Elevated Nutrition and Wellness

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

Iron is widely available in a variety of foods and is commonly added to fortified foods like cereals, breads and crackers. There are two main forms dietary iron called heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in animal foods and has a higher absorption rate of 15-35% compared to that of non-heme iron which is found in plant-based foods with a rate of 2-20%. Heme iron makes up about 10-15% of total dietary iron intake for western populations based on animal rich eating patterns.


Supplements can also have varying absorption rates which is why it is important to work with an experience sports dietitian to maximize your outcomes safely.

Heme iron rich foods in 3 oz servings: (1)

  • 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)
Non-heme iron rich foods: (1)
  • 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

Iron Supplementation

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.


  1. NIH: Iron Fact Sheet for Professionals
  2. Karpinski, C., & Rosenbloom, C. (2017). Sports nutrition: A handbook for professionals. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
  3. 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/
Written by:

Hi! My name is Eleanor, I have a love for delicious and nutritious dishes, the outdoors, great people, and good times! I am a Registered Dietitian and an enthusiast when it comes to learning about health and how I can help others to feel their best. Learn more about living vibrantly on my site and take your health to the next level with a more individual approach when you meet with me.

Join our community conversation! Leave a reply!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.