Iron is an important mineral in your body, but chances are many of us aren’t getting enough. Iron is necessary for many important functions, from growth and development to protecting your body from infection. One of the biggest roles it plays, however, is in the production of hemoglobin.
“Iron is required for oxygen transport in hemoglobin, which is found in red blood cells and transports to various organs for use,” said Rachel Harrison, a registered dietitian at Banner Health. “Iron is also incorporated in myoglobin, which is used to hold oxygen in our muscle.”
Without adequate iron, you can develop a condition called iron-deficiency anemia, one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the world. Symptoms can include fatigue, dizziness, headache, pale skin, weakness and inflamed tongue.
You can pump iron at the gym all you want, but to boost your iron intake, you’ll need to consider your diet. Iron is found naturally in many different foods and in some fortified foods.
Here are some easy ways to incorporate iron into your diet and how much you need (by age).
What foods are high in iron?
There are two types of iron in food: heme and non-heme irons.
“Heme iron is found in meat, poultry and fish and is better absorbed (higher bioavailability) than non-heme iron, which is found in plant sources and fortified foods,” Harrison said. “If you’re vegan or vegetarian, you may have more of a challenge but if the diets are well researched prior to starting, they should be fine as well. Individuals can always discuss changing their diets with a registered dietitian.”
To get a better idea of how to work more iron into your diet, we’ve included a list of iron-rich foods to look for the next time you’re out grocery shopping. Foods include:
- Chicken, turkey, ham and lean beef
- Fortified cereals, cream of wheat and enriched breads
- Nuts and seeds
- Dates, figs and raisins
- Beans and lentils
- Dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale
Why is it important to also consider vitamin C and calcium?
It’s important to eat vitamin-C rich foods with iron sources, particularly if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.
“Incorporating foods that are a good source of iron together with foods that contain vitamin C will enhance the absorption of all sources of iron and reduce your risk for iron deficiency,” Harrison said. “You can incorporate vitamin C-rich foods like citrus, broccoli and bell pepper.”
While vitamin C can help with absorption, you’ll also want to be mindful of things that can hinder your body’s absorption. Calcium can decrease iron absorption, so foods containing calcium and iron should be eaten separately.
If you have questions, talk with your healthcare provider or dietitian to discuss their recommendations to improve your iron intake.
How much iron do I need?
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the daily recommended amount of iron for adults is:
- 8 milligrams (mg) a day for men
- 18 mg a day for premenopausal women
- 8 mg a day for postmenopausal women
- 27 mg a day for pregnant women
- 9 mg for lactating women
In general, women are at higher risk for iron deficiency anemia and may need to take iron supplements. Discuss with your healthcare provider if you believe you have an iron deficiency.
How much iron does my child need?
The daily recommended amount of iron for kids is:
- 0.27 mg a day from birth to six months
- 11 mg from 7 to 12 months
- 7 mg from 1 to 3 years old
- 10 mg from 4 to 8 years old
- 8 mg from 9 to 13 years old
- 11mg/15 mg from 14 to 18 years old for males/females
Before supplementing your child’s diet with an iron supplement, first check with their healthcare provider to see if your child isn’t already getting enough iron. For example, if your child is receiving iron-fortified infant formula, then additional supplementation isn’t necessary.
Food or supplements: Which is better?
“The truth is that most of us can get the iron we need from the food we consume, unless a healthcare provider says otherwise,” Harrison said. “For some, a supplement may be necessary, but don’t start taking one without talking to your doctor first.”
If you have concerns with your diet or believe you’re iron deficient, talk to your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian. They can assess your iron levels and determine the exact course of action, which may include changes to your diet or taking supplements. To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.
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