Iron is one of the most important minerals our body needs; it helps us get enough oxygen throughout the body. We all know iron as a metal, but it’s more than that. Iron is a key nutrient for performance, and that includes more than just exercise. Without iron, our muscles can’t perform as needed. When you don’t consume enough iron-rich foods, you might end up with iron deficiency anemia.
This is an anemia that occurs when your body doesn’t have enough iron. What are the causes and symptoms of iron deficiency? And what are the foods that can help you prevent all that?
Why do we need iron?
As mentioned, iron is a mineral that our body needs. Iron, a part of every cell in our body, does many important functions. Its primary function is to help produce hemoglobin and carry oxygen from the lungs throughout the body.
In addition, iron helps our muscles store and use oxygen. The mineral is also part of many important enzymes that support cell functions. Some of them help us digest foods, and others help with other important reactions within our body.
Low amounts of iron can delay normal infant motor function and mental functioning skills like thinking and processing information. During pregnancy, iron deficiency can increase the risk for small or preterm babies.
How much iron do I need?
With so much talk about iron-rich foods and iron deficiency, the main question is how much iron do you actually need? There are different factors that determine that, including gender and age, but also whether a woman is pregnant or breastfeeding. With that in mind, here are some of the standard values for daily recommended doses of iron.
- Infants up to 6 months need just 0.27mg of iron per day
- Infants between 7 and 12 months need 11mg of iron per day
- Children aged 1-3 years need 7mg of iron per day
- Children aged 4-8 years need 10mg of iron per day
- Boys between 9 and 13 years need 8mg of iron per day
- Male teenagers between 14 and 18 years need 11mg of iron per day
- Men up to 30 years through 70 years need 8mg of iron per day
- Girls between 9 and 13 years need 8mg of iron per day
- Female teenagers between 14 and 18 years need 15mg of iron per day
- Women between 19 and 50 years need 18mg of iron per day
- Women older than 50 years need just 8mg of iron per day
- Pregnant women between 19 and 30 years need 27mg of iron per day (the same dose applies for women over 30)
- Lactating women need 9mg of iron per day
Causes of iron deficiency
According to the American Society of Hematology, iron deficiency is the most common cause of anemia. But what is the cause of iron deficiency? There are many factors that can contribute to low iron levels in your body, and they are summarized below.
Low iron consumption
First and foremost, one of the main causes of iron deficiency is low consumption of iron-rich foods. You can survive with low consumption of foods rich in iron over a short period of time, but if that continues long-term, you have a problem. Iron is essential during times of rapid growth and development, and young children and pregnant women need even more iron-rich foods.
Pregnancy or blood loss during menstruation
Heavy bleeding means that you lose way too much iron (when you bleed, you lose iron). Heavy menstrual bleeding and blood loss during childbirth are two of the biggest causes of iron deficiency anemia.
Inability to absorb iron
Although you consume iron-rich foods, your iron levels may still be low because your body isn’t able to absorb iron properly. Sometimes, a certain disorder might be the reason why you are not absorbing iron properly. For example, celiac disease or a gastric bypass limits the amount of iron your body can absorb.
While bleeding during menstruation is a condition that only affects women, internal bleeding can happen in both men and women. Medical conditions that cause internal bleeding (e.g., a stomach ulcer) can often lead to iron deficiency. In addition to ulcers, colon cancer and polyps in the colon or intestines also contribute to iron deficiency.
There are certain risk factors that you need to pay attention to. Iron deficiency is a normal, common condition that can hit any of us, but in some cases, the risk is higher.
Here are the risk factors:
- Women of childbearing age
- Pregnant women
- Malnutrition (a poor diet)
- Regular blood donors
- Infants and children born prematurely
- Vegetarians who don’t replace meat with iron-rich foods
Signs you need more iron
When you don’t consume enough foods rich in iron, the result is deficiency of this crucial mineral. Iron is needed to make hemoglobin, a protein in our red blood cells that enables the cells to carry oxygen around the body. When your body can’t produce enough hemoglobin, your tissues and muscles won’t get oxygen and won’t work efficiently and effectively. This condition is commonly known as anemia.
Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia worldwide. There are many signs that your body is sending to alert you that you need more iron-rich foods. If you notice some of these signals, you need to make some changes in your lifestyle so that you include more foods high in iron.
We discussed the causes of iron deficiency previously, so now let’s take a look at the symptoms of iron deficiency. Symptoms vary depending on the severity, your current state of health, and so on. In some cases, you might not even experience symptoms.
One of the most common signs of iron deficiency is a general feeling of tiredness and fatigue. Almost every other person with iron deficiency experiences tiredness. Because your body doesn’t produce hemoglobin and you don’t receive oxygen, your muscles don’t function properly. Your muscles and tissues are deprived of energy, and your heart has to work harder to pump more oxygen around the body. And because of all that, you feel tired.
Tiredness is often considered a normal part of our dynamic, busy modern life. So it’s hard to diagnose the problem only by this symptom. But you’ll also notice low energy, weakness, feeling cranky, poor productivity, and difficulty concentrating.
Shortness of breath
We all know that we need clean air to function properly. Without hemoglobin, your blood cells can’t carry oxygen around the body. Oxygen levels in your body will be down, and your breathing rate will increase as your body tries to get more oxygen.
This is the simplest explanation why you experience shortness of breath when you have an iron deficiency. You won’t be even able to do simple and normal activities such as walking. Even those tasks will become more challenging.
When you experience shortness of breath during normal daily tasks, it’s time to check your blood for iron deficiency.
Headaches and dizziness
Headaches are a less common symptom than others, but they are still a sign you need more iron. These two symptoms of iron deficiency are often combined and go hand in hand. You’ll experience a light headache followed by a feeling of dizziness.
Again, the cause is low oxygen levels, as the blood vessels in the brain can swell and cause pressure. To distinguish the iron deficiency headache from a common headache, look for frequent and recurrent headaches followed by dizziness.
Another of the common symptoms of iron deficiency is pale skin and general paleness. Hemoglobin gives red blood cells their red color, so when you have low levels of hemoglobin, the skin loses its healthy, rosy color.
Paleness is sometimes limited to one area such as the face, inside of the lips, lower eyelids, nails, or the gums. However, it can also appear all over the body.
Physicians often look at paleness as the first sign of iron deficiency. But they always test and confirm it with a blood sample. Paleness is considered a sign of moderate and severe cases of anemia.
Dry and damaged skin
Speaking of skin issues, paleness isn’t the only one you need to worry about. Dry and damaged skin can also be a sign of iron deficiency. The hair as well.
The problem is when you suffer from low oxygen levels, your body directs the oxygen to more important parts of the body. And let’s be honest—your skin and hair are not as important as other body tissues and organs.
Because they are deprived of oxygen, the skin and the hair become dry, damaged, and weak. In severe cases of iron deficiency, you’ll notice hair loss as well. Although some hair loss regularly occurs during washing and brushing, if you notice you lose clumps or more hair than normal, talk to your physician.
Because hemoglobin helps transfer oxygen around the body, your heart has to work overtime without it. When you suffer from iron deficiency, your heart needs to work more to produce more hemoglobin and carry more oxygen around the body. This often leads to an irregular heartbeat and a feeling that your heart beats extremely fast (and no, this isn’t the same feeling you get when your heart beats fast because you are in love).
Sometimes, these heart palpations can lead to heart failure, a heart murmur, or an enlarged heart. Heart palpations are a symptom of a severe case of anemia that occur if you don’t treat the problem. You have to have undergone a long period of iron deficiency to notice heart palpations.
Swelling and soreness of the tongue
In some cases, it’s more than enough to look inside or around your mouth to notice problems. There are many clear indicators of iron deficiency inside and around your mouth, including swelling of the tongue as well as soreness.
When your tongue or mouth becomes swollen, pale, strangely smooth, or inflamed, talk to your physician. Low iron levels cause low levels of hemoglobin as well as myoglobin. The latter is the protein that supports your muscles, including the muscle that makes up the tongue.
Another symptom is dry mouth, sore red cracks at the corners of the mouth, or even mouth ulcers.
Restless leg syndrome has been scientifically proven to be directly linked to iron deficiency. You get a strong urge to move your legs at rest, and it can cause an unpleasant and itchy sensation in the feet and legs.
The condition is more common during the night. The result is you can’t get much sleep, which makes it even worse, as sleep is important for stress management.
And while the causes of restless leg syndrome are not fully understood and proven, 25% of the people with the syndrome also suffer from iron deficiency.
The two best sources of iron are seafood and meat. We start off the list of iron-rich foods with the best seafood for iron: shellfish. Tasty and nutritious, all shellfish is high in iron. However, if you really want to kick it up a notch, go for clams, oysters, and mussels. They are the best source of iron in the seafood world.
One serving of clams (100g/3.5 ounces) contains up to 28mg of iron, or more than 150% of the daily recommended dosage. Bear in mind that some types of clams contain more iron than others. Even better, the iron in shellfish is heme iron, which is better absorbed by the body.
Clams also give your body protein and vitamin C, making them an extremely healthy food source.
Liver and organ meats
For some people, it’s disgusting to eat organ meats like liver, kidneys, heart, and brain. But they are extremely nutritious, and all of them are high in iron.
One serving of beef liver contains 6.5mg of iron. In addition to this highly sought mineral, organ meats are also high in B-vitamins, selenium, copper, and choline.
When you talk about iron-rich foods, red meat is the cream of the crop, as it contains more than 5mg of iron per serving. But what makes red meat such a popular choice is the richness in protein, making it great for losing weight.
People who consume meat on a regular basis are less likely to suffer from iron deficiency. Red meat is the single most easily accessible source of heme iron, making it a great food for people prone to anemia.
Another meat makes the cut for foods high in iron: delicious and healthy, turkey is a much better option than chicken. The best type is dark turkey meat, which delivers more than 2.5mg of iron per serving. White turkey, on the other hand, delivers half of that amount.
As with other meat on the list, turkey also packs high amounts of protein, helping with weight loss and improving your metabolic rate.
We will talk more about vegetarian choices later on, but quinoa deserves its spot on the list of iron-rich foods. A popular choice for vegetarians, one cup of quinoa provides 2.8mg of iron.
And since it’s gluten-free, quinoa is great for people with celiac disease who already have trouble absorbing iron. In addition to iron, quinoa seeds also provide magnesium, manganese, and copper.
If you ever wanted to eat chocolate guilt-free, this is it. But bear in mind, only dark chocolate provides good amounts of iron.
One ounce of dark chocolate packs 3.3g of iron, which is more than some meats. Dark chocolate also contains prebiotic fiber that improves the balance of bacteria in your gut. When you buy dark chocolate, stick to one that includes at least 70% cocoa. That way, you reap all the benefits of dark chocolate, including reducing the risk of heart attack and reducing bad cholesterol.
Sardines are best known for their richness in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D. But they also provide a good amount of iron in just a small package. Ideal for a snack or a light dinner, sardines provide 1.8mg of iron per ¼ cup.
Another popular choice of iron-rich foods for vegetarians is black beans. You can get as much as 1.8mg of iron per ½ cup of black beans. They are also rich in protein and fiber, and provide great “time-released energy.” Black beans are a great carb source for those who are resistant to insulin.
You’ll be surprised that some fruits contain decent amounts of iron. One of those fruits high in iron is raisins, which contain up to 1.1mg of iron per ¼ cup of serving.
The beauty here is that you can combine white rice with fish and seafood, as well as with meat. White rice is a great side dish, and one of the reasons is its richness in iron. One cup of cooked white rice contains almost 8mg of iron. If you are a sushi lover, the outside layer of your dish is loaded with iron.
Iron and vitamin C
In order to absorb iron better, you need to combine iron-rich foods with foods high in vitamin C. It’s well documented, and scientifically proven, that foods high in iron and foods high in vitamin C complement each other.
Vitamin C enhances your body’s ability to absorb iron. You can increase your vitamin C consumption by drinking citrus juice or eating foods high in vitamin C at the same time you consume iron-rich foods.
In some cases, doctors even recommend taking iron tablets (supplements) with a glass of orange juice. This is generally for severe cases of anemia, where patients need to take iron supplements to improve their iron levels.
Vegetarian foods high in iron
When you think of iron, most people think of meat first. But there are many vegetarian sources of iron as well. Being that iron is an essential nutrient that plays an important role in most body functions, it’s important that you get enough of it. And being a vegetarian doesn’t stop you from getting iron.
One of the misconceptions about vegetarians is that they can’t get enough nutrients, which is why they feel fatigued and have low energy levels. But if you look carefully, you’ll find many good energy boosting, iron-rich foods in vegetables.
The trick is that vegetables contain nonheme iron, which is less easily absorbed by our bodies. Therefore, the recommended daily dosage of iron for vegetarians and vegans is higher than for meat eaters. For those on a combined diet, it’s the same. That being said, let’s take a look at the sources of iron in the plant world.
There are many legumes, including peas, lentils, and beans, that are high in iron. For starters, you can look at soybeans and foods derived from soy to source your iron. Soybeans contain around 8.8mg of iron per cup, which is half of the dosage you need per day. Natto, another fermented soy product, contains even more iron.
Lentils are also on the list of iron-rich foods, packing 6.6mg of iron per one cooked cup. If you are more of a beans-type person, go for lima, red kidney, white, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, and navy beans.
Nuts and seeds
We talked about quinoa seeds previously. But let’s talk about all of the nuts and seeds you can consume on a daily basis to increase your iron. The good thing about nuts and seeds is their versatility, which allows you to combine them in basically every dish.
If seeds are your thing, go for pumpkin, sesame, flax, and hemp seeds. They all contain between 2 and 4mg per two tablespoons. You can even go for a product made with these seeds, like hummus, for example. In addition to iron, seeds also contain plant protein, calcium, magnesium, selenium, fiber, and antioxidants.
For those who prefer nuts, cashews, almonds, pine nuts, and macadamia nuts are the best choices. Nuts are known mostly for their richness in omega-3 fatty acids, but they pack a solid amount of iron as well. Nuts contain between 1-2mg of iron per ounce. Now that isn’t much, but it’s a welcome addition.
Many people think meat contains the highest amount of iron. But leafy greens are the gold standard for iron, especially products like spinach and kale. And unlike meat, you can add spinach and kale into any smoothie and salad for an extra boost. 100g of spinach contains more iron than the same amount of red meat. Now, consuming 100g of fresh spinach leaves isn’t something we can all do, but you can easily cook spinach.
Broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts also fall into this category.
Tomatoes don’t contain a lot of iron. However, when you dry them and turn them into tomato paste, you get a condiment that has huge amounts of iron. Half a cup of tomato paste delivers almost 4mg of iron, which is 1/5 of the daily recommended value.
Mushrooms are the gold standard for vegetarians who want to replace protein and iron. Bear in mind, not all mushrooms are the same. For example, white mushrooms contain around 3mg of iron per cooked cup, while oyster mushrooms deliver two times more. Shiitake mushrooms, for all their benefits, contain very little iron.
When you think of iron, you rarely think of fruits. But the reality is that some fruits contain decent amounts of iron. And while we rarely turn to fruits to increase our iron consumption, we can always get a boost. Prunes, for example, known for their laxative effect, provide a decent amount of iron at 3mg per cup. Mulberries, a not so popular type of berries, deliver 2.6mg of iron per cup.
When it comes to healthy breakfasts, oats are often a popular choice. You can easily up your intake of protein, iron, fiber, and other minerals and vitamins with oats. Add some fruits or veggies, and you have a nutrition bomb.
One cup of cooked oats delivers 3.4mg of iron. But you can always take the extra step by adding nuts and seeds.
One of the best and healthiest alternatives to cow’s milk, coconut is high in fat but a great source of vitamins and minerals, including iron, magnesium, copper, and manganese. If iron is what you seek, half a cup of coconut milk delivers 3.8mg of iron, or one fifth of the daily recommended dosage.
Difference between heme and nonheme iron
The difference between heme and nonheme iron, as well as the benefits and risks of both, has plagued nutritionists and health experts for years. Some say that heme iron is the only one you need and that you can’t substitute iron with vegetables. But vegetarians disagree. With that in mind, what is the difference?
Heme iron is the type of iron found in blood and muscle, and sourced from animal foods. That means red meat, fish, poultry, and similar. Your body absorbs only 15-30% of the heme iron consumed. It’s clear that the body absorbs heme iron more readily. The health risk of heme iron is that rapid absorption of iron isn’t always a good thing. It’s crucial and critical to keep the right iron balance. Too much of it can increase oxidative stress and lead to stroke, coronary heart disease, and gastrointestinal side effects.
Nonheme iron, on the other hand, is found in plant foods like beans, nuts, seeds, and leafy green vegetables. It isn’t combined with a heme protein, and therefore, your body isn’t as equipped to absorb it. Your body absorbs between 2% and 20% of the consumed nonheme iron. Because of that, the risk of iron toxicity is lower.