What is iron?
Iron is an essential mineral that is important for many bodily functions, such as producing hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. Without enough iron, our body can’t produce enough hemoglobin, leading to a condition called anemia, which can cause fatigue, weakness, and other health issues. Iron also helps maintain a healthy immune system, cognitive function, and energy metabolism.
There are two main types of iron found in food: heme and non-heme iron.
- Heme iron is found in animal products and is more easily absorbed by the body.
- Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods and is less easily absorbed, which is why vegetarians and vegans are at higher risk for iron deficiency.
This article will provide information on foods high in both types of iron, and how to incorporate them into a balanced diet to prevent iron deficiency. It will also cover iron-rich meal and snack ideas, tips for enhancing iron absorption, and when to consider iron supplementation.
How is iron level measured in the blood?
Iron levels in the blood are typically measured through a blood test called a serum ferritin test. Ferritin is a protein that stores iron in the body, and the amount of ferritin in the blood is a good indicator of the body’s iron stores.
During the serum ferritin test, a healthcare provider will draw a small sample of blood from a vein in the arm. The sample is then sent to a laboratory for analysis. Normal levels of serum ferritin in the blood vary by age and gender, but generally range from 12-300 ng/mL for adult men and 12-150 ng/mL for adult women.
In addition to the serum ferritin test, other blood tests can also be used to assess iron levels in the body, including:
- Complete blood count (CBC): This test measures the number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets in the blood, as well as the hemoglobin and hematocrit levels. Low levels of hemoglobin or hematocrit can be a sign of iron deficiency anemia.
- Iron level test: This test measures the amount of iron in the blood.
- Total iron-binding capacity (TIBC) test: This test measures the amount of transferrin in the blood, which is a protein that carries iron in the blood. High levels of TIBC can be a sign of iron deficiency anemia.
What is the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron?
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for iron varies by age, sex, and life stage. Here are the RDAs for iron according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH):
- Infants 0-6 months: 0.27 milligrams per day (mg/day)
- Infants 7-12 months: 11 mg/day
- Children 1-3 years: 7 mg/day
- Children 4-8 years: 10 mg/day
- Children 9-13 years: 8 mg/day
- Teen boys 14-18 years: 11 mg/day
- Teen girls 14-18 years: 15 mg/day
- Men 19-50 years: 8 mg/day
- Women 19-50 years: 18 mg/day
- Men and women over 50 years: 8 mg/day
Pregnant women have higher iron requirements due to increased blood volume and fetal development. The RDA for pregnant women is 27 mg/day, and the RDA for breastfeeding women is 9-10 mg/day.
Iindividual iron requirements may vary based on factors such as medical conditions and dietary restrictions. It’s recommended to consult a gastroenterologist or registered dietitian for personalized nutrition advice.
What causes iron deficiency?
Iron deficiency can occur due to a variety of factors, including:
- Inadequate dietary intake: Not consuming enough iron-rich foods in the diet can lead to iron deficiency.
- Poor iron absorption: Certain medical conditions, such as celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease, can impair the absorption of iron from food.
- Blood loss: Any type of blood loss, such as from heavy menstrual periods or gastrointestinal bleeding, can lead to iron deficiency.
- Increased iron requirements: Infants, children, and pregnant women have higher iron requirements than the general population and may be at increased risk of iron deficiency.
- Chronic diseases: Certain chronic diseases, such as kidney disease or cancer, can lead to iron deficiency.
- Medications: Some medications, such as proton pump inhibitors or antacids, can interfere with iron absorption and contribute to iron deficiency.
Symptoms of iron deficiency may include fatigue, weakness, pale skin, shortness of breath, and headaches. If someone suspects they have iron deficiency, it’s important to consult a gastroenterologist for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Foods with heme iron
Heme iron is found in animal products and is more easily absorbed by the body than non-heme iron. Some examples of foods that are high in heme iron include:
- Red meat, such as beef and lamb
- Poultry, such as chicken and turkey
- Seafood, such as salmon, tuna, and shrimp
Consume heme iron in moderation, as excessive intake of red meat and processed meats has been linked to an increased risk of certain health issues, such as heart disease and certain types of cancer.
For those who eat meat, a balanced diet can include lean cuts of red meat, such as sirloin or tenderloin, and skinless poultry. Limit red meat to no more than 18 ounces per week and to choose lean cuts and avoid processed meats. Seafood, such as fatty fish, is also a good source of heme iron and other nutrients.
However, for those of you who do not consume meat, make sure you get enough iron from non-heme sources, such as leafy greens, beans, and fortified cereals. It’s possible to obtain enough iron on a vegetarian or vegan diet with careful meal planning and adequate consumption of iron-rich foods.
Foods with non-heme iron
Non-heme iron is found in plant-based foods and is less easily absorbed by the body than heme iron. Some examples of foods that are high in non-heme iron include:
- Leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, and collard greens
- Legumes, such as lentils, chickpeas, and kidney beans
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Nuts and seeds, such as pumpkin seeds and cashews
To enhance the absorption of non-heme iron, consume these foods with a source of vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, bell peppers, and tomatoes. Cooking in cast iron pots and pans can also increase the amount of iron in food.
For vegetarians and vegans, make sure that you consume enough non-heme iron to meet their daily requirements. Iron-fortified foods, such as breakfast cereals and plant-based milks, can help to boost iron intake. Cooking with iron cookware and pairing iron-rich foods with vitamin C-rich foods can also enhance iron absorption.
Iron-rich vegetables and plant sources of iron
Here are some iron-rich vegetables and plant sources of iron:
- Spinach: Spinach is a great source of iron, with 3.2 mg of iron per cooked cup.
- Lentils: Lentils are a good source of iron, with 6.6 mg of iron per cooked cup.
- Tofu: Tofu is a good source of iron, with 3.6 mg of iron per 100 grams.
- Kidney beans: Kidney beans are a good source of iron, with 3.9 mg of iron per cooked cup.
- Chickpeas: Chickpeas are a good source of iron, with 2.4 mg of iron per cooked cup.
- Swiss chard: Swiss chard is a good source of iron, with 4 mg of iron per cooked cup.
- Bok choy: Bok choy is a good source of iron, with 1.8 mg of iron per cooked cup.
- Potatoes: Potatoes are a good source of iron, with 1.9 mg of iron per medium-sized potato.
- Soybeans: Soybeans are a good source of iron, with 8.8 mg of iron per cooked cup.
- Quinoa: Quinoa is a good source of iron, with 2.8 mg of iron per cooked cup.
- Dark chocolate: Dark chocolate is a good source of iron, with 3.3 mg of iron per 100 grams.
- Pumpkin seeds: Pumpkin seeds are a good source of iron, with 2.5 mg of iron per quarter cup.
- Cashews: Cashews are a good source of iron, with 1.9 mg of iron per quarter cup.
- Sunflower seeds: Sunflower seeds are a good source of iron, with 1.8 mg of iron per quarter cup.
- Tomatoes: Tomatoes are a good source of iron, with 1.3 mg of iron per medium-sized tomato.
- Broccoli: Broccoli is a good source of iron, with 1 mg of iron per cooked cup.
- Brussels sprouts: Brussels sprouts are a good source of iron, with 0.9 mg of iron per cooked cup.
- Asparagus: Asparagus is a good source of iron, with 0.7 mg of iron per cooked cup.
- Raisins: Raisins are a good source of iron, with 0.7 mg of iron per quarter cup.
- Prunes: Prunes are a good source of iron, with 0.9 mg of iron per quarter cup.
- Apricots: Dried apricots are a good source of iron, with 1.8 mg of iron per quarter cup.
- Beet greens: Beet greens are a good source of iron, with 0.8 mg of iron per cooked cup.
- Collard greens: Collard greens are a good source of iron, with 0.5 mg of iron per cooked cup.
- Kale: Kale is a good source of iron, with 0.5 mg of iron per cooked cup.
- Mustard greens: Mustard greens are a good source of iron, with 0.5 mg of iron per cooked cup.
Iron-rich meals and snacks
Incorporating iron-rich foods into daily meals and snacks can help to prevent iron deficiency and promote overall health. Here are some examples of iron-rich meals and snacks:
- Spinach and chickpea salad: Combine spinach, chickpeas, roasted red peppers, and feta cheese. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice for a delicious and iron-rich salad.
- Lentil soup: Cook lentils with carrots, onions, and celery in vegetable broth for a hearty and iron-rich soup.
- Quinoa bowl: Combine cooked quinoa with black beans, avocado, and roasted sweet potatoes. Top with salsa for a delicious and nutritious meal.
- Apple slices with almond butter: Dip apple slices into almond butter for a quick and easy iron-rich snack.
- Smoothie bowl: Blend together frozen berries, banana, spinach, and almond milk for an iron-rich smoothie bowl. Top with granola for added crunch.
- Oatmeal with nuts and dried fruit: Add chopped nuts and dried fruit, such as raisins or cranberries, to oatmeal for an iron-rich breakfast.
- Tofu stir-fry: Stir-fry tofu with vegetables, such as broccoli and bell peppers, and serve over brown rice for a satisfying and iron-rich meal.
- Hummus and vegetable wrap: Spread hummus on a whole grain wrap and fill with vegetables, such as spinach, cucumbers, and bell peppers, for a nutritious and iron-rich lunch.
- Trail mix: Mix together nuts, seeds, and dried fruit, such as almonds, sunflower seeds, and dried apricots, for a tasty and iron-rich snack.
- Black bean chili: Cook black beans with diced tomatoes, bell peppers, and onions for a flavorful and iron-rich chili.
Iron deficiency and supplementation
Iron deficiency can lead to anemia, which can cause fatigue, weakness, and other health issues. Symptoms of iron deficiency may include pale skin, fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath.
If someone suspects they have an iron deficiency, it’s important to consult a gastroenterologist for proper diagnosis and treatment. Iron supplementation may be necessary to correct anemia and restore iron levels. However, taking too much iron can be harmful, so choose an appropriate supplement and follow dosage instructions carefully.
Iron supplementation should not be taken without medical supervision or recommendation. Iron supplements can interact with certain medications, and excessive iron intake can cause toxicity and other health problems.
Iron toxicity, also known as iron poisoning, occurs when there is an excessive amount of iron in the body. This can happen due to accidental ingestion of iron supplements or iron-containing medications, or in rare cases, excessive consumption of iron-rich foods.
Symptoms of iron toxicity can include stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, confusion, and in severe cases, liver and heart damage, shock, and even death. Iron toxicity is especially dangerous in children, who may accidentally ingest iron supplements or iron-containing multivitamins.
Treatment for iron toxicity typically involves removing the excess iron from the body through a process called chelation therapy. This involves the use of medications that bind to the excess iron and help it to be excreted from the body.
To prevent iron toxicity, follow the recommended dosage for iron supplements and iron-containing medications, and to keep these products out of the reach of children. If someone suspects they may have ingested too much iron or are experiencing symptoms of iron toxicity, they should seek immediate medical attention.
Iron is an essential mineral that plays a vital role in many bodily functions. Consuming a variety of iron-rich foods, including both heme and non-heme sources, can help prevent iron deficiency and promote overall health. Consult a gastroenterologist for personalized nutrition advice and to address any concerns about iron levels and supplementation.
How can I contact gastroenterologist Dr. Zavos for an appointment?
Dr. Chris Zavos is a board-certified gastroenterologist and hepatologist, located in Thessaloniki Greece, and specifically in Kalamaria suburb, about 7 kilometres (4 miles) southeast of downtown Thessaloniki. His private office is at: Fanariou 8 street (near Aigaiou and Adrianoupoleos avenues), Kalamaria (Thessaloniki), Greece.
Thessaloniki International Airport is only 10 km away from his private office in Kalamaria and can be reached by taxi within 13 minutes from the airport.
Dr. Chris Zavos performs endoscopies at Bioclinic private hospital in downtown Thessaloniki (Mitropoleos 86 street).
You can contact Dr. Zavos at phone numbers: (+30)-6976596988 and (+30)-2311283833, or you can email him at email@example.com. Dr. Zavos responds to Greek and English languages.