What is iron?
Iron is used to make red blood cells (RBCs), which carry oxygen to our organs and tissues. When you are low in iron, your RBC count goes down. This means your blood isn’t getting as much oxygen to your tissues, which can lead to fatigue.
Our bodies are capable of storing 1 years worth of iron in a protein called ferritin. We do this in case our iron intake decreases so that we can pull from our stores. So what happens when ferritin is low?
A couple of years ago, I was told I had iron deficiency anemia (IDA), the most common form of anemia. My ferritin levels were extremely low, which shows that my long-term iron stores were being depleted. My general energy level seemed low and I felt abnormally tired after workouts and runs. These symptoms of fatigue are typical of someone with IDA.
When I found this out I made a point to eat more grass-fed beef in my diet. It gave me a good reason to eat more burgers (I swear I ate 3 hamburgers a week). I also got an iron supplement (Vitanica brand) that I took not so religiously. Pills are the worst! -- So I focused on eating a lot more iron-rich foods daily.
I got my levels checked a year later and they were back to normal. Food is medicine!
Why is iron so important for women?
Iron is the most common deficiency during pregnancy and generally occurs during the third trimester. There is a higher iron demand because you need to deliver blood and oxygen to both you and your baby, who has to build up iron stores to last the first six months of his or her life. The recommended intake goes from 18mg to 27mg when pregnant -- that is almost double!
Menstruation -- when you get your period every month, you are losing a lot more blood that normal. This will decrease you iron stores and increase the demand for iron through your diet. Make sure to eat iron-rich foods before, during, and after your period to prevent menstruation fatigue!
On top of already being at an increased risk for iron deficiency, women who are training or doing intense exercise regularly are at an even higher risk. When you exercise, you are putting more demand on you RBCs to provide you with more oxygen. In fact, your muscles have iron stores that help them to perform better, repair, and grow. If you are not taking in enough iron, then your RBC count will decrease, causing you to have lower performance and more fatigue.
So...what foods should you include in your regular diet to prevent low iron?
My favorite sources of iron:
Dark meat chicken
Leafy greens (kale, spinach, chard)
Nuts and seeds (cashews, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds)
Dried fruit (prunes, raisins, apricots)
Beans (lentils, black beans)
Dark chocolate (my personal favorite)
*TIP: Vitamin C helps to improve iron absorption. Fore example, eating tomatoes on a grass-fed burger or adding bell peppers to your black bean soup.
Bonus recipe: Tahini Molasses Iron Balls
Makes 10 balls
Just two of these balls gives you 5.5mg of iron, which is 30% of the RDA.
1 ½ cups cashews
½ cup dried prunes
½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
3 tbsp tahini
2 tbsp molasses
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ginger
Pinch of salt
Add all ingredients to a food processor and pulse until everything is coming together and bale to be rolled into balls. If too dry, add a splash of water and pulse again.
Roll into 10 balls and dig in!
Store in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer.