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I Have Low Iron: Now What?

By Katie Davis

trail runnerIt is common for athletes — especially runners — to be diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia. But why does that matter and what do you do now?

What Is It?
Iron is a trace mineral that the body needs to obtain from food for proper function of key biological processes. Iron carries oxygen in the blood and delivers it to the lungs and muscles. It is also important for the proper function of the immune system. Each red blood cell that you have in your body contains a protein called hemoglobin (what gives red blood cells their color) that iron is attached to. 

Why Do I Need It?
Getting the right amount of iron is important because it determines how much oxygen gets to the rest of the body. If iron is low, the body starts making fewer red blood cells — leading to fatigue, feelings of coldness, decreased physical performance and anemia. Both vegetarian and female athletes are at an increased risk of developing iron deficiency anemia.

What Can I Do About It?
Adequate compensation of iron in the diet is essential to ensure that deficiency does not remain for a prolonged period of time. Iron is divided into two categories. Heme iron is found in meat and absorbed from food better than nonheme iron, which is found in plant foods.

Increase absorption of nonheme iron by eating vitamin C containing foods (broccoli, peppers, orange juice and citrus fruits) along with iron-rich foods. Foods cooked in cast-iron cookware absorb safe, tasteless amounts of extra iron. Iron inhibitors such as coffee, eggs and phytic acid found in legumes and some plant food should not be eaten with iron-containing foods, as these foods decrease absorption of iron in the body.

Foods High in Iron
Women should aim for 18 milligrams of iron in their diet per day and 8 milligrams for men. Note that in situations of low iron, the body will require more than this. Talk with your physician about an iron supplement.

Top Sources (According to the USDA Nutrient Database)                  Iron (mg)               
Iron-fortified breakfast cereals (1 cup) 4.5-18 mg
Pumpkin seeds (1 ounce) 4.2 mg
Soybeans (1/2 cup) 3.5 mg
Spinach, cooked (1/2 cup) 3.2 mg
Raisins (2/3 cup) 2.1 mg
Tofu (1/2 cup) 2.0 mg
Lean beef (3 ounces) 1.8 mg
Beans (black, white, lima, kidney) (1/2 cup) 1.4-6.3 mg
Roasted turkey breast (3 ounces) 1.2 mg
Pretzels (1 ounce) 1.2 mg
Pasta, cooked (1/2 cup) 1.0 mg
Almonds (1 ounce or 24 nuts) 1.05 mg
Skinless chicken breast (3 ounces) 0.9 mg
Canned salmon or tuna (3 ounces) 0.7 mg

Katie Davis MS, RD, CSSD, LDN has a mission to help ordinary athletes become extraordinary competitors by using whole-food based nutrition to improve athletic performance. She is the owner of RDKate Sports Nutrition Consulting, based out of Naperville, Ill., where she offers expertise in sports nutrition, eating disorders/disordered eating, intuitive eating and weight management for sport. Katie holds a master’s degree in nutrition with an emphasis in exercise physiology. She is both a registered dietitian and one of only 550 RDs in the United States to be board-certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. As a runner, triathlete, snowboarder and rock climber, Katie understands the physical and mental challenges of being a top athlete. Katie has previously consulted with NCAA Division I & Division III, NFL and NBA athletes; she truly brings both her knowledge and experience to the table as sports dietitian. Katie is available for individual consulting, team talks and group seminars. Visit her website at; from there you can navigate to her weekly blog, Eat to Compete, and connect with her on Twitter or Facebook. Contact her directly at