Iron is an important nutrient for any individual, no matter the age. For the growing young athlete, it’s a critical nutrient to pay close attention, especially during the teen years.
Here are 8 things you may be interested to know about iron and its role in the young athlete’s performance:
1. Two types of iron exist in food.
Not all foods are equal when it comes to iron. Foods that come from animals and fish have the heme form of iron, which is easily absorbed and used in the body after eaten. Non-heme iron comes from plant foods like spinach. Non-heme iron is not as readily absorbed by the body and needs a vitamin C “helper,” such as red pepper or citrus fruit.
2. Iron transports oxygen in the body.
Muscles need oxygen to function properly. Iron carries oxygen to the cells. Without adequate iron in the body, the muscles don’t get enough oxygen, which can lead to fatigue, a lowered aerobic capacity, and reduced performance.
3. Iron requirements are high during the teen years.
Between the ages of 14 and 18 years, iron needs increase to accommodate the rapid growth spurt and the expanding blood supply. Females almost double their iron requirement to reflect the iron losses that occur with menstruation.
4. Iron deficiency and anemia are two different things.
Iron deficiency means that the diet is low in iron. Animal sources such as meats, poultry, fish and non-heme iron sources like beans, tofu, and dark leafy vegetables are not eaten frequently or in adequate amounts on a regular basis. Prolonged iron deficiency in the diet leads to iron deficiency anemia.
5. Iron deficiency anemia is more than being tired.
Fatigue is a common symptom of iron deficiency. In the growing athlete, fatigue from anemia versus hard training may be difficult to differentiate. Other symptoms of anemia include pallor (pale skin), low body temperature and feeling cold, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, restless leg syndrome (an urge to move legs due to discomfort, often occurring at night) and chronic infections and colds.
6. Growing swimmers are at risk for iron deficiency anemia.
During exercise, blood cells break down. One study measured hemoglobin (an indicator of iron stores in the blood) before and after racing in a small group of swimmers. They showed that 10% of these collegiate swimmers experienced lower levels of hemoglobin after racing. The researchers called this “swimmers anemia” and found it correlated with the duration of swimming. Other studies in adults have suggested a reduction in maximal athletic performance when poor iron status (but not anemia) exists.
Generally, the swimmer in a growth spurt, who is a picky eater, a vegetarian, who diets or skips meals, or who has an unhealthy diet will be at greater risk for iron deficiency. Teen female swimmers are particularly sensitive to risk of anemia due to growth and menstruation.
7. If you have anemia, you’re unlikely to fix it with food.
It has been estimated that up to 9% of female teens have iron deficiency anemia, despite screening and prevention efforts. The rates among children are thought to be between 3 and 7 percent.
Swimmers who have developed anemia due to inadequate iron in the diet over a prolonged period will need an iron supplement to replenish their iron stores. Additionally, work to improve iron in the diet will be essential to ensure adequate iron status after supplementation has discontinued.
8. Multivitamins with iron are probably not sufficient to treat a deficiency.
While multivitamins are an option for the child and teen who is generally healthy, they don’t have the proper iron content to correct iron deficiency anemia.
Typically, a child or teen with iron deficiency anemia will need an iron repletion regimen and this should be done with a health provider. Some cases will require extended treatment to ensure iron stores are optimal and the symptoms of deficiency are resolved. Always work with a healthcare professional to guide iron therapy for anemia.
Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian, childhood nutritionist, and youth sports nutrition expert. She is the author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. Learn more about Jill at www.jillcastle.com, her resources for athletes, and check out her free list of 70 Awesome Pre-Workout Snacks for Kids here. Coming soon! Eat Like a Champion class for young athletes and their parents.
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