Tara Gidus

Iron 101: Are You Getting Enough?

Iron is a mineral that helps make red blood cells to transport oxygen around the body. In addition, iron also helps make much needed energy for working muscles, enhances the immune system, and heightens brain function.

Seems important, right? Because it is! Yet, iron deficiency is far too common among runners and athletes, male or female. Iron deficiency anemia is higher in the athletic population, particularly among young females, vegetarian athletes, endurance athletes, and athletes with calorie restrictive diets. Symptoms of iron deficiency are fatigue, irregular body temperature, and an increase in infections, all of which can negatively affect training and athletic performance.

You may be at risk for iron deficiency if you get less than 18mg per day for women and 8mg per day for men. Runners may need even slightly more than that because iron is lost through sweat and marathoners can be susceptible to blood loss due to foot strike hemolysis, which occurs from a breakdown of muscle and red blood cells during prolonged exercise. Bleeding can also occur in the gut from taking aspirin or ibuprofen for long periods of time to control pain. Women are at an even higher risk due to blood loss from menstruation.

Tips to boost iron intake:

  • Eat lean meats. Iron from meat, fish, and poultry are three-times more absorbent than iron from plant-based sources.
  • Pair animal proteins with plant sources of iron. Iron from animal products increases the absorption of iron from plants, so it's beneficial to eat lean meats with green leafy vegetables or beans.
  • Eat iron-rich veggies with Vitamin C. Vitamin C also promotes iron absorption, especially iron from plants. For example, add vitamin C-rich strawberries to a spinach salad. The best plant sources of iron are beans, spinach, tomato sauce, tofu, cereal, cream of wheat, pasta, and rice.

If you are experiencing symptoms of low iron and are unsure of where your levels are, getting a blood test is the only way to truly know. Don't supplement without getting your iron levels checked from a doctor because supplementation without deficiency can lead to toxicity.

Food sources are the best ways to get iron in the diet (in comparison to supplements) so it's important to get plenty of high-iron foods in at every meal to benefit your health, training, and athletic performance. If you do need a supplement, look for a slow-release formulation to prevent constipation as a side effect.

Known as the "Diet Diva," Tara Gidus is a nationally acclaimed nutrition expert and the official nutritionist of runDisney.