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  • Writer's pictureClaire Callaghan

Can your diet boost energy levels and your immune system?

Updated: Feb 28, 2021

In the wake of COVID 19, I put this and other questions to my colleague, Nutritionist and Dietitian Sue Baic. At the moment, many of us are experiencing fluctuations in mood, energy and motivation levels. I see this in active women with busy lives, and whilst I know iron is important, I wanted to delve deeper into this. We’re also concerned about how well our natural defences act against infection work, and what measures we can take to help ourselves and our families. There’s a lot of information online about ‘superfoods’ too, and as a lover of beetroot, I wanted to find out more about the powers some confer to this beautifully coloured vegetable.

Why is iron particularly important for active women?

Iron is needed to make haemoglobin in red blood cells which transports oxygen around body to cells that need it such as the muscles. It also plays a role in supporting a healthy immune system.

Surprisingly quite a few women in the UK have low iron intakes and low stores and iron deficiency anaemia is relatively common including amongst athletes. Even mild anaemia can make it more difficulty to function normally and especially to exercise, train or compete. There’s some good advice here about symptoms and testing at NHS Choices. If you are anaemic you will almost certainly be recommended to take an iron supplement as you can’t correct it from diet alone although having a regular dietary source can help stop you becoming deficient again. There’s no additional performance benefit from taking iron supplements if your stores and haemoglobin is in normal range.

If vegan or pescetarian, how do you ensure you are getting sufficient iron in your diet?

Red meat and offal are good sources of easily absorbed (haem) iron. Iron's also found in poultry, eggs and oily fish. However there are plenty of plant sources iron which is less well absorbed but still useful.

These include

· Bread and fortified breakfast cereals

· Pulses and beans

· Dried fruit, nuts and seeds

· Dark green leafy vegetables

To enhance absorption from plant sources you can

· Avoid drinking tea with an iron containing meal

· Include a source vitamin C such as fruit , vegetables or juice

I've seen some research on beetroot juice and sports performance and that at one point the GB women's Olympic gold medal winning hockey team were advised to drink it post training! How does it affect our bodies and sports performance, if at all?

Yes there is good research on this – still in relatively early stages but potentially very interesting for active sports people. Beetroot juice seems to boost stamina and maybe reduce fatigue in endurance athletes such as runners and cyclists.

The mechanism is probably via enhanced production of nitric acid in the body as beetroot is rich in nitrates. One word of warning it may colour your urine and stools red which can be alarming at first!

There’s an interesting review of some of the latest research here Beetroot research

At the moment, we are all concerned about our immunity. Are there some vitamins and minerals that are more critical to keep our immune systems at their best?

The immune system is hugely complex with lots of organs, cells and different chemicals all working in conjunction. Different nutrients, including a wide range of vitamins and minerals, are needed to support normal function the various parts of this system.

From the research it looks like the best approach is to ensure a varied and balanced diet including a wide range of food groups including plenty of plant based foods as outlined in the Eatwell Guide. There is some information on some of the specific nutrients involved on the Eatright website:

Vitamin D plays an important role in both immunity and bone health and a daily supplement of 10 micrograms is useful for many people. If your diet is restricted for any reason, a once daily multivitamin and mineral at the normal RDA level is safe but it’s best to avoid high dose supplements such as vitamin C. Excessive intakes can upset the delicate balance of the immune system and cause side effects such as cause nausea, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain, all of which have a negative impact on immunity.

For some sports people intense training can increase the demands on the immune system. Recovery eating and rehydrating in the hour after exercise helps maintain healthy immunity.

I'm seeing alot about gut health in the media. Does this have a role in immune function?

It’s a relatively new research area but gut health also appears to be really important for immunity too so it’s worth looking at your intake of probiotics and prebiotics.

Join Sue and I as we explore "Eating and Strengthening for an Active Lifestyle" on Tues 30th March, 2021, 7.30-9pm. Details and bookings here

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