Performance Nutrition: Are You Getting Enough Iron?

Andrew Dole, RDN

Everyday Chef & Performance Nutrition Expert, Fruits & Veggies—More Matters Full Bio

Andrew Dole, Everyday Chef, Fruits & Veggies-More Matters

The average American gets more than enough iron each day, but what does that mean exactly, because the average American is also sedentary and consumes a largely processed food diet. If you are exercising regularly, actively participating in endurance activities like running or fast walking, and eating lots of fruits & vegetables each day you’re certainly not average. So, where do you fit in to the whole ‘Iron’ question? Read on …

The Active Person’s Guide to Getting Enough Iron

What Iron Does

  • Iron is essential for red blood cell creation.
  • It transports oxygen from the lungs to tissues.
  • Iron is necessary for energy production.
  • It contributes to hundreds of other bodily functions, too many to list.

How Running and Endurance Sports Affect Iron

  • Iron is lost through sweating.
  • Strenuous efforts destroy red blood cells.
  • Muscle growth competes for iron.
  • Impact of running and striking the ground repeatedly destroys red blood cells.

Concerns for Vegetarians and Limited Meat Eaters

  • Heme Iron comes from meat sources. It is absorbed easily (10-35%) and is less affected by other foods.
  • Eliminating or limiting meat excludes a significant source of iron from the diet.
  • Non-heme or plant based iron is less easily absorbed (2-10%).
  • High-fiber diets decrease the absorption of iron.

Women and Iron

  • Menstrual losses contribute to iron loss.
  • Lower food intake limits iron intake.

Recommended Daily Iron Intake

Non Vegan
Athlete / Very Active Endurance
  FEMALE mg/d
Up to 30% more
  MALE mg/d
Up to 30% more

5 Things You Can Do to Get More Iron

  1. Cook in cast iron.
  2. Add Vitamin C fruits and vegetables to meals, especially meals with meat, fish, or poultry.
  3. Eat whole grain cereals that have been fortified with iron.
  4. Avoid tea, coffee and wine at meal times and 1-2 hours before. Tannins in these drinks reduce iron absorption.
  5. Avoid multivitamins high in zinc, magnesium and calcium near meal times. The minerals compete with iron for absorption when taken as a supplement.

Foods You Should Eat for Iron
Many fruits and vegetables such as soybeans, lentils, dried apricots, collard greens, and beans contain some iron, but most iron in the diet comes from meat, seafood, poultry and from foods (breads/cereals) fortified with iron.

Iron Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet
Micronutrient Information Center
USDA’s National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference
The Recovery Zone: Hematology

McArdle WD, Katch FI, Katch VL. Exercise Physiology, Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance. Wolters Kluwer Health; 2014.

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