Feeling tired all of the time? Easily annoyed and irritable? Struggling to find the energy for training? Chances are, you might have an iron deficiency. Young females are the most at risk of suffering from iron deficiency, with the likelihood being even higher in those who participate in regular sports and training activities.
Iron deficiency is the most common micronutrient deficiency in the world (WHO, 2001) with as many as 24% of 15-18-year-old females being deficient (SACN, 2010). Add in the increased iron turnover and requirements in athletes, combined with increased losses from menstruation and perspiration and you can see why young female athletes are at an even greater risk. Because of this, recommended daily intakes of iron are increased by 1-2 time the normal amount, with vegetarian athletes at the higher end (add the reference).
Iron plays a vital role in the transport of oxygen around the body and in the production of energy, both of which are essential in exercise. Reducing the amount available in the body causes many different symptoms such as tiredness and fatigue and feelings of shortness of breath, all of which have a huge negative impact on performance and results.
These negative impacts were seen first-hand by Canadian triathlete Paula Findlay at the London Olympics in 2012. Findlay, who had high expectations of medalling at the games, found herself finishing the event completely exhausted and in last place. Tests later confirmed that she had iron deficiency anaemia, cutting her season short and preventing her from competing in the World Championships.
Low iron stores and anaemia are easily treated and manageable conditions, however, with studies showing that those with low iron levels had increased energy efficiency and oxygen transport capacity when stores had been replenished through supplementation (Zhu & Haas JD, 1998). Although effective, taking supplements isn’t always necessary. Iron is readily available from many of the foods we eat and a food first approach should always be used where possible.
Iron in food occurs in two forms: heme and nonheme. Primary sources of heme iron are animal products including meat, poultry and fish, while nonheme sources come from plant sources such as dark leafy green vegetables, legumes and nuts and seeds (Abbaspour et al, 2014). Plant sources, however, have lower rates of absorption, which can make athletes following a vegetarian or vegan diet more susceptible to deficiency. To help with this, consuming foods rich in vitamin C (think orange juice) alongside those plant sources of iron increases the amount absorbed. Similarly, avoid combining them with foods high in calcium and caffeine as these can further lower absorption.
If you’re a young female athlete who is struggling with energy levels in training or competition then getting a blood test to check your iron levels could be beneficial not only to your performance and results but to your overall health and well-being.
Emmy Cambell, Nutrition Student.