RCTC Team Nutritionist Michelle Hurn writes about Phytates and how they impact iron/ferritin status in female distance runners.
Iron is an essential mineral for oxygen transportation. As an athlete, having oxygen flow to your muscles is important. If you’ve ever suffered from iron deficiency anemia, a condition in which blood lacks adequate healthy red blood cells (thus your muscles are oxygen deprived), you know exactly what I’m talking about. I was diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia back in 2011.
I knew something wasn’t right. I was sleeping over 10 hours a day and was constantly tired. Coffee, carbohydrates, protein, and cutting way back on my running wasn’t helping. Easy runs left me fatigued and out of breath.
I was typing an email to a coworker and I woke to 7 pages of “kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk”! I had fallen asleep in my office, and my face had hit the K button. I was overdue for getting my blood work done!
My blood work revealed my ferritin was 4! Anything below 20 is anemic, and as a female athlete you should be at a minimum of 50 ng/ml.*
I was frustrated at this diagnosis! I eat red meat often, and I like my leafy greens. What was I doing (or not doing) that was causing my body to not absorb or store iron?
To begin with, active females need to at least 15mg of iron a day. We lose iron when we sweat, urinate, when we menstruate, and every time we run (when your foot hits the ground you cause microtrauma causing your body to have to produce more red blood cells and thus, need more iron).
Sounds like no big deal, right? Most supplements have more than 15mg of iron, and if you eat a “healthy diet” shouldn’t you get enough?
Iron is really a pain in the tail when it comes to absorption. Many things affect iron absorptions including, tannins, calcium, and phytates. Most runners know about tannins in coffee and tea blocking iron absorption and to avoiding calcium and iron together, but many don’t know anything about Phytates.
Phytates (and phytic acid) are antioxidant compounds found in cereal grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes. The issue with phytates is they bind to minerals including iron, zinc, and manganese, and hinder their absorption.
Some female runners tend to lean towards a vegetarian diet. When following this diet, vegetarians tend to consume more grains, beans, rice, bread, cereals, oats, pasta, wheat, and soy protein, and less animal proteins (fish, chicken,) than their carnivorous counterparts. Interestingly, a vegetarian diet can be higher in iron than diets that include meat (often due to iron fortification in many cereal products) but due to phytates, the iron in high grain/bean diets is not absorbed well. In fact, consuming 5-10 grams of phytates can decrease iron absorption by 50%!
In 2011, my diet consisted of a significant amount of oats, beans, and wheat. I was also having lots of tofu. These items contain a great deal of phytates.
Holy cow, this sounds like MY diet, what do I do?
First, it’s a good idea to know your baseline. Ask your PCP to run an iron panel with ferritin. The ferritin number is very important! If you are below 50ng/ml, it’s a good idea to make changes, if you are below 20ng/ml, I would recommend making big changes and calling reaching out to a dietitian you trust.**
How can I get my ferritin up? Do I have to give up oats and beans? I love them!
Depending on how low your ferritin is, you will likely need to start taking an iron supplement. If your ferritin is very low you will likely need to take large doses (rx strength) of supplements for 8-12 weeks.
It’s a good idea to reduce phytates in your diet. You don’t need to eliminate them, but I wouldn’t have them at every meal! Instead of toast, cereal, or oats every morning, try roasted potatoes or yams. Instead of granola bars, have fresh fruit, if beans and soy products are a big part of how you get protein, consider eating chicken, fish, or other animal sources.*** Also soaking, grains overnight can reduce the phytates. I soak my oats and rinse them before cooking.
How come Susie drinks coffee all day and is a vegan and her iron is fine, and I’m careful and mine is very low?
Sometimes genetics play a role in how well we absorb iron. It’s unfair, but once you know your iron is low, you can take several steps (above) to improve it.
Questions? Hit me up: firstname.lastname@example.org
*There is some disagreement in the medical community about what numbers your ferritin should be. In my professional experience 50ng/ml is a minimum for female distance runners.
**Hit me up! http://wisdomandwalnuts.com/ I would love to work with you.
***I validate and understand abstaining from animal products for ethical or religious reasons. Many scientific studies as well as my professional experience show that consuming some animal proteins is beneficial for health and performance.