Iron is essential in your diet, but when meat is off the menu and you have no choice but to find your iron elsewhere, what are your options?
Iron & The Body
Iron is essential for transporting oxygen and carbon dioxide around your body. It plays a role in the creation of red blood cells and contributes to your immune system. It is also used for improving your athletic performance. It’s important for exercise because without enough iron your aerobic metabolism will not function as it should. This will reduce the capacity of your muscles in using oxygen for the production of energy.
Athletes are at a greater risk of iron deficiency because it is lost through sweat. High-intensity training and longer endurance training of the kind you are used to can result in ‘foot strike hemolysis’ which is the break down of red blood cells caused by repetitive impact.
As an essential nutrient, you need to obtain it from food sources. If you don’t consume enough iron you can develop anaemia, which impairs your body’s ability to transport oxygen. Among the many things that vitally require oxygen in your body, your brain tops the list. Without enough iron, you will struggle to concentrate and your mood can be considerably affected. You will feel tired and irritable – both telltale signs that you are iron deficient.
Iron deficiency is a common issue for teenagers who exercise a lot and for women – especially when pregnant. Women who experience heavy period are at higher risk of iron deficiency anaemia.
The average daily iron intake from foods and supplements is 13.7–15.1 mg/day in children aged 2–11 years, 16.3 mg/day in children and teens aged 12–19 years, and 19.3–20.5 mg/day in men and 17.0–18.9 mg/day in women older than 19. The median dietary iron intake in pregnant women is 14.7 mg/day.
If you consume too much iron the side effects include nausea, stomach pains and constipation.
For athletes, the dietary iron recommendation is 1.3 to 1.7 higher than the normal recommendation. For vegetarians, it is 1.8 times higher than meat eaters.
One of the top food sources of iron is meat. Pork, ham, chicken, fish, beef, liver, and lamb are all iron-rich, so for vegetarians, this is a lot of iron that meat eaters take for granted.
What Are The Alternatives?
High on the iron-rich list of non-meat choices are beans, nuts, dried fruit, whole grains, dark green leafy vegs such as kale and fortified cereals.
For carnivores and vegetarians alike, iron supplements are a good solution to iron deficiency. They should be taken alongside a healthy, balanced diet. If you’re concerned about your iron levels it is recommended that you visit your GP. The NHS advises that taking higher doses of over 20mg of iron can result in the aforementioned side effects. As a general rule, doses of 17mg are considered ‘safe’ for anyone not told otherwise by a doctor.