It’s not a coincidence that Popeye’s always chowing down on spinach: The vegetable is packed with iron, an essential mineral that helps red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body, aids in metabolism and promotes a healthy immune system.
So if you’re not pounding cans of the leafy greens like the cartoon, should you load up on vitamins instead? Not necessarily, says Kelly L. Pritchett, R.D. spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “If someone without a deficiency in the mineral starts taking a supplement, it could potentially lead to iron toxicity, which can cause severe damage to the heart, liver, kidneys and nervous system,” she warns. Read on to learn why getting this nutrient is important for everyone, how it can improve your athletic performance and ways to guarantee you’re getting enough.
Why You Need Iron
Without adequate stores of iron, your red blood cells can’t transport oxygen to the muscles and other tissues of your body effectively. As a result, says Pritchett, you can feel weak, fatigued or experience shortness of breath. Endurance athletes in particular rely on the mineral for energy and are also more likely to suffer from iron depletion, says Pritchett: “They have higher requirements because they lose a lot of iron in sweat, through possible gastrointestinal bleeding and because of foot strike hemolysis — which is the destruction of red blood cells that can occur through repetitive foot pounding on the pavement.” Women are especially vulnerable to iron deficiency, according to a review of research published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, partially due to the blood loss they experience during menstruation.
How to Get It
To ensure you’re getting the nutrient from your diet, load your plate with leafy greens like spinach and kale, broccoli, lean red meat, poultry, fish and eggs. Many whole-grain cereals are fortified with iron as well. But keep in mind, advises Pritchett, that your body absorbs the mineral best from meat and fish sources, which provide what’s referred to as heme iron.
Pay attention as well to what you’re taking in alongside your iron. “Consuming vitamin C–rich foods with your meals — like an orange with breakfast cereal or bell peppers in chicken stir-fry — will up your absorption, as can cooking in cast-iron pots,” says Pritchett, because of how both interact with the mineral.
On the flip side, guzzling coffee and tea can block your body’s ability to soak up iron, so you might consider sipping on those mainly between meals.
Iron-Deficiency Anemia: When to Consult the Pros
Follow a healthy diet and assume you’re ingesting an adequate amount? Not so fast. “Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world,” warns Pritchett. “So many people don’t get enough in their diet.” Consuming too little can become a problem slowly, over time, and might result in iron-deficiency anemia — which can harm athletic performance and cause general feelings of weakness and lethargy. The good news is, you can correct an imbalance within a mere three months of taking a supplement or a daily multivitamin with 18 mg of iron, according to Pritchett. And even better, it can give you a serious boost: After taking an iron supplement, women in a new study from the University of Melbourne who were previously deficient were able to work out more efficiently while maintaining a lower heart rate.
Consult your doctor beforehand, however, as consuming an excessive level of the nutrient can increase your risk of having a heart attack or a condition like liver disease, diabetes or osteoporosis, according to the Iron Disorders Institute. Pritchett says your physician can also check to be sure you don’t suffer from hemochromatosis, a disorder in which the body stores too much iron.
It’s tough to correct a depletion in iron with diet alone, says Pritchett, but a simple supplement plan coordinated with your doctor can get your back on track easily — and get your performance back up to par in no time.