Iron Needs of Athletes

Daily iron requirements for humans varies by sex and age. The recommended intake is roughly 10 times the estimated average daily loss to account for the relatively low absorption of iron by the intestines. On average, only 10 percent of the iron consumed on a diet containing both meat and plant foods is absorbed. The recommended intake for iron, however, does not account for either the additional loss that may occur during heavy training or for the lower iron absorption from plant sources. Several sources have suggested that the iron requirement for athletes in training would need to be approximately 75 percent higher in male athletes and about 65 percent higher in female athletes to account for their increased daily loss, and those of vegetarians would need to be 80 percent greater than nonvegetarians to account for the lower absorption rate of iron from a vegetarian diet

Although it is impossible to extrapolate these recommendations to a recommended value for vegetarian athletes, you should consider that your iron needs may be higher than the daily recommendation—particularly during intense training—but that your needs are likely to vary depending on your food choices, which will be discussed later. You should also recognize that some degree of adaptation occurs in athletes and vegetarians, which over the long run enhances your ability to absorb and retain iron. An example of this adaptation is the increase in iron absorption in people with low iron reserves. 

Onestudy in male runners also found that iron absorption was significantly higher in male distance runners compared to a control population.As a final note, iron needs may also be temporarily increased in vegetarian athletes who relocate to or begin training at high altitudes. At altitude, the body must adapt to the reduced air pressure by increasing production of hemoglobin rich red cells, which draws upon body iron reserves. Inadequate iron intake during this period may lengthen the altitude-adaptation period, ultimately reducing training quality.

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