Iron and Athletic Performance​

Here's a few tips to ensure your iron levels are always optimal

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Stephen Coote

March 10, 2020

What has 6.43mg of iron per cup and comes in at only 41 calories?

We’ll give you a clue - A certain cartoon character chugged it out of a can torn open with his bare fists.

That’s right: Good old fashioned spinach! And that’s just one of many plant-based sources of iron out there.

Why Does Iron Matter?

Iron is vital for regulating the amount of hemoglobin in our blood, which enables oxygen to be transported in the blood. Kind of a big deal for any of us (let alone those who hit the gym or cardio hard).

Iron is directly linked to energy levels and performance in athletic pursuits. As it stands female athletes are currently the most susceptible to iron deficiency (anemia), but it’s not just an issue for ladies of sport. As it stands at least 10 million people in the US have low iron levels and, as such, will be suffering the low energy and low performance consequences. These are people who aren’t following a plant-based diet either, so if someone asks you where you get your iron from it might be worth asking them the same question!

You can spot low iron levels if you are always tired, find yourself short of breath, and have pale skin. If you experience these symptoms it’s time to get to a medical professional and to see that your needs are met.

Iron Needs for Everyone

Our iron needs are one of those things which vary depending on age, gender, and personal circumstances, with everyone needing to find the right amount for their personal circumstances.

As it stands the recommendations are:

Age

Male

Female

Pregnancy

Lactation

Birth to 6 months

0.27 mg*

0.27 mg*

 

 

7–12 months

11 mg

11 mg

 

 

1–3 years

7 mg

7 mg

 

 

4–8 years

10 mg

10 mg

 

 

9–13 years

8 mg

8 mg

 

 

14–18 years

11 mg

15 mg

27 mg

10 mg

19–50 years

8 mg

18 mg

27 mg

9 mg

51+ years

8 mg

8 mg

 

 

* Adequate Intake (AI)[1]

Due to the susceptibility of female athletes to iron deficiency it’s also recommended that females who engage in vigorous physical activity take in more iron than the average recommendation by about 10mg of iron, with special focus given on distance runners. [2]

Vegans and vegetarians are recommended to have 1.8 times the RDA given to those who consume plant-based sources. [1]

Why The 1.8?

Very good question!

The additional 1.8 times of iron is recommended because although plants offer a great amount of (non-heme) iron, the iron they have is not as bio-available as that found in animal-based (heme) iron.

This might make it sound like plant-based iron is to be avoided in favor of heme iron. However, if the average person were to do this then they’d likely find themselves suffering from an iron deficiency very soon. This is because heme iron only currently makes up about 10-15% of Western populations. The rest we all take from plant-based sources. [https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/#en3}

This means that, if you want to beat iron deficiency, then you’re A-game approach should be too actually focus in on your plant-based sources and aim for optimized whole-food nutrition.

Iron Intake Made Easy

Say that you’re a female endurance athlete and you’re looking to get in a large amount of iron. Firstly, don’t go in blind! Iron intake of 40mg + a day can be dangerous for the human body. Too much is often just as bad (or worse) than not enough. Thankfully non-heme iron’s absorption levels allow for the body to regulate intake in a healthier and more balanced manner. The same cannot be said for heme iron, which is taken in all at once and then just builds up if excess is consumed. 

Some studies have linked the consumption of heme-iron with a 57% increase of coronary heart disease too, so it’s fair to say you rely on heme iron in excess at your own risk! [4] 

Secondly, though, just by having one cup of spinach with each meal you’ve already had 19.29mg if you’re on a 3 meal per day plan.

Granted, not everyone wants to be having spinach every meal (even if it is really easy and handy to blend in to a smoothie) so it pays to know about other plant-based sources of iron too.

Fancy combining protein and iron, for example? Tofu has 2.7mg per cup. If you’re a nuts and seeds fan then 30g of pumpkin seeds (3mg) or cashew nuts (1.9mg) will offer up something delicious to sprinkle on your oats. [5]

Still thinking about smoothies? A single teaspoon of spirulina will offer up 2mg of iron, along with having an anti-inflammatory effect.

Even in conventional recommendations, white beans also come up trumps as one of the best iron sources someone can have. This is especially the case, as it lacks a lot of the fat and associated health risks of red and processed meat. [6] Time for a curry, chili, or bean dip, anyone?

The Takeaway

High energy requires a high iron intake and with most of us relying on plants as our primary source it pays to dedicate our time to meeting our needs through the best plant-based sources we can.

Thankfully a lot of plants offer up a high iron profile, with many iron-rich plants being affordable, easy to access, and delicious in a dish.

When meeting your iron needs is as easy as a few cups of greens per day there really is no excuse (or criticism) for a lack of iron in a vegan diet.

If you found this article useful, please share it with your friends so we can help change the common misconceptions people have about iron and plant-based diets. 

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