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Did you leave the iron out? Prevent iron deficiency through meal composition.

Could your exercise program and healthy eating habits actually be contributing to inadequate nutrition? If you're an active, vegetarian or semi-vegetarian female of childbearing age, you may be susceptible to developing an iron deficiency.

Due to a number of circumstances, including the loss of iron through menstrual blood and the consumption of fewer daily calories, women are at greater risk than men for iron deficiency. Some health-conscious women forgo beef and other meat products which are highly absorbable sources of iron. Chronic dieting and/or severe calorie restriction can also wreak havoc on a woman's daily allowance of nutrients.


Researchers speculate that exercise can contribute to poor iron status in a number of ways, including iron loss through excessive sweating and gastrointestinal bleeding in endurance athletes. Mechanical trauma (from feet pounding the ground during activities, such as running or high-impact aerobics) can accelerate red blood cell destruction, leading to further reduction in iron reserves.

Although some studies show that female athletes have similar iron profiles to their sedentary counterparts, other research suggests athletic women may be more prone to develop iron deficiency or iron deficiency .anemia. Anemia is the final stage of iron deficiency, characterized by a hemoglobin concentration below the normal level. Because iron plays a role in the transportation and utilization of oxygen in the blood, iron deficiency anemia can negatively affect athletic performance by decreasing the body's physical work capacity.

What about women who are not competitive athletes and don't engage in heavy training? A study by Williford and colleagues found that female fitness instructors who exercised an average of 3.8 times per week had lower ferritin levels (iron stores) than non-active women in the study's control group. Low serum ferritin concentration indicates a depletion of iron reserves, a condition which can progress to iron deficiency. Researchers concluded that instructors in this study demonstrated iron profiles similar to female athletes.


For females between the ages of 11 and 50, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of iron is an average of 15 milligrams per day. Pregnant women require greater amounts and should consult their physician about receiving the recommended daily intake. Women who exercise regularly may also benefit from increased iron consumption

The best way to increase iron intake is through a well-balanced diet. However, simply eating foods rich in iron may not be enough. Managing and preventing iron deficiency involves an understanding of the type of iron you are ingesting, as well as the composition of your meals. There are two types of iron in food: heme iron and nonheme iron. Heme iron, which is easily absorbed by the body, comes from animal protein like beef, poultry and seafood. Nonheme iron is present in food of plant origin, such as beans, dark leafy vegetables and dried fruit, but is poorly absorbed by the body.

Meal composition also plays a role in the body's absorption of iron. Certain foods either inhibit or enhance the bioavailability (absorbability) of nonheme iron. Heme iron, on the other hand, is more readily absorbed regardless of food combination.

Vegetarians and women who consume very little meat must carefully monitor their food choices. Even if you are vigilant about eating vegetarian foods rich in plant-based iron, your body may not be absorbing as much as you think. However, a strictly vegetarian diet of the right food combinations can provide sufficient iron. Since ascorbic acid increases nonheme iron absorption, plan to eat iron-rich vegetarian meals with a food source of vitamin C.

Examples include:

[check] Iron-fortified oatmeal with blackstrap molasses and a kiwi fruit

[check] Spinach salad with lean bacon (optional), sunflower seeds and tomatoes

[check] Beef or vegetarian chili with kidney beans and a glass of orange juice

[check] Dried apricots and an orange

Also, avoid foods and beverages that inhibit the availability of nonheme iron. Drinking tea or coffee with meals interferes with your body's ability to absorb iron. Calcium and bran have also been shown to inhibit iron absorption.

When our body is low on iron, it absorbs greater amounts. With careful planning, you can increase the amounts of iron in your meals. If you suspect you are not getting the iron you need, consult a doctor or health professional for testing and nutritional counseling

Amanda Vogel, M.A., is a fitness professional, freelance writer, master presenter and program director based in Vancouver, British Columbia She can be reached at or
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Author:Vogel, Amanda
Publication:American Fitness
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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