How leafy greens can make a difference for athletes

Posted on October 13, 2020 by

So often sport nutrition focuses on protein and carbohydrates to prepare and recovery from training.

The choices you make around what else fills the plate should not be underrated for the impact that will have on training – even if it’s not a direct fuel source.

Variety within key food groups plays a role in how much more you can get out of what you eat and getting a broader range of nutrients essential for health.

By choosing nutrient dense options for a similar amount of energy you can get so much more bang for your buck with nutrients.

For example, choosing whole grain options instead of refined carbohydrates, or choosing lean protein options instead of those with excessive fat.

The same applies in fruit and vegetables where different colours provide different nutrients. Green leafy vegetables alone can provide valuable nutrient essential for athletes and are a crucial inclusion.

Examples of green leafy veggies include spinach, mustard greens, arugula, kale, turkish kale, brussel sprouts, swiss chard and lettuce. These vegetables are nutrient powerhouses that are also relatively low in total energy so are an easy inclusion for all athletes, regardless of energy demands.

See below for specific nutritional benefits of green leafy vegetables:


Rich in vitamins – vitamin A, C, E and K

While vitamins A, C and E provide an array of health benefits, of particular merit to athletes is their support of a healthy immune system. High training loads can result in immunosuppression, putting athletes at greater risk of illnesses including upper respiratory tract infections. Supporting a strong immune system is important to reduce this risk and the subsequent impact it has on training or competition performance.

Additionally, vitamin K is important for bone health and wound healing, both of which are highly relevant in the athlete population due to the incidence of injury.


Rich in minerals – iron, potassium and magnesium

Iron is a key nutrient for athletes due to its role in carrying oxygen to working muscles, allowing the body to do exercise. While plant-based iron found in green leafy veg is not absorbed as well as the iron found in animal-derived foods, there are a few ways to enhance the iron absorbed from them. These include combining your greens with a source of vitamin C found in other coloured vegetables like capsicum, kiwi fruit, mandarin and tomato; and avoiding tannins found in excess tea, wine, and coffee.

To maximise the iron absorption in food it’s also important to avoid eating calcium rich food like yoghurt, cheese and milk at the same time.

Furthermore, these veggies are also good sources of potassium and magnesium – two minerals that play an important role in muscle contraction that is lost in sweat.


Rich in nitrates

Nitrates are found in a range of vegetables and can be beneficial to performance due to their ability to increase blood flow to working muscles. This increased blood flow results in greater oxygen delivery which can allow for greater exercise output.


8 practical ways to eat more green leafy vegetables

  1. Add a handful of cabbage or baby spinach to your fruit smoothie
  2. Add bok choy to stir-fry
  3. Add mixed leaves to your ham and cheese sandwich
  4. Add baby spinach to your breakfast omelette or scrambled eggs
  5. Add kale or brussel sprouts to your roast veggies
  6. Add mustard greens to your frittata
  7. Add arugula/rocket to your salad
  8. Add swiss chard to your curry


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