Plant-Based Iron for Athletes: Iron Needs & Iron-Rich Foods
By: Melissa Halas, MA RDN CDE
To answer the seemingly age-old question, it’s possible to reach iron needs while following a vegan or vegetarian diet. While iron is more commonly associated with animal products, it’s also abundant in nuts, legumes, tofu, dark leafy greens, and fortified foods. So, check out these easy ways to give your plant-based lifestyle a plant-based iron boost to reach your health and athletic potential.
Why Does the Body Need Iron?
Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen from the lungs to the tissues. In other words, it keeps the blood pumping, especially during exercise. It also supports cellular functioning, hormone production, muscle metabolism, and connective tissue health.
Low iron levels can lead to iron-deficiency anemia, which may result in fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, paleness, and more. (1) It sounds like the familiar aftermath of a grueling workout, doesn’t it? As a result, some athletes may mistake early symptoms of iron deficiency for their habitual daily grind.
So, it’s key to stay in-tuned with your body and consume balanced meals that contain iron-rich ingredients. But, if you are concerned about your iron levels, consult with your health care provider and a dietitian who regularly works with athletes to assist in getting the correct blood work to determine your iron stores and status.
Heme Iron vs. Non-Heme Iron
The primary differences between iron types are the food source and bioavailability.
The non-heme iron found in plant-based foods has a reduced absorption rate of 5 to 12%. However, non-heme iron is adaptable, which may explain the range of absorption among long-time plant-based eaters. (2)
Meanwhile, heme iron from animal-based products contains 14-18% bioavailability.
While many people following a plant-based lifestyle consume adequate iron per the dietary guidelines, it’s suggested that vegans or vegetarians consume 1.8 times the recommended amounts to account for the decreased bioavailability.
What is the Recommended Daily Iron Intake?
To help reach your iron needs, incorporate a daily combination of the options below. (3)
Plant-Based Iron-Rich Foods
Groups at Risk of Low Iron Levels
There are multiple groups of people at risk for low iron levels—each for different reasons. For instance:
pregnant women and children have increased iron needs to accommodate for bodily changes or growth.
vegans, vegetarians, and those suffering from gastrointestinal disorders often experience a decreased absorption rate, which can put them at risk of low iron levels.
However, overall, vegans and vegetarians, except women with regular menstrual cycles, don’t have a higher rate of iron-deficient anemia, although they may have slightly lower iron stores. (6)
Menstruating females and athletes, in general, require additional iron to account for greater nutrient losses through blood or sweat. (3) Since these different groups may overlap, such as with plant-based athletes, consuming adequate amounts of iron is even more crucial.
How to Boost Iron Levels?
Along with a food-first approach to care, minor lifestyle changes may help improve iron status. Check out these must-have tips below to make the most out of your iron-rich, plant-based food choices.
Pair iron with vitamin C. It seems like vitamin C saves the day. Along with its immune-boosting properties, vitamin C can help better the body’s abruption of iron. But this doesn’t mean that you need to eat oranges with every meal. Instead, embrace other vitamin C-rich foods such as red bell pepper, grapefruit juice, kiwi, strawberries, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, and more. (4)
Separate high calcium and iron-containing foods. While both are essential nutrients, they aren’t exactly friends. Calcium and iron compete for the same binding site, ultimately decreasing the likelihood of iron getting absorbed. So, treat these nutrients like people you love but can’t be in the same room together. Spend time with both, just not together.
Cook with a cast-iron pan. Talk about an easy fix! The heat from the stove or oven causes iron to leach from the pan—helping to provide your home-cooked meal with an iron upgrade. While compliance may be a challenge, it can significantly improve iron status when combined with other food-based interventions. (5)
Utilize fortified ingredients. While breakfast cereals aren’t naturally high in iron, many get fortified to help reach daily needs, some containing up to 18mg per serving. Refer to the food label to find a fortified option that equally satisfies your tastebuds.
The irony about iron is that the body requires it to function yet can be harmful in high quantities. Excessive iron intake may result in organ failure, coma, convulsions, or death. But too much may also be associated with neurological disease risks. Yup, that’s right! When it comes to supplements, there is too much of a good thing.
So, iron is not the nutrient to self-supplement just to “cover your bases.” Not to mention that iron supplements may reduce the absorption of zinc, which can equally have negative health implications. (3) So, if you are concerned about your iron levels, consult with a registered dietitian to provide a food-first approach to improving your nutrient levels or determine the appropriateness of supplementation. They can also recommend the recommended blood labs to check iron stores.
If you're training for a marathon or trying to reach other athletic goals, check out some of our other top nutrition tips.
Halas M. The plant-based boost: Nutrition solutions for athletes and fitness enthusiasts. SuperKids Nutrition Incorporated; 2019. https://books.google.ca/books?id=xx8hxwEACAAJ.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian Diets. Retrieved from: https://www.eatrightpro.org/-/media/eatrightpro-files/practice/position-and-practice-papers/position-papers/vegetarian-diet.pdf
National Institute of Health. Fact Sheet for Health Professionals: Iron. Retrieved from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/#h4
National Institute of Health. Fact Sheet for Health Professionals: Vitamin C. Retrieved from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthProfessional/
Geerligs PD, Brabin BJ, Omari AA. Food prepared in iron cooking pots as an intervention for reducing iron deficiency anaemia in developing countries: a systematic review. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2003;16(4):275-281. doi:10.1046/j.1365-277x.2003.00447.x
Slywitch, Eric, et al. “Iron Deficiency in Vegetarian and Omnivorous Individuals: Analysis of 1340 Individuals.” Nutrients, vol. 13, no. 9, 2021, p. 2964., https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13092964.
Melissa Halas, MA, RDN, CDE, is CEO of SuperKids Nutrition and creator of the Super Crew. She's a nationally recognized Registered Dietitian specializing in
pediatrics, sports, and plant-based nutrition. Check out her books that promote plant-based eating for both children and adults, including The Plant-Based Boost, Nutrition Solutions for Athletes and Exercise Enthusiasts, The Plant-Based Boost Cookbook, 100+ Recipes for Athletes and Exercise Enthusiasts, The Super Crew’s Breakfast Cookbook for Kids, 50 Tasty Recipes + 100 Fun Nutrition Activities, and Healthy Eating for Families, The Ultimate Nutrition Guide for Kids, Parents, and Educators (in English and Spanish). Shop her books here.