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Why Iron is important to the Dancer

By Nicolette Braybrook LISTD (Dip) BSc (Chem) Mast. Nut. & Diet.

Iron is a mineral found in food, which is essential in keeping the body healthy. In addition, iron is necessary for the dancer for maximum energy and peak performance.

Iron has several important functions within the body. It is needed to form an important part of red blood cells called haemoglobin, which transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. It also forms part of a muscle protein called myoglobin, which provides oxygen to the muscles during strenuous physical activity. Iron can also strengthen the immune system of the body, increasing resistance to colds, infections and disease.

Therefore, dancers who have a marginal or inadequate iron intake can impair their exercise performance by decreasing the amount of oxygen delivered to the muscles, impairing muscle contractions and strength.

People at risk from developing iron deficiency anaemia include infants, children less than two, teenage girls, pregnant women, pre-menopausal women, vegetarians, the elderly and female endurance athletes. A poor dietary intake and increased losses due to menstruation are primary reasons for the development of a deficiency. Menstruating females require almost twice as much iron as their male counterparts to replace monthly losses.

A lack of iron can leave you feeling tired, rundown and prone to infections. As the condition worsens, more dramatic symptoms may develop such as severe fatigue, cramps, headaches, shortness of breath, poor stamina and feeling the cold more than usual. If you suspect that you have low iron levels, consult your doctor to arrange a blood test.

All dancers should be consuming iron rich foods each day in their diet. Lean red meat is the best source of iron because it contains 'haem' iron, which is well absorbed by the body. Red meat has twice as much iron as chicken and three times as much iron as fish. Generally, the darker the colour of the meat the more iron it contains.

'Non haem' iron found in breakfast cereals, wholegrain breads, legumes, dark green leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts and eggs is not as well absorbed as the iron found in meat.

With increasing numbers of dancers selecting vegetarian diets, it is important that they seek the advice of a dietician to ensure their diet contains not only adequate amounts of iron, but other nutrients that may be at risk, such as protein, calcium, zinc and Vitamin B12.

Vegetarians along with people who consume minimal amounts of red meats can in fact obtain sufficient iron from their food with the help of Vitamin C, which can enhance the body's uptake of iron. Vitamin C reacts with 'non haem' iron making it easier for the body to absorb. For example, drinking a glass of orange juice at breakfast along with a wholegrain cereal or adding a tomato or capsicum to a legume/vegetable stir-fry for dinner.

In comparison to orange juice, tea and coffee can suppress the uptake of iron from these 'non-haem' sources. Therefore, it is best to drink tea and coffee between meals rather than with them.

Supplements should only be taken on your doctor's and/or dietician's advice. High intakes of iron in the form of supplements can cause iron overload in some people. Symptoms may include diarrhoea, constipation, stomach discomfort and nausea. Iron supplements have also been shown to interfere with the absorption of other minerals, such as calcium.

In conclusion, to treat or prevent the onset of iron deficiency it is important that the dancer attempts to:-

  • Eat more iron rich foods such as lean red meat, skinless chicken, fish, eggs and legumes.
  • Include Vitamin C rich foods or drinks at each meal.
  • Eat more wholegrain breads and iron fortifies cereals.
  • Drink tea and coffee between meals rather than with them.
  • If vegetarian or restricting certain food groups from your diet, obtain further dietary advice to suit individual requirements.

Nicolette Aisen (nee Braybrook) is a privately consulting dietician focussing on the dance field. She is also the owner and director of a dance school in Melbourne, Australia.

You can contact her at:
34 Croxton Drive
Toolern Downs
Melton VIC 3337
Tel: + 61 3 97469823
e-mail: nicobret@mail.austasia.net