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Sports and Anemia - Divya Subramanian

World Swimmer of the Year winner Tim Shaw was training for the Olympics when he was diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia due to over-working and was forced to withdraw from the competition. While playing sports, it is important to ensure that one have the right diet and amount of iron in order to play well. Many studies have shown that iron-deficiency anemia is extremely prevalent in athletes and while male athletes suffer from it, female athletes are at a much higher risk. Iron is an essential part of hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells that transports oxygen to the blood cell and it can be lost through sweat, menstruation, urine, and through injury. In particular, high endurance athletes tend to lose iron at a higher rate and are at a higher risk of being deficient. When playing sports, athletes with iron deficiency anemia may face symptoms such as weakness, shortness of breath, and fatigue which makes it more difficult to perform at their best level.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, 20% of women of child-bearing age have iron-deficiency anemia. Female athletes are at a higher risk of becoming iron-deficient because of blood loss through menstruation and need to ensure that their iron intake is high enough to compensate. Women aged 19-50 years need around 19 milligrams of iron per day and pregnant women need around 27 milligrams.

Additionally, endurance trainers are also at higher risk because “high intensity and endurance [exercise], increases iron losses by as much as 70% when compared to sedentary populations”, as stated by Elisa Rossen. Hard training increases the demand for iron because of the increase of red blood cells and loss of iron through sweat. High endurance athletes can also experience blood loss through injury, such as “foot strike”. Multiple foot strikes on hard pavement can damage the blood cells in the foot and lead to iron-deficiency anemia.

Athletes with strict vegetarian and vegan diets are also at high risk of having iron-deficiency anemia because they do not consume any red meat which is very rich in iron. It is essential for them to meet the body’s required iron levels, so vegetarian/ vegan athletes may need to take supplements or increase the amount of iron rich foods they consume.

Some symptoms of iron-deficiency that athletes can experience include “weakness, general fatigue/exhaustion, decreased exercise performance, increased heart rate and shortness of breath during exercise, headaches, and dizziness.” So what can athletes do to increase their iron intake and perform better in sports? Many sports health doctors suggest that adding iron-rich foods to your diets is imperative to both prevent and to improve symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia. Iron pills are also another way to increase your iron-intake, but dietary methods are preferred because 70% of people who take oral supplements suffer from side-effects that could affect the performance of athletes such as nausea and vomiting. In addition, increasing your intake of vitamin C can also help iron absorption.

Around the world, sports are an important part of thousands of lives. Athletes around the world suffer from anemia and insufficient iron levels that severely affect their performance. People who play sports, especially female athletes, should add iron rich foods to their diet to prevent anemia from affecting their performance.

If you want to find recipes that include iron-rich foods, check out our previous blog posts!

For more information regarding the studies discussed above, visit:

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