Iron deficiency anemia is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world, especially among young children and women of child-bearing age. Let’s take a closer look at how to get adequate iron and what happens when we don’t.
This week I’m excited to have a special guest blogger, Katelyn Greene. Katelyn is a Marblehead high school senior who is passionate about nutrition and is currently completing her senior project by interning with a few local dietitians, including myself. She will be studying nutrition this fall at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
Are You Getting Enough Iron in Your Diet?
Many people know that iron is present in our everyday lives and is found in objects like cars, barbells and dumbells, and appliances such as your oven and refrigerator. However, not as many people know that iron can be found inside your refrigerator within the food you eat as well.
What is Iron?
Iron is an essential nutrient your body needs to be able to function properly. It is found in hemoglobin, which is the protein in red blood cells that transports oxygen throughout your body. Iron is also found in myoglobin, which is a protein that stores oxygen and is found in your muscles.
How Much Iron Do I Need?
Because iron is so important for your body, it is imperative that you get the right amount in your diet. The daily recommended value is between 7 and 18 milligrams, however, there are many factors that come into play when it comes to your specific iron needs. For example, if you are pregnant your recommended daily value could increase to as much as 27 milligrams. To make sure you meet your body’s demand for iron, you need to eat enough foods containing it.
Types and Sources of Iron
There are 2 categories when it comes to iron: heme iron and non-heme iron.
- Heme iron is iron that is found in animal products such as beef, pork, veal, chicken, fish, and shellfish. Red meat and organ meat are especially high in heme iron.
- Non-heme iron is iron that is found in plants and plant-based products such as beans, lentils, dark green leafy vegetables, oats, dried fruits, nuts, chia seeds, tofu, wheat, and rice.
You may think that because we should all be eating more veggies, plant-based sources of iron are better for you, but that is not the case. Heme iron from animal meats is actually the best way for your body to obtain iron. This is because your body absorbs 2-3x more iron from heme sources and they tend to be higher in total content per serving to start.
However, if you are a vegetarian or a vegan, you may still be able to get enough iron in your diet, you just have to plan carefully. You should talk to your doctor about whether or not you need an iron supplement; in general, iron supplements are meant to be taken short-term, not long-term. (See iron deficiency, below).
Vitamin C, vitamin A, and beta-carotene help increase your body’s absorption of iron. So eating foods high in these nutrients, such as citrus, bell peppers, melon, strawberries, carrots, sweet potato, kale, apricots, peaches, cabbage, broccoli, and tomatoes will help increase your iron intake.
Just like there are foods that can increase your body’s ability to absorb iron, there are foods that can decrease it as well. The following all reduce iron absorption by 60-70%:
- Phytic acid
- Dairy products
- Polyphenols including whole grains
Consider eating these foods between meals rather than with. But also note that the effects of these foods cause can be counteracted with the addition of vitamin C-rich foods.
Iron Deficiency Anemia
When your body does not get enough iron from your diet, iron deficiency anemia is the result. This most commonly leads to anemia. Children, teens, pregnant women, and women of childbearing age are most at risk for iron deficiency. Common symptoms of iron deficiency include fatigue, dizziness, headaches, sensitivity to cold, shortness of breath, and poor attention span and mental function.
Recipes to Boost Your Iron Intake
To ensure you are getting enough iron, include plenty of high-iron meals in your weekly diet. Just one serving of red meat per week can go a long way to preventing iron deficiency. Also, look for iron-fortified breakfast cereal. Here are a few recipes to get you started. You may also want to consider cooking with your cast iron skillet to add some extra iron into your meals!