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Iron: How to Boost Intake

Content by: Nancy Clark MS RD CSSD

Iron is important to red blood cells and transporting oxygen from your lungs to your muscles. Learn more about boosting iron intake...

Iron: How to Boost Intake


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Iron is a mineral that is an important part of red blood cells and helps transport oxygen from your lungs to your exercising muscles. If you eat an iron-poor diet, you can easily become anemic and feel unusually fatigued during exercise.

• Many athletes consume less than the recommended iron intake. It is important for athletes to eat healthy to meet iron requirements.
Males: 8 mg per day
Females: 18 mg for per day
NOTE: Females require more iron because of menstrual bleeding.

• Red meat is among the best food sources of iron! Athletes who do not eat red meat have a higher risk of becoming anemic. The iron in meat (and other animal proteins) gets absorbed twice as efficiently as the iron in vegetables. For example, spinach is a relatively iron-rich food, but only 3% of its iron is absorbable, unless spinach is eaten with some chicken, meat or other form of animal protein. Similarly, adding lean hamburger to chili boosts absorption of the iron in beans.

• Look for enriched or fortified, on food labels for bread, cereal, rice and pasta. These grain-foods have iron added.

• At meals, include fruit and/or vegetables rich in Vitamin C to enhance iron absorption. For example, enjoy strawberries on breakfast cereal, sliced tomato in a sandwich and broccoli with dinner. Fruits rich in vitamin C include berries, oranges, grapefruit, cantaloupe and watermelon. Vitamin C-rich vegetables include broccoli, spinach, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes.

• If available, cook in cast iron skillets. Cast iron offers more nutritional value than does stainless steel cookware!

• A multi-vitamin-mineral supplement with iron can be a wise choice, if you do not eat lean red meats or iron-enriched breakfast cereal. The supplement may help protect you from becoming anemic.

🥩 Animal (best absorbed) Iron (mg)
Beef, 4 ounces roasted 3
Turkey, 4 ounces roasted dark meat 2
Tuna, 5-ounce can, light 2
Pork, 4 ounces roasted 1
Chicken breast, 4 ounces roasted 1
Egg, 1 large 1

🍇 Fruit and juice
Raisins, 1/3 cup 1

🥦 Vegetables
Spinach, 1/2 cup cooked 3
Green Peas, 1/2 cup cooked 1
Broccoli, 1/2 cup cooked 1

🌾 Grains
Cereal, Total 100% fortified, 1 cup 18
Whole Grain Wheat Cereal, 3/4 cup 9
Toasted Oat Cereal, 1 cup 8
Raisin Bran, 1 cup 8
Spaghetti, 1 cup cooked, enriched 2
Bread, 1 slice enriched 1

🫘 Beans and Legumes
Kidney beans, 1 cup canned 3
Baked beans, 1 cup 3
Tofu, 1/4 cake 2

Next Steps:
• Eat balanced, iron-rich foods and likely no other supplements are required.
• Only take iron if it is recommended by a health professional. NOTE: It is possible to take too much iron and cause other health problems.
• To know if you are iron deficient, ask your doctor for blood tests for hemoglobin, hematocrit and ferritin.
• Athletes at risk of becoming anemic (i.e., eat an iron-poor diet or have heavy menstrual losses) should routinely monitor their hemoglobin, hematocrit and ferritin levels. This can prevent them from becoming anemic and experiencing a needless drop in performance.

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