Am I Getting Enough Iron in my Diet?
Iron is important for your red blood cells to carry oxygen to all cells in your body. It also takes on other vital tasks that keep you alive and healthy. However, according to current guidelines, about 17% of menstruating girls and women and 10% of children in the U.S. are low in iron.
What’s more, some researchers think those current recommendations are too low. They say that as many as 39% of menstruating girls and women lack adequate iron.
Iron deficiencies affect many people.
By either standard, many people aren’t getting enough of the nutrient, and the lack of it is serious.
“Iron is one of the most common nutrients that people become deficient in,” says Shelby Birdwell, M.S., R.D., L.D., a registered dietician with the University of Miami Health System.
“Iron’s an important mineral with lots of different roles in the body. People tend to think first of its role in oxygenating the body. It also supports your immune system. And to a lesser extent, iron takes part in hormonal processes.,” Birdwell says.
Where health is concerned, minerals matter just as much as vitamins.
Keep in mind, though, that too much can cause as much harm as too little. “Don’t take iron supplements without checking with a healthcare provider first,” says Birdwell.
“For most people, it should be fairly easy to get enough dietary iron. Look at the foods you eat and ask yourself if you’re getting a reasonably varied diet, with things from every food group.”
Eat the rainbow with foods of different colors every day.
Iron is a courier protein.
“A protein called hemoglobin, which contains iron, carries the oxygen in air from the lungs to all the cells in the body,” Birdwell explains. Roughly 70% of the iron in your body resides in the hemoglobin inside red blood cells and in another form called myoglobin inside muscles. Myoglobin accepts, stores, carries and releases oxygen.
Hemoglobin has the job of transferring oxygen in air from your lungs to the blood for delivery to all the body’s diverse organs and parts. Myoglobin cells receive, store, transport, and deliver oxygen to power your muscles.
About 6% of the iron in your body becomes a part of other vital proteins. These proteins are involved with respiration and your body’s ability to use (or metabolize) energy.
The mineral helps your immune system keep you healthy.
“Certain immune system cells, including the white blood cells called lymphocytes, need iron to multiply and mature so that you have enough of them to fight off infections,” Birdwell says.
Men typically store more iron than women.
An average adult male stores about 1,000 mg of iron, which can last for about three years.
In contrast, an average adult female stores less than a third of that amount, about 300 mg, which can last only about six months.
When a person’s iron intake is not enough to maintain healthy stores, the body’s reserves will run down, and hemoglobin levels will drop.
Iron is essential in making hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells. Hemoglobin acts as the carrier of oxygen, bringing it to every cell in the body. About 70% of the iron in your body can be found in hemoglobin, while six percent resides in other essential proteins. Another 25% of your body’s iron is stored in another blood protein called ferritin.
Low iron levels can lead to deficiency or a more serious condition called iron-deficiency anemia. Too much causes problems, too.
“When someone has iron reserves that have gotten too low, the problem is often missed,” says Birdwell.
For one thing, common symptoms such as fatigue and headaches can have many other causes.
Young children are often low in iron; blood donors, too.
Some groups of people run a greater risk of being low in iron, often because the body’s demand is higher. “When young children are growing quickly and when girls hit puberty and start menstruating and losing blood each month, their bodies need more iron,” Shelby says.
Other groups of people who should pay close attention to eating iron-rich foods are those who donate blood regularly and people who exercise very intensely.
Don’t brush off symptoms that may indicate low iron.
In young women, symptoms may be dismissed as going along with menstruation. Many parents, teens, and young women with iron deficiency or anemia symptoms often simply accept their symptoms.
“Things like headaches and tiredness look so general that healthcare providers may not think about iron levels as a root cause either,” explains Birdwell.
And diet just isn’t top of mind for most doctors because of their training. “Traditionally, medical school training has devoted very little attention to nutrition,” she says.
Health care providers often overlook low iron levels as they typically only test for anemia, rather than checking ferritin levels. Ferritin, a protein in the blood, indicates how much iron a person has stored. Some people have compared ferritin to a “savings account” for a person’s iron.
(By the way, the Latin word for iron is “ferrum.” You may remember from chemistry class that the chemical symbol is Fe.)
Iron deficiencies fall on a range from mild to severe.
The mildest form starts with a drop in ferritin, which is in the body’s iron stores. This reduction can occur due to increased bleeding or result from a low-iron diet. If you don’t get enough iron, your body loses iron stores and you have fewer red blood cells.
The lack of enough red blood cells leads to iron-deficiency anemia. The body’s iron stores are used up, and the loss of red blood cells has become serious.
Blood tests can reveal problematic iron levels.
A doctor can screen for anemia with blood tests. “These tests can determine if the anemia is actually the result of too little iron intake or if something else is causing the problem.
“Not all anemias are due to the lack of iron in the diet,” explains Birdwell. Sometimes, anemia occurs because of a chronic illness.
Anemia can be a side effect of certain medications.
Sometimes, a drug will prompt the immune system to confuse your own red blood cells with foreign substances. The body will then produce antibodies to destroy the red blood cells.
Many drugs can do this. Cephalosporins, a class of antibiotics, are the most common culprits in such cases.
Other drugs that can cause anemia include Levodopa, which is used to treat Parkinson’s Disease. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), penicillin and some other antibiotics can also have this side effect.
An iron-deficiency anemia can leave you feeling drained.
“When your body is deficient in iron, you end up having iron-deficiency anemia. Commons symptoms include fatigue, weakness and headaches,” Birdwell says.
Other common symptoms of iron deficiency anemia include:
- feelings of confusion and trouble staying focused
- shortness of breath
- sensitivity to the cold
- a rapid heartbeat
- hair loss
- brittle nails
Some people with pica also have iron-deficiency anemias.
Being anemic is sometimes associated with a strange syndrome called pica, in which people have cravings for non-food items. They may ingest things such as chalk, dried pasta, laundry starch, dirt or clay.
No one truly knows why pica sometimes occurs along with iron-deficiency anemias or what causes it.
Too much iron in your diet can also cause problems.
“The body can’t metabolize excessive levels of iron. When people overdo the iron supplements, unpleasant things can happen. Constipation is something we often see in these situations,” Birdwell says.
Other digestive problems can also occur with too-high iron levels, reports the American Society of Hematology. These can include nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and dark stools.
Research is starting to explore possible links between excess iron and serious brain diseases. These include Alzheimer’s Disease and certain kinds of dementia.
Consult a health care provider before taking iron supplements.
Taking too much iron can be dangerous. Birdwell has seen people end up in the hospital due to extreme constipation caused by excessive iron intake.
A very high intake can be fatal. “To be safe, get your health care provider involved before you start taking iron tablets. Talk to a doctor or dietician,” she says.
A varied diet usually provides adequate iron levels.
“The average person will get enough iron in their diet,” Birdwell says. “Most healthy adults don’t need to worry about iron supplements.”
Many believe red meat is the best iron source, but you can get the proper amount of iron without it.
Keep the big picture in mind: High intake of red and processed meats raises a person’s risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and early death, a large body of evidence shows.
Take a quiz to assess your diet.
Nutritionists recommend that we all limit our red meat intake. Some say to treat red meat as a side dish and to only have it once or twice a week if you eat it at all. “You don’t need red meat to get enough iron,” says Birdwell.
The myplate.gov website summarizes current dietary recommendations in a user-friendly way.
The site includes a quiz to see how well your current diet lines up with best practices. It also offers tailored advice to help you make small changes to improve your eating habits gradually and simply.
How much iron should a person consume?
The National Institutes of Health sets these recommended levels for intake of dietary iron for people at different stages of life:
- Infant boys and girls, 7 to 12 months: 11 mg
- Boys and girls, 1 to 3 years: 7 mg
- Boys and girls, 4 to 8 years: 10 mg
- Boys and girls, 9 to 13 years: 8 mg
- Teens, 14 to 18 years: 15 mg for females, 11 mg for males
- Adults, 19 to 50 years, 18 mg for females
Iron absorption improves along with certain foods that are high in vitamin C.
“Iron is a nutrient that can be synergistic,” Shelby says. In other words, your body can best access both the heme and non-heme forms of iron when another nutrient, vitamin C, is present.
“An orange or grapefruit, or half a cup of orange juice, will increase your absorption of iron,” Birdwell suggests.
Good sources of vitamin C include:
- white potatoes
- Brussels sprouts
Cook in cast iron.
You can add a lot of iron to all sorts of food if you cook them in a cast-iron skillet or pot.
“This tip is especially important for vegetarians,” Birdwell says.
All the minerals in our bodies come from the earth.
Your body can’t make iron or other minerals it needs to survive, like calcium or magnesium. You can only obtain minerals, which are inorganic crystals, through food.
All minerals are the products of geological processes. We can only obtain minerals directly from plants or from products that are made from animals that eat plants, such as sea creatures, poultry, and livestock.
If you care to go even further back to look for the original source of all the minerals in your body, including iron, they all first reached our earth when stars exploded billions of years ago.
Milly Dawson is a contributor for UHealth’s news service.