In this blog post we’re exploring what iron is, what causes low iron levels, and the best foods for boosting our iron intake.
Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies. Let’s explore this essential mineral and how we can get enough of it.
What Is Iron?
Iron is an essential mineral (meaning that our bodies cannot produce it on their own and it must be obtained from food). Iron is necessary for the production of hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. Without enough iron our body can’t produce enough hemoglobin. This can lead to anemia, a condition in which the body doesn’t have enough red blood cells.
What Causes Low Iron?
There are several factors that can contribute to low iron levels, including menstruation, pregnancy, low stomach acid, and certain health conditions. Women who have heavy periods or are pregnant are at a higher risk of developing iron deficiency anemia.
Symptoms of low iron include fatigue, weakness, dizziness, headaches, pale skin, brittle nails, and even restless legs. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to talk to your doctor and get your iron levels checked.
How Much Iron Do You Need?
The amount of iron you need per day will depend on your unique requirements, especially considering life stages such as pregnancy or breastfeeding, or depending on your age. Here are the daily recommendations laid out by The National Institutes of Health:
|Birth to 6 months||0.27mg||0.27mg|
The Best Foods to Boost Iron Levels
First, it’s important to know that there are two different types of iron we can obtain from food: heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is found in animal products and is more easily absorbed by the body than non-heme iron. Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods and is not as easily absorbed by the body as heme iron. This doesn’t mean you can’t get sufficient amounts of iron through plants, but you will need a higher intake of those foods.
Sources of heme iron:
- Red meat
Sources of non-heme iron:
- Fortified cereals
Absorption of Iron: What Helps, What Doesn’t
Vitamin C: To maximize the absorption of non-heme iron, it’s recommended to pair it with vitamin C-rich foods, such as citrus fruits, bell peppers, strawberries, and broccoli.
Calcium: Calcium-rich foods, such as dairy products or supplementation can interfere with the body’s ability to absorb iron effectively. According to this study, calcium can reduce the absorption of non-heme iron by up to 62% when consumed at the same time. This can be particularly problematic for people who are at risk of iron deficiency, such as vegetarians and vegans who rely on non-heme iron sources. It’s recommended to consume iron and calcium-rich foods separately to maximize iron absorption.
Tannins: these compounds are found in beverages like coffee, espresso, black teas and red wine and can also interfere with the absorption of iron. It’s a good idea to space out iron- and tannin-rich foods by 30-60 minutes or so.
Supplementing with Iron
Always talk to your doctor before starting an iron supplement, as too much iron can be harmful. But if you aren’t getting enough from your diet or if you are in fact deficient, you may need to supplement. It can take time for your body to build up iron stores again, sometimes up to 6 months depending on your levels, so keep that in mind!
And as a reminder, if you’re taking an iron supplement, it is important to avoid consuming calcium-rich foods at the same time.
Looking for some healthy, iron-rich recipes? Try these: