What Vegetarian Runners Need to Know About Iron

Are you a vegetarian runner unsure about your iron needs and how to meet them? This post will walk you through everything you need to know about iron for vegetarian runners.

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A vegetarian runner’s diet is completely possible, and many runners follow it and do very well. However, that being said, it is important to know about which nutrients are missing or low in a vegetarian diet, and other food sources to replace them with.

We’ve shared a sample meal plan for a vegan ultramarathon runner, and this post is geared towards the vegetarian runner, with specific tips about iron for runners.

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Disclaimer: While we are dietitians, we are not giving or prescribing medical advice. Please consult with your individual care provider for individual needs and recommendations.

Purpose of Iron for Runners

There are several benefits to maintaining an adequate iron range for running and endurance sports. Here are some of the key roles that iron plays:

  • Transporting oxygen to the tissues and muscles – As a component of hemoglobin and myoglobin, respectively, iron helps allow your body to transport iron to tissues and muscles to help support your exercise workload. Iron deficiency may impact your energy levels, workload, recovery and training.
  • Healthy connective tissue – Iron is a component of your connective tissue, so it’s necessary for the functioning of healthy tissues and cells.
  • Immune function – Iron is important for limiting pathogens and mounting immune responses.
  • Growth – Iron is involved in the regulation of cell cycles and growth, and thus, is necessary in periods of growth, such as infancy, childhood, pregnancy, training and more.

How Much Iron Do Runners Need?

Women typically need 18mg of iron per day, while the RDA (recommended daily intake) for men is 8 mg. These needs increase during pregnancy, during heavy training sessions, and for those with heavy periods.

Some research indicates that vegetarians and vegan athletes should take in more iron since it is less bioavailable (not as optimally absorbed).

Due to the lower bioavailability of iron from plant foods, recommended iron intakes for vegetarians or vegans are 1.8 times higher than for meat eaters (32 mg/day vs. 18 mg/day) for premenopausal adult women and 14 mg/day vs. 8 mg/day for adult men and postmenopausal women).

Vegetarians (particularly women) are at increased risk for non-anemic iron deficiency, which may limit endurance performance.

runner lying down on track

I always recommend my athletes get their iron level tested a couple of times throughout the year. Ideally, before a training session starts, and then after it ends.

There be some points in training where you want to be more strategic with increasing iron-rich foods, and/or supplementation.

While we don’t have exact data on how much more iron athletes need vs. non-athletes, we suspect that needs are higher due to higher iron losses in sweat, blood and tissue turnover, as well as foot strike hemolysis.

Nutrients Of Concern In A Vegetarian Runners Diet

A vegetarian runner should be aware of the following nutrients:

  • Iron- Iron is a mineral present in many foods, and an essential component of hemoglobin and myoglobin, which transfer oxygen to the tissues and muscle. Iron is also necessary for physical growth, neurological development, cellular functioning, and synthesis of some hormones. Vitamin C enhanced non-heme iron absorption, or the absorption from non-animal sources.
  • Calcium – Calcium is necessary for building and maintaining bone health. Lacto vegetarians who include dairy regularly in their diet may get adequate calcium in their diets, but other vegetarians should be aware of non-dairy calcium sources. These include foods like soy products, fortified orange juice, chia seeds, almonds, dark leafy greens, seafood, fortified cereals and navy beans.
  • Vitamin D- Vitamin D is essential for helping aid calcium absorption and building and maintaining healthy bones. It’s difficult to achieve adequacy of Vitamin D through diet alone, especially if not consuming seafood or dairy products.  Athletes who live at northern latitudes or who train primarily indoors throughout the year may be at risk for poor vitamin D status, especially if foods fortified with vitamin D are not consumed. The recommendation for these athletes is to consume 200 IU/day of supplementation, though recent research shows that supplementation needs may be higher.
  • Zinc – Zinc is essential for immune function and many enzyme reactions in the body. While it is found in many plant foods, it is not readily absorbed from those foods. Approximately 25% of the zinc in the standard U.S. diet comes from beef. Beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds have high zinc content. However, these foods contain phytate, which inhibits the absorption of both iron and zinc. A 2009 study of vegetarians found a high prevalence of zinc deficiency. Zinc supplementation or a multivitamin/multimineral containing zinc is a wise choice for vegan and vegetarian athletes.
  • Vitamin B-12 – Vitamin B12 is an essential vitamin (meaning we cannot make it within our bodies) and only comes from animal food products and fortified food and drink products. Those following a vegetarian diet may need a B12 supplement, such as Thorne’s B-complex #12.

Some nutrients compete for absorption. For example, Since iron and calcium compete for absorption, you should avoid high-calcium and high-iron foods in the same meals.

As previously mentioned, phytates inhibit the absorption of both iron and zinc.

While this information is meant to be informative and not diagnostic criteria, you can learn more about the best supplements for runners to see how to distinguish between third-party verified and top quality brands.

Always consult with your individual care provider before taking any sort of supplement.

High Iron Vegetarian Foods

A vegetarian runner will likely be eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as plant-based proteins, like beans, legumes and soy.

There are various types of vegetarian diets for running. For example, lacto vegetarians may consume dairy products, like cheese, milk and yogurt. Lacto-ovo vegetarians may include dairy and egg products.

Some runners may even identify as pescatarians, and may include seafood in their diets, while others may follow a vegan diet, and include no animal products whatsoever.

These are personal choices and can be strategic to meet individual preferences and nutrition needs.

plant based sources of iron; nuts and seeds on cutting board

Let’s review the key sources of iron in a vegetarian diet. You can cook many of these with salt if you have a high sweat rate or are a salty sweater and need more electrolytes. 

Check out more about that in the post on proper hydration for athletes

  • Breakfast cereals, fortified – up to 18 mg
  • 1 cup white beans, canned – 8 mg
  • 3 oz dark chocolate – 7 mg
  • 1/2 cup cooked lentils – 3 mg
  • 1/2 cup cooked spinach – 3 oz
  • 3 oz tofu – 3 mg
  • 1/2 cup canned kidney beans – 2 oz
  • 1/2 cup chickbeans – 2 oz
  • 1 oz cashew nuts – 2 oz
  • 1 medium potato – 2 oz
  • 1/4 cup raisins – 1 oz
  • 1/2 cup green peans – 1 oz

Generally, whole grains and nuts/seeds are a great iron-rich category. Nuts/seeds are also high in magnesium – see more about magnesium for runners.

Sample Iron Rich Meal Plan for Vegetarian Athlete

Here is an example of a day of eating for a vegetarian athletes who includes seafood and eggs. Note: calorie and energy needs will vary for different athletes and stages of training, this is just an example. 

Breakfast:

1 cup breakfast cereal, fortified with 25% iron with 6-8 ounces soy milk/yogurt + 2 eggs and 1 cup orange juice: 8-10 mg

Post Workout Snack:

1 ounce cashews (~18 nuts) + 1 orange + 1 cup soy milk  – 2-4 mg

* Vitamin C from the orange will help improve absorption of the iron in the cashews

Lunch:

1/2 cup cooked lentils and 1 cup cooked rice and leafy green salad with 2 pieces of bread and 1/4 avocado – 8-10 mg

Pm Snack:

Tortilla with 1 banana + 1 T peanut butter + 2 T hemp seeds – 2-3 mg iron

Dinner:

6 oz salmon with 1 cup green peas + 1 baked potato with 1 T vegan butter – 4-5 mg

Total Iron: 24-32 mg iron

There are also several vegetarian meals for athletes in this post!

References:

Barr, S. I., & Rideout, C. A. (2004). Nutritional considerations for vegetarian athletes. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.)20(7-8), 696–703. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2004.04.015

Fuhrman, J., & Ferreri, D. M. (2010). Fueling the vegetarian (vegan) athlete. Current sports medicine reports9(4), 233–241. https://doi.org/10.1249/JSR.0b013e3181e93a6f

Institute of Medicine (US) Panel on Micronutrients. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2001. 9, Iron. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK222309/

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