Ask A Nutritionist! (Sept/ Oct 2007) - Iron Strong


I am concerned about my iron intake yet I do not enjoy red meat.  What foods can increase my iron intake or absorption?”

Iron is a mineral of great importance to runners.  Iron carries oxygen via hemoglobin around in the body.  If we lack iron, we will produce less hemoglobin and therefore supply less oxygen to our tissues, including our muscles.  A ten percent drop in iron levels can affect athletic performance.

Athletes require more iron than sedentary persons because of increased perspiration; the more you sweat the more iron you lose.  However, don’t over load on iron because too much iron is harmful and the body is poor in excreting it once absorbed.  In general, female athletes require 20-25mg of iron daily, whereas male athletes require 10-15mg of iron daily.

Iron is not easily absorbed by the body, only 8-10 per cent of intake is actually absorbed.   Vegetable sources of iron contain a “non-heme” form of iron which is poorly absorbed and utilized, whereas animal foods contain a “heme” form which is better absorbed.  Combining “heme” foods with “non-heme” foods improves the absorption of iron from “non-heme” foods.

You don’t need to eat red meat to meet your daily iron levels.  In addition to beef, liver, organ meats, lamb, chicken, shellfish and eggs iron can also be obtained from vegetable kingdom.  Dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and dandelinon also contain good concentrations of iron.  Whole grains such as wheat, millet, oats and brown rice, legumes including dried peas and beans as well as almonds, Brazil nuts and most seeds all contain some iron.

A number of factors affect iron absorption.  Frequent antacid use, phosphates from meats and soft drinks, coffee and black tea all decrease iron absorption.  Sufficient stomach acid, adequate zinc levels, and vitamin C all increase the absorption of iron.  To increase the absorption of iron from dark leafy green vegetables lightly steam them and add lemon juice.  Whole grains and legumes should be soaked before cooking to increase iron absorption.

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