Whatever you think you may know about iron, know this: your body needs it no matter what your daily activity is like. Gym goers, athletes, and bodybuilders – while you may pay more attention to your overall health and nutrition than the average person, vitamins are quite often a little lower on the priority list (somewhere near ‘remember to wash shaker’). But unfortunetly, iron deficiency can still find you in the gym.
In fact, as an avid exerciser, you’re at a greater risk of iron deficiency as it can be lost through muscle damage, and to a lesser extent, sweat. Plus, high-intensity training and longer endurance training can result in ‘foot strike hemolysis’, which is the break down of red blood cells caused by repetitive impact. Do we have your attention now?
Why Do You Need Iron?
Iron is essential in transporting oxygen and carbon dioxide around the body, playing a vital role in the creation of red blood cells and functioning of the immune system. It’s also important for exercise as, without enough, the aerobic metabolism can’t function as it should – reducing the capacity of oxygen uptake in muscles (and hampering your lifts).
As an essential nutrient, you need to get your iron from food sources, but this isn’t always as easy as it seems – particularly for vegetarians, vegans, pregnant women and anyone with a congenital iron deficiency.
Not consuming enough iron means you can develop anaemia, which impairs the body’s ability to transport oxygen. Among the many things that vitally require oxygen in the body, the brain tops the list. Without enough iron, both mental health and capacity can suffer, plus, concentration and mood can also be considerably affected.
How Much Iron Do I Actually Need?
You need iron daily and regularly. The reference nutrient intake for iron currently is:
- For adult males, 8.7mg per day
- For adult females, 14.8mg per day
Symptoms of Iron Deficiency
Many people don’t pay enough attention to what’s in the food they’re eating – and, to be fair, not all food labels detail the minerals and vitamins that are in there, making it pretty tough to know your iron intake. The symptoms that can arise may be the first sign and at first, there’s a good chance they may go amiss, as they can be mild in the first instance. If you’re concerned about your iron levels, you can put your mind at ease with a simple blood test, but it’s good idea to familiarise yourself with the symptoms. These can include:
- Cold hands or feet
- Pale skin
- Fast heart rate
- Brittle nails
- Shortness of breath
Tiredness is something you’re bound to notice in the middle of a workout, especially if you’re feeling sluggish before you’ve even started to lift.
How Can You Get More Iron?
Fortunately, iron isn’t hard to come by, but for carnivores, vegans and vegetarians alike, iron supplements are a good solution to iron deficiency. As a general rule, doses of 17mg are considered safe for anyone not told otherwise by a doctor.
Still, supplements should be taken alongside a healthy, balanced diet, so we’ve explore the best sources:
Meat is a top source of iron, with beef, liver and red meat in general being the highest on the list. Plant-based choices that are rich in iron are beans, nuts, dark green leafy vegetables like kale, and also fortified foods like flour and cereals.
It’s important to remember that, although plant-based foods can contain iron, the type of iron they contain is ‘non-haem iron’, as opposed to the ‘haem iron’ found primarily in animal sources. Non-haem iron found in plant-based foods are more poorly absorbed than haem iron, which is readily bio-available, which means if you’re only eating plant-based sources of iron, an iron supplement can support your intake.
A good tip when it comes to getting more iron is to make sure that you also eat a good source of vitamin C as this improves iron absorption. Vitamin C rich foods include oranges, strawberries and broccoli.
Take Home Message
Iron is incredibly important for your overall wellbeing, and not a mineral to snub for anyone that’s exercising regularly. The answer is simple: avoid fatigue and the various other problems associated with too little iron in your blood by ensuring you’re getting iron from dietary sources, as well as supplements for a boost when you’re diet is falling short.