IRON DEFICIENCY & PERFORMANCE

What Athletes Should Know



Iron is a mineral important for several roles throughout the body, particularly energy metabolism, oxygen transport from the lungs to organs and tissues, and maintaining acid-base balance within the body.


These critical functions mean iron deficiency directly impacts performance.


Iron deficiency is quite common in athletes, especially female athletes (due to menstruation), however male athletes can also be at risk.

IRON LOSSES


Iron is lost each day through sweat, skin, urine, the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and during menstruation.


High intensity and endurance-type exercise, common in athletic training, increases iron losses through heavy sweating and the speed at which red blood cells are broken down to supply body tissues with oxygen.


Athlete iron losses can be more than double that of a sedentary person.

WHO'S AT RISK


Athletes at greatest risk of deficiency:

  • Female athletes

  • Vegetarian/vegan athletes

  • Young athletes (growth increases needs)

  • Distance runners

  • Those training at high altitudes

  • Regular blood donors

  • Those dieting/underfueling

PERFORMANCE IMPACT


Symptoms of iron deficiency:

  • Weakness

  • Impaired muscle function

  • Fatigue/exhaustion

  • Decreased performance

  • Increased heart rate

  • Increased shortness of breath during exercise

  • Headaches

  • Dizziness

  • Poor appetite

  • Paleness

  • Sensitivity to cold

IRON SOURCES


Dietary iron comes in 2 forms: heme & non-heme


Heme iron sources are animal-based and include meat, poultry, fish, oysters. Red meat is one of the richest sources of iron.


Non-heme sources are plant-based:

beans, lentils, tofu, baked potatoes, cashews, darky leafy greens (i.e. spinach), fortified breakfast cereals, & whole-grain and enriched breads.

The body absorbs 2-3 times more iron from animal sources than it does plant-based (non-heme) sources.


Vitamin C helps our bodies better absorb non-heme iron sources. Vegetarians and vegan athletes should pair non-heme iron sources with vitamin C rich foods to improve absorption.


Vitamin C rich foods:

  • Bell peppers

  • Oranges & OJ

  • Grapefruit

  • Broccoli

  • Strawberries

  • Brussels sprouts

  • Grapefruit

  • Tomato







TREATING IRON DEFICIENCY


Iron deficiency is diagnosed through blood tests, most commonly by assessing blood ferritin levels.


Iron supplementation without clinical evidence of low levels is discouraged as iron supplements can cause GI distress.


If you are experiencing symptoms of low iron, work with your physician and a Sports Dietitian to navigate dietary changes to improve iron intake and absorption, as well as to determine if an iron supplement may be appropriate for you.

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© 2020 by Jessica Isaacs, RD