Iron – Essential Sports Nutrition

iron-essential-sports-nutritionIron is an important trace element that is present in all cells in the human body. It performs a number of key functions vital for life that include the transportation of oxygen from the lungs to tissues in the body in the form of haemoglobin, it forms an integral part of many enzyme reactions in tissues, and also acts as a transport medium for electrons within human cells.

Iron also helps to develop a strong and healthy immune system and is required for red blood cell production.

Because our bodies are unable to manufacture iron, much of what we require must be taken from the food we eat.

Iron can easily be obtained by following the correct dietary guidelines and adhering to national nutritional recommendations.

Of course, each and every person is different, although the foods you eat to ensure you maintain the correct iron levels are the same for everyone.

What foods are the best sources of iron?

Generally, although iron is widely distributed in foods, some foods are better absorbed than others with the best sources coming from products that are high in iron content and are quickly absorbed by the body.

Red meat, sea food and poultry

Red meat and seafood are renowned for providing plenty of iron as is poultry.

Recent studies have shown that haem iron is absorbed by the body around five times more efficiently than inorganic iron.

Iron absorption from foods that contain non-haem iron is much lower at around 5 per cent.

What many people fail to recognize however, is that some foods actually work to inhibit the absorption of iron by the body.

For tea lovers, this could be quite surprising news as tea along with coffee and bran have an inhibitory effect, limiting the levels of iron absorbed.

If you really want to get as much iron into your system as possible we would recommend that you focus on foods like red meat, poultry, green vegetables, dried fruit and broccoli.

How much iron do you need?

Although there are recommendations in place with regards to how much iron an average person should consume, there are currently no specific iron requirements in place for athletes that partake in different sports.

Despite this, endurance athletes are believed to have the highest requirements due to the potential for higher iron losses.

In fact some studies actually recommend iron intakes of around17.5mg/day for male distance runners in particular and 23mg/day for normally menstruating female runners.

If you are concerned about how much iron you actually need, the table below gives a rough guide.

Iron Requirements
AgeMale (Iron)Female (Iron)
9 – 13 years8mg/day8mg/day
14 – 18 years11mg/day15mg/day
Adult (19 – 50)8mg/day18mg/day
Adult (51+)8mg/day8mg/day

Iron deficiency

Iron deficiency is a problem that affects many people including athletes.

Symptoms of iron deficiency can occur even before the condition has progressed to anaemia and can include fatigue, dizziness, weakness, irritability, brittle nails and others.

If left untreated iron deficiency can ultimately lead to anaemia, increased fatigue, Thrombocytosis, or an elevated platelet count.

If you are unable to control your iron levels simply by eating the correct foods, you may want to investigate the use of iron supplements, although if you do so you should first seek medical advice.

Iron supplements

Iron supplementation will generally be required if your iron reserves are depleted.

Normally, supplementation involves between100 and 300mg of iron per day taken with vitamin C to enhance absorption.

It is important to note however that this method won’t work instantly.

Sometimes recovery of levels can take anything up to three months and blood levels need to be monitored during this period too – ten to twelve weeks generally seems to be the average.

As with many nutritional deficiencies, if you can control your iron levels simply by managing your diet and the things you eat, then this will always be the preferred method.

A diet rich in iron will prevent iron depletion reoccurring and provides a more natural approach to sustaining the correct balance.

On the flip side though, you have to bear in mind that correcting iron deficiency anemia cannot simply be achieved with the use of a strict iron-rich diet.

Depending on how serious your condition is, you may need to consult your doctor or a specialist dietician who can create a nutritional programme to suit your personal circumstances.

Iron depletion in athletes

Much of the above information about iron levels places everyone on a general scale but little is known about how a lack of iron impacts athletes specifically.

Generally, athletes have a higher risk of iron depletion for many reasons.

Firstly, high requirements such as increased red blood cell mass play an important part.

Increased red blood cell mass means athletes have higher iron needs.

These needs are also particularly high during periods of growth in younger athletes.

Athletes also tend to suffer from increased iron losses during periods of intense training and extended activity meaning more iron is required to replenish depleted reserves.

How iron is lost from the body

Iron is normally lost in sweat which means that athletes taking part in physically arduous sports are more likely to suffer from reduced iron levels as they perspire.

Iron can also be lost through gastrointestinal bleeding – this bleeding normally occurs during strenuous and tiring exercise and results from minor damage to the stomach and intestinal lining.

Nutritional factors that can lead to poor iron levels

Finally, dietary issues also play a part in maintaining the correct iron levels – especially with regards to athletes.

Iron levels can often be affected by strict dietary procedures that are in place as an athlete tries to maintain the perfect body mass and strength.

Factors that play a role include:

  • vegetarian

    Eating poorly balanced vegetarian diets.

  • meat & fish

    Ignoring your body’s need for meat and fish in an attempt to improve carbohydrate consumption.

  • reduced intake

    Forcing your body to rely on reduced kilojoule intake in an attempt to minimise body weight specific to the chosen sport.

Always remember that as an athlete you should never underestimate the importance of managing iron your consumption.

Iron is important in any nutritional programme, but even more so for competitive athletes looking to optimise their training and competitive performances.

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