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Pump it up with Iron!

Pump it Up with Iron!                                            

                          By Carla Coulston

You’ve struggled through another aerobics class, legs feeling like lead.  You can barely summon the energy to change gears in the car on the way home, let alone cook up that healthy Thai

stir-fry you’d planned for dinner.  The next morning the alarm goes off and all you want to do is go back to sleep.  For the whole day.  Exercise should be giving you more energy, right?  So why do you feel like the walking dead?

If this sounds familiar to you, the problem may be iron.  According to national health surveys, over 70% of Australian women don’t get enough iron in their daily diet – and athletes, vegetarians, teenagers and pregnant women are most at risk of developing a deficiency.

Iron’s role in the body

Iron is an essential part of haemoglobin, the red colouring of blood, which helps carry oxygen to every part of the body.  Basically, this translates into energy – the first sign of iron deficiency is often constant, unexplained tiredness.  But iron does much more than that.  It also plays a part in many enzymes and co-enzymes, especially ones involved with the immune response, so it helps the body fight off sickness and infection.  It is also essential for healthy skin, brain function, memory and concentration.

The “Woman’s” mineral 

Women need much more iron than men do – 12 to 16mg (RDI) compared to 7mg - almost double the amount.  Pregnant women’s needs increase to 22 to 36mg daily.   To give you an idea of how much this is, a small 100g beef or lamb steak contains 4.1mg of iron.  Why do we need so much?  Because of monthly blood loss through menstruation, and other demands on a woman’s body, according to nutritionist Catherine Saxelby.  And yet, women still fall far behind in eating enough iron-rich foods to meet their body’s needs.   In her book, Busy Body Cookbook Catherine notes, “Low iron stores may turn out to be the reason why so many women complain of being constantly tired.”

An athlete’s dilemma

You would think athletes, with their healthy physical condition and often high-protein diets would have no problem with keeping iron levels up.  Yet “athlete’s anaemia” is well documented. Female athletes have the double-whammy of being women and heavy exercisers, putting them in one of the highest-risk categories.

Iron is part of the muscle protein myoglobin, which means the more muscle you have, the more iron you’ll need.  As well as this, heavy exercise can cause red cell damage, called haemolysis.

This means athletes must be particularly vigilant with keeping up their iron stores, or it can seriously affect their performance.

Well that’s okay, you say - but I’m no athlete.  I go to the gym a couple of times a week, but surely iron isn’t that important to me.  Think again.  When exercising, it’s healthy iron levels that keep oxygenated blood pumping to your heart and muscles.   It’s what makes the difference between karate-kicking your way with attitude through that vigorous Body Combat class, and slinking off into the corner to catch your breath.

Less available oxygen in your blood can also impede the fat loss process, because not only can’t you keep your heart rate up for long, but oxygen is actually needed in order for cells to burn fat!

How do I know if I’m lacking in iron?

One of the simplest tests, recommended by the Meat and Livestock Association, is checking the inside of your eyelids – the skin under the bottom lid should be a healthy red, not white.  Other indicators include constant tiredness and fatigue, weakness, “foggy” brain, pale skin and headaches.  If unsure, a medical blood test can help determine if your iron levels are depleted.

Are you getting enough?

Lean red meat is the richest source of iron – not only that, but it is also the type of iron (haem) best absorbed by the body.  Poultry and fish come second.  Grains, iron-enriched breakfast cereals, vegetables, legumes (beans and lentils), nuts and eggs, also contain iron but it is much less well absorbed (around 1-2% compared with 25% from red meat).

Spinach was once recommended as a rich source of iron.  Yes, it does contain iron – but it is not well absorbed.  The fibre and oxalates in vegetables tend to bind and hold iron, so it cannot be properly utilised by the body.  Seems Popeye was wrong!

Other substances which can interfere with absorption include bran and whole grains, coffee and tea.   So if you’re adding a tablespoon of bran to your iron-enriched cereal, then washing it down with a short black ….. it’s highly likely you’re getting very little iron at all.  A better choice may be a glass of orange juice – vitamin C greatly increases iron absorption from non-meat sources.

Iron supplements

Let’s face it – despite every good intention, our halos slip from time to time.

Iron supplements have grown in popularity over the last few years, particularly amongst vegetarians and semi-vegetarians and those – like most of us - with lifestyles far too busy to think about being constant dietary angels.

But not all iron supplements are created equal.

At the bottom end of the scale is ferrous sulphate.   Generally in a tablet form, it is ironically, the most commonly prescribed supplement by doctors and pharmacists.  Walk in and ask for “iron tablets” and this will probably be what you’re given. 

Its sole claim to fame is that it’s soluble, which means that in the body it should be easily absorbed.  However, when taken in this form, the iron and sulphate become separated in the stomach, meaning the iron can easily bind with other substances (say, that bran you had on your cereal), making it much less effective.

A much better choice is chelated iron, where ferrous iron is bound to a food-like molecule, such as an amino acid. Studies show iron chelates are absorbed into the bloodstream up to four times better than ferrous sulphate.  Liquid supplements, like Clements Iron by extralife, contain this type of iron. 

Although less well-known, liquid supplements are generally available in most chemists and are well worth the effort of tracking down.  Not only are they faster-acting and more bio-available, they are less likely to cause side-effects like nausea and constipation.   A big bonus!

“B” smart for more energy!

Iron is a top vitality-booster but it has friends, too.  B-vitamins (particularly B6 and B12) also play an important role in the energy process, as does vitamin C, E, folic acid and calcium.   So make sure you have plenty of sources of these in your diet, or get a balanced supplement which contains them.

Now you’re ready to take on that alarm clock.  Go girl!


  • Catherine Saxelby’s Busy Body Cookbook, (Hodder Headline Australia, 1995)

  • Australia’s Food & Nutrition (AGPS, 1994), Australian Institute of Health & Wellfare.

  • Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSRIO)

  • “Iron absorption from ferrous bisglycinate…” AC Bovel-Benjamin et al, University of California, Department of Nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr June 2000.