Q: Can’t Boost My Iron! What should I do?

Hi Lauren,

As an athlete I’ve struggled to manage my ferritin and it has begun to get frustrating. There was a while I was getting a blood panel done at least every 6months, mostly to track our athlete specific trends for our team physiologist. Two years ago now my ferritin took a nose dive from 72 down to 30 and has since then continued to slowly dwindle. Currently at a pale 19.

The first dive happened after I moved away from home (where I ate game meat regularly) to living in the Olympic training center, so I could see the dietary link to the decline. However since then I have been living outside a cafeteria setting, taking periodized iron supplements ( recently trying the liquid kind) but my stores just keep sliding.

I’m wondering if you have found any strong link with gluten? My diet is primarily based on vegetables (leafy greens, etc), hearty grains, and lean red meat. With a bunch of endurance athletes in the house we eat pretty well but we do eat a bit of (very gluten-y) bread…. I guess I’m grasping for straws… help?




Mmmmmm....oysters....in a can.

Mmmmmm….oysters….in a can.

A couple iron rich foods you could try to get an extra boost are clams, muscles, and oysters. They are much higher than beef! 20 small clams has 295% DV of iron compared to 35% DV in a 6oz steak! You could either eat them for dinner, or have a tin of smoked clams with crackers for a snack or at lunch. They are magic. The tins are cheap and portable and loaded with iron. Some people think they are disgusting, but I like ’em, kind of. Well I like the results 🙂 When my iron is low I’m desperate, and I’ll eat anything besides liver and onions. That shit is nasty.

What about wheat? There are links between wheat and iron for some people, but from what I understand it’s only an issue when pairing the iron with wheat at a given meal. If you have a turkey sandwich for lunch and then a steak and potatoes for dinner, that shouldn’t matter.

If you have celiac disease, then it’s a different story. Gluten could definitely be the cause of your declining iron in that case, and it would also be causing a decline in lots of other vitamin and mineral stores as well. I’d get a blood test for celiac or gluten intolerance before sacrificing your diet unnecessarily. Bread is just too damn good. But yeah, don’t eat it with your iron if you’re having trouble keeping the iron up.

Too much fiber can interfere with iron absorption too. This is the secret culprit for most athletes who are eating iron but still experiencing low blood levels. A lot of athletes inadvertently make it harder and harder to absorb iron because they are trying so hard to get raw veggies and whole grains in, but fiber gets things moving quickly through the system, and you can have too much of a good thing. Less time in the intestines means less time for vitamins and minerals to absorb. If you have frequent loose stools, this probably applies to you.

The daily recommendation for fiber is 25-35 g per day. Athletes trying to be really healthy often eat double that, especially if they have high fiber cereals or products that fiber is added to to lower the overall “net effective carbs” or things of that nature (low carb tortillas for example). Count up what you are getting per day for a couple days and then make adjustments. You can always cook your veggies a little more to break down the fiber, or eat lower fiber fruits, or a simpler bread.

Worst case scenario, if your iron stays low like that and you can’t bring it up with diet and supplements, you should talk to a doctor. Anemic women are prescribed an iron infusion in situations like these, whether they are athletes or not. Anemia plagues women all the time due to periods and God knows what else. When people have distressed guts that won’t absorb the iron, the only way to get your levels up is to bypass the gut and get the iron into the bloodstream through an IV. But all infusions of any kind are considered a “prohibited method” against WADA/USADA rules unless a doctor feels it is medically necessary and the appropriate TUE documents are filed.

As a shameless plug, Picky Bars are a good source of non-heme (vegetarian) iron naturally, due to the nuts and pumpkin seeds. The iron is part of the ingredients naturally, not enriched after the fact with a crushed up vitamin like most bars. Real food nutrients are more bioavailable (more absorbable). Take a look at the nutrition facts.

ALF readers, if you have any personal experience with this topic that can help Corrine, please include it below! Thanks in advance! Good luck Corrine. Check back in, would ya?