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The Athlete's Iron Manual: Foods High in Iron for Enhanced Performance

Lauren Gillan
An athlete standing in a kitchen drinking healthy juice and prepping meals.
Iron plays a crucial role in your performance as an athlete and contributes significantly to your overall well-being. But your body can't produce it itself.

Iron's role in transporting oxygen via red blood cells is vital for energy and an essential nutrient for athletic performance. Iron is critical for all human functions and transports oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body via red blood cells.

Iron deficiency (anemia) makes it difficult for your red blood cells to deliver oxygen. This results in fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, poor appetite, weight issues, and headaches, affecting your ability to perform optimally.

Here's all you need to know about foods high in iron to help fuel your athletic training.

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Types of Iron: Animal- vs. Plant-Based

There are two main types of dietary iron: iron sourced from animal products (heme) and iron found in plant-based foods (non-heme).

While both are beneficial, research shows that the body absorbs heme iron more efficiently than non-heme iron. But by combining both sources into each meal, you can maximize iron intake effectively.

» Not sure what meals to prep? Know your oxygen- and iron-rich foods.

Heme Iron Foods for Enhanced Absorption

  • Red Meat: A readily accessible source of heme iron. Pairing red meat with fiber-rich foods like sauteed spinach can increase iron absorption while adding additional nutritional benefits like vitamin C, protein, and potassium.
  • Turkey: Opting for the darker turkey meat gives you about 7% of your recommended daily iron intake. Integrating dark turkey meat into dishes like omelets with spinach provides an iron-rich, protein-packed meal for athletes who are strength training.
  • Liver: Organ meats like liver are dense in heme iron. Its nutritional richness in vitamins A and B also enhances its value for athletes seeking alternative iron-rich meat options.

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Non-Heme Iron Foods for a Plant-Based Diet

If you are not keen on meat or are trying to reduce your meat intake, here are some delicious and effective plant-based meal options.

  • Legumes and Lentils: Adding lentils to soups, stews, or salads will be a delicious boost to your iron intake. For vegetarians desiring plant-based options, legumes and specifically lentils offer substantial iron content.
  • Tofu and Quinoa: Tofu, a soy-based food, and quinoa, a high-protein grain alternative. Incorporating tofu into various dishes or enjoying quinoa alongside complementary iron-rich foods not only helps diversify iron sources but can assist with the daily protein requirements for increasing muscle mass.
  • Nuts and Seeds: Pumpkin seeds are a particularly good source of digestible plant-based protein and non-heme iron. Pumpkin seeds contain significant amounts of iron and magnesium, both of which are necessary for healthy heart function and overall well-being. Sprinkle some over your salads, or enjoy as a snack on the go.

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Increasing Iron Intake With Supporting Foods

You may not know it, but iron is hiding in a few places that you haven't thought of.

  • Dark Chocolate: Surprised? Consuming 100mg of 70-85% dark chocolate yields 10.9 mg of iron, accounting for 19% of the recommended daily intake. Opting for dark chocolate varieties also avoids excessive sugar while offering an enjoyable, iron-rich treat.
  • Shellfish: Oysters and mussels also excel as iron sources. Including shellfish in your diet diversifies iron sources for tasty variety.

Iron-Rich Foods for Optimal Performance

Understanding the diverse balance of heme and non-heme iron sources will empower you to curate a comprehensive diet designed for your unique training needs.

In my experience, using reliable meal delivery kits like HelloFresh and Home Chef is key to getting what my body needs while allowing me enough time to train effectively.

» Want that lean look? Try these meal prep ideas for weight loss.

Lauren Gillan
Lauren Gillan is a certified nutritionist who writes for Top10.com. After developing debilitating anxiety she refocused her studies from business development to holistic nutrition. Lauren has had a private practice for the past decade, empowering clients with the tools they need for a happier, healthier life.

*The information on this site is based on research, but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new diet plan, we recommend consulting with a physician or other professional healthcare provider. Results may vary based on various health factors, individual weight loss plans and adherence to the meal plan.