Oxygenation: What does food have to do with it?

I was well on my way to becoming a professional swimmer when disaster struck: the official diagnosis was iron deficiency, at hazardously low levels. After suffering through a slew of tests and prescription drugs that didn’t seem to help, a change in diet saved me.

Iron, An Athlete’s Best Friend

Anemia is no joke, it has both psychological and physiological impacts. This makes sense when you understand iron’s role in the body. It’s an important trace element; responsible for aiding in oxygen transport, energy metabolism (fueling your body) and neurotransmitter synthesis (these are the chemicals that transmit signals along your nerves).

For athletes especially, increased oxygen transport is important during training. Without oxygen, cells are unable to produce their “fuel” (known as “ATP”) and instead produce a byproduct–lactic acid. The accumulation of lactic acid is a major contributor to muscle fatigue and thus should be avoided if you want to enhance your performance.

The Iron Allies: Chlorophyll, Sulforaphane, and Oxidative Damage

Iron aids in the transportation of oxygen to your tissue; this is an essential process that allows your cells to function and survive. However, many natural biological processes involving oxygen can create “free radicals”–a special type of oxygen molecule that is highly reactive and can cause you harm.

To counteract this, I suggest making sure you have enough chlorophyll in your diet (this is the chemical in plants that allows them to be green).

Your gut is a key player in maintaining iron levels; absorption occurs in the small intestine.

A 2012 study conducted in Chinese Journal of Internal Medicine found that chlorophyll “shows cellular protection against oxidative damage by counteracting the excessive free radicals”. Chlorophyll also behaves similarly to our blood, aiding in the transport of oxygen to our muscle and other bodily tissues.

Along with chlorophyll, dark green veggies also can contain a compound known as sulforaphane; another free radical fighter. In 2012 Experimental and Toxicologic Pathology published research that concluded: “sulforaphane is a promising antioxidant agent that is effective to attenuate oxidative stress and tissue/cell damage”.

Food Warriors: Some of Your Best Options

So what do you need to eat to imbibe all 3 of the aforementioned allies and boost your oxygen transport? After all, oxygen-deprived cells are prone to cancer and disease; two things we all wish to avoid.

Broccoli, kale, romaine lettuce, spirulina, chlorella, mustard greens, and blue-green algae are great options.  They’re rich in sulforaphane and chlorophyll (think of that beautiful green color).

For meat eaters, you’ll want to indulge in wild game or fish for an iron-rich boost.

For lacto-ovo vegetarians: beans, legumes, artichokes, cheese, eggs, chocolate, water-heavy fruits (oranges for example), nuts and sunflower seeds are your best bet for delivering oxygen to your muscles outside of the leafy greens above.

If you don’t want to deplete the oxygen you’ve been working so hard at gaining, avoid sugars, processed meats, fats, white bread, carbonated drinks, frozen foods, and fast food. These foods tend to provide very little water and are neither rich in chlorophyll (no green here) or sulforaphane.  Your cells will actually expend oxygen when processing these foods and gain almost none of it back!

The Bottom Line:

We can’t live without oxygen, our bodies muscles demand more. Increasing your intake of iron and water-rich foods can only boost your overall well being–and this goes for athletes and the average joe alike.

So start munching on those leafy greens, eat fruits for dessert, and snack on seeds–I promise you’ll start to feel the difference.