What is iron and how do I get enough of it? Do women who exercise need more iron?
Exhausted after a run or finding it hard to even muster up enough motivation to exercise? Short of breath even running up the stairs? Feeling tired and washed out?
This may be your body simply crying out for a warm bath and an early night. But if you exercise regularly, these may very well be symptoms of low iron stores.
What is iron?
Iron is an important mineral as we need it to keep our bodies functioning at their best. Iron makes haemoglobin, which picks up the oxygen breathed into our lungs and transports it through the blood stream to every cell in our body; to our brain, to our muscles.
Iron is important for muscle function, brain function, and for preventing iron deficiency, anaemia.
We also need iron for normal energy metabolism and for our immune system.
What happens when our iron levels are low?
- our energy levels plummet,
- we become tired, weak and lethargic,
- exercise becomes more difficult and we fail to function on all cylinders.
Some Scary Statistics:
National Survey Data used by the British Nutrition Foundation shows that 25% of women in Britain have a low intake of iron and this is as high as 50% in 15-18 year old girls (below 8.0mg/day).
Females between the ages of 11 and 50 need to include a significantly higher amount of iron in their diets than their male counterparts, predominantly because they need to replenish iron lost through menstruation.
The recommended iron intake for pre-menopausal women is 14.8 mg, whereas for boys aged 11-18 it is 11.3 and for men only 8.7mg.
What about women and girls who exercise regularly?
The iron intake of women who exercise regularly needs to be even higher than the recommended daily intake.
Regular aerobic workouts tend to deplete iron stores through the loss of sweat, physical stress, muscular damage and the shifting of blood plasma. During high-impact activities such as running or aerobics iron is lost as red blood cells break apart from the repetitive pounding of feet and sometimes through gastro-intestinal bleeding caused by the repeated jarring of the body.
It is not just the top class female athletes who need to be vigilant as even the cumulative effect of moderate workouts can lead to iron deficiency.
Women who exercise and teenage young athletes who don't eat meat or fish need to make sure they get enough iron, as iron from animal sources (haem iron) is more easily absorbed by the body.
Iron deficiency is a real problem with women, especially young athletes, who combine regular hard exercise with a restricted calorie diet or with a vegan diet.
In fact this is the case for many of the micronutrients; not just iron but also nutrients such as calcium, and B vitamins, which are so essential for general overall health and well-being.
So how do you make sure that your body takes in enough iron?
Iron occurs in two main forms: heme and non-heme (also spelt haem).
Heme iron - found mostly in animal products
Heme iron is more readily absorbed by the body and is found in animal protein such as
- red meat,
- fish and
- dark meat poultry.
Lean steak, venison and shellfish such as clams, mussels, scallops and oysters are really high in heme iron.
If money is no object ½ dozen oysters before your meal will really increase your iron intake, but perhaps that’s not particularly practical or desirable for many of us!!
Spaghetti with clams or mussels, parsley and garlic is a balanced and low fat meal with plenty of iron and carbs to improve that next workout. Also venison steak; it’s the ultimate iron-rich meat and available in most supermarkets. Low in fat, you can cook it as you would a fillet steak and serve it with some steamed greens, spinach or broccoli.
Offal is also high in heme iron. It’s cheap but nor particularly on trend at the moment! Chicken livers are super cheap and a far cry from the rubbery lambs liver that put us all off liver at school in the 1970's (showing my age here!). Try them in sauteed in butter and garlic, served on a bed of watercress, with a honey and Dijon mustard dressing.
You may have difficulty tempting your teenage daughter with these suggestions; instead you could try a dish of prawns in chilli and garlic butter with a simple rocket salad and some wholemeal bread to mop up the sauce.
Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods such as
- dark green, leafy vegetables,
- dried fruits,
- whole grains,
- lentils and pulses,
- beans and
Non-heme iron is less easily absorbed by the body than heme iron.
Find more recipes to help boost your iron HERE.
Clever hack to help iron absorption!
For those who eat little or no meat, avoiding tannin (mainly in tea and coffee) helps iron absorption.
Also vitamin C enhances the absorption of iron.
At breakfast, try to substitute your cup of tea with half a grapefruit or a glass of juice. Have this with some iron-enriched cereal or wholegrain toast, or add strawberries and molasses to your porridge.
At dinner, sombine vitamin C-rich food with your meal - lentil dahl with fresh ginger and heaps of coriander, fragrant wholemeal rice and toasted almonds, spinach salad with pancetta and toasted walnuts, chickpea falafel, served with a spicy yoghurt sauce and a wedge of lemon or just a simple mushroom omelette with a green side salad.
My new baking mixes, too, are a great source of iron and B-vitamins. The savoury pancakes for breakfast or after a long run go down really well! Or try the enriched pizza base for an extra boost.
If you are worried that you might be anaemic please see your GP for a simple blood test before taking supplements.