Earlier this week, a friend of mine told me about her ongoing struggle with low iron levels. We ended up in a nutrition discussion and I was inspired to write about the topic. Iron can be one of those problem nutrients, especially for women. A lot of people may not think to consider iron deficiency as a possible cause for symptoms like fatigue or weakness, but it is a fairly common issue.
Iron is a component of something called hemoglobin, which is an oxygen transport protein found in red blood cells. Its main job is to carry oxygen through your blood stream and into your cells so that they can function properly.
What happens when iron levels are insufficient? You can’t make enough hemoglobin, and your cells won’t get the right amount of oxygen. That’s called Iron Deficiency Anemia. If you’ve ever heard someone say that they are “anemic”, iron deficiency is usually to blame.
The recommended amount of daily iron differs by age and gender. Adult males require 8mg per day, while adult females (19-50 years of age) need quite a bit more, 18mg, due to monthly menstruation. This increases further to 27mg per day for pregnant women. After menopause, or about age 50, female needs drop down to 8mg per day.
There are two different types of iron found in your everyday meals and snacks. Animal foods like meat, poultry, and seafood contain heme iron. This type of iron is absorbed and used very efficiently by your body.
Sources of heme iron (mg per 3oz serving):
Liver – 15mg
Beef – 6 mg
Turkey – 2mg
Chicken Breast – 1mg
Pork – 1mg
Salmon – 1mg
Tuna – 1mg
Non-heme iron, the type found in plant-based foods like leafy greens or beans, is used less efficiently because it needs to be converted to heme iron before it can get absorbed.
But don’t shy away from plant-based iron! It just needs a boost from our friend vitamin C, which helps increase absorption of non-heme iron. You can actually enhance absorption of your plant-based iron by tossing 3 or 4 strawberries into your spinach salad, or squeezing some fresh lemon on your lentils.
Sources of non-heme iron:
Chickpeas – 12.5mg per 1 cup
Cooked Lentils – 6.6mg per 1 cup
Fortified cereals – 6.5mg per 1 cup
Tofu – 6mg per 1 cup
Black Beans – 5mg per 1 cup
Cooked spinach – 3.5mg per 2 cups
Apricots – 2.5mg per ½ cup
Acorn squash – 1mg per cup cubed
Of course, there are other iron-containing foods out there. These are just some quick lists to get you started. If you are still struggling to meet your iron requirements after doing your dietary best, there are other options out there. Cooking with cast iron pots and pans can add a considerable amount of iron into your food. Per cup of food cooked, these pans can increase iron content by up to 8mg (nice!). Keep this tip in mind: research shows more acidic foods like pasta sauce or eggs absorb the iron from your skillet better than non-acidic foods like pancakes or potatoes.
If all else fails, you can get iron in supplement form, though people considering a supplement should use caution. For one thing, they can be very hard on the digestive tract. For another, it’s possible to overdo it. This is especially true for men, and women over 50. They aren’t utilizing as much iron as a younger woman who is likely losing quite a bit each month. It’s best to talk with a health professional before resorting to an iron supplement.
Nutrition Technique: Take a look at your daily routine and think about where your iron comes from. If you have symptoms of fatigue or weakness, consider a lack of iron as a possible cause. If most of your iron is non-heme, make sure you’re pairing with vitamin C rich foods to boost absorption. Let’s keep those cells oxygen rich and ready to go!
Amy Jones, MS, RDN, LD, CD