiden began and last week was all about trying to make my main meal of the day (be it breakfast, lunch or dinner) as iron rich as possible.
Sunday: Tofu and spinach cannelloni (dairy free too, with breadcrumbs and pinenuts on top instead of cheese) with a watercress and spinach salad alongside.
Monday: Baked jacket potato with tomato and butter bean stew on top. Having a source of vitamin C with your iron (in this case, tomatoes with butter beans) increases iron absorption. I also put a few pieces of steamed broccoli (unpictured) alongside. We loved this (I made it again tonight!)
Tuesday: Tofu, broccoli and bok choy stir fry with rice. Just your run of the mill stir fry really, but very yummy. Tom and I had a plate of garlic broccoli in Chinatown in London last Saturday and were amazed at how nourished and alert we felt afterwards - I tried to make this stir fry in a similar way, just with stock and garlic, and finishing with sweet chilli sauce.
Wednesday: My main iron meal of the day was breakfast! I made quinoa porridge (well it was half oats, half quinoa), with soy milk, honey, frozen berries and topped with a little bit of granola. That is a tip I offer to you for your waistlines and your wallets - instead of having a whole bowl of granola (delicious as it is), make porridge instead and use granola as a topping. It's working for me....and making my expensive box of it last much longer!
Thursday: My iron rich meal of the day was lunch with my friend Tash at one of my favourite London restaurants, Saf. We shared a cashew cheese and flax cracker starter, and then I tucked into the detox salad:
My salad was mostly kale, but also had spinach, rocket, fresh parsley, cucumber, arame kelp, wakame seaweed, sprouted mung beans, sprouted lentils, radish and avocado, drizzled with lemon-omega oil dressing. I got a bit of tofu with it too.
To drink, given my iron challenge I could not order any other drink from the menu but the Iron White super smoothie!! It had dates, coconut water, almond milk, lucuma powder and crushed walnuts.
No room for dessert.....but there was a glass of chenin blanc an hour or so later!
Friday: To finish off our week of operation iron maiden, I made a broccoli pizza. Somehow Friday night always says "pizza" to me! Again, tomato (vitamin C) with broccoli, perfect combo. Maybe the real cheese (calcium) negated some of the absorption though. Broccoli on a pizza, however, simply cannot fail to make you feel virtuous and nourished and this one certainly did. I made the base in the bread machine too, which made the house smell like a pizzeria.
So, the big question.....did operation iron maiden work? I think it did. Tom and I both had some early starts and long days last week, where we were up at 6am and then kept going until midnight, and we weren't nearly as tired as we had been the week before. I noticed the "feeling charged" effect almost instantly after eating certain foods too. I am convinced broccoli has magical powers now, I will never leave it to die in my crisper again as in days of old!
I had a few other iron rich recipes to try last week that I didn't get round to so they will make an appearance on the Latte dinner table this week. I was planning to try molasses in warm milk at bedtime too, if the amped-up iron factor of our meals didn't have the desired effect, but I really noticed the difference just with more mindful meal planning. Tom has reported far more energy and more satiety after the iron rich meals. I too didn't feel the need to snack as much either. Perhaps it's the result of oats every day for breakfast as well?
I think what this experiment showed me, besides that iron rich meals really do make a difference to your energy levels, is that putting thought and effort into eating well will always have a positive outcome. Being conscious of the nutritional content of your meals, and how best to combine different nutrients so you get the most benefit, not to mention just mixing it up and trying some new things, will leave you feeling pretty good!
So now the holy trinity for my meal planning is protein, carbs and iron!
How are your iron levels? Have you done an experiment like this before? How do you make sure you get enough iron?