What Female Athletes Need To Know – Iron Requirements

What Female Athletes Need To Know – Iron Requirements

Why is Iron important?

Iron is an essential mineral used in haemoglobin. Haemoglobin carries the oxygen we breathe around the body delivering it to our muscles and organs including our brain. Iron helps in producing energy from food and is needed to support the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems in our bodies. Iron helps our immune system cells work efficiently to help fight off illness. A mild drop in iron levels reduces the body’s ability to uptake oxygen and reduces endurance exercise capacity.


How much do I need?

The following table provides the Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) for iron in Australia:


Males Females
9-13 years 8 mg/day 8 mg/day
14-18 years 11 mg/day 15 mg/day
Adults (19-50 years) 8 mg/day 18 mg/day
Adults (51+ years) 8 mg/day 8 mg/day
Pregnant 27 mg/day

Source: NHMRC Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand 2006


Specific iron requirements for athletes participating in different sports are currently unknown. Endurance athletes (particularly runners) are thought to have the highest requirements due to high iron losses.  Some studies recommend iron intakes of 17.5 mg/day for male distance runners and 23 mg/day for normally menstruating female distance runners.  These intakes are particularly high and may not be achievable especially for females with lower energy intakes.

Due to loosing blood whilst menstruating and having lower energy intakes and higher iron requirements then men it is difficult for females, particularly female athletes to reach their iron requirements.


Are female athletes more at risk?

Female athletes have a high risk of iron depletion for several reasons:

1. High requirements

  • Increased red blood cell mass means athletes have higher iron needs.  Needs are particularly high during times of growth.

2. Increased losses

  • Iron is lost in the sweat. Athletes with high sweat losses have higher iron losses.
  • Iron can be lost through gastrointestinal bleeding.  Gastrointestinal bleeding commonly occurs during strenuous exercise due to minor damage to the stomach and intestinal lining.

3. Dietary Issues

  • Iron intake is often sub-optimal in athletes with restricted food intakes:
  • Trying to survive on low kilojoule intakes in an attempt to minimise body weight
  • Poorly balanced vegetarian/vegan diets
  • Avoidance of meat, chicken or fish in an effort to enhance carbohydrate intake or in the mistaken belief that it is fattening
  • High reliance on snack and convenience foods and failure to consume regular meals
  • Avoidance of commercially fortified foods such as breakfast cereals


What are good foods sources of Iron?

A large amount of iron in food is unavailable for absorption.

  • The most readily absorbed form is call ‘haem iron’ and comes from animal protein
    • 15 – 35% of iron is absorbed from beef, lamb, pork, fish, seafood and poultry
  • Iron from plant foods, ‘non-haem’, is poorly absorbed because of other naturally-occurring substances in these foods
    • 2 – 15% of iron is absorbed from cereal grains, legumes, dark green vegetables and nuts


What foods improve iron absorption?

Foods high in Vitamin C will help the absorption of non-haem iron.  Therefore, try to include a vitamin C source with your meals. Good sources of Vitamin C include:

  • Fruit: Oranges (or 100% juice) orange juice, berries, grapefruit, kiwi or pineapple.
  • Vegetables: Green and Red peppers. Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Tomatoes.
  • Starchy vegetables: Potatoes, squash or pumpkin

Adding fruits and vegetables to meals Include beans and pulses, whole meal breads and fortified cereals. Vegetarians should eat these foods daily.


What foods stop iron absorption?

Certain foods can slow or stop the absorption of iron from the diet, particularly from the non-haem sources. Avoid eating your main iron sources with these foods:

  • Tannins (found in tea and coffee)
  • Red wine
  • Unprocessed bran (e.g. bran flakes breakfast cereals)
  • Calcium (dairy products)
  • Soy products


3 simple steps to an iron-rich diet

  1. Choose foods high in absorbable iron at each meal
  2. Combine non-meat meals with good sources of vitamin C to increase absorption of non-haem iron
  3. Drink tea and coffee between (not with) meals – components of these inhibit the absorption of non-haem iron


  • Choose cereals that have been fortified with iron
  • Add a piece of vitamin C-rich fruit (strawberries, kiwi fruit, rockmelon, orange) to increase absorption of non-haem iron in cereals/bread
  • Wait until morning tea to have a cup of tea or coffee


  • Add haem iron foods to your sandwich or salad; red meat will help absorb the non-haem iron in the bread and/or vegetables (by up to 4 times!)
  • Add vitamin C-rich vegetables (capsicum, broccoli or citrus fruits) to vegetables/vegetarian meals to increase absorption of non-haem iron


  • Eat red meat 3 – 4 times per week
  • Choose iron-rich foods such as legumes (baked beans, lentils, three-bean mix) and add vitamin C-rich vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, capsicum) to increase non-haem iron absorption
  • Wait a while before having an after-dinner cuppa


A few final notes…

  • Eat lean red meat, poultry or fish, preferably daily
  • Eat lean red meat at least three to four times a week
  • Combine iron-rich plant foods (e.g. legumes, breakfast cereal and dark vegetables) with vitamin C-rich foods (citrus, strawberries, cabbage, capsicum, kiwi fruit, broccoli)
  • Avoid consuming strong tea or coffee when you eat breakfast cereal or sandwiches
  • Seek the advice of a sports dietitian if you are vegetarian or vegan or have low iron levels to ensure you are meeting your requirements
  • Do not take iron supplements without the recommendation of a doctor and/or sports dietitian




Handy links:–factsheets/iron-rich-meals-update.pdf