Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pumping Iron

This post is not about pumping iron in the gym. It's about the iron we get, or don't get, in our diet. 

I've been toying around with the idea of cutting meat out of my diet. One of my goals for the year is to eat a vegetarian diet for at least one week (as an experiment). I've hardly eaten red meat in the past 5 or so years, but I am partial to chicken, turkey, fish, and dairy products. However, since I started reading books by Michael Pollan and watched "Food, Inc." I have definitely decreased the amount of meat in my diet. It's a conscious decision I'm making and so far I'm really not missing it much. I don't plan to become a full vegetarian anytime soon - I may purchase ethically raised meat and fish from the farmer's market - but since I am making this change, I need to pay more attention to what I'm eating in order to get all the vitamins and minerals necessary to be healthy and active.

Many women, active or not, ages 10-50, are iron deficient and many of them do not even realize it. Chances are you've heard of anemia since it is the nation's most common nutritional deficiency but let me clarify quickly that someone may have iron depletion without being anemic since anemia is the the last stage of depletion. Common symptons of anemia include: feeling tired, weak, dizzy, short of breath, pale skin, and brittle nails. For more information, you can check out this site. Iron is very important to keep us active and healthy.

Because iron is necessary to transport oxygen to cells throughout the body, low iron levels can cause us to tire easily, effect our muscles and even impair memory. It is interesting that as important as iron is to keep our muscles firing and provide us with the energy we need to perform at our best, iron levels seem to decrease in highly active and athletic women. A study at Cornell University found that women with iron deficiency ( but non-anemic) have a much lower work capacity and lower performance levels than women with normal iron levels. This is not good news for us active women!!

What does this all mean? Well, it means that active women and those following a vegetarian diet (because iron is most commonly found in red meat), need to be especially diligent to make sure that they are getting enough iron in their diets. The researchers at Cornell suggest either eating red meat or, for vegetarians, drinking orange juice with meals because the vitamin C assists with the absorbtion of iron from foods like legumes, whole wheat bread and vegetables. Iron fortified breakfast cereals can also be a tasty source if you choose one that does not have too many calories or added sugar. Additionally, cooking vegetables and eating them along with meat (or iron rich foods) help aid absorbtion of iron. While drinking tea, coffee or wine and eating brand or soy proteins with iron rich foods will decrease absorbtion.

Even though some men are iron deficient, it is much more common for women. My guess is that more men may eat red meat than women (totally unscientific assumption on my part) and therefore they get all the iron they need. Also and probably more important, men aged 19-50 only need 8mg of iron per day while women of the same age need 18mg!

Have you had a problem with iron deficiency? If so, what have you done to increase your levels?


Jocelyn said...

Sometimes I think I maybe be anemic. This is all really interesting! Thanks for sharing!

Barbara said...

There has also been an increase in protein deficiency in the US. When your Grandmother had surgery years ago now , her surgical scar was not healing correctly. All her Drs said it was because she had a protein deficiency. Your NJ Grandparents ate a lot of fish , chicken and veggies , but not much red meat. I was told at the time , there never used to be such a problem in the US , but with the increase of people not eating red meat , the medical profession was seeing more and more of it.

Julie said...

Hi Lisa,
You have a very interesting post today. I am like you in terms of not eating a ton of red meat and I do enjoy chicken, poultry and fish. I was anemic when I was preggers 5 years ago and was informed to take iron pills. My stomach could not handle them and I was very ill. I was then told to start eating more red meat. I would love to get tested now and see what my current levels are. Have a good one Lisa:)

Jamoosh said...

Love the name of your blog - that is me all the way. If the sun is up and I am running, something may be wrong. I should be done by then!

Jenny Cole said...

Lisa, we just watched Food Inc last night and I don't even know what to say.

We actually purchased 1/3 of a steer at the local 4H youth livestock auction in August, and I am SO glad we did. Friends of ours know the family who raised the steer, so we are sure it is safe, and was raised ethically! We haven't purchased beef from the supermarket since July.

Keep the informative blog posts coming!

Julie said...

I've actually been rejected from giving blood twice in the past year due to low iron. Both times, it was near the beginning of a new training program when I was ramping up my miles. Interestingly, my levels were sky high (for me) about 2 weeks after the marathon when I was less active. I read a lot about decreased absorption and "foot-strike hemolysis" to figure out my problem. Even though I eat red meat and take multi-vitamins, I've found iron supplements helpful. I'm already feeling less tired since starting on supplements again last week. It's definitely a problem for active women and it's not mentioned enough!