Who needs Iron?


The pace of life today can make eating well a challenge at times.  A commitment to training and sport can leave you with less time to buy, prepare and eat nutritious food.  But nutrition is an important component in reaching your personal best.  Genetic factors and training also contribute to optimal performance.

When you are training, your body has increased nutrient needs, depending on your training volume, frequency and intensity.

The right type, quantity and quality of  foods will help you cope with a rigorous training schedule and perform at your best.  When you consider how much time and effort you put into your training, it makes sense to put the same into your nutrition plan.



Iron is an essential component of two blood proteins: haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around the body and myoglobin, which holds oxygen in the muscles.  Iron deficiency reduces oxygen supply to muscles and slows down metabolic reactions required for energy.  This can decrease performance, as you can suffer fatigue, cramps, headaches and shortness of breath.  Therefore an adequate iron intake is vital for people involved in sports and exercise.

Iron deficiency occurs when:

  • You do not eat enough foods containing iron, eg fad diets, low energy diets, poorly balanced vegetarian diets.
  • You have increased iron needs, eg to replace monthly blood loss for females, in times of growth (childhood and adolescents) and increased physical activity.

Females are at higher risk of iron deficiency due to regular loss in menstruation.  It is important they choose foods rich in iron, eg lean red meat. Dietary iron in foods is found in two forms:

Haem iron is only found in animal products.  It is easily absorbed and used by the body.  About 25% of haem iron is absorbed, depending on iron stores - more is absorbed if iron stores are low.  Generally the redder the meat, the higher the iron content. Beef and lamb are two of the richest sources of haem iron.

Non-haem iron is found in both animal and plant products.  It is poorly absorbed by the body, about 5%. Consumption of animal proteins (meat, fish or poultry) and foods containing vitamin C can boost absorption of non-haem iron.  Iron absorption from plant foods can be increased by up to four times by combining with red meat in a meal, ie eating meat and vegetables together.  Tannins in tea, phytates in wholegrain cereals, oxalates in some vegetables (eg spinach) and some types of fibre inhibit absorption of non-haem iron.

Iron supplements should only be taken under medical supervision.  In the long term, food is the safest and healthiest way to maintain iron status.  Frequent use of iron supplements may reduce the absorption of zinc, copper and calcium, increasing the risk of deficiencies.

Tips to improve iron absorption

Include lean red meat in your meals three to five days a week (red meat provides iron and increases the absorption of non-haem iron in the meal).

If you are not having a haem iron food in your meal, include a good source of non-haem iron (see table below).

Include foods containing vitamin C with your meal, eg fruit and vegetables or orange juice. Avoid tea and coffee for 1-2 hours around meal times.

The recommended dietary iron intake is 18mg a day for women and 8mg a day for men.

Iron content of haem and non-haem foods

Haem Iron Foods
(well absorbed)


Non-haem Iron Foods
(poorly absorbed) 


120g grilled lean beef sirloin
120g grilled lean rump steak
2 grilled lean lamb chops
3/4 cup lean beef mince
2 chicken drumsticks
100g tuna in brine, canned


1 boiled egg
1 cup boiled brown rice
3/4 cup baked beans
1/2 cup porridge (no milk)
1/2 cup cooked spinach
1 slice wholemeal bread


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