If you’ve ever had low iron stores, you know the signs and symptoms well: feeling tired all the time, irritable or depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, shortness of breath, and you may even develop more colds and flus. It’s not fun.
What is Iron and Why is it Important?
Iron is an essential mineral and is absorbed from food or supplements that you consume. Adult males require 8 mg per day and adult females require 18 mg per day (which drops to 8 mg/day at 50 years of age).
Iron is a component of hemoglobin found in red blood cells, and myoglobin found in muscle, both of which transfer oxygen from the lungs to your tissues. This is why people experience fatigue and shortness of breath when deficient. Iron is a key nutrient supporting physical growth and neurological development, cellular function, and immune function throughout life.
Who is at Risk for Iron Deficiency?
Iron deficiency develops over time for a variety of reasons:
- Inadequate dietary iron intake which could relate to conditions affecting appetite, eating disorders, and lack of variety in the diet
- Blood loss due to injury, bleeding from the gastrointestinal tract, or a heavy menstrual period
- Increased needs related to pregnancy when blood volume doubles and iron requirements increase to 27mg/day
- Increased needs in athletes who lose iron in sweat, urine, the gastrointestinal tract, and something called ‘foot strike hemolysis’ in runners
- Poor iron absorption due to poorly managed celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease
How Can I Optimize Iron in My Diet?
Iron is found in two forms – heme and nonheme. Heme iron is found in meat such as beef and pork, fish, seafood, and poultry. Nonheme iron is found in other foods such as:
- Plant sources – lentils, beans, soybeans (e.g. tofu and edamame beans), dried fruit, kale, spinach, and whole grains
- Fortified foods – enriched flour, white bread, and breakfast cereal
Both sources play an important role in a person’s overall iron status. However, nonheme iron is not as readily absorbed by the body as heme iron. Because of this, the iron needs of people consuming predominantly plant-based diets are 1.8 times the standard requirements (so about 14 mg in males and 32 mg in females). The good news is that vitamin C, found readily in fruit and vegetables, can improve absorption of nonheme iron up to four-fold.
When planning meals, aim to include at least one iron-rich food and one vitamin C-rich food. For example:
- Omelet with tomatoes such as this Huevos Rancheros Omelette
- Crispy Tofu Noodle Bowl with snap peas, peppers and brown rice noodles
- 2-3 oz of meat such as these Beef Koftas/skewers with baked sweet potato and cucumber salad
- Grilled Orange Chicken Breast with a garden salad and a whole grain dinner roll
Suspect Iron Deficiency?
If you think you might be low in iron, meet with your doctor to discuss testing and an appropriate course of action. Depending on the stage of iron deficiency, your doctor may recommend an iron supplement.
If you are concerned about your iron intake, meet with a Registered Dietitian for nutrition assessment and to make a plan for how to increase iron in meals and snacks.
Overall, iron plays an important role in the body and deficiency can come with physical symptoms that limit your ability to function normally. A good health practice is to include a source of iron and vitamin C with your meals. Be sure to check in with your doctor and work with a dietitian if you think you may be low in iron.
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