Iron is an important mineral for athletes and thru-hikers. It is an essential part of healthy red blood cells, which deliver oxygen throughout your body. Anytime your muscles are working hard, they are taking in and using oxygen. Oxygen helps our muscles make energy out of glucose. Therefore, the more red blood cells you have, the easier it will be to utilize oxygen, and subsequently use your muscles to climb mountains. This becomes especially important at high elevations, like in the Sierras, where the air is thin and it’s harder to get oxygen. With less oxygen available in the air, the efficiency of oxygen delivery, by healthy red blood cells, becomes vital. Getting high quality food-sources of iron is the best way to ensure healthy red blood cells.
There are two kinds of dietary iron: heme- and non-heme. Heme-iron comes from the blood and muscles of animals, while non-heme iron is found in plants. You may have heard heme-iron referred to as the “higher-quality” source of iron, since it easier for our digestive tract to absorb. While heme-iron is more readily absorbed, there is more to the story. Recent studies have shown heme-iron to be significantly associated with diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. An abundance of iron in the body can act as a pro-oxidant, meaning it contributes to oxidizing cholesterol and free radicals. This leads to inflammation and even the development of atherosclerosis. Since it is so readily absorbed, we risk iron overload and the subsequent toxic effects. To learn more about this, check out this NutritionFacts.Org Video.
So how is one to get enough iron, if this most readily-absorbed kind has such risks? Well, if you follow a plant-based diet, it is naturally nutrient dense. That means you’re getting a bunch more vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, B vitamins, beta-carotene, vitamin K, zinc, calcium, and… IRON! You can eat the same amount of calories in comparison to the standard american diet, but get multiple times the nutrients. With this nutrient dense way of eating, our body is allowed to make its own decisions about what to absorb and not. So if we need more iron in our blood, a message gets sent to our gut cells to absorb as much as possible! If we don’t, then those cells just take in a little bit. By consuming a simple and wholesome diet, our body is able to naturally self-regulate in terms of what vitamins and minerals it needs.
There are also things we can do to improve iron absorption. Eating vitamin C rich foods in combination with iron-rich foods facilitates iron absorption. Vitamin C can be found in almost any fruit or vegetable. For example, add molasses (iron rich!) to your morning smoothie that has berries and bananas (vitamin C rich!). Make a kale and citrus (vitamin C!) salad with pumpkin seeds (iron!) sprinkled on top. Incorporate diced tomatoes (vitamin C!) into your beans (iron!) and rice dish. Secondly, there are some things that inhibit iron absorption, like caffeine. So wait a couple hours after that smoothie before drinking a cup of coffee, or vice verse. Thirdly, milk, dairy products and eggs have been shown to bind iron in the digestive tract, preventing absorption. So consuming a plant-based diet, high in vitamin C and void of any dairy or eggs, is ideal. This makes it actually easier to get iron on a vegan diet than a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. This blog post by Matt Frazier, of No Meat Athlete, is a great resource to learn more about iron in a plant-based diet.
One final concern for iron is blood loss. As women loose blood monthly, the heavier a woman’s menstrual cycle, the higher risk they have for iron-deficiency anemia. An advantage of being on a diet free of animal products is that it is also free of added and naturally occurring hormones in meat and dairy. Replacing animal foods with plant foods further decreases hormone levels through the action of fiber, helping to rid the body of excess estrogen. This makes for lighter, easier menstrual cycles, minimizing blood loss.
It can take up to 3 months to increase iron stores. So in the context of long-distance hiking and climbing mountains, it is a good idea to maintain a well-balanced, wholesome diet not only during these activities, but before and after. It’s a long-term investment with high payoffs for a long, happy life, full of adventures!
Iron Content of Foods
*Adult Males should aim for about 8 mg/d. Adult females should aim for about 18 mg/d.
** Data sourced from http://www.care2.com/greenliving/12-top-vegan-iron-sources.html
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