The Office of Dietary Supplements in the National Institute of Health describes iron as “a mineral that is naturally present in many foods, added to some food products, and available as a dietary supplement.” It’s necessary for growth and development, normal cellular functioning and the production of some hormones and connective tissue. Without iron, which is essential to hemoglobin production, oxygen would not travel from our lungs to our tissues.
“In hemoglobin production, the iron actually attaches to our red blood cells, allowing oxygen to attach to those and be carried throughout the body,” explains Amanda Turner M.S., RD, CSSD, a dietician at the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colo. “If we don’t have adequate iron, then we don't get adequate oxygen to the tissues for perfusion.”
The amount of iron that your body needs on a daily basis depends on the person, and varies for males and females, which then can differ depending on whether or not the female is menstruating. The average amounts are 8 milligrams per day for men, 18 milligrams per day for women and 8 milligrams per day for post-menopausal women, Turner says. During pregnancy, the need for iron increases. “Because the blood volume increases significantly during pregnancy, iron needs increase to 27 milligrams per day,” notes Turner.
How to Get More Iron From Your Food
There are two types of iron: heme and non-heme. Understanding the difference between both is important to maintain healthy iron levels. The human body absorbs heme iron -- found only in meat and eggs -- more easily than it absorbs the non-heme iron provided by vegetables. When non-heme iron is consumed with vitamin C, however, the body absorbs it as easily as iron from animal sources.
All meat contains iron, with red meat topping the iron-rich list, but when it comes to vegetables, it can vary. Turner says that cooking in an iron skillet is a great option if you are looking to increase the amount of iron in your food, though only by a small amount. Cooking acidic foods in an iron skillet, such as bell peppers, can help get iron into the food and increase absorption.
Vegetarian Sources of Iron
Most vegetarian sources of iron also contain vitamin C, or are easily paired with foods rich in this vitamin. This may be why vegetarians do not suffer from iron deficiency at a greater rate than omnivores, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, the top 10 vegetarian sources of iron include:
Dried seaweed or spirulina: 32 mg of iron per cup
Green raw soybeans: 9 mg of iron per cup
Tomato products (canned or sauce): 8 mg of iron per cup
Raw morel mushrooms: 8 mg of iron per cup
Dried oriental radishes: 8 mg of iron per cup
Potatoes: 7 mg of iron per cup
Spinach (cooked, boiled and drained): 6 mg of iron per cup
Raw lemon grass: 5 mg of iron per cup
Raw Jerusalem artichokes: 5 mg of iron per cup
Spinach (canned, regular packed or drained solids): 5 mg of iron per cup
Here are some easy ways to add more iron to your diet: tomato and bean salad, vegetarian chili, tomato-based soup or and tofu-vegetable stir fry. You can also add fresh bean sprouts to your salad, soup, scrambled eggs and stir fry, or use in place of lettuce on sandwiches.
Non-Vegetarian Sources of Iron
If you're not a vegetarian, getting enough iron is quite simple, as you not only get non-heme iron from vegetables, but heme iron, which is easier for the body to absorb. Some meats are more iron-rich than others, but because they come from animals that had hemoglobin, you will always find levels of iron in your meats.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, has a list of the top 10 non-vegetarian sources of iron that are most frequently eaten in the U.S., which includes:
Smoked turkey sausage: 5 mg of iron per 2 ounces
Chicken gizzards (cooked or simmered): 5 mg of iron per cup
Beef, pork or chicken sausage (skinless and smoked): 4 mg of iron per link
Australian grass-fed beef tenderloin: 3 mg of iron per steak
Beef shank: 3.28 mg of iron per 3 ounces
Other Foods That Are Rich in Iron
Many cereals and pastas are fortified with iron. For a whole grain naturally high in iron, try quinoa or amaranth in place of brown rice and serve with vegetables or beans. For an iron-rich whole-grain breakfast, make hot cereal out of oats or buckwheat or add nuts or pumpkin seeds and vitamin C-rich fruit, such as blueberries or strawberries, to your cereal.
Two eggs contain about 8 percent of the daily value for iron. Most of the iron found in eggs is heme iron that will be easily absorbed, and will also help your body better absorb non-heme iron from vegetable sources. To get the most out of your eggs, combine them with iron-rich vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, beans, bean sprouts or potatoes. Tomatoes, which provide some iron and a lot of vitamin C, also go well with eggs.
What is Iron-Deficiency Anemia?
Because iron is essential to hemoglobin production, iron-deficiency anemia occurs when your body does not have enough iron, meaning your blood cannot carry oxygen efficiently throughout the body.
“Iron-deficiency anemia typically occurs in women,” mentions Turner. “When iron levels are chronically low, you can experience symptoms such as cold intolerance, fatigue, and even spooning of your fingernails.” Additional symptoms include pale skin, shortness of breath and even cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt or starch.
Turner recommends that if you think you may have iron-deficiency anemia, your doctor can perform a blood test to confirm. Depending on the results, they can prescribe supplements or suggest diet changes to add iron into your diet. It's important that you consult a physician because excess iron can damage the liver and cause other health issues.