The importance of iron in your diet when exercising

Women and children are known to be at a high risk of iron deficiency, but a new study has uncovered a surprising new risk group – athletes and fitness fans.

The revelation comes in a study, published in Network Health Dieticians, which shows how the body uses iron and explores how easily a deficiency of this energy-driving micronutrient can erode stamina and physical performance.

Dr Carrie Ruxton, dietician and member of the Meat Advisory Panel, says: “While the studies to date have focused on elite athletes, our research suggests that a chronic lack of iron is undermining the performance and potential of thousands of everyday exercise enthusiasts.

“It’s clear that many fitness regimes are missing a vital ingredient – iron – and all the evidence confirms that without healthy iron stores it is unlikely that any athlete will achieve their peak potential.”

The importance of iron in your diet when exercising

Iron is necessary for the normal production of haemoglobin in the red blood cells. Haemoglobin carries oxygen from the lungs to the muscles. If iron stores are low, normal haemoglobin production slows down. This means the transport of oxygen around the body decreases, resulting in symptoms such as fatigue and tiredness. Iron also contributes to the normal function of the immune system.

Nutritionist, Sally Wisbey explains: “Female athletes are more at risk of iron deficiency anaemia due to several factors including diet, heavy sweating, pregnancy and blood loss through menstruation.  One of the fundamental roles of iron is to transport oxygen throughout the body, carrying it from the lungs to the body’s tissues, so it is vital that athletes have optimum iron levels.  Include iron rich foods in your diet such as leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, Swiss chard, parsley), pumpkin/sesame seeds, lentils, kidney beans and red meat, and if levels are low, top up with a supplement such as Spatone.”

Since our body can’t produce iron itself we need to make sure we consume sufficient amounts of iron in our diet.

Personal trainer Zanna Van Dijk comments: “When exercising, it is crucial that your body is well nourished so it can perform safely at its maximum ability. A lot of people ask me what they should be eating, and I always advocate that lean red meat should be included in their diet. It provides a useful source of nutrients, such as iron, which is needed for energy – and gym bunnies and fitness enthusiasts need lots of it.”

Zanna’s favourite red meat meals

  • Lamb meatballs served with brown rice and salad
  • 70g sirloin steak served with steamed veggies
  • 2 pork medallions, grilled and served with cabbage and a small sweet baked potato
Meatballs for a source of iron in the diet

Meatballs are a deliciously and healthy source of iron

Rin Cobb, co-author and clinical and sports performance dietitian adds: “What’s really shocking about this new research is that it shows how a supposedly very health-conscious group is actually undermining their performance and general health. Iron is essential for energy, so it is very difficult to achieve your peak performance without optimal levels.  One of the easiest ways to beef-up your stamina is to increase your intake of red meat towards the recommended level of 70g a day. At present, women on average eat just 56g of red meat daily.”

Absorption of iron

We only absorb approximately 5-20% of the iron from our food, also, most people don’t realise that substances in certain foods can inhibit the absorption of iron such as:

  • Teas (tannin) and coffee (caffeine)
  • Dairy foods and supplements containing calcium
  • Raw cereal (phytates)
  • Carbonated drinks (phosphates)

Nutritionist Emma Wight says: “People may not realise that a cause of low energy can be low iron levels. You can get iron from red meats, lentils and green leafy vegetables, but if you’re not getting your iron requirements through food sources alone consider taking a natural iron food supplement like Spatone Apple to maintain normal iron levels. Combining iron with Vitamin c, such as it is in Spatone Apple, increases the absorption of the iron and supports the normal function of the immune system – so it’s win win all round.”

The iron in Spatone is easily absorbed by the body, and you only need to take a small quantity to get your daily requirement. It should be taken on an empty stomach or at least 45 minutes before or after food.

Alex Gerrard takes Spatone to aid her diet: “To make sure I am top form and get the most out of my work outs I make sure I am eating the right foods. For those times when my diet is lacking I take SPATONE® Liquid Iron. The iron in Spatone  helps me to maintain my energy levels and keep up with my lifestyle.”

The importance of iron in your diet when exercising

Zanna’s fitness tips

Be consistent with whatever training you do. Whether that’s running, yoga or weight lifting. Stick to it and try to formulate a routine. Consistency breeds success. Soon enough exercise will become habit, not a chore!

Well nourished.  Ensure that you support your training with a balanced diet including good wholefood sources of iron, protein, fats and carbs. For example, red meat in your diet is an excellent way of making sure your body is getting enough iron. It is also a rich source of protein – important for maintaining energy and growing and maintaining muscle mass.

Stretch, rest and recover. Training is super important, but so is recovery! Ensure that you dedicate time after each training session to stretch out the muscles you used, to help reduce soreness the next day. If you're feeling adventurous, I highly recommend investing in a foam roller and giving it a go - they're amazing for releasing any tension.

Mix it up. Doing the same exercise routine day in day out is not a good idea. Firstly, you will get bored. Secondly, your body will adapt and results will come slower or not at all. Try strength training, Pilates or a HIIT class. Rope in your friends and ask them to try the latest exercises crazes and classes with you- you might find new favourite training style!

Set specific goals. Rather than saying "I want to get in shape" or "I want to lose weight", say "I want to run a 10km race in 2 months’ time" or "I want to lose a stone in 6 months". Set time scales and check in with yourself by monitoring your progress. Keep yourself accountable by telling your friends and family your goals. Success is more attainable if it is specific and if you work towards it in structured way.

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