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Best Iron-Rich Foods for Growing Swimmers

by ZwemZa on October 25th, 2016

ironIron is an important nutrient for all growing children. Young athletes may be at risk for iron deficiency due to an increased need for iron while the swimmer is in a growth phase, and the high iron losses associated with menses in girls.

Additionally, iron intake in pre-teen and teen athletes may contribute to low iron status. A 2016 study by Parnel et al. looked at the dietary recalls of pre-adolescent and teen Canadian athletes (11-18 years) and found iron consumption to be low, with female athletes (14 to 18 years) having the lowest intake at 90% of the RDA.

Of course, a low intake may not translate to low iron stores, but typical eating patterns can shed light on the risk for potential deficiencies. Teen athletes in endurance sports such as swimming are at a higher risk for iron depletion. And, the erratic eating patterns of teens, in general, such as meal skipping, dieting, and other dietary practices, may compromise good nutrition.

Iron-deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia in growing children. Without enough iron, red blood cells are fewer in number, which impacts the production of hemoglobin. Hemoglobin carries oxygen to every tissue and organ in the body, and without it, athletic performance may suffer, leading to early fatigue, and compromised strength.

Young athletes can turn their attention to top food sources of iron and incorporate them into the daily diet to help prevent an iron deficiency.

Best Iron-Rich Foods

The best iron-rich foods come from animals and plants. Animal products such as red meat, fish and poultry contain a source of heme iron, which is easily absorbed by the body.
Top Heme Iron Foods: beef liver, chicken liver, clams, mollusks, mussels, oysters, beef chuck, ground beef, sardines canned in oil, dark meat turkey, canned light tuna in water, dark meat chicken, light meat chicken, halibut, haddock, salmon, ham, or veal.

Non-heme iron, which comes from plant foods, is harder for the body to absorb without the help of vitamin C or other animal-based foods. Most of the iron in the swimmer’s diet comes from non-heme iron foods. Some of these foods naturally contain iron, such as beans, lentils and spinach, while others have been enriched with iron during manufacturing, such as cereals, pasta or bread.

Top Non-Heme Iron Foods: breakfast cereals enriched with iron, cooked beans, tofu, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, squash seeds, lima beans, kidney beans, chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans), split peas, dried apricots, baked potato, broccoli, enriched egg noodles, wheat germ, peanuts, pecans, walnuts, pistachios almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, raisins, dried prunes, spinach, green pepper, pasta, bread and rice.

Getting the Most from Food

As mentioned, the young swimmer can improve absorption of iron when it comes from non-heme plant sources by eating a source of vitamin C alongside. Good sources of vitamin C include: citrus fruits, orange juice, broccoli, strawberries, guava, red and yellow pepper, grapefruit juice, tomato juice, kiwifruit, lemon, and tomatoes.
Another way to optimize iron absorption from plant foods is to eat them with meat, fish or poultry. The inclusion of heme iron from animal foods boosts absorption of non-heme iron from plants.

Jill Castle, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian, childhood nutritionist, and youth sports nutrition expert. She is the author of Eat Like a Champion: Performance Nutrition for Your Young Athlete. Learn more about Jill at and check out her free list of 70 Awesome Pre-Workout Snacks for Kids.

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