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8 Facts About Iron & Young Athletes You Want to Know

8 Facts About Iron & Young Athletes You Should Know

Iron is an important nutrient for any individual, no matter the age. I’ve written about young infants and the importance of iron in their diet for brain growth and intellectual development.

Iron is super important in the first two years of life.

For growing child athletes, iron is also a critical nutrient, especially when your child gets older, during the teen athlete years. With an uptick in growth, changing eating habits, and (for girls) the onset of menstruation, iron becomes a central nutrient to watch.

Symptoms of Low Iron

I’m outlining the facts about iron below so you can pick up on any signs of iron deficiency early. If you see or suspect iron deficiency or iron deficiency anemia, contact your doctor for an evaluation.

In my experience, I’ve noticed that some kids will demonstrate the symptoms of iron depletion, yet when they are tested for anemia, everything looks normal (or within normal range).

If there are symptoms, such as fatigue or difficulty sleeping, I am curious about the typical eating patterns, especially whether there are foods with iron in the diet.

I’m looking to see if both animal and plant sources are eaten daily.

It’s important for you to understand the role of iron in your growing child, the signs of iron deficiency, and the sources of foods with iron so you can support your child, athlete or not. I’ve got you covered with the basics!

8 Facts about Iron for Young Athletes

Two Types of Iron Exist in Food

Not all foods are equal when it comes to iron. Foods that come from animals and fish have heme iron, which is easily absorbed and used in the body after it’s eaten.

Non-heme iron comes from plant foods like spinach. It is not as readily absorbed by the body and needs a vitamin C “helper,” such as red pepper or citrus fruit.

[Want some iron-rich recipes? Check out my Beef in a Crockpot and Spinach Pizza Rolls.]

Iron Transports Oxygen in the Body

Muscles need oxygen to function properly. Iron carries oxygen to the cells of the muscles and organs.

Without adequate iron in the body, the muscles may not get enough oxygen. This can lead to fatigue, a lowered aerobic capacity for exercise, and  poor athletic performance.

Iron Requirements are High During the Teen Years

Between the ages of 14 and 18 years, iron needs increase to accommodate your athlete’s rapid growth spurt and her expanding blood supply. Females almost double their iron requirement to cover the iron losses that occur with menstruation.

You may be surprised to learn that iron is even lost in sweat!

[Read: 7 Ways to Support the Teen Growth Spurt]

Iron Deficiency and Anemia are Two Different Things

Iron deficiency means that the athlete diet is low in iron. Animal sources such as meats, poultry, fish and plant-based (non-heme) foods with iron like beans, tofu, and dark leafy vegetables are not eaten frequently, or they are consumed in inadequate amounts on a regular basis.

Prolonged low iron in the diet may lead to iron deficiency anemia.

8 Facts About Iron & Young Athletes You Should Know

Iron Deficiency Anemia is More Than Being Tired

Fatigue is a common symptom of iron deficiency anemia. In teen athletes, fatigue from anemia versus fatigue from hard training may be difficult to tease out.

In the growing athlete, fatigue from anemia versus fatigue from hard training may be difficult to tease out. #eatlikeachampion #youngathlete Click To Tweet

You may see other symptoms of anemia including pallor (pale skin), low body temperature and feeling cold, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, restless leg syndrome (an urge to move legs due to discomfort, often occurring at night, something that has been studied in children with ADHD), and chronic infections and colds.

Athletes are at Risk for Iron Deficiency Anemia

During exercise, blood cells break down. One study measured hemoglobin (an indicator of iron stores in the blood) before and after racing in a small group of collegiate swimmers.

Researchers showed that 10% of the swimmers experienced lower levels of hemoglobin after racing. They called this “swimmers anemia” and found it correlated with the length of time spent swimming.

Other studies in adults have suggested reduced athletic performance when poor iron status (but not anemia) exists.

Generally, I pay extra attention to the diet and eating habits of young athletes who fall into the following categories:

athletes in a growth spurt

athletes who are picky eaters

athletes who are vegetarian

athletes who diet or skip meals

athletes who have an unhealthy diet

teen females

These athletes will be at greater risk for iron deficiency. Teen athletes who are female are particularly sensitive to anemia due to their growth and menstruation.

If Your Child Has Anemia, You Won’t Fix it with Food

It has been estimated that up to 9% of female teens have iron deficiency anemia, despite screening and prevention efforts. The rates among US children are thought to be between 3 and 7 percent.

A recent study, however, shows that iron deficiency in young infants (between 6 and 12 months) has more than doubled since 2002, approaching levels of 18% currently, indicating a potential uptick in anemia rates starting at a young age.

If your athlete has developed anemia, she will need an iron supplement to replenish her iron stores. This intervention should be done with a healthcare professional, as too much iron can have negative health consequences.  

Additionally, you should work to improve the iron content of your child’s diet. This will ensure adequate iron supply from food after supplementation has been discontinued.

Multivitamins with Iron are Probably Not Sufficient for a Real Iron Deficiency

While multivitamins are an option for the child and teen who is generally healthy, they don’t have the proper iron content to correct iron deficiency anemia.

Typically, a child or teen with iron deficiency anemia will need an iron repletion regimen. Some cases will require extended treatment to ensure iron stores are optimal and the symptoms of deficiency are resolved.

Always work with a healthcare professional to guide iron therapy for anemia.

How Much Iron Does My Child Need?

These are the DRI (Dietary Recommended Intakes):

1-3 years:        7 mg

4-8 years:        10 mg

9-13 years:      8 mg

14-18 years:    15 mg (girls)

                           11 mg (boys)

Examples of Foods with Iron

Animal Sources of Iron (Heme iron)Plant Sources of Iron
(Non-heme iron)
Chicken liver, beef chuck, ground beef, turkey (dark meat), canned tuna, chicken (dark meat)100% iron-fortified cereals, instant oatmeal, soybeans, black beans, pinto beans, raisins, spinach, white and whole wheat bread

Want more information about nutrition for young athletes? I’ve got several options for you!

My Book: Eat Like a Champion

My Program: Eat Like a Champion (for young athletes, parents and coaches)

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