Iron deficiency is the leading cause of anemia, a condition in which your body has fewer red blood cells than it needs. Food sources of iron are plentiful, but not everyone absorbs iron efficiently from foods. What's more, many common substances can interfere with iron absorption. For instance, caffeine in coffee, tea, cola and chocolate can inhibit the absorption of iron.
The Importance of Iron
Red blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Their red color comes from hemoglobin, which binds oxygen in the cells. Iron is part of hemoglobin. When hemoglobin is low, the rate at which oxygen reaches the muscles, skin and the rest of the body is reduced. This results in low energy, pale skin and fatigue, the main symptoms of iron-deficiency anemia.
Food Sources of Iron
Red meat is a plentiful source of iron, as are many vegetables, including spinach and kale. Beans, blackstrap molasses, egg yolks and fish are also good sources of iron. The U.S. recommended dietary allowance for iron is 8 mg for adult males and 18 mg for adult females. If you are pregnant, you should get at least 27 mg of iron daily. Vitamin C increases iron absorption, so be sure your diet includes citrus fruits, tomatoes, broccoli and other sources of C.
Caffeine's Effect on Iron Absorption
It is difficult for some people to absorb iron from food and supplements. Caffeine is one of several substances that interfere with the absorption of the mineral. If you are worried about iron-deficiency anemia, limit your intake of caffeine. The Cleveland Clinic recommends letting one to three hours elapse between eating iron-rich meals and taking in caffeine.
Risk for Iron Deficiency
You are at higher risk for iron deficiency if you are currently menstruating or otherwise experiencing blood loss; if you are on a low-calorie diet; if you have trouble absorbing nutrients due to illness, age or a prescription drug; or if you are a child or are pregnant. According to the National Anemia Action Council, endurance athletes are also at increased risk for iron-deficiency anemia.
Symptoms of Anemia
Common symptoms of anemia include fatigue, shortness of breath when exercising, dizziness, and pale skin or gums. See your doctor if you are experiencing any of these symptoms. If you see blood in your stool; have black, tarry stools; have unexplained weight loss; or have excessive menstrual bleeding, see your doctor immediately. These can be signs of diseases that cause anemia.