Article by Ruth McKean, Sports Nutritionist

Nutrient Concerns for Vegetarian Athletes


Vegetarian athletes are at more risk of iron deficient anaemia than non-vegetarian athletes who eat red meat. In terms of quantity, red meat is a fairly average source of iron but the quality of iron is far superior to that found in plant sources.

The main risks groups for Iron Deficiency are adolescent males and females, vegans, vegetarian athletes and adult female endurance athletes. Coaches should be aware that underlying iron deficiencies can be noticeable in athletes as they become more lethargic and their performance reduces.

Sources of Iron

There are two types of iron: heme iron and non-heme iron.

  1. Heme iron is found in meat, fish and poultry and is well absorbed by our bodies.

  2. Non-heme iron is found in some vegetables, cereals, pulses, beans and fruit. It is poorly absorbed but when taken with vitamin C or heme iron, absorption will increase significantly.

Soyabean and diary products are poor sources of iron, so vegetarians should include other non-heme iron sources in their diets daily through:

  • Dark green leafy vegetables
  • Fortified breakfast cereals
  • Dried fruits - dates, apricots, prunes
  • Kale
  • Blackstrap molasses
  • Beans
  • Tofu

Strategies to meet iron needs

  • Do not consume tea or coffee with meals as these can interfere with iron absorption (only drink 1-2 hour before or after).
  • Enhance non-heme iron absorption by including vitamin C in the same meal (taking a small glass of orange juice with your breakfast cereal)
  • Cooking in cast iron cookware every so often rather than stainless steel. Iron cookware can leach absorbable iron into simmering food.
  • Make sensible use of iron supplements - too much iron can be toxic so seek advice from a well-qualified nutritionist or dietician if you are unsure

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