Iron deficiency is one of the most common deficiencies among athletes and can significantly decrease performance. Athletes, especially female athletes, pregnant women, those who eat a vegan diet, as well as those who practice endurance sports or intensive training, are generally more at risk. So how can we recognize and prevent it? Read this article to learn about advice from our registered dietitian for athletes.
An Important Role
Iron is an essential micronutrient for our body. Among other things, it helps transport oxygen to the muscles, is involved in energy production and plays a crucial role in the production of red blood cells. When left untreated, iron deficiency can not only impair sports performance, but also lead to serious health complications. Therefore, it is important to be vigilant.
Athletes : More at risk?
During training, there is an increase in the production of red blood cells, but also an increase in iron losses, through stools, urine or sweat. Moreover, the sport practiced also influences the risk of deficiency. For example, when running, damage to red blood cells can be caused by the foot hitting the ground.
Finally, dietary intake also affects the risk of iron deficiency. If we restrict our caloric intake a lot, for example to change our body composition, we may eat less iron-rich foods. The same is true if our diet has little variety. Finally, the risk of deficiency or low iron stores is obviously increased if we eat a plant-based diet.
Symptoms of Iron Deficiency
Unfortunately, there are few signs and symptoms specific to iron deficiency. This means that the adverse effects observed could be attributed to a variety of other factors (stress, overtraining, inadequate sleep, etc.) and not just iron deficiency. These side effects may include increased fatigue, decreased appetite, increased pulse rate, paleness, mood swings or feeling short of breath.
Prevent and Treat Iron Deficiency
- Avoid foods rich in polyphenols (cocoa, red wine, coffee, tea) when consuming a source of iron. They decrease the absorption of iron.
- Choose foods from animal sources, whose iron is better absorbed than the iron from plant-based products. Lean red meat is a good option for refuelling since it contains a high amount of iron.
- Opt for iron-rich plants-based food (enriched cereal products, green vegetables, nuts, legumes) if you have a plant-based diet.
- Combine these iron-rich plants-based food with a source of vitamin C (orange juice, peppers, tomatoes) to increase the absorption of the iron they contain.
Reference : Clinical sports nutrition, 5th edition, by Louise Burke and Vicki Deakin.