Iron deficiency can decrease performance and lead to anemia. This article explains how iron works and what to look out for to make sure that your female athlete is not iron deficient.
Here’s How Iron Works
It is common knowledge that we need oxygen to live. We also need iron to live. In fact, iron helps your body circulate oxygen. It does this by producing a protein called hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is a protein in your red blood cells, and it carries oxygen throughout your body. Without iron, your red blood cells won’t have sufficient amounts of hemoglobin to carry oxygen throughout your body. In other words, when you are out of breath, it is because your body needs oxygen, so you feel tired. When you are low on iron, your body can’t transport enough oxygen, so you feel tired.
What You Should Know About Iron Deficiency
Females are more susceptible to iron deficiency because females lose blood every month during their menstrual cycle. Athletes are known to be more susceptible because of the excess loss of iron through sweat and urine. Although, research is mixed when testing if female youth athletes are more susceptible to iron deficiency than youth female non-athletes. What we do know from research is that when there is a deficiency of iron, performance decreases.
Other signs and symptoms of iron deficiency include:
- brain fog
- swollen tongue
- paleness of the skin
- pica (a desire to eat odd things such as dirt, ice, or paper)
Another source states other signs and symptoms can also include irregular heartbeat, pale skin, weakness, dizziness, cold hands and feet, and headaches.
Dangers of Iron Deficiency
Iron deficiency is not anemia; however, it can lead to anemia. The first stage of iron deficiency is a drop in iron stores. This is tricky to catch because your iron stores are not the same iron that produces hemoglobin; therefore, it will not necessarily affect your daily activities. The second stage of iron deficiency is when iron transport decreases. This is when you might start to feel tired in your daily activities because, as you now know, iron has a big role in transporting oxygen throughout your body. The third stage of iron deficiency is a lack of iron, plus a lack of hemoglobin. At this point, iron deficiency has progressed to anemia.
How to Make Sure You’re Getting Enough Iron
The RDA for iron in youth females 14-18 years of age is 15 mg (this is higher than males, whose recommended intake is 11 mg). Good sources of iron-rich foods are listed below:
- Shellfish such as clams, muscles, and oysters have 3 mg of iron per 3.5 ounces (about the size of your palm)
- Beef is 2-3 mg per 3 ounces (also about the size of your palm)
- Spinach has just under 3 mg of iron per cup
- *Yes, spinach loses some nutrients when cooked, but iron is not one of them, so you can enjoy a fresh cup of raw or cooked spinach for your iron needs!
- Lentils have 6.6 mg per cup
- Chickpeas and black-eye peas have about 5 mg per cooked cup
- White, lima, and red kidney beans have 4-6 mg per cup cooked
- Palm hearts have 4.5 mg per cup
- 1 large potato has 3 mg iron
These are just some of the highest quality foods rich in iron.
What to do if you think You are Iron Deficient
If you think you might be iron deficient, a blood test checking levels of iron and hemoglobin is needed for diagnosis. The blood test will count your hematocrit levels, which is the percent of your blood volume made up of red blood cells. Additional blood tests include the measurement of ferritin in your blood as well as the size and color of your red blood cells.
If you think you are iron deficient, taking an iron supplement might not be an adequate solution for everybody. Some supplements come with side effects such as GI stress, and too much iron can also be a bad thing. Start off by getting your iron from real, whole foods and seeking professional help from a sports dietitian.
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