[Today's post is a bit of an info overload, so feel free to scroll down to a bombin' pesto at the end. I won't mind. ]
This past fall, I found out I was iron deficient.
Before I go any further, let me be clear that my iron deficiency was not because of my diet. Plant-based sources of iron (non-heme) are aplenty–and paired with with vitamin C, absorption is not a problem. It’s important to me that I emphasize this, as there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about vegetarian/vegan diets and I certainly don’t want to add to those.
My deficiency developed because, during the year leading up to my discovery, I had been taking antacid medication (as prescribed by my doctor) twice daily (I had terrible acid reflux–a story for another day). Little did I know, antacids prevent the absorption of iron. So I was systematically blocking iron from my body.
Although I had stopped taking antacids by the time I learned I was deficient, the damage had been done.
See, as it turns out, iron is kind of a big deal. It’s an essential mineral present in every living cell and necessary for the production of hemoglobin (primary part of red blood cells), which carries oxygen in the blood, myoglobin (major protein of muscle cells), and certain enzymes. It plays a key role in metabolism, digestion, and circulation, and is vital for active individuals as it is responsible for delivering oxygen-rich blood to the muscles and other parts of your body hard at work.
When you’re lacking iron, you may experience fatigue, dizziness when standing up, difficulty concentrating, the urge to chew on ice, etc. Or, as is often the case with mild deficiencies, you may be totally asymptomatic.
So why am I sharing this?
Iron deficiency is very common among women (in part because we lose blood every month) and is particularly common in women runners. I want to share my story and what I’ve learned because even if you aren’t iron deficient, as an active woman (which many of you are), it’s important to be aware of your iron intake to ensure you’re getting what your body needs.
Ladies, this post is dedicated to you.
So what’s my story?
My nutrient deficiency manifested itself in running–though I didn’t know at the time that a lack of iron was the culprit. I was training for a half marathon last spring when running became very difficult. My legs felt so heavy. I get heavy legs from time to time–but this was different as it was happening every run. From long runs to “easy” three-milers, I could not run at pace. I was slow. And I’ve never struggled with hills so much in my life.
I thought I was over-training so I tried cutting back and resting more. I also kicked up the protein in my diet and started eating pre-run carbs for quick energy. But nothing worked. I managed to power through the training and complete the half, and while I was happy to finish, a part of me was also disappointed in myself; I had trained, and yet my time was a full 15 minutes longer than my that of my previous half marathon. And I didn’t know how to get back to where I was.
So when I found out I was iron deficient (and learned that it can affect performance), a part of me was happy to know that my slowed running times were not because I wasn’t training hard enough (or training too much).
I quickly developed a plan of action to get my iron levels back up. In addition to the twice daily iron supplements prescribed by my doctor, I wanted to do all I could to get iron from my food. My goal was to be off the supplements by my follow-up appointment (in 3 months). It’s not that I’m against supplements (I take a multi-vitamin every once in a while and a B-vitamins supplement a couple times a week); it’s just that I don’t want my diet to be unnecessarily lacking.
[Disclaimer: Please consult a doctor before taking iron supplements; they are unnecessary--even potentially detrimental--for those who are not iron deficient.]
Fast forward to last Tuesday when I had said appointment. As my running pace has returned, I was feeling confident. My iron levels did jump up which is great …but my iron store is still low. Apparently, it can take a while to build this up. So I’m still on the supplements.
Enter: Operation Iron. A.k.a. my plan to up my dietary iron intake.
Before I share, please remember that this is amateur advice. I am not a nutritionist and there was a lot of info during my research that I couldn’t sort through. For example, I’ve read that spinach is an excellent source of iron but that its tannins can block absorption. So is it really a good source of iron or not? (I say yes and hope for the best.) Also, calcium can block the absorption of iron. So what does that mean for foods rich in both minerals–does the calcium cancel out the iron? Some things remain a mystery to me.
Step 1: Learn what plant-based foods are high in iron (such as spinach, blackstrap molasses, lentils, quinoa, tofu, tempeh, brussels sprouts, chickpeas, tahini, millet, broccoli, swiss chard, dried apricots, raisins, pepitas, edamame, etc.) For a longer list go here.
Step 2: Eat iron-rich foods with vitamin C for optimal absorption. (Salads topped with pepitas and a citrus dressing, orange juice with iron-rich cereal, tomatos with your greens, beans, or lentils, etc. Also, eat lots of foods high in both iron and vitamin C, such as broccoli or bok choy.)
Step 3: Create some iron-rich recipes!
Such as my iron-rich trail mix.
I know this
recipe compilation of nuts/seeds/dried fruits is so not exciting. But it is tasty and it does the job. Not everything can be as magical as cookie dough balls, people.
In the mix? Nuts and seeds high in iron–pepitas, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews–and iron-rich raisins. It also includes dried apricots which are high in both iron and vitamin C as well as dried mulberries.
I stumbled across mulberries a few months ago and discovered they are little iron powerhouses–and are packed with vitamin C. Ideal for easy absorption.
They’re sweet, chewy, delicious little guys.
Let’s put it altogether.
Ironwoman Trail Mix
- 3/4 cup pepitas
- 3/4 cup sunflower seeds
- 1/4 cup cashews
- 1/4 cup almonds
- 1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped
- 1/2 cup raisins
- 1/4 cup mulberries
Mix ingredients together. I eat in servings of 3 or 4 Tbs.
Other recipes I’ve made that are a good source of iron include:
Tofu and Spinach in a Lemon Caper Sauce
Blackstrap Molassas-Maple Granola
If you haven’t noticed, I also tend to put pepitas or toasted sunflower seeds on pretty much everything. Per Alicia Silverstone’s suggestions in The Kind Diet, I rinse my sunflower seeds then toast them in a frying pan over medium heat until they start to pop and/or turn golden brown and fragrant. I then remove from heat and sprinkle a bit of soy sauce over them, to taste. And they are tasty. One of my favorite takeaways from that book.
To spice things up (literally HA), I also baked up some fiery pepitas this week to add to salads and wraps.
Toss together 1 cup of pepitas, 1 Tbs. olive oil, 1 tsp. maple syrup, 1/2 tsp paprika, 1/4 tsp cumin, scant 1/4 tsp cayenne, and a random drizzle of worcestershire sauce. Bake at 400 degrees until golden (mine took about 7 minutes). Add a generous sprinkle of sea salt right out of the oven, to taste.
A little kick indeed!
And tonight I threw together an iron-rich pesto.
Served over whole wheat penne.
with cashews and pepitas
- 3 garlic cloves
- 2 Tbs. pepitas
- 2 Tbs. cashews
- About 2 cups basil leaves
- About 2 cups spinach leaves
- 2 Tbs. nutritional yeast
- 1/2 cup olive oil (or more for a thinner sauce)
- Sea salt, to taste
Process in this order: garlic, pepitas, cashews, nutritional yeast, and salt, then the greens and the olive oil. Adjust seasoning to taste.
Coupled with tomatoes (read: vitamin C), it’s a win-win.
A good note to conclude tonight’s Operation Iron, yes?
And there will be more where that came from: For those out there who share my iron issue, I will be tagging some of the more iron-rich recipes on my blog so you’ll be able to click “iron” to get a list of recipe ideas. (At the very least, this will be a helpful guide for none other than moi! )
And I promise that’s all the nutrition chat for a while!