Are you practicing and racing in peak health? Eating enough iron is the first step! Join us to learn more about the importance of iron-rich foods for athletes.
Unfortunately, research reveals a prevalence of iron deficiency in athletes ranging from 5% to 50% (1,2,3). Athletes, especially endurance athletes like swimmers, runners, and cyclists, are at an even higher risk of iron deficiency.
Iron helps create red blood cells and carries oxygen for optimal performance; low iron levels can be detrimental to athletic performance and an athlete’s overall wellness.
Read along to learn about iron deficiency, the importance of carbohydrates for iron absorption, hepcidin’s role, tips for better iron absorption, and how to optimize performance with iron-rich foods.
Download the free Iron-Rich Foods List PDF for heme-iron and non-heme iron iron-rich foods to boost your iron levels and support optimized performance.
Let’s fuel to win!
Table of Contents
Why are iron-rich foods important?
Iron is a mineral found in both plant and animal sources. With attention to iron intake, most athletes can meet their daily iron needs through iron-rich foods!
5 ways Iron-rich foods help athletes:
- Create red blood cells to carry oxygen to muscles during exercise!
- Produce energy called ATP (adenosine triphosphate); the energy used for muscle contractions.
- Improve recovery. With low iron levels, athletes may have delayed recovery and increased fatigue.
- Protect the immune system. Athletes with iron deficiency are more susceptible to having a weakened immune system. Athletes do not have time to miss practice or competitions due to illness!
- Optimize performance! Low iron levels may lead to reduced exercise tolerance, decreased stamina, and impaired cognitive function.
How much iron do athletes need?
Use the guidelines below to see how much iron you may need. Talk to your healthcare provider or dietitian for more personalized recommendations.
|Age Group||Male||Female||Athlete (Male)||Athlete (Female)|
|9-13 years||8 mg||8 mg||–||–|
|14-18 years||11 mg||15 mg||8-11 mg||15-18 mg|
|19 years +||8 mg||18 mg||8-11mg||15-18mg|
Risk factors for low iron
Low iron levels can be detrimental to sports performance. Unfortunately, many variables can contribute to an increased risk of low iron levels.
It is crucial to be aware of risk factors for iron deficiency because often athletes may be iron deficient but not feel or see the signs of iron deficiency.
It is common for the body to adapt to low iron levels and for athletes to believe their fatigue is from post-practice exhaustion versus iron deficiency.
We recommend athletes visit their healthcare provider at a minimum annually to have their iron status checked. We recommend having labs for iron deficiency every 3-6 months if you are an athlete that meets any of the risk factors below.
Seven risk factors for low iron:
- History of low iron status
- Menstruation for female athletes, especially heavy menstruation
- Underfueling or RED-S
- Altitude training
- Vegan or vegetarian diets
- Celiac disease or other digestive issues impacting iron absorption
- Endurance athletes- especially triathletes and runners! The repeated foot strike can break down red blood cells and release iron into the blood, lowering iron stores over time in addition to iron loss via sweat and micro-injuries to the gut that can cause blood loss and iron loss over time (4).
Three stages of iron deficiency
Iron deficiency progresses through three stages. It’s best to catch iron deficiency as early as possible.
At a minimum, we recommend monitoring your hemoglobin, ferritin, and transferrin saturation to watch for iron deficiency.
Learn about the three stages of iron efficiency below!
Stage 1: iron depletion
In the first stage, your body has enough iron to make red blood cells. Hemoglobin levels will remain within a normal range, but blood ferritin levels will be low.
Ferritin is the storage form of iron.
However, with increased inflammation, ferritin levels can be elevated, which can mask the first stage of iron deficiency. Inflammation can occur in athletes with rigorous training loads, chronic diseases, or infections.
Therefore, ferritin, c-reactive protein (CRP), and acute-phase proteins (APPs) may be necessary for accurately diagnosing stage 1 iron deficiency (5).
If you are an athlete that believes you may have the early stages of iron deficiency, discuss this with your healthcare provider. Be sure to share your risks for inflammation in addition to risk factors for iron deficiency.
Stage 2: Iron-deficient erythropoiesis
Stage 2 is when athletes typically begin to experience detrimental impacts on performance, increased fatigue, and even pale skin.
The transport form of iron called transferrin decreases, and red blood cells shrink.
During stage 2, we recommend starting an iron supplement with your primary care provider and registered dietitian.
Stage 3: Iron-deficiency anemia
In this final stage, athletes tend to feel the worst.
Athletes’ hemoglobin levels and red blood cell count drop, and they may experience more severe symptoms such as weakness, shortness of breath, headaches, dizziness, and even impaired cognitive function.
Iron deficiency anemia can be extremely dangerous and detrimental to athletic performance. Monitor your iron status and meet with your healthcare providers to catch and correct iron deficiency before stage 3!
What is hepcidin
Hepcidin is a hormone produced in the liver that helps control how much iron is absorbed from the diet and released from iron stores in your body!
Hepcidin helps to prevent iron overload, but it can also prevent proper iron absorption in the gut! The higher your hepcidin levels, the less iron your body absorbs from food and supplements.
After a workout, hepcidin levels increase for 3-6 hours; therefore, reducing how much iron your body may absorb from iron-rich foods for athletes or iron supplements (6).
Eat your iron-rich meals and snacks before exercising or 3-6 hours after exercising for increased iron absorption.
Eat more carbs and absorb more iron!
A research study done in 2022 found that three days of an energy-deficient diet increased fasting hepcidin levels. As you now know, hepcidin reduces iron absorption in the gut. The more hepcidin, the more difficult it is for your body to absorb iron from foods and supplements!
Hepcidin levels were even higher in athletes following a low-energy and low-carbohydrate diet (7).
While more research is needed to support this claim, early research does suggest that eating enough calories and carbohydrates could be one easy way to absorb more iron!
To boost your performance and prevent higher hepcidin levels check out out blog post What To Eat Before Swim Practice (20 pre-swim snack ideas!).
Symptoms of low iron
There are many signs and symptoms of anemia, here are some of the most common to look out for in athletes:
- A decline in athletic performance
- Weakness and fatigue
- Decreased endurance
- Negative mood
- Shortness of breath
- Increased heart rate
- Dizzy or lightheaded
- Pale skin and nail beds
- Sensitivity to cold
Heme-iron vs non-heme iron
Heme-iron is a better-absorbed (~15-35% absorption rate) form of iron found in animal-based foods such as poultry, beef, and fish.
Non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed (~5-20% absorption rate) and is found in plant-based foods such as legumes, tofu, fortified grains, nuts, and seeds.
See more detailed examples below.
Here is a list of 10 iron-rich foods check out this complete iron-rich food list PDF from the USDA for more!
- Red meat: Beef, lamb, and pork are rich in heme iron, which is better absorbed by the body. Keep reading to learn about heme iron vs non-heme iron.
- Poultry: Chicken and turkey are good sources of iron, especially the darker meat.
- Fish and seafood: Certain fish like salmon, sardines, and tuna, as well as shellfish such as oysters and clams, contain significant amounts of iron as well as omega-3s!
- Legumes: Beans, lentils, chickpeas, and soybeans are excellent plant-based sources of iron.
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds provide iron and healthy fats.
- Leafy green vegetables: Spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and other dark leafy greens are rich in non-heme iron.
- Tofu and tempeh: These soy-based products provide plant-based protein and iron.
- Dried fruits: Raisins, apricots, prunes, and dried figs are examples of iron and carbohydrate-rich dried fruits for athletes.
- Dark chocolate: Good quality dark chocolate with a high cocoa content can add iron and magnesium to your diet.
- Fortified cereals and grains: Many breakfast cereals, bread, and pasta products are fortified with iron, making them good sources of this mineral.
Check out our blog post on Beetroot Juice for Anemia to learn more about beetroots’ nutritional benefits for athletic performance and increasing iron.
Factors that impact iron absorption
Along with the impacts of hepcidin, low energy diets, and low carbohydrate diets on negatively impacting the bodies iron athletes should also keep in mind these factors that can prevent iron absorption.
Taking your iron supplement or eating iron-rich foods with calcium-rich foods such as a glass of milk or yogurt inhibits the absorption of iron.
Try to space your iron supplement and iron-rich meals 2-4 hours apart for improved iron absorption.
See the image below for foods high in calcium.
Polyphenols are loaded with antioxidants and have many health benefits; however, polyphenols prevent the absorption of iron.
Common foods rich in polyphenols include:
- Whole grains
For improved iron absorption, try spacing your polyphenols foods 2-4 hours apart from iron supplementation or iron-rich foods.
Oxalates and Phytates
Oxalates are compounds in plant-based foods like spinach, kale, beans, nuts, and chocolate. Phytates are antioxidants found in beans, grains, nuts, and seeds.
Oxalates and phytates, found in non-heme iron sources, affect your gut’s ability to absorb iron.
To counteract this, consume vitamin C-rich foods with phytates or oxalates to help improve iron absorption.
See the photo before for a list of vitamin C-rich foods.
Tips for improved iron absorption
- Pair iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin-c to improve absorption
- Try cooking with a cast iron skillet
- Pair heme-iron with non-heme-iron foods to improve iron absorption
- Avoid drinking coffee, tea, dairy, or wine with iron-rich meals
- Add fermented foods like miso or sauerkraut to other iron-rich foods
- Swap bran cereals for other fortified cereals lower in phytates
Iron-rich meal ideas for athletes
Here are some delicious meal ideas packed with iron for athletes:
- Flavorful bean burrito loaded with salsa and green peppers to enhance iron absorption from the beans.
- Satisfying beef stir-fry with iron-rich vegetables like broccoli and peas, served with enriched white rice. Opting for white rice with added iron ensures better absorption.
- Start your day with a nourishing combination of oatmeal topped with eggs and a refreshing glass of vitamin C-rich juice, such as tomato, orange, or grapefruit juice. Vitamin C helps improve iron absorption.
- Enjoy a juicy beef burger paired with vitamin C-rich tomato slices to boost iron absorption.
- Wholesome kale and quinoa salad tossed with tomatoes and tofu offer a nutrient-packed meal rich in iron.
- Enjoy a flavorful tomato lentil curry served with rice. For an extra iron boost, consider adding spinach to the dish.
- Start your morning with a comforting bowl of cream of rice accompanied by strawberries and a side of eggs. This combination provides a delicious iron-rich meal to kick-start your day.
By incorporating these iron-rich meal ideas into their diet, athletes can ensure they fuel their bodies with the necessary nutrients for optimal performance.
Importance of iron-rich foods for athletes
Iron is crucial for optimizing performance and promoting faster recovery in athletes.
Unfortunately, iron deficiency is a prevalent issue among athletes.
It’s essential to be aware that you may not always feel the symptoms of iron deficiency, so it’s recommended to monitor for signs and regularly consult with your healthcare provider for annual blood tests to check your iron levels.
To maximize the benefits of iron-rich foods, we suggest trying our helpful tips to enhance iron absorption for athletes.
By ensuring an adequate intake of iron-rich foods, you can fuel your body for intense workouts and achieve your fitness goals.
So, get ready to crush your workouts by prioritizing iron in your nutrition!
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Katie Schimmelpfenning RD, LD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, USA Swim Coach, and former Division 1 swimmer. She helps competitive swimmers fuel and train to optimize performance, recover faster, and prevent injury! She is passionate about spreading evidence-based nutrtion tips to help swimmers across the globe.