A Tiny Underestimated Seed With Big Athletic Potential

by guest blogger George Grunfelder, 4th year nutrition student, Winthrop University

In a previous blog post, we dove into the craze that is nitrates for athletic performance enhancement. I won’t touch on everything covered over there, so check it out if you get a chance.

In brief, nitrates that come from plant based sources are beneficial to the body in that they produce nitric oxide, a powerful vasodilator. This means they enhance the body’s ability to open blood vessels. This is health promoting, as it can lower blood pressure, a risk factor for strokes. This is also beneficial to athletes as it equals more cellular respiration, more nutrient transport, and a more efficient workout. You will experience less perceived effort for the same amount of work. In other words, you will increase your endurance. It is important to choose plant based sources for your nitrates however, as added nitrates and nitrites in processed meats have been linked to cancer formation. 

When thinking about nitrate rich foods to consume in order to enhance your athletic performance, beets and beet juice are probably the first things that come to mind, and rightfully so. These foods are very high in nitrates, averaging more than 250mg/100g of fresh weight. However, an important consideration to make when choosing beet juices or supplements is that most of these products are not independently tested to verify their nitrate content. Supplements in particular are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which means you can’t be sure of what you’re getting! And what if you don’t like beetroot juice or beets? What if consuming those foods prior to your exercise causes you GI distress? You could always eat a hearty meal packed with green leafy vegetables. As mentioned in the linked blog, one cup of nitrate-rich leafy greens will contains roughly 300mg of nitrates. Say you are trying to fuel and boost performance during physical activity though, greens and beets aren’t exactly the most convenient foods to carry on a run. 

No need to fear, fennel seeds to the rescue. Fennel seeds are the fruit of the fennel plant, and are popular primarily in India, though they are used around the world. They are used as a mouth freshener, often being set out in a bowl in Indian restaurants as a post-meal snack. More than being a convenient breath freshener though, they are an excellent source of naturally occurring dietary nitrates! Each 100g of fresh fennel seeds contains roughly 100-250mg of nitrates. Chewing fennel seeds leads to a significant increase in nitric oxide levels in the blood, which dilates blood vessels and enhances athletic performance. 

Besides their sizable nitrate content, fennel seeds are a nutrition powerhouse. 1/4 cup of fennel seeds contains:

90 milligrams (mg) of potassium

11.25 mg of sodium

209.5 international units (IU) of vitamin A

10.75 mg of calcium

2.6 mg of vitamin C

0.16 mg of iron

0.01 mg of vitamin B-6

3.75 mg of magnesium

 Fennel seeds have many healthful properties, and are known to be carminatives, anti-cancer, anti-hirsutism, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antiplatelet, antithrombotic, and antispasmodic! 

In addition to their excellent nutrition, fennel seeds are cheap, lightweight, and easy to consume, making them ideal to bring along during a run. Consider adding whole fennel seeds to your trail mix in order to boost your performance to the next level. Other options for whole fennel seed consumption include sprinkling it in your yogurt, adding it to peanut butter or avocado toast, of throwing it in your cottage cheese. Fennel is a staple in many European and Indian dishes. You could try flavouring your favorite fish or meat dishes with it in order to kick up both the flavor and nitrate content! Fennel seeds are a versatile and healthy addition to any diet.

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