A deficiency in iron can ruin your athletic performance and wreak havoc on your energy levels. Iron is an essential mineral found in many foods, it’s used to transport oxygen to all parts of the body. Iron is an essential component of hemoglobin, a protein that transfers oxygen from your lungs to tissues, and of myoglobin, a protein that provides oxygen to muscles. Iron is needed for metabolism, growth, development and normal cell function.
Types of Iron
The iron you get from food comes in two different types: heme iron and nonheme iron.
Heme Iron comes from meat, poultry, fish, and eggs.
Non-heme Iron is also found in meat, but it is mostly found in plant foods. The iron from non-heme foods isn’t absorbed as completely as the heme iron found in meat is. Your body will absorb about 30% of heme iron, but only 2% -10% of non-heme iron.
To get plenty of both heme and non-heme iron, include these 15 iron-rich foods in your diet:
- Beef liver
- Chicken liver
- Clams or oysters
- Mollusks or mussels
- Cooked beef
- Canned sardines
- Cooked turkey
- Iron-enriched breakfast cereal
- Cooked beans
- Pumpkin or sesame seeds
- Canned lima beans, red kidney beans or chickpeas
- Dried apricots
- Baked potato
- Broccoli stalk
Why You Need Iron
The most common nutrient deficiency in the U.S. and the World is iron deficiency. When there’s not enough iron in the body to support normal red blood cell formation, it leads to iron-deficiency anemia.
The symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia include fatigue, rapid heart rate, palpitations and rapid breathing during exertion. Decreased oxygen delivery to active tissues impairs athletic performance, and lactic acid production is increased. People suffering from iron-deficiency anemia can also have problems maintaining a normal body temperature.
Who Needs Extra Iron
At various stages in life or with certain health conditions, certain people may have a need for increased iron. This includes:
- Infants and toddlers ages six months to four years
- Adolescents (especially females)
- Pregnant women
- People with Celiac’s disease
- People with chronic blood loss
- People who’ve had gastric bypass surgery
- Intense endurance athletes
What You Need With Your Iron
There are certain foods that can help you to better absorb iron. If you’re trying to get more iron, or are a vegetarian/ vegan who needs to better absorb non-heme iron, you also need plenty of these nutrients:
Vitamin A and iron work together to improve iron-deficiency anemia more effectively than either alone, and vitamin A has been shown to improve iron levels in children and pregnant women. Include foods high in vitamin A, like beef liver, spinach, carrots, sweet potatoes, or cantaloupe, in your high iron meal.
Yellow and red bell peppers, citrus fruits, kale and kiwis are great sources of vitamin C, which helps the body absorb non-heme iron. Bell peppers and beans are a winning combo of high non-heme iron plus high vitamin C.
Meat, Fish and Poultry
Although it’s not known exactly how, the heme iron in meat, fish and poultry helps to enhance the absorption of non-heme iron. If you’re at risk of iron deficiency and aren’t a vegetarian or vegan, it’s a good idea to get plenty of these animal proteins.
What You Shouldn’t Eat With Iron
Beware there are also foods that interfere with its absorption. Keep an eye on your intake of these:
Calcium may be great for bone health, but it’s been found to decrease the absorption of both heme and non-heme iron. Steer clear of dairy products or calcium supplements when you’re eating an iron-rich meal.
Grains and Rice
Grains, rice and even legumes contain phytic acid, which inhibits non-heme iron absorption. The iron in legumes such as black beans and lentils may only be absorbed at a rate of 2%.
Coffee and Wine
Coffee, tea and wine contain compounds known as polyphenols that may be beneficial antioxidants, but can inhibit the absorption of nonheme iron. If you can’t pass on the coffee or wine with your high iron meal, be sure to include foods high in vitamin C to help reduce this effect.
If your doctor has prescribed you iron for a deficiency, or if you’re taking supplements with extra iron, keep them locked up and away from kids in the house. Accidental overdose of iron-containing products is the single largest case of poisoning fatalities in children under the age of six.