The Influence of Vegetarian Diets on Iron Metabolism and Supplementation in Female Athletes

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Michael Holmes
Darryn S. Willoughby


serum ferritin, Bioavailable, deficiency


Vegetarian diets are becoming more popular for their potential health and weight benefits along with religious, social, and environmental concerns. Many athletes have adopted vegetarian diets because they typically consist of higher intakes of fruit, vegetables, fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and folic acid than traditional omnivore diets. The perception still exists though that vegetarian diets are deficient in several key nutrients, including iron. As a result, athletes consuming vegetarian diets are considered high risk for developing iron deficiency despite limited data. Research on vegetarian diets is limited and hard to synthesize and compare because of the many variations of the diet. Much of the research on iron deficiency in athletes and the general population combines all types of vegetarians into one classification and does not differentiate between the different diets. This makes it difficult to apply results and prevalence rates in a meaningful way. Regardless of diet type, total iron intake in vegetarians has been demonstrated to be similar or greater than that of non- vegetarians. Most females, including athletes, already do not reach the current RDA for iron regardless of vegetarian or omnivore diet, so nearly doubling that value could prove difficult for most female athletes to reach. The purpose of this review was to examine the potential effects a vegetarian diet can have on iron intake and metabolism to determine if vegetarian diets do impose an increased risk of iron deficiency. The focus will remain on female athletes due to the higher prevalence of iron deficiency in this population.


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