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How can vegetarian athletes get enough iron?

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
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: http://ods.od.nih.gov/pdf/factsheets/iron.pdf  

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.
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.
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