The Mega Mineral You Might Be Missing
Exhausted? Check your iron. Athletes, especially women, often run low on this performance-making or -breaking nutrient. Here’s why.
You’re training hard, but the quality of your workouts is going down and your recovery time is going up. You may need to pump more iron — the mineral, that is.
“Red blood cells require iron to make hemoglobin, which carries oxygen through the blood to all of your tissues and cells,” says Robin Foroutan, RDN, an integrative dietitian in New York City and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Without adequate supplies of iron, you can’t make enough hemoglobin, which can cause your red blood cells to not be the right size or color.” Fewer quality red blood cells means there’s less oxygen circulating, causing exercise, work and projects to feel harder than usual.
While it’s considered a “trace” mineral, meaning you need only small amounts of it, iron is just as vital to the way your body functions as any of the seven major, or macro, minerals are. And despite not needing much iron, exercise and eating a healthy diet can actually make it hard to get enough, as you’re about to learn.
While it’s considered a “trace” mineral, meaning you need only small amounts of it, iron is just as vital to the way your body functions as any of the seven major, or macro, minerals are.
Digging Into the Iron-Deficiency Issue
Iron can play hard to get, especially with superactive people. So much so, in fact, that according to a 2019 review published in the “European Journal of Applied Physiology,” 15 to 35 percent of female athletes and 5 to 11 percent of male athletes are deficient. (Women can be at a higher risk because of their periods.)
Why is it so elusive? If you’re cutting calories or eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, you may not be eating enough foods that contain iron. You also might not be absorbing all of the iron you are consuming. Add heavy workouts to the mix, and you could actually be losing some of the iron you’re taking in. “Endurance athletes, like runners, damage red blood cells when they run on very hard surfaces, particularly with poor-quality shoes,” says Foroutan. (The less cushioning and support you have, the harder the impact and the more red blood cells you can injure, taking some iron with them.) You also lose some iron in supersweaty workouts — such as HIIT, endurance or hot sessions — she says, but typically not enough to cause a deficiency on its own.
“Iron deficiency develops in stages,” says Floris Wardenaar, PhD, an assistant professor of sports nutrition at Arizona State University. “In the beginning [called mild deficiency], your iron stores become depleted, but you still have enough to distribute oxygen throughout the body, so you might not even notice,” he says. “Then, as iron supplies continue to dwindle, red blood cells start to become affected [a marginal deficiency].” You may or may not feel tired or see changes in your performance or recovery. Chronic gastrointestinal issues can be a sign you aren’t properly absorbing nutrients. If a marginal deficiency is left unchecked, you could develop the most extreme version, iron-deficient anemia, which means you can’t make enough quality red blood cells. And without quality red blood cells, Wardenaar says you may experience fatigue, pale skin, cold hands and feet, a sore tongue, dry skin and hair, and brittle nails.
If you notice any of these symptoms, especially unexplainable fatigue, call your doc and request a complete blood count, as well as tests for your ferritin levels (how iron is stored in the body) and total iron-binding capacity, says Foroutan. Note that if your labs come back normal but you still feel off, you should ask about tests that can dig even deeper.
How to Increase Your Intake
Here’s a quick rundown of where to get your iron fix and how much you need. For starters, there are two types of iron: heme, which comes from animals, particularly red meat and poultry, and non-heme, which is found in plants. “The iron in heme foods tends to be easy to absorb,” says Foroutan. Non-heme iron, however, has natural plant compounds attached to it that are hard to break down, she says, which can make absorption more difficult.
The recommended daily intake is 8 milligrams for men and 18 milligrams for women (27 if you’re pregnant), according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). If you’re vegetarian, you need almost twice that amount, per the NIH, to make up for poor absorption. Eating spinach and other dark leafy greens, dried apricots and peaches, peas, beans, lentils and hearts of palm can help you pack in more of the mineral. Check in with your doc before you start crazy-upping your amount or even considering a supplement, because 45 milligrams or more of iron, unless prescribed, could cause stomach issues.
To help your body better absorb non-heme iron, pair it with heme sources by, say, adding a little steak to your spinach and lentil bowl, as the former improves the absorption of the latter. Or, if meat’s not your thing, combine iron-rich foods with those containing vitamin C, such as bell peppers, tomatoes, citrus fruits and strawberries. “Vitamin C kicks off a chemical process that helps break those strong plant compounds down, so you get more iron from them,” says Adam Feit, the performance-nutrition coordinator at Precision Nutrition. Interestingly, the tannins in tea and coffee can limit iron absorption, so try to avoid those within 60 to 90 minutes of eating iron-rich foods, adds Wardenaar.
Once you get your iron levels on point, you should start feeling better within a few days, says Wardenaar. And you’ll likely never want to go back to leaving it off your plate (or barbell).
Words: Janet Lee
Illustration: Davide Bonazzi