Your blood is your best friend – in weight lifting and in life in general. Your body has many many superpowers and at least a few of them are all thanks to a single protein – hemoglobin. Here we’ll look at what hemoglobin is, why it’s so important, how to make sure you have enough, and how to get more – or, even how to get rid of it if you have too much.
Some Background on Blood
Let’s zoom in quick and look at a red blood cell and the hemoglobin molecule. That will give us a better ideal of what it is, how it works, and why we’re talking about it.
Red blood cells transport hemoglobin, a protein named after “heme.” Heme is a complex chemical structure built around iron. You know about iron. It rounded up our list of vitamins and minerals that contribute to muscle growth.
Each hemoglobin molecule has four of these heme groups, and so has four iron atoms. How many hemoglobin are in a single red blood cell? Hundreds of billions (Tortora & Derrickson, P 668). So, why does that matter?
The Role of Hemoglobin in Your Body
Like we said, your blood does so much. It’s insane. Read more about it if you get time. But, one of the most important things that it does is transport oxygen into your body and carbon dioxide out of your body.
We’ve managed to avoid getting too deep into the science behind this, and we will continue to do so, but your body needs oxygen for energy and creates carbon dioxide as a waste product. Your breath brings fresh oxygen in and offloads waste carbon dioxide. Your blood is what carries the oxygen and carbon dioxide back and forth.
If you’ve ever owned a car, you know about rust. Rust is iron oxide – it’s what happens when iron reacts with oxygen. Believe it or not, that’s basically how your blood works. The iron in hemoglobin “rusts” to transport gasses back and forth.
So far, we’ve focused on oxygen and carbon dioxide, but another important one is nitric oxide. This serves as a chemical messenger that changes the inside diameter of your blood vessels to change your blood pressure (ibid). We won’t really revisit that, it’s just interesting.
Knowing Your Hemoglobin Levels
So, how do you know that you have enough hemoglobin? For most people, this isn’t really a problem. However, a recurring theme at HTBM is that if you’re reading this, you’re not “normal” – you probably have an above-average activity level. So, this may be something you want to take more seriously than the average person.
The only way to know for sure is to get a blood test. If you tell your doctor that you’re worried about your hemoglobin levels because of your level of activity, they may order a test for you. However, you can also get a free blood test every couple of weeks without seeing your doctor by donating blood.
When you donate blood, the phlebotomist (that’s a blood expert) checks a number of basic health factors including your circulating hemoglobin level, to make sure that you are healthy enough to donate. If you don’t have enough, they’ll tell you and send you on your way. If you do have enough, give blood – there’s pretty much always a national shortage. We need you.
There are recognizable symptoms of low iron (anemia), including dizziness, a pale complexion, and low energy (Pope et al, P 321). Incidentally, women are more susceptible to anemia than men largely because blood loss during menstruation can lead to iron loss so any female readers may have different dietary iron requirements (ibid).
Is There Such a Thing as Too Much?
It’s relatively rare, but you can also have high iron. This can also make you sick. That’s because your body has a hard time passing iron out of your system – the tendency is to store iron, which can damage some key organs, like your liver. This means that if you don’t get as much iron as you should for a while your body can rely on stores, but it can also store too much.
Some people have trouble with high iron because of health conditions, others have high iron levels because of their diet or because of taking supplements that they don’t need. If you do have high iron levels, once again, one of the best things that you can do is donate blood.
As we’ve said with other micronutrients, the real risk for most people (as long as you don’t play too fast and loose with supplements) is not getting enough. Up to a third of Americans aren’t getting as much iron as they need (ibid). If you’re really concerned about your dietary iron, don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor but it’s hard to overdo it.
Dietary Sources of Iron
Now, where does hemoglobin come from in the diet?
There are two main dietary sources of iron. These are “heme iron” and “non-heme iron.” Heme iron comes from consuming pre-made hemoglobin, which only exists in animal tissue – meat. In this case, that means red meat, white meat, and some seafood.
Really quick, we’ve got to hit you with a weird, old-timey recipe called “carpetbag steak.” It’s an old Welsh dish and possibly the original surf-and-turf plate. Start with a thick steak, cut it down the middle, and stuff it with oysters. Then, roast the whole thing in the oven. Steak and oysters are two of the best foods for sheer iron content, so this recipe is a lifter’s dream.
Meat is the only dietary source of heme iron, and meat sources are among the biggest contributors of naturally occurring dietary iron generally (ibid, P 322). However, meat is by no means the only dietary source of iron.
Whole grains contain some iron. Not a lot of iron. Actually, the least iron in terms of practically iron contributing dietary sources. Still, whole grains are good for a lot of other things too, like fiber and complex carbohydrates. Those are the good kind that contribute energy gradually throughout the day and don’t come along with a bunch of added stuff.
Speaking of added stuff, have you noticed that we’ve been distinguishing between natural and non-natural sources of dietary iron? The single biggest source of dietary iron is actually breakfast cereal. That’s because most breakfast cereals are “fortified” with iron and other hard to find trace minerals.
If you can find a breakfast cereal with added iron but not added sugar, you win the prize. The prize is nutritionally responsible dietary iron.
Specifically, raisins and prunes. Clearly, grapes and plums have iron content as well, but they also have a very high water content. That doesn’t make them bad for you, it just makes them impractical in terms of a dietary iron source. Suck out all the water, however, and now we’re talking.
Also along for the ride with dried fruit? Flavor and fiber.
Beans pack iron. Beans pack protein, beans pack fiber. And, they’re versatile enough to fit into pretty much any recipe. Put them in soups and chilli, put them in rice dishes, put them in your taco salad. Mash them up, form them into patties and pan-fry them for a vegan protein powerhouse.
Like some of the other big iron contributors on our list, beans also bring along a lot of fiber to keep you feeling full longer.
Almonds and cashews in particular are the nuts to reach for when you’re looking for an iron fix. Serving-for-serving, cashews actually have more iron than beef does (unless that beef is stuffed with oysters). Again, nuts also bring fiber and protein to the party, as well as healthy fats.
The only warning with nuts is to watch how they’re prepared. Dry roasted and lightly salted nuts are fine but some nuts that you get from dubious places (like the snack aisle at the gas station) can come with so much added salt and sugar that it might not be worth the benefits.
We’ve given you a recipe for carpetbag steak and told you a few of the countless things that you can do with beans. But, these aren’t the only food combinations that you can use to boost your iron content.
For example, if you aren’t thinking about trail mix yet, we don’t know what to tell you. Seriously, some nuts, some raisins, maybe even some of your favorite fortified breakfast cereals, or use some bulgar to make some granola, that’s next-level snacking.
So Many Sources!
Hemoglobin is important to understand in your body and in your diet. But, because your body can make its own hemoglobin, what you really need to be thinking about at the grocery store is iron. Get enough of that in you, and your body will take care of the rest.
Fortunately, dietary iron is everywhere. There are supplements out there to get you started, but thinking about iron in your diet just a little should be enough to get all the iron you need to make all the hemoglobin you need.
Pope, Jamie; Nizielski, Steven; McCook, Alison. “Nutrition for a Changing World.” Macmillan Learning. New York, NY. 2015.
Tortora, Gerard J & Derrickson, Bryan. “Principles of Anatomy and Physiology” (14 ed). Wiley. Hoboken, NJ. 2014.