Blood Biomarker Monitoring, Part 1
With the recent rise in athletes switching to a plant-based nutrition pattern, you can find a number of controversial aspects regarding the benefits, the approaches, and the “cautions” of this way of nourishing the body. Plant-based eating can also be a very emotionally charged topic for individuals depending on the impetus for switching to a plant-based focus (i.e., animal rights or environmental reasons). Before you continue reading, please note that the purpose of this short piece is not to drum up any controversy or to pick a side of the animal vs. plant debate that exists (particularly in social media realms). Rather, the intention is to bring to your attention the importance of blood biomarker monitoring when switching from an omnivore pattern to plant-based pattern, or to monitor blood biomarkers for the duration of your plant-based journey.
So, let’s talk iron.
A common concern for plant-based athletes (PBA) centers around adequate iron levels. Unfortunately, a number of coaches, professional vegan athletes, and other health professionals solely focus on iron (and specifically, ferritin, which is a marker for iron storage) as being the indicator for concluding “You are doing great on a plant-based diet!”. Absolutely, your iron stores affect health and athletic performance, but there is more to keep in mind for the PBA… and more about that in Part 2. But, when we are looking at iron levels in a PBA (or even a non-PBA!), there are several concerns to be aware of. For example, did you know:
- Ferritin levels can be skewed (i.e., a ‘false’ or temporary representation of your actual status) based on a number of factors such as systemic inflammation, infection, or a change in plasma volume (as a result of a change in training volume or stimulus).
- The range for what is considered healthy for ferritin is often not framed in the athletic context, nor sex-specific (female needs can be quite different), with standard interpretations given by non-sport-oriented health professionals.
- It is essential to monitor the trends of iron status throughout a training season and repeatedly each year. Having your serum iron or ferritin level checked every few years is a disservice to your health and you risk miss catching a deficiency starting to occur.
- Ferritin is not the only marker for assessing one’s iron status. A more complete set of blood work is needed to assess one’s red blood cell health, which directly affects training tolerance and recovery.
- Many athletes who use iron supplements are using poorly formulated products which do not absorb well. On the flipside, there is also the risk of over-supplementing iron, which can have serious health effects.
- Contrary to some common belief, you can’t just eat more spinach or leafy greens to get sufficient iron. There are many aspects to constructing a well-designed vegetarian or vegan dietary pattern not only to maintain or improve iron status for health purposes, but also to support an athlete’s level of training.
If you take your health and your training seriously, it behooves you to invest in quality blood biomarker testing and to work with a sports-minded physician and/or Sport Dietitian. Get empowered with your plant-powered diet.
Dina Griffin, MS, RDN, CSSD
Sport Dietitian / Registered Dietitian