With our blessed holidays over and the new year fast approaching, it is doubtless that both the gyms and the organic sections of supermarkets shall be quickly occupied by a large number of us, full to the brim with ideals of efforts to be undertaken in the name of “new year, new me” health. This annual rite, you may be or know someone who has signed up for Veganuary this year, more than 50,000 Britons have, of forging a lifestyle overhaul aiming for abs by summer nearly as common in occurrence as its inverse is uncommon, the instances of dedicated souls who stick it through and maintain their efforts long enough to see the snow melting under the warm sun of spring.
Those real, lasting changes to daily activities, to a diet or exercise plan, they remain difficult to adhere to for the same reasons we weren’t simply doing them in the first place. They take time, energy, and they simply aren’t able to provide gratification as quickly as some of our more typical means of indulgence (I’m looking at you Friday night beer and chips). Is that all it is, are we simply incapable of fighting our urges long enough to habituate the requisite activities that support the healthy and active lifestyle we hold in our mind’s ambition on the second of January? Or is there another reason? Could it be that lurking in that newfound discipline there lies a most unfortunate and unforeseen side effect which, in the most literal of senses, deprives you of the energy or ability to follow through on your early morning run, your veg and whole grain diet, and your weekend HIIT classes? It is not only possible, it is quite likely that a switch to vegetarianism/veganism in conjunction with routine exercise can lead to what’s known as iron deficiency or sports anaemia (ref 2, ref 5), stealing both energy and resolve from the once enthusiastic resolutioner, leaving them only with an unused gym memberships and their favorite Big Mac instead of the desired six pack.
How can fitness combined with a change of diet lead to trouble?
Exercise, as it often does and should, walks hand in hand with a healthy diet in the visions of an ideal self. As the adage goes, you can't out-train a bad diet. This coupling, however, leaves the individual susceptible to the specter of iron deficiency and sports anaemia. A typical red blood cell’s life cycle lasts for about 120 days before undergoing haemolysis and being destroyed by the body. Through exercise, however, the blood is exposed to oxygen at a vastly increased rate. It makes sense, if you go for a run you need to breathe more to support the activity. The cost of this increased exposure is that the blood suffers what is called oxidative damage, which can lead to a shortening of the overall lifespan of the cell (ref 5). Under normal conditions, this is no problem, as a healthy body can produce new red blood cells to replace any that are damaged. A healthy, and well nourished body that is, but if said body has also recently undergone a sudden dietary change, such as a switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet, that reduces iron consumption and absorption to deficient levels (the body has a much easier time absorbing iron from animal based foods than plant based (ref 4)), then the factors compound upon each other. Not only is the body suddenly lacking in the nutrients to produce red blood cells at its normal rate, but with the added oxidative stresses brought about by exercise, now the burden becomes more than it can bear. Under these circumstances, our hallowed champions of the new year may begin to suffer from:
Chest pain, fast heartbeat or shortness of breath
Headache, dizziness or lightheadedness
Cold hands and feet
Unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances
Don't fret, you can still do this!
Now, this article is not aiming to claim that a vegetarian and vegan lifestyle causes iron deficiency anaemia. On the contrary, when implemented correctly and with a conscious effort to include high iron content foods, both vegetarian and vegan lifestyles can be both incredibly healthy and rewarding in ways that surpass the strict input/output view of personal health that this article is focusing on (ref 3). That conscious, well informed effort of including high iron content food is essential though in fending off iron deficiency anaemia. High iron content foods include:
Legumes: lentils, soybeans, tofu, tempeh, lima beans
Grains: quinoa, fortified cereals, brown rice, oatmeal
Nuts and seeds: pumpkin, squash, pine, pistachio, sunflower, cashews, unhulled sesame
Vegetables: tomato sauce, swiss chard, collard greens
Other: blackstrap molasses, prune juice
Iron from these sources can be enough to sustain active haemoglobin and haematocrit levels and stave off the sapping effects of iron deficiency anaemia, but often the actual application, especially when factoring in the added stress of the already existing lifestyle changes that most of us strive for during our resolution months, can often go wanting. The biggest hindrance of new dietary restrictions is the completely qualitative nature of our analysis of it. Without tools to measure what effect our diet is having on the body, the feelings of lethargy are simply associated with the vegetarian and vegan diet, and with that negative reinforcement of overall energy and alertness being taken away, the will to continue the diet, or any meaningful changes derived from it, is all the more likely to falter. Unless undertaken seriously and thoughtfully from the onset, efforts at achieving the sort of substantial and resolute lifestyle changes that can lead one to an idealised physical self can often be sabotaged by the unintended and unforeseen antagonist iron deficiency anemia. Additionally, young women have a heightened vulnerability to this ferritin foe given regular menstruation cycles and the additional tax it puts on red blood cell production levels.
The answer for the call of these concerns is increased knowledge, both of the typical anaemia causes and remedies, but also of how each individual person is reacting to their diets and/or exercise regimens. For this, quantitative, traceable data can be invaluable.
“Am I just sore and tired, am I not eating right, is this normal?”
Information and the ability to have direct tangible feedback constitutes one of the easiest ways to maintain motivation in new endeavors, helping to reach the goal of habit forming. Before embarking on your journey of self improvement and discovery, set out a plan, be sure that it is sustainable from both a motivational and a health perspective, and if you notice your body start to lag in its energy levels or response times, consult your local GP or health professional about anaemia testing.
Make the year of 2018 your year to forge a healthy and sustainable you! Stay motivated, stay strong, listen to your body, believe in yourself, and with the proper preparation and information the summer of 2018 will be your turn in the sun!
1.For more information on anaemia testing see Entia’s blog.
2.Vann, M 2010. Anemia Risk for Vegans and Vegetarians. [Everyday Health]
3.Craig WJ 1994. Iron status of vegetarians. [PubMed]
4.López MA, Martos FC 2004. Iron availability: An updated review. [PubMed]
5.Mairbäurl H 2013. Red blood cells in sports: effects of exercise and training on oxygen supply by red blood cells. [PubMed]