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Why You Need More Iron In Your Diet

Why You Need More Iron In Your Diet

Shalane's Favorite Iron-Rich Foods

By Natalie Bickford, MS

What is Iron?

Iron is an important mineral that is responsible for carrying oxygen from our red blood cells (RBCs) to our organs, muscles and tissues. When you are running low on iron, your RBC count goes down. This means your blood isn’t getting as much oxygen to your tissues, which can lead to fatigue.

Why Do Runners Need More Iron?

When you go out for a long run, you’re muscles and heart need a lot of oxygen to keep them working efficiently and to prevent them from getting tired. As a result, your body is using up a lot of your iron stores to power you through your run. This is why runners need to get more iron through their diet.

If you’re iron is low, you might start to notice that your running times are getting slower, your muscles get tired faster than they used to, or your overall energy throughout the day is abnormally low. These could be signs that your not getting enough iron through your diet to balance out the iron your active body needs.

Iron Deficiency Anemia

Anemia is a term that means you have low RBC count and can be caused by different factors. Iron deficiency (ID) occurs when your blood iron levels are lower than normal. Iron Deficiency Anemia (IDA) occurs when the levels are so low that you aren’t producing enough red blood cells (1). Our bodies are very smart and can store one years worth of iron in a protein called ferritin. We do this in case our iron intake decreases so that we can pull from our stores. Once our long-term iron stores are depleted, then we’re in a lot of trouble!

While iron deficiency is also common in male runners, women are a lot more susceptible. One study showed that 82% of female runners were at risk for IDA. On top of the high oxygen demands from training, women lose a significant amount of blood every month through menstruation. These two factors put female runners at a higher risk for having an iron deficiency that could lead to anemia.

The Problem With Iron Supplementation

A lot of people go on an iron supplement when they find out or suspect that they are iron deficient. This can be problematic because iron supplementation can be harder for your system to digest and absorb. Also, a pure iron supplement is lacking the other nutrients that boost iron absorption. Learn more about ways to boost iron absorption!

While supplementation may be beneficial (and necessary!) for some people with chronically low iron, it’s not the solution for everyone. Sometimes the cause of low iron is actually due to having low levels of other nutrients like vitamin B12 and folate. This why you should always work with a doctor to figure out the root cause of your iron deficiency and/or anemia and to make sure you are taking the proper dose.

How To Get More Iron in Your Diet

Now let’s talk about food! We believe that getting your iron through diet is the most effective and nourishing way to prevent deficiency over the long term. Plus when you’re getting iron through food, your also getting in other nutrients that will help with absorption.

Here are some of our favorite iron-rich foods:

  • Blackstrap molasses (check the label, the best brands have 20% DV of iron)
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Chicken thighs
  • Tahini
  • Leafy greens
  • Beets
  • Lentils
  • Fatty fish (salmon, sardines)
  • Dark chocolate (check the label for at least 70% cocoa content and 10% or higher DV of iron)

Favorite Iron Packed Recipes from Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow

RFCFES = Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow

  • Pesto Pasta with Sardines (RFCFES, p. 148)
  • Marathon Bolognese (RFCFES, p. 144)
  • Beef and Lentil Minestrone (RFCFES, p. 115)
  • Chicken Cannellini Soup (RFCFES, p. 116)
  • Green Goddess Tahini Sauce (RFCFES, p. 178)
  • Miso Butter Salmon (RFCFES, p. 155)
  • Molasses Granola Bars (RFCFES, p. 229)
  • Blueberry Beet Molasses Muffins (RFCFES, p. 63)
  • Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups (RFCFES, p. 210)

Beef and Lentil Minestrone from Run Fast. Cook Fast. Eat Slow., the vitamin-C rich veggies helps the body absorb the iron in the grass-fed ground beef.

If you haven’t already, also check out  Shalanes Fave Foods for Marathon Training. A lot of them just happen to be packed with iron!


Natalie is a nutritionist and personal chef in Portland, OR who specializes in women's health and sports nutrition. She loves creating simple, nourishing meals and recipes to fuel your life. Find Natalie at nataliecooks.com. 

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