Iron plays a key role in forming haemoglobin in red blood cells. Haemoglobin is necessary for the transportation of oxygen around the body and critical to athletic performance. Iron is also needed for protein metabolism, collagen and antioxidant synthesis, as a co-factor for key enzymes involved in energy production, muscles, DNA and hormone synthesis; and immune function.

If left untreated, iron deficiency and anaemia may contribute to decreased endurance; reduced training capacity and recovery lead to more frequent colds and other infections.

Athlete’s have an increased risk of developing anaemia due to a greater nutrient requirement, inflammation, stress in the gastrointestinal tract, loss of iron through sweat and haemolytic breakdown through foot strike. Blood loss may also occur through urine or stools. Insufficient intake of iron rich foods combined with heavy periods, can also predispose female athletes to iron deficiency.

In non athletes, anaemia most commonly results from nutrient deficiencies due to low intake of iron rich foods and blood loss such as with heavy periods, haemorrhoids or gastric ulcers. Surgery and eating disorders and exposure to viruses (e.g. Malaria), toxins (e.g. lead) or renal disease and some drugs, reduce iron absorption. Low stomach acid, diarrhoea, Coeliac’s and Crohn’s disease and gastric bypass also decrease iron absorption. Increased requirements such as in pregnancy can also lead to deficiencies.

Iron is found in plants and animal meats
It is important to remember there are two different forms of dietary iron.

Heme iron is found in animal meats such as liver, lamb, beef and kangaroo.
Non-heme iron is derived from plant sources such as legumes, dried fruits, nuts and leafy green vegetables, tofu and eggs.

As the body must change the structure of the non-heme iron before it can be absorbed, heme iron from animal products is more bioavailable for the body. This doesn’t mean a vegetarian will always be low in iron, it just means they need to be smart about where they get their iron, and ensuring they include high amounts of other nutrients that aid absorption of iron.

HEME IRON SOURCES
Food Average serving Iron (mg)
Kangaroo 150g cooked (palm size) 4.8
Beef 150g cooked (palm size) 4.6
Lamb 150g cooked (palm size) 3.7
Oysters 84 g (8) 3.1
Chicken liver pate 40g (2 tablespoons) 2.5
Chicken 150g cooked (1 cup) 2.4
Salmon 170g (3/4 cup) 2.0
NON-HEME IRON SOURCES
Food Average serving Iron (mg)
Lentils 1 cup cooked 6.6
Black strap molasses 2 tablespoons 6.4
Quinoa 1 cup cooked 5.3
Spinach 1 cup cooked 4.4
Kidney beans 1/2 cup 2.6
Tahini 2 tablespoons 2.6
Eggs 2 cooked 2.2

TOP 10 TIPS – To increase your iron absorption

  1. Consume foods high in vitamin C such as capsicum, berries, citrus and guava and malic acid rich foods such as watermelon, berries, kiwi, apricots and mango in the same meal to enhance non-heme iron absorption. Don’t forget natures wonders such as parsley and beetroot that are also great blood builders.>
  2. Eat fresh wholefoods. Consume 2 serves of fruits mentioned above per day plus 5-7 serves of vegetables and 2-3 serves of wholegrains per day. These foods provide nutrients that aid iron metabolism such as copper, vitamin A, vitamin B2, B12, folic acid, molybdenum, selenium and amino acids.
  3. Eat red meat, fish or chicken with vegetables. Consuming meat at the same time as plant based sources of iron can enhance the non-heme absorption from plants by 85%. Consume a palm size portion of iron rich foods 4-5 times per week to maintain iron levels.
  4. Cook your iron rich vegetables. Cooking plant based iron foods such as spinach may improve iron bioavailability.
  5. Improve your digestion and boost your hydrochloric acid levels by drinking freshly squeezed lemon juice or apple cider vinegar in water 15 minutes before meals so you break down foods efficiently.
  6. Use pots and pans made from iron while cooking. The iron can go into the food during cooking.
  7. Separate some foods. Consume foods containing substances that inhibit iron at least 2 hours away from an iron rich meal or iron supplements such as calcium, oxalic acid, tannins and phytates. These include
    • Dairy foods such as cow’s milk, cheese and yogurt and calcium supplements.
    • Chocolate, tea, uncooked spinach and chard which contain oxalic acid.
    • Tea, coffee, cocao, red wine, peppermint tea, and cranberries which contain tannins.
  8. Soak, sprout, ferment and cook (where appropriate) foods containing phytic acid found in legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas) and other wholegrains, nuts and seeds to limit the effect phytates have on reducing iron absorption.
  9. Be aware of drugs such as antacids like Mylanta, antibiotics and aspirin which decrease iron absorption. Separate iron supplements and iron rich foods from medications.
  10. Avoid self-prescribing supplements as too much iron can be toxic! See your naturopath for testing, advice on your iron status and the quantity and best form of iron to take.
Do you suspect you may have anaemia? Take our free anaemia quiz.
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