Iron is an essential mineral that your body needs for many important functions including growth and development, hormone balance and energy metabolism, but one of its most well-known functions is its role in the production of hemoglobin. A protein in red blood cells, hemoglobin, makes it possible for oxygen to travel from the lungs to various tissues such as skin and muscle, and throughout the rest of the body. Iron also assists in bringing carbon dioxide back to the lungs so it can be exhaled.
Iron is found naturally in many of the foods we eat. It’s also added to some fortified forms of your favorite items. Iron from animal sources, called heme iron, is more readily absorbed (about twice as much) than the type found in plants called non-heme iron. Varying sources of iron from both animal and plant sources can be helpful in preventing an iron deficiency.
Animal-based sources of iron (heme)
- Lean beef
- Lean pork
Plant sources of iron (non-heme)
- Legumes (beans, soybeans and lentils)
- Dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach or kale
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Enriched rice or pasta
- Whole-grain and enriched breads
- Pumpkin seeds
- Dried fruits such as apricots, raisins and prunes
Foods such as eggs, rice, some nuts and breads only contain 1 milligram of iron, and dairy products like milk and cheese don’t contain any iron at all, so keep that in mind when meal planning or addressing an iron deficiency.
Because vitamin C can help the body absorb non-heme iron during digestion, complementing plant sources of iron with vitamin C foods can increase its absorption. Most chili recipes already join beans and tomatoes for a perfect combination of non-heme iron and vitamin C, but for the same effect, you could also add sliced bell peppers to a kale and spinach salad. Cooking foods in a cast iron skillet will also add some iron to your meal.
Iron needs throughout life
The body can recognize when more or less iron is needed and how much to absorb. While it’s amazing how we can adapt, check with your physician who can recommend the level that’s right for you.
For the average adolescent and adult who eats meat, fortified food sources and a variety of plants, getting enough iron can be easy when planned appropriately. Breakfast cereal will typically contain 100% of the recommended daily value (up to 18 milligrams), while 6 ounces of cooked beef provides 4.2 milligrams. One cup of cooked white beans has 8 milligrams of iron, and ½ cup of cooked lentils or tofu serves up 3 milligrams each.
Who is at risk for iron deficiency?
Even though iron is widely available, many people still don’t get the amount they need on a daily basis. If fact, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency and the leading cause of anemia in the United States.
Infants born premature or with a low birth weight: These infants may have reduced iron stores. An iron supplement will most likely be needed until the infant turns one year old. Formula is generally iron-fortified, so formula-fed babies don’t typically need an iron supplement. As infants begin to eat more solid food, around four to six months of age, dishing up iron-rich foods such as iron-fortified cereal, meat or beans a couple times a day will help meet their iron needs.
Infants and young children: Babies store enough iron for the first four to six months of life but after that, iron requirements increase. Iron deficiency or anemia in infancy can lead to cognitive and psychological effects that can be detrimental, including delayed attention and social withdrawal. Watch for signs of “milk anemia,” which happens when kids drink too much milk that isn’t fortified with iron and aren’t getting iron from other foods.
Adolescent girls: If an inconsistent or restricted diet is followed along with expected growth spurts, adolescent girls can be at risk for iron deficiency. Fatigue, shortness of breath, frequent colds or feeling sick, headaches and brittle fingernails are common signs to look for. Growth during this stage of life demands more iron to support building muscle mass and an increase in blood volume.
Women of childbearing age: Menorrhagia, or abnormally heavy bleeding during monthly periods, can increase a woman’s risk of iron deficiency. At least 10% of menstruating women are believed to have menorrhagia.
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding: Maternal iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency during pregnancy. Increased blood volume requires more iron (27 milligrams of iron daily) to deliver oxygen to the baby. Be sure to talk to your doctor about taking a prenatal vitamin that contains iron.
Vegetarians or vegans: The daily recommendation for vegetarians and vegans is 1.8 times higher than meat-eaters. Legumes, whole and enriched grains and some vegetables and dried fruits are especially rich in iron and frequently eaten on plant-based meal plans. In fact, vegan diets are often higher in iron than omnivore diets. Remember to pair non-heme iron with a vitamin C source in the same meal or snack – just ½ cup cooked broccoli contains 50 milligrams of vitamin C, which can significantly increase the absorption of non-heme iron.
Endurance athletes: Knowing that iron is essential for energy metabolism, it’s a key nutrient for endurance athletes. If red meat is limited in an endurance runner’s diet, in addition to eating a variety of plant-based sources of iron on a daily basis, chicken and fish should be cooked in a cast iron skillet to increase iron intake.
Frequent blood donors: In the United States, adults may donate blood as often as every eight weeks which can deplete the body’s iron stores. About 25% to 35% of regular blood donors develop iron deficiency.
People with cancer: Anemia of chronic disease and chemotherapy-induced anemia are the most common reasons for people with cancer to develop anemia. Chronic blood loss and deficiencies of other nutrients can bring about iron deficiency in this population.
People who have gastrointestinal disorders or have had gastrointestinal operations: People with certain gastrointestinal disorders like celiac disease, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, or who have had certain gastrointestinal surgeries may become iron deficient because of dietary restrictions, the inability to absorb iron correctly or blood loss in the gastrointestinal tract caused by the condition or surgery.
People with heart failure: About 60% of patients with chronic heart failure have iron deficiency and 17% have iron deficiency anemia. If iron can’t be absorbed properly or the diet is lacking in general nutrients, or if aspirin is being taken regularly, iron deficiency can occur.
When to ask your healthcare provider about iron supplements
If you fall into any of the groups that are at risk for an iron deficiency and/or exhibit any of the common symptoms, the next step is to visit your healthcare provider. A simple finger prick test or having blood drawn at a lab can determine iron deficiency or anemia.
Symptoms of iron deficiency anemia can include:
- Pale skin and fingernails
- Glossitis (inflamed tongue)
Iron supplements are available online from trusted sources or over the counter in most drug or grocery stores. Iron supplements are available in both ferrous and ferric forms, with the former being more bioavailable than the latter. If these forms cause GI-upset, your healthcare provider can recommend other forms. Taking an iron supplement to address iron deficiency or anemia should always be done under your doctor’s supervision as high doses of iron can be dangerous.
Avoiding iron deficiency
Eating a well-balanced, healthy diet that includes a variety of foods from all five food groups, especially fruits and vegetables, can help ensure enough of both heme and non-heme iron are making it to the plate.
If you have concerns about getting enough iron in your diet, speak with a registered dietitian to learn more about meal planning with iron in mind.