A word on iron

I’m doing another talk for netball juniors this weekend and one of the things I will be talking about is iron. It is one of the most important micronutrients and also one that is often deficient in certain populations. These include adolescent girls, female athletes, the elderly, vegetarians and vegans, but low iron levels can occur in any body at any time.

  • Chemical name: ferrous sulphate/gluconate/fumarate
  • RDA for adults: 8mg male, 18mg female
  • Top sources: branflakes, allbran, sesame seeds, venison, sardines in tomato sauce, dried apricots, rump steak
  • Absorption: tannins in tea can bind with iron and reduce its absorption into the blood. High intakes of calcium, soya and caffeine can also inhibit absorption. Vitamin C helps the iron found in plant sources (nuts and seeds for example) to be absorbed

Iron forms part of haemoglobin, the pigment that makes blood red and transports oxygen round the body. 2/3 of the total iron in the body is found in haemoglobin, with the rest present in the liver, spleen, bone marrow and muscles. Iron is an important nutrient for growth and is often lacking in teenage girls when they begin menstruating. Those on a restrictive diet or one devoid of meat can also experience low iron levels in the blood.

In terms of sport, particularly netball in this situation, impact against other players or the floor may increase iron losses through heightened red blood cell destruction. It is therefore important for young athletes, especially females, to monitor their iron intake and maintain a good level.

Even a short term iron deficiency can reduce maximum oxygen uptake and aerobic efficiency and can also reduce the body’s endurance capacity. Iron is also important for the immune system, which we know from the vitamins section is important for athletes. Even a small decrease in haemoglobin levels can reduce performance by 20%, showing the importance of iron for athletes.

Supplements may be necessary if iron deficiency leads to anaemia but bear in mind the top iron sources and those compounds that reduce its absorption. Getting iron levels up to normal can take months, so be patient.

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