Iron deficiency anemia is a relatively common problem among athletes, especially females and teens. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), 9% of adolescent and adult women have iron deficiency anemia. In addition, a small study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association from 2005 found that 36% of recreational female athletes (and 6% of male athletes) were iron deficient. In this post I’ll explain what Iron does, how much of it you need, and why you need it.
What is Iron?
Iron is a mineral with many important functions in the body. It is an essential component in the protein hemoglobin, the part of red blood cells that transports oxygen to tissues throughout the body, and myoglobin, another protein that supplies oxygen to muscles. Iron is found in enzymes, which help the body with important reactions, and also helps cells grow and develop normally.
Adolescent males (age 14-18) need 11 mg of iron/day and adult males need 8 mg/day. Adolescent females need 15 mg/day and adult females need 18 mg/day. Men and women over age 51 need 8 mg/day.
Finding the Right Balance
Iron deficiency is known as anemia and can occur for several reasons. Most of the time it is because you are getting less iron from food than your body needs to make hemoglobin. Anemia can also be caused by problems absorbing iron, which is most common in people with Crohn’s or Celiac disease, people who have had gastric bypass surgery, or those who have very high calcium intake due to supplements or antacids.
Some groups are at a higher risk of iron deficiency anemia than others. Women, adolescents, athletes, vegetarians, and people who severely restrict calories are most at risk for iron deficiency. Women are high risk because they have higher iron needs due to menstrual blood loss and because they tend to eat fewer calories than men, leaving less opportunity to consume enough iron. Adolescents are at risk because they have higher iron needs to support normal growth. Athletes are more likely to be anemic because higher intensity training causes the body to increase production of red blood cells, thus increasing the need for iron. Iron is also lost due to “foot strike” – or through damage to blood vessels in the feet from running in poor quality shoes – and sweat, so athletes tend to lose more. Vegetarians and people who avoid red meat tend to get their iron from foods that contain the less available form of iron, which means less is absorbed by the body. Oftentimes, female athletes in their late teens through mid 50s are at the highest risk because they fit into several of these at risk categories.
Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include fatigue, higher heart rate during exercise, decreased performance at school or work, and diminished immune system function (which could lead to recurring colds). Anemia is typically diagnosed with a blood test done by a doctor. For most people, eating more iron rich foods or taking an iron supplement or multivitamin with iron will reverse the anemia in a few months. Start by adding 3 servings of foods with readily available iron per week. These include lean red meat such as bison, lean beef, pork and lamb, eggs, molasses, and oysters. Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron, so include foods with vitamin C such as citrus fruits or juices, tomatoes, broccoli, strawberries, and green peppers with your red meat or iron supplement. On the other hand, calcium tends to inhibit iron absorption, so avoid dairy with higher iron foods.
To Wrap it Up…
- Iron is an essential nutrient that the body needs for oxygen transport and cell growth
- Your body can’t make iron so you need to get it from food. Good food sources of iron are lean red meats, oysters, and eggs. You can also find iron in spinach, beans, and fortified grain product, but this form of iron isn’t absorbed as well.
- To reverse or prevent iron deficiency anemia, incorporate 2-3 servings of lean red meat or eggs per week along with some vitamin C to optimize absorption.
Recipe of the Week: Super Simple Grilled Apples
3 Granny Smith apples
Cinnamon to taste
Core apples and cut into ½ inch thick slices. Spread with coconut oil and sprinkle with cinnamon. Grill over open flame for 5-10 minutes, or until apples are tender and browned on the bottom.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. FastStats: Anemia or Iron Deficiency. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/anemia.htm. Accessibility verified August 16, 2012.
Sinclare L, Hinton P. Prevalence of Iron Deficiency with and without Anemia in Recreationally Active Men and Women. J Am Diet Assoc. 2005. 105 (6): 975-978.
Escott-Stump, S. Nutrition and Diagnosis – Related Care. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2008.
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Iron – Health Professional Fact Sheet. Available at http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/. Accessibility verified August 16, 2012.