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Iron and performance

Iron plays has a significant role to play in the diet of any individual taking part in exercise, particularly endurance exercise. It’s all very well getting your pre-, during and post-training nutrition in order but without an intake of certain key vitamins and minerals, all your hard work will be in vain. Iron is a micronutrient that plays a vital role in oxygen transport.

Iron is stored in the body is relatively small amounts and plays a key role in the formation of haemoglobin and myoglobin. Haemoglobin transports oxygen around the body via the blood, whilst myoglobin combines with oxygen in the muscles and stores it until it is needed.

The main problem associated with reduced iron stores is that you become at risk of developing iron-deficiency anaemia, where haemoglobin levels are reduced, thereby reducing the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity. In simple terms, this causes fatigue, headaches, difficulty concentrating and a shortened attention span – not great news! Only when a doctor diagnoses iron-deficiency anaemia should supplementation be considered. Eating a diet rich in iron is beneficial, regardless of activity level or level of deficiency.

Causes of low iron stores

Strenuous training, adolescence, pregnancy, infection, inflammatory disease, hereditary defects and inadequate dietary intake can all lead to iron deficiency. Women are at a greater risk than men as a result of blood loss during menstruation. Women also tend to consume fewer calories compared to men, thus less iron.

You may be pretty happy with your diet and the amount of iron in contains. However, are you aware that a number of factors influence the body’s ability to absorb iron from the foods we eat.  For example, a common myth is that spinach is a good source of iron, whereas it actually contains a substance that makes it harder for the body to absorb. This is also the case with tea and coffee, which contains tannin – a substance that inhibits the absorption of iron. It is therefore best to avoid these drinks at meal times. Research has also indicated that foods containing lots of vitamin C can help with the absorption of iron into the body; for that reason combining fruit juice or citrus fruit with fortified breakfast cereal, or vegetables with your beans, nuts or rice, is advised.

Iron rich foods

There are 2 types of dietary iron: haem and non-haem. Haem iron is found in animal sources such as red meat, fish and poultry and is better absorbed than non-haem. Non-haem is the most common dietary iron and is found in plant foods such as lentils and beans and is often added to foods that are ‘iron-enriched’ or ‘iron-fortified’ such as breakfast cereals. Non-haem iron is much harder to absorb and therefore vegetarians need to pay particular attention to their dietary habits.

 

 

Food

Serving size

Iron Supplied (mg)

Haem-iron Lean roast beef

90g

2.3

  Dark roast turkey meat

120g

1.7

  Lean chicken breast

100g

0.8

  Lean lamb steak

100g

3.2

  Egg

1

1.5

  Sardines (tinned)

50g

1.5

  Fish, white flesh

100g

0.4

Non-haem iron Fortified breakfast cereal

45g

3.0

Dried figs

2

1.7

Whole meal bread

1 slice

1.0

  Spring greens (boiled)

90g

1.3

  Baked beans

120g

1.7

   

 

Specific recommendations