What Vegan Athletes Need To Know About Iron

- Dani Taylor

Many of us have heard in our lives that meat is the best source of dietary iron there is. In fact, many people believe that if you don't eat meat, you are automatically doomed to become iron deficient.

But believe it or not, iron is the number one nutritional deficiency in the world, not just for vegetarians and vegans - but across the board.

So what exactly is iron?

Iron is a mineral that plays a large role in the growth and development of the body. It is necessary in order for the red blood cells to transport oxygen and nutrients to all of the cells. It also helps to remove carbon dioxide.

There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron comes from animal sources and is often considered superior because it is more easily absorbed.

One thing to consider, though, is that not all animal-based iron is heme iron. Only about 40% of it is - the other 60% is non-heme iron.

Non-heme iron can come from both animals and plants but is the only type of iron found in plant-based sources. In other words, animal-based iron can be heme or non-heme, but plant-based iron can only be non-heme.

Non-heme iron is not as efficiently absorbed by the body but is found abundantly in plant-based foods, so it is easy to reach our daily iron goals with a little forethought.

What does this mean for vegans?

While it appears that vegans and vegetarians DO have lower stores of iron than meat-eaters, they do not have higher rates of anemia.

The research suggests that many vegans’ iron stores are on the lower side of normal, but there may actually be some health benefits of this, such as lower rates of heart disease and cancer, and improved insulin function.

In general, it is recommended that non-meat eaters consume 1.8 times as much iron as meat-eaters due to non-heme iron being less absorbable.

On the face of it, this sounds quite daunting - that's almost twice as much! But as you will see in a minute, it's actually quite easy!

What about athletes?

Iron deficiency, or anemia, causes weakness, fatigue, pale skin, and an inability to keep warm. In athletes, this can also cause plateaus in training despite training even harder, and can even cause progress to backslide.

Iron is a vital nutrient for both men and women alike. But while men, on average, have a 1-2% rate of iron deficiencies, women have an average 9-20% of iron deficiencies depending on their race.

This percentage is even higher in athletes. In a 2011 study of female college rowers, 30% of the women tested showed iron deficiencies—30%— nearly 1/3 of the athletes.

So why are athletes, and especially female athletes, at such a high risk of anemia? In general, one of the main reasons women are more likely to develop anemia is that there is iron lost in the blood through monthly menstruation. This fact alone puts women at a much higher risk of low iron.

But certainly, athletes who get plenty of exercise and eat well and otherwise take care of their bodies would be at less of a risk of developing anemia, right? While intuition would tell us this is the case, unfortunately, it is not.

You see, besides women losing iron through menstruation, everyone also loses iron through our sweat. Compounding on top of that, iron absorption is also hindered by acute muscle inflammation, which is common after a hard training session.

Often when the initial signs of an iron deficiency start to show up in the form of fatigue and less and less training progress, an athlete's instinct is to ramp up training intensity and push harder. This only furthers the cycle of depleting iron stores and can be a downward spiral into full-blown anemia.

When to speak to a doctor?

If you suspect you may have low iron, it is wise to speak to a doctor. Nothing in this article constitutes medical advice or could replace the treatment of your doctor.