How can vegetarian athletes get enough iron?

Dr. Vonda Wright, MD
Orthopedic Surgery
In most cases, vegetarian athletes can achieve proper iron status without iron supplementation, according to the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the ADA. However, vegetarians need to be educated about plant sources of iron and factors that enhance and interfere with iron absorption. For example, an athlete who consumes beans at lunch while drinking milk or tea could be advised to replace this beverage with citrus fruit juice to enhance iron absorption at that meal. In some cases, vegetarian athletes may temporarily require supplements to build up or maintain iron stores. Athletes taking iron supplements should have their iron status monitored because of the potential association between iron status and chronic disease.
Fitness After 40: How to Stay Strong at Any Age

More About this Book

Fitness After 40: How to Stay Strong at Any Age

It's one of the undeniable facts of life. After we reach a certain age, our bodies change. No matter how fit we may have been at 20, we're very different people after 40. But growing older doesn't...
Amaris Noguera
Nutrition & Dietetics
Like the other respondents mentioned, the pairing of certain foods is particularly important when it comes to iron absorption for vegetarians. So the key is to combine your iron-containing foods (which include spinach, broccoli, tofu, refried beans, prune juice, dates and raisins, and eggs if they are a part of your vegetarian diet) with vitamin C-rich foods. Examples of these pairings: orange juice with iron-enriched cereals, tomato on your sandwich, mandarin orange wedges in a spinach salad. Note that menstruating female vegetarian athletes are particularly at risk of iron deficiency due to monthly losses. You can figure out what the recommended daily allowance of iron is for your age and gender by looking at Table 3, here:  

Other Tips:
  • Use a cast-iron skillet when cooking: the iron content of foods is usually increased when cooked in a cast-iron skillet.
  • Choose iron-enriched cereals: select a cereal brand that provides at least 25% of the daily value for iron, which you will find on the right-hand column on the nutrition facts label.
  • Don't drink coffee or tea with meals: if you're an athlete that regularly drinks coffee, be mindful that coffee consumed with a high-iron food can reduce the iron absorption capacity by roughly 40%. To avoid this, drink coffee at least one hour before your meal.
Vandana  R. Sheth
Nutrition & Dietetics
Vegetarian diets can provide adequate iron to meet the needs of athletes. The usual concern when it comes to plant sources of iron is that it is in the non-heme form and this might not be as easily available to the body. To compensate for this and to allow a greater absorption of iron from plant sources enjoy it with vitamin C rich foods. Good plant sources of iron include dark green leafy vegetables, spinach, legumes, soy foods, lentils.
Sports dietitians agree that athletes consuming a vegetarian diet can keep their competitive edge -- with careful planning. Iron is a critical nutrient for athletes, because it carries oxygen to working muscles.

Iron-rich foods include: 
  • fortified cereals
  • enriched grains, pasta, bread
  • oatmeal
  • nuts
  • sunflower seeds
  • soybeans
  • dried fruits
Picture of runner

Continue Learning about Minerals

Carotenoids: The Calcium Side Your Bones Crave
Carotenoids: The Calcium Side Your Bones Crave
Keep your skeleton strong and fracture-free by serving that calcium supplement with a healthy salad on the side. Salad? Yep, salad. A 4-year study fo...
Read More
Why does my body need minerals?
Dr. Andrea Pennington, MDDr. Andrea Pennington, MD
Minerals are an inorganic substance that are essential for human life. They also plays a role in m...
More Answers
What do balanced levels of potassium and sodium prevent?
Dr. Mehmet Oz, MDDr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Maintaining a diet that balances your body's levels of potassium and sodium can aid in preventing an...
More Answers
Selenium Keeps You Young
Selenium Keeps You Young

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.