Nutrition for Iron Deficiency Anemia
If you are an endurance athlete, female or simply feeling fatigued, you may be wondering if you have iron deficiency anemia. This post is part II of a two part series. If you are wondering if you are at risk see part I of the series – Do I Have Iron Deficiency Anemia? to understand what symptoms to look out for and next steps for treatment. If you are diagnosed with iron deficiency or simply want to improve your diet and reduce your risk, this post will teach exactly what you need to know to ensure you are supporting yourself with a food first approach.
Recommended dietary intakes of iron per day:
The Recommended Dietary Intakes (RDI) for iron is broken down into gender and age categories. Women have increased needs for iron due to regular blood loss each month. If you are not experiencing a regular cycle or are using an oral contraceptive, you may be at even greater risk. Those not on contraceptives with amenorrhea or oligomenorrhea should see professional care to regulate their cycle and ensure they have adequate nutrition to support all systems in their body. Regardless, I recommend annual blood work for all athletes to rule out possibly deficiencies and promote short and long term athletic performance and overall health.
RDI for Women: (1)
- 14-18 years: 15 mg
- pregnant 27 mg
- lactating 10 mg
- 19-50 years: 18 mg
- pregnant 27 mg
- lactating 9 mg
- 51+ years: 8 mg
RDI for Men: (1)
- 14-18 years: 11 mg
- 19-50+ years: 8 mg
Foods High in Iron
- Oysters (8 mg of iron)
- Beef liver (5 mg)
- Atlantic sardines (2 mg)
- Beef, braised bottom round, trimmed (2 mg)
- Roasted chicken with skin (1 mg)
- Canned tuna in water (1 mg)
- Roasted turkey with skin ( 1 mg)
- 1 cup white beans (8 mg)
- 1/2 cup lentils boiled and drained (3 mg)
- 1/2 cup cooked spinach (3 mg)
- 1/2 cup firm tofu (3 mg)
- 45-69% cacao, dark chocolate (2 mg)
- 1/2 cup kidney beans (2 mg)
Foods That Decrease Iron Absorption
Do know that certain foods can impair the absorption of iron into your body. Foods that reduce iron absorption are foods:
- high in phytates or phytic acid: seeds, nuts, legumes and whole grains
- high in calcium: dairy products, Brussels sprouts, dark leafy greens, etc.
- tannins and some polyphenols: tea, coffee, herb teas, cocoa and foods high in fiber.
Focus on consuming iron rich foods at least 1-2 hours apart from the foods listed above to maximize your absorption.
Foods That Enhance Iron Absorption
Alternatively, you also have foods that can enhance your absorption. Pair the foods listed below with high iron options to make the most of your nutrition and optimize your absorption rates.
- Vitamin C and other organic acids (citric, malic, lactic, and tartaric acids) can significantly enhance iron absorption and reduce the inhibitory effects of tannins and phytates.
- opt for foods rich in vitamin C such as peppers, strawberries, tomatoes or tomato sauce, kiwi, lemons, grapefruit, oranges, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, or cabbage
- Allium spices such as onions and garlic
Unless you are diagnosed as deficient in iron, you should not take an iron supplement. Iron can be toxic if you already have enough in your system. Common side effects of supplementation are constipation, abdominal discomfort, nausea, and vomiting. You should only supplement for up to 3-6 months under the supervision of your dietitian until your lab work normalizes.
Common iron supplements include ferrous fumarate, ferrous gluconate, or iron suspensions. Different forms can be tolerated better than others depending on the individual. Enteric-coated iron supplements may reduce the side effects of supplementation but reduce the absorption rate.
Putting it Into Practice
If you suspect you are deficient in iron, work with a trained sports dietitian like Eleanor Baker to make your journey to higher energy levels and improved performance a safe and effective one!
Considering getting tested for iron deficiency anemia? Check out my blog post on understanding if you are at risk and what testing looks like.
- NIH: Iron Fact Sheet for Professionals
- Karpinski, C., & Rosenbloom, C. (2017). Sports nutrition: A handbook for professionals. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
- Wonznik, P. (2023, April 10). The most important and up-to-date scientific evidence to answer your iron deficiency anemia questions.: Health conditions. Examine. https://examine.com/conditions/iron-deficiency-anemia/