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Sports nutrition: which foods are suitable in cases of iron deficiency?

Sportsmen and sportswomen know how important a varied and balanced diet is, which is capable of providing all the essential nutrients to keep the body in good health. In fact at the basis of any good performance in training or competition is the choice of foods that can ensure the correct daily needs of each micro- and macronutrient. Let’s analyse the nutrition of sportsmen and sportswomen and, specifically, the most suitable foods in cases of iron deficiency.

Sports nutrition: which are the most suitable foods?

The body of a person who practises sport, especially on a competitive level, requires more energy than a person who does not practise a lot of physical activity. Specifically, athletes need a greater supply of nutrients that can quickly support their energy needs and nutrients that can help them recover. Therefore, the diet of sportsmen and sportswomen is primarily based on the consumption of foods that are rich in carbohydrates (whole grains, wholemeal pasta) and proteins (red meat, legumes) to ensure the right intake of these nutrients. No less important are foods rich in vitamins and minerals, which are useful for replenishing the share lost through physical activity and sweating. Lastly, we must not forget the right amount of water to compensate for the amount lost through sweating. 

The most suitable foods for replenishing vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in sportsmen and sportswomen include:

  • Red meat (rich in vitamin B and iron)
  • Green leafy vegetables (rich in B vitamins, folate and iron)
  • Legumes (rich in protein and minerals, such as iron)
  • Grains (rich in vitamins and minerals such as zinc, iron and magnesium)
  • Fresh fruit (rich in vitamin C, iron and other essential minerals)
  • Nuts (rich in omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc and magnesium)

Which are the most suitable foods for athletes in cases of iron deficiency?

Before finding out which foods are suitable for athletes in cases of iron deficiency, it should be specified that iron in food is found in two forms: haem iron and non-haem iron. The difference between the two types of food iron lies in the bioavailability and the speed of absorption: haem iron is absorbed more easily in the intestine than non-haem iron. To facilitate the absorption of non-haem iron, it may be useful to consume foods rich in vitamin C. Vitamin C is an essential nutrient that helps to absorb iron in the intestine and protects cells from oxidative stress.

In animal-based foods, both haem iron and non-haem iron are present, whilst in plant-based foods, only non-haem iron (inorganic iron) is present.

Foods that can be useful in cases of iron deficiency in athletes include:

  • Meat (liver, spleen, offal, turkey meat, horse, beef)
  • Fish (tuna, mackerel, snapper, sardine, anchovy)
  • Molluscs and crustaceans
  • Egg yolk
  • Legumes (dried beans)
  • Soy flour
  • Dried fruit
  • Whole grain cereals
  • Oat flakes
  • Green leafy vegetables (watercress, cabbage, lettuce, endive)
  • Foods rich in vitamin C (citrus fruits, pineapple, kiwi, berries)

There are some foods that must be avoided in cases of iron deficiency or that must not be consumed at the same time as non-haem iron food sources. The foods to pay attention to in cases of iron deficiency are:

  • Milk and dairy products: calcium can decrease the intestinal absorption of iron;
  • Foods rich in phytates such as cereals, which are recommended to be taken away from other iron-rich plant-based foods or in combination with foods rich in vitamin C;
  • Foods rich in oxalates such as spinach, which are rich in iron, but, at the same time, are a source of oxalic acid;
  • Foods containing tannins such as tea, coffee and chocolate or containing polyphenols, such as wine.

When the diet alone is not sufficient to ensure energy requirements during or after physical activity, nutritional supplements can be used to help compensate for the loss of vitamins, minerals, proteins and carbohydrates. In these cases, specific dietary supplements may be useful in providing the body with adequate amounts of nutrients. If there is also an iron deficiency or increased body need for this nutrient, it may be helpful to talk to your doctor or pharmacist and assess an iron-based dietary supplement.

The SiderAL® dietary supplement range containing Sucrosomiale® Iron, a technology that facilitates the high digestibility and absorption of iron, can be a useful nutritional supplement in cases of iron deficiency or increased needs for this nutrient. 

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