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Vitamins and Minerals do I need to supplement? Part Three: Iron
By: Kellie Hogan (profile)
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Iron plays an important role in transporting oxygen around the body and iron deficiency can impair performance. Iron deficiency is one of if not the most common nutrient deficiency in the world.

I hope those who have been following these nutrition articles have done their homework after the last instalment and kept a close eye on their calcium intake, (and upped it where required). This time around we are going to concentrate on another nutrient of vital importance for females generally and in particular, female athletes. Iron plays an important role in transporting oxygen around the body and iron deficiency can impair performance. Iron deficiency is one of if not the most common nutrient deficiency in the world.

The nuts and bolts: Iron

Iron is a vital part of haemoglobin. Haemoglobin carries oxygen to every part of the body. As I am sure you are all aware, oxygen transportation around the body is essential as oxygen plays a role in just about all our body’s processes. If your iron, or haemoglobin is low, fatigue and a lack of energy result and it is these symptoms which are a common complaint for those who are iron deficient, or anaemic.

Iron also has a role to play in many of the enzymes involved in our body’s immune response and some people who are lacking in iron, also may experience lower immunity. Sickness can have a direct link to a negative performance in the golfing world as taking time away from training and practise to recover from illness means that skills and training programs are affected. There are also the obvious detriments to performance if you are unwell while travelling and competing.

So the obvious question is “How can I tell if I am iron deficient? Well iron deficiency can only be confirmed via a blood test. A doctor who is investigating iron deficiency will measure your plasma iron (that is, the iron in your blood) as well as your iron stores as this give us the best indication of your iron status. Some of the signs and symptoms of iron deficiency include;

  • Tiredness, lethargy, fatigue, poor stamina
  • Incapacity for physical work and exercise
  • Frequent infections
  • Feeling the cold temperatures more than usual.

 

Iron Requirements:

The iron needs of women are approximately double those of men. This is due mainly to the increased requirements as a result of monthly menstrual losses (and the demands of pregnancy).

In Australia, the Recommended dietary intake (RDI) for iron in women throughout the lifecycle varies and are as follows;

 

Life stage 

Iron requirement/day 

19-30yrs

18mg/day

31-50yrs

18mg/day

51-70yrs

8mg/day

>70yrs

8mg/day

Pregnancy & lactation

45mg/day

Iron Sources:

It should be said that iron generally is poorly absorbed from food. It is estimated that only 18% of dietary iron is absorbed from the typical Western diet and this drops to just 10% from a vegetarian diet. This difference exists due to the various forms of iron found in food. There are two types of dietary iron, haem iron and non haem iron. Haem iron is sourced usually from animal based products, whereas non haem iron typically is derived from plant sources. As mentioned, neither varieties are well absorbed, but haem iron is definitely the best of the two. Red meat is particularly rich in haem iron and contains twice as much as chicken and three times as much as from fish. Plant sources of iron including cereal grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts, eggs and some dried fruit do contribute to the iron in our diet, but from the more poorly absorbed non haem variety. Many people believe spinach is a good alternative to red meat as it has a higher iron content. While this is true, due to the fibre and oxalate content of spinach, we can only absorb about 5% of the iron from this food. Compare this to the 20% of iron we absorb from red meat and you will soon see that it will take many many plates full of spinach to reach your iron quota!!

The table below gives an idea of the calcium content of a range of foods.

Food source

Approx iron content/serve

Serve Size

Well absorbed sources (haem)

 

 

Beef – mince/sirloin

~4mg 

125g

Pork

~4mg

125g

Lamb

~7mg

125g

Chicken

~1mg

125g

Fish

~0.5mg

125g

Fish – salmon

~1mg

125g

Non haem sources

 

 

Whole wheat breakfast cereals or fortified breaky cereals

~3mg

40g

Spinach

~3mg

½ Cup

Legumes

2.2mg

½ Cup

Egg

1.1mg

1 egg

Brown rice

~1mg

1 Cup

Wholemeal bread

0.7mg

1 slice

As you can see it can be quite difficult to achieve adequate iron intake if you don’t eat red meat or don’t consume meat altogether as is the case with vegetarians. One tip for these individuals is to consume iron containing foods in conjunction with foods rich in Vitamin C.  Vitamin C assists with the absorption of non-haem iron, so a glass or fruit juice or Vitamin C rich foods such as tomato and capsicum (bell peppers) are a great addition to meals for non red meat eaters.

What about iron supplements?

An iron supplement can help if iron sources are low. Supplementing with iron is not recommended unless you have a known deficiency (confirmed by your doctor). Iron supplements contain non-haem iron only, so the same recommendations regarding Vitamin C exist. It is best to take iron supplements on an empty stomach as food can inhibit their absorption. Some people experience stomach upset and constipation due to iron supplementation, so talk to your doctor of Sports Dietitian about the right one for you.

 

Kellie Hogan

Dietitian/Nutritionist APD

Advanced  Sports Dietitian

B Hlth Sci. (Nutr&Diet) (Hons)

Grad Dip. Sports Nutrition (IOC)(Hons)

For more information check out the  Sports Dietitians Australia website www.sportsdietitians.com and the

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