What's Missing From the Female Athlete's Diet, Part 2: Iron

April 2, 2013 | Kate Knappenberger

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In 2010, Paula Findley became the only female triathlete to win consecutive ITU World Championship Series events. However in the 2012 London Olympics, her undiagnosed case of anemia caused her to finish in last place.

Have you reached a performance plateau? Do you feel like you're training harder than ever and not seeing results? Something very important may be missing from your diet. This article, the second in a series highlighting nutrients commonly missing from the female athlete's diet, is about iron.

Nutrient deficiency can happen no matter how healthy or clean your diet is. Take "Sarah" for instance. She is a marathoner who exercised religiously and ate a balanced diet in five to six meals a day. Although she took recovery days, she was constantly exhausted. A doctor's visit revealed anemia. How was this possible? Sarah ate way more than the recommended serving of vegetables a day? (See Anemia and the Athlete.)

Recent research reports that up to 60% of female athletes have some degree of iron depletion. Although it is not full-blown anemia, iron depletion can negatively impact performance.

Iron is the mineral responsible for forming the body's red blood cells. When someone lacks dietary iron, her body cannot make hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein that attaches oxygen to red blood cells in the lungs. Decreased levels mean less oxygen is delivered to muscles during exercise, limiting energy and hindering performance. (See also Iron Deficiency and the Female Athlete.)

Signs of iron deficiency anemia

  • Fatigue
  • Higher heart rate during exercise
  • Inability to finish workouts

Who's at risk?

  • Endurance athletes: During endurance exercise, there is very little blood flow to the stomach and intestines. This can cause a small amount of bleeding and iron loss.
  • Users of anti-inflammatory medications: Anti-inflammatory meds can also cause bleeding in the stomach, which results in iron loss.
  • Runners: Running requires repetitive pounding, which can cause red blood cells to burst in the feet. This is known as foot strike hemolysis.
  • Menstruating females: Blood loss causes iron loss. That's why females require more iron than men.
  • Growing adolescents: Iron is used at an increased rate during growth spurts to help produce red blood cells and hemoglobin.
  • Heavy sweaters: Small amounts of iron are lost in sweat.

How to determine if you're anemic

The only way to know for sure if you're anemic or have low iron stores is to see your doctor and request serum ferritin, hematocrit and hemoglobin tests.

If your levels are low, your doctor may recommend a ferrous sulfate supplement. Even though you may have some symptoms of iron deficiency, don't take an iron supplement if your blood levels are normal! Taking an iron supplement when you are not iron deficient can lead to increased fatigue, abdominal pain, mineral deficiencies, organ damage, abnormal heart beat, and brain damage.

Keeping iron levels normal

Females require 15-18 milligrams (mg) of iron per day. In order to meet this goal, include some foods high in iron in your diet. The iron found in animal foods is easiest for the body to absorb. Pairing iron-rich foods with foods high in Vitamin C increases the absorption of iron in your body.

Foods high in iron: lean cuts of red meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, beans, lentils, iron fortified cereal, nuts, dark leafy vegetables.

Foods high in Vitamin C: strawberries, citrus fruits, cantaloupe, peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, spinach, potatoes.

Additional Considerations

If you're a vegetarian, a woman of childbearing age, or have several of the risk factors listed above, you may want to consider a One-a-Day multivitamin/mineral supplement that contains iron. Consult a registered dietitian or a physician with questions about supplements.

Don't make training harder than it already is. If you're experiencing symptoms of iron deficiency anemia, see your doctor. As a female athlete, including iron-rich foods in your daily diet may be just the boost you need to take your performance to the next level.

Catch Up

What's Missing From the Female Athlete's Diet, Part 1: Calories


Sports Nutrition Practice Manual for Professionals: http://www.amazon.com/Sports-Nutrition-Practice-Manual-Professionals/dp/0880914521/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1364410010&sr=1-2&keywords=Sports+Nutrition+for+Professionals

Kate Knappenberger
- Kate Knappenberger, RD, CSSD, ATC, is an assistant professor and athletic trainer at Daytona State College (Daytona Beach, Fla.). She earned her master's degree in...
Kate Knappenberger
- Kate Knappenberger, RD, CSSD, ATC, is an assistant professor and athletic trainer at Daytona State College (Daytona Beach, Fla.). She earned her master's degree in...
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