Iron is a nutrient of concern for athletes

July 13, 1999|By Lynn F. Little

Whether you are pumping iron, training for the Iron Man Marathon or just trying to stay fit, iron is one nutrient that needs to be in balance for peak performance.

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Relatively common among all teenage girls and women, iron-deficiency anemia is even more common among female athletes, especially runners and ballet dancers. To add insult to injury, women with marginal iron stores stop menstruating as their bodies try to conserve what little iron they have. They may be setting themselves up for early onset of osteoporosis.

Iron gives the body energy by helping carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles during exercise. When iron stores become low, this flow of oxygen slows down. As a result, carbohydrates and fats are not burned as efficiently and performance suffers.

Female runners are particularly susceptible to this malady because of the iron they lose during menstruation. Male runners, however, are by no means immune.


Why are runners at more risk than nonrunners for iron deficiency? One reason is increased sweating from long-term, high-volume training. Iron is commonly lost through sweat. Other possibilities include increased destruction of red blood cells and losses through bleeding in the gastrointestinal or urinary tract.

There also is some evidence that runners may have more difficulty absorbing the iron in food than do nonrunners.

Regardless of how the losses occur, the bottom line is athletes, particularly runners and especially women runners, should eat an iron-rich diet.

Two types of iron

There are two types of iron: heme iron and nonheme iron. The first is easier for the body to absorb. Heme iron, from the hemoglobin of animals, is found in red meat, liver, poultry, fish, oysters and clams. The body may absorb as much as 15 percent of the iron available in heme sources.

Nonheme iron can be harder to absorb. It is found in nuts, dried peas and beans, whole-grain breads and fortified cereals, fruits and molasses. Typically, the body only will absorb 4 to 5 percent of the iron in nonheme sources. Eating these foods along with a little meat, poultry, fish or food containing vitamin C will likely increase absorption. Orange juice is a good choice to complement your morning iron-enriched toast or cereal rather than tea or coffee which could interfere with the body's absorption of the nonheme iron.

Iron supplements should only be taken under the advice of a physician or dietitian. Too much iron can be as detrimental to health and performance as too little. The best choice is to eat a variety of iron-rich foods so the body's iron reserves never dwindle.

Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County.

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