Ever wondered what's the deal with iron? Wondering how it is linked to not only your general health and well-being but also physical performance? Read on for a dietitians perspective on this matter!
The nutrition space is noisier than ever before. So much talk occurs in the nutrition sphere which makes it an interesting time for dietitians and society alike! However, all this talk means information and the acquisition of such, becomes murky at times and becomes harder to decipher or keep on top of. This is especially true for you guys (the public) who are trying to make the best of what you know to initiate health change and become your healthiest versions.
We tend to place such focus these days on macros…
On low carb…
On organic, YOU NAME IT!
This means we also then tend to forget the true essence and power of nutrition – the micro level that is!
There are so many micronutrients we can talk about but today let’s touch upon one of the biggest players in the micro game – iron. This is one nutrient we should be paying more attention too but don’t. At least not enough, namely because deficiency is common and can have significant impacts on your general wellbeing that it warrants conversation. This is especially relevant to the athletic population which I will explain why in more detail below so keep on reading for some straight nutrition facts.
So what is iron? Well simply put, iron is a mineral. Minerals as you would know form part of the micro game equation – being a micronutrient and all, obviously. In fact, iron is a micronutrient that is literally vital for life as we know it. While iron has several important functions in the body, it’s the oxygen carrying capacity and its involvement in red blood cell creation that it is famous for! Iron helps produce haemoglobin – part of the red blood cell that acts as the chauffeur for the bodies life source – oxygen.
Without this oxygen being transported by this friendly courtesy driver, energy production and life (literally) would be finito. Think of iron as the fuel for the oxygen carrying taxicab (red blood cells) and driver (haemoglobin). Through this intricate system, the bodies muscles are able to receive the oxygen it needs, and you continue functioning and living the life you lead!
Haem vs Non-Haem
Iron is an interesting fellow – simply because it likes to play hardball! Not only is it generally poorly absorbed in the body as it is (18% in normal diets and 10% in plant-based diets), but it also comes in 2 different forms – haem and non-haem. And with these differences comes significant variations in absorption efficiency and the available food sources.
So what’s haem? And what’s non-haem? Let’s break it down!
Haem iron: iron found in animal food sources such as red meats, chicken, fish, offals, and eggs. This form of iron is more readily absorbed (up to 18%) and is the primary source of iron in much of the western diet.
Non-haem: this is the plant-based form of iron which is found in grains, leafy greens, legumes, nuts and seeds, dried fruit, and fortified cereals and grains. It is a lot less readily absorbed (10% roughly) and requires additional nutritional considerations to maximise uptake.
So essentially, the easiest way to get your iron is from meat (especially red meat) but vegan/vegetarian peeps can also start pumping iron by being a little more strategic and nutritionally conscious. You just need to know your iron sources and their amounts as well as implement strategies to maximize the potential uptake. Hence the next section – iron levels in food.
Do you even Iron, bro? Yeah? How much?
Iron requirements vary considerably from age group to age group, from gender to gender. Also, the body is quite good at adapting to your iron stores and will increase or lower its iron absorption power based on the iron levels in your body. Cool huh?
However, this doesn’t change the fact you should be hitting those iron requirements like a boss. There are several factors which influence your iron needs and ability to absorb said micronutrient. And this means you not only need to know your requirements but also be aware of what you need to do to optimise iron levels in your body. However, I know people like numbers and specifics so here are the requirements laid out nicely in a table for your reference and convenience.
As you can see, iron requirements can vary considerably among the different populations. Women of menstruating age have the highest iron requirements for the simple fact they need to compensate for increased iron losses through monthly menstruation. That is why women tend to be more at risk of iron deficiency and need to be regularly checked by their doctor as food iron may not be adequate to ensure normal iron levels are regained in the body – in the case of true iron deficiency of course. In fact, there are multiple levels of iron depletion with each having its own nutritional considerations/strategies.
Levels of Depletion – Down, Down…Iron is Down
Iron is stored primarily in the haemoglobin protein in red blood cells (because that’s where it helps run your bodies oxygen delivery service). Any additional iron is stored in the liver and saved for a rainy day when you may call upon these stores at times of need and nutritional distress (Captain Iron?). We naturally lose iron as part of living and if these stores are adequately and timely replenished via top notch nutritional practices – then iron stores start diminishing over time (after time). Here are the 3 key stages to be aware of:
Iron Depletion: normal haemo levels but iron tanks are running out (stock levels low). No symptoms (yet).
Iron Deficiency: iron in the storage space and in the ol blood is running on low and haemoglobin is below normal. Some symptoms may be playing a part by this point – such as tiredness.
Iron Deficiency Anaemia: the final frontier in the game of iron lows. At this point your friends, haemoglobin, are so low that they stop doing their job properly and your body suffers for it. Symptoms at this stage include: paleness, breathlessness, dizziness, fatigue, reduced immunity, and impaired mental ability and general growth.
How Iron clad is your food
So we’ve talked about iron, your requirements, and the different forms, but now you’re probably thinking, “yeah but how much is in food?!”. If you aren’t then you should be, as awareness proceeds change and change can lead to nutritional optimisation.
For your convenience here are some tables to fuel your knowledge bank and make it iron clad (ba dum ching). I’ve even split them by haem and non-haem sources to help you plan out your pumping iron routine.
Why is iron so important?
So while iron may be abundant in the food supply and technically easily to get consume – deficiencies are still not uncommon. It’s not hard to see why though, as absorption rates leave a lot to be desired and plant-based nutrition is becoming more and more popular. This is especially true for female populations of menstrual age– especially pronounced among athletic folks.
So you’re probably thinking, ”cool…and?” And without further ado, here are the symptoms of iron deficiency and the associated health effects (hint: not a fun time to be had).
But as with all thing’s ‘nutrition’, nothing is equal and with that in mind it is important to note there are those of us who are at greater risk of developing an iron deficiency.
If you tick 2 or more of these criteria, then you should be extra focussed on your iron routine. This is simply for the fact you’ll have a lot working against you so you need to be that extra bit nutritionally conscious.
Pumping Iron & the Athletic Variable
So as you can see the effects of iron deficiency can really make you feel “down in the dumps”- for lack of a better phrase. It’s not hard to also see and recognise that these issues will have a direct impact on physical performance – whether casually in the gym or on the sporting field. Considering women and athletes are 2 at risk groups, athletic women are therefore especially predisposed and iron adequacy becomes quite an important consideration given the reliance of this population to maintain mental and physical prowess.
Why Pumping Iron Helps You..well Pump Iron
So we have touched upon the symptoms of deficiency as well as the function of iron but now let’s bring it all together and go deeper into how this influences your quality of life and more specifically, your physical capabilities (this especially pertains to the athletic female bad-assess out there reading this).
I’ve made you read plenty so far so I’ve created a lil basic diagram to show you how iron deficiency can lead to diminished health and performance (because visuals):
Hope that clears things up and provides a clear outline of how you can go from diminishing iron stores to iron deficiency risk and subsequently the crappy time had by all who find themselves lacking this micronutrient.
So here we are! You’re at the end of this blog post and you’ve (I hope) absolutely loved reading it. Now you’re feeling pumped full of information and knowledge (and therefore power?) but feel you want to take your iron game to the next level and take action – because knowledge without action is hardly power, right.
I don’t blame you so I’ve prepared a little cheat sheet/list/tips/stuff-you-should-do to optimise your iron goals – because #nutritionscience!
So there you have it! Hope you now understand not only what iron is but also better understand why you should be focusing on this tricky nutrient who doesn’t like to play by the rules. Also, I hope you now have the tools needed to go out there and start improving your iron game by pumping some iron – both nutritionally and weights (because physical activity is cool and important – just do it). So you know what you have to do! PUMP SOME IRON into your gob! I’m sure Arnie approves this message (just saying).
Until next time!
The Climbing Dietitian
Hi there! My name's Aleksa Gagic - i'm a Brisbane Dietitian & Nutritionist. The aim of this blog is to provide value and spread quality evidence-based nutrition information to counter the BS floating around.