The Mineral Most Athletes Need More Of in Their Diets

To keep your athletic performance at its peak, be sure to get enough iron in your diet.

There's more to performance nutrition than carbs and protein. The little things, like vitamins and minerals, matter too.

Iron, for example, assists in the production of ATP, the body's source of energy, and in the transportation of oxygen through the blood and into the muscles. A diet rich in iron is of particular importance for young athletes who need to succeed both in the classroom and on the field.

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A diet lacking iron can have troubling consequences. An iron deficiency is most likely to occur during times of growth for young males, so high school athletes need to pay special attention to this micronutrient.

Short-term iron deficiency can lead to behavioral issues like apathy and confusion, which make it hard to concentrate both at your desk and during practice. If left untreated, iron deficiency can turn into iron deficiency anemia, which is linked to fatigue, weakness and poor athletic performance. It's due to a reduction in oxygen transported to the muscles, which prevents muscles from performing to their full potential.

There are a few ways athletes can develop iron deficiency. Blood loss means loss of iron, which can lead to iron deficiency. However, if you lose a lot of blood, playing sports is probably not a high priority. A more likely culprit would be gastrointestinal bleeds, which can occur in endurance athletes after repeated bouts of intensive training. Iron is also commonly lost in small amounts through sweat, urine and foot strike hemolysis (a result of running on hard surfaces). Large iron losses can also occur during menstruation, resulting in greater risk of iron deficiency in adolescent and adult females.

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The most likely reason for iron deficiency, however, is your diet. Iron is found in two forms: heme and nonheme. Heme iron is found in foods such as meat, fish, oysters and poultry. Nonheme iron is provided by vegetables, beans, grains and some animal-based foods like eggs. Heme iron is more readily absorbed, but both forms play a role in meeting the needs of athletes. Vegetarians and vegans may struggle to meet their iron needs due to a lack of heme iron consumption in meat.

Other factors can hinder the body's ability to absorb iron. Phytates, found in grains and vegetables, can actually inhibit the absorption of nonheme iron. Tannins, found in tea and coffee, can also. Fortunately, vitamin C actually improves the absorption of nonheme iron, so chowing down on citrus with an iron-rich meal can help your body absorb more of the good stuff.

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If you're worried about your iron levels, your first step should be to ensure that you're consuming adequate calories. If you're not eating enough food, it's likely that you're deficient in more than just iron. Also consider incorporating more animal-based foods into your diet on a daily basis, as well as citrus high in vitamin C. For improved absorption of iron, vegetarians and vegans should make every effort to consume foods high in vitamin C with their meals.

If you're still concerned about your iron levels after addressing your diet, your best bet is to consult with your primary care physician, who may suggest you take an iron supplement.

Iron-Rich Snacks

  • Trail mix with 8 oz. iron-fortified cheerios, 2 oz. raisins (1/4 cup = 0.8 mg), 4 oz. pumpkin seeds (21.4 mg iron)
  • 4 oz. iron-fortified oatmeal, 6 dried apricots (29.2 mg iron)
  • Salad with 1 cup spinach, 1 cup kale, ½ cup broccoli, ½ cup orange wedges (2.1 mg iron)
  • Three medium oysters with lemon (11.61 mg iron)
  • 1 medium sized flank steak, lean meat with trimmed fat (7.12 mg iron)
  • 1 large potato, baked (2.09 mg iron)

Iron Needs by Age and Gender

  • Females/Males age 9-13: 8mg/day
  • Males age 14-18: 11mg/day
  • Females age 14-18: 15mg/day
  • Males age 19 +: 8mg/day
  • Females age 19-51: 18mg/day

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