Sound Bites! Vol.2 #4

Sound Bites! Vol.2 #4

Pumping Iron

This fall, you may be pumping iron to get your muscles ready for those long, hard head races, but are you eating enough iron?  Your stamina and aerobic capacity depend on adequate body iron stores.  Low iron intake can result in anemia which definitely affects performance.  When you consider that up to 60% of female athletes may be affected by iron deficiency, it is an important issue for coaches and athletes to consider.

Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin and myoglobin, proteins in red blood cells that carry oxygen to the body tissues and muscles.  A deficiency of iron limits oxygen delivery to cells, resulting in symptoms such as loss of endurance, chronic fatigue, high exercise heart rate, frequent injury, recurring illness, and irritability.

Female athletes of child-bearing age are at greater risk of iron deficiency because of monthly blood losses related to menstruation.  Generally, men and post-menopausal women are at low risk, unless there is an unusual loss of blood related to other medical conditions.

Vegetarian Eating

Vegetarian diets may increase the risk of iron deficiency due to potential inadequate dietary iron content, but more importantly to reduced absorption.  Because iron is not as well absorbed from vegetable sources (non-heme iron) as it is from meat (heme iron), vegetarians may need almost 2 timesthe amount of dietary iron as their meat-eating teammates.  On the other hand, studies have indicated that vegetarians do not have a higher incidenceof iron deficiency than meat eaters if they make wise food choices.

Iron Requirements

Optimal intakes of iron vary depending on a person’s age, sex, and various life factors, eg, pregnancy, food habits (vegetarian or meat-eater), medical conditions, activity, etc.  Recommended intakes for iron for various age groups are (increase by up to 1.8x if vegetarian/vegan):

Women (ages 19-50) 18 mg per day / (ages 51 and older) 8  mg per day;   Girls (age 14-18)  15 mg per day;  Men (ages 19 and older) 8 mg per day;     Boys (age 14-18) 11 mg per day

Strategies for Eating Your Iron

On average, only 10-15% of the iron you eat in food is absorbed into the body.  To improve iron intake and absorption, consider the following strategies:

  1. Choose lean meats, fish and poultry – the iron in these foods is absorbed better than the iron in plant sources.
  2. Eat vegetables and grains with lean meat – the average absorption of iron from plant sources is low, but increases when these are eaten with meat, poultry and fish.
  3. Eat iron-rich legumes – dried beans and peas are the most iron-rich plant products in our diets.
  4. Combine iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C – a glass of orange juice with your breakfast can more than double the amount of iron your body absorbs.
  5. Avoid drinking tea or coffee with your meals – a cup of tea with breakfast can block 3/4 of the iron you would have absorbed.
  6. Cook foods in an iron pot whenever practical – spaghetti sauce simmered in an iron pot for about 20 minutes increases its iron content nine fold. This would work as well for other acidic foods.
  7. Eat iron-fortified foods – iron-fortified or enriched breakfast cereals and other foods can help boost your iron intake. Be sure to combine them with high vitamin C foods like citrus fruit, broccoli, cantaloupe, strawberries or kiwi to increase absorption.

If you think you may be iron deficient, talk to your doctor or other health provider.  Testing your blood levels of hemoglobin and hematocritis important to determine whether you actually have an iron deficiency (excessive iron is also harmful).  If iron deficiency has advanced to actual anemia, you may need to take an iron supplement  (be sure to follow your HCP’s instructions).

Sources of Iron

To help you make smart choices, the following list shows iron content of various foods.  The same resource provides a couple sample menus.  In addition,  you will find more healthy eating and menu tips at USDA’s

Clams 3 oz. 14.00
Oysters 3 oz. 6.60
Shrimp 3 oz. 2.50
Tuna 3 oz. 1.30
Chicken (breast roasted) 3 oz. 1.00
Duck (flesh only, roasted) 3 oz. 2.00
Sirloin (lean, broiled) 3 oz. 2.00
Turkey (breast, roasted) 3 oz. 1.20
Turkey (drumstick) 3 oz. 2.00
Lentils (cooked) 1/2 cup 3.30
Lima beans (cooked) 1/2 cup 2.25
Dried beans (cooked) 1/2 cup 2.30
Split Peas (cooked) 1/2 cup 1.25
Tofu (raw) 1/2 cup 6.65
Cream of Wheat (reg, cooked) 1/2 cup 6.00
Fortified breakfast cereal (Total, e.g.) 1/2 cup 18.00
Pasta (cooked) 1/2 cup 1.00
Wheat germ, toasted 2 Tbsp. 1.30
Apricots (dried) 1/4 cup 1.50
Broccoli (cooked) 1/2 cup 0.6
Brussels Sprouts (cooked) 1/2 cup 1.00
Peaches (dried) 1/4 cup 1.60
Peas (cooked) 1/2 cup 1.26
Potato (cooked, with skin) 1 medium 2.35
Prunes 1/4 cup 1.00
Raisins 1/4 cup 1.00
Spinach (raw) 1 cup 1.00
Spinach (boiled) 1/2 cup 2.00
Squash (winter, acorn, cooked) 1 cup 1.37


Sound Bites! is written by Debby Jackson, RD, CD, MEd, CDE, a master rower with VIRC and a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator.

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