Eating a balanced whole-foods diet is essential for a healthy mind and body. While much is written on the three essential nutrients—fat, protein, and carbohydrates—many times, essential vitamins and minerals are overlooked and even misunderstood. Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide. A lack of understanding of iron certainly contributes to this statistic, especially considering that the issue can easily be addressed with proper food consumption. This quick education in iron answers everything you need to know about the amount of iron your body needs, how your body absorbs it, and why it is important.
Iron is an essential trace mineral that transports oxygen in red blood cells from the lungs to the rest of the body. This essential process determines your energy and endurance, and also builds a strong immune system. To optimally benefit from iron, you must consume the appropriate daily dose. Women require a higher daily dose of iron than men (the only nutrient in which this is the case). For healthy individuals, the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of iron for men (ages 19 to 50 years) is 8 milligrams. For women (ages 19 to 50 years), 18 milligrams is required.
Individuals with low levels of iron may develop iron deficiency anemia. Anemia, iron deficiency, and iron deficiency anemia are terms used interchangeably to define low levels of oxygen in the blood. Those with anemia may experience fatigue, weakness, rapid heartbeat, and fainting, and are more susceptible to infection.
Iron deficiency is often the result of either the body’s increased need for iron or not enough iron taken in by the individual. A child’s body may need extra iron as an infant or toddler due to their rapid growth and the limitations of their diet. Adults experience a need for extra iron during pregnancy and excessive blood loss as a result of a medical procedure, heavy menstruation, blood donation, or stomach and intestinal sensitivity. One of the most natural ways to address low iron is being conscious of eating foods high in iron. Individuals who suspect they are anemic should seek medical advice from a doctor to better and more precisely direct iron intake; it is possible to take in and therefore have too much iron in your body!
On average, the body absorbs approximately 15 percent of iron from food. Interestingly, the exact amount of iron absorption from food by the body depends on the amount of iron already stored in the body. When the body is low in iron, it absorbs more iron from food, and when the body is high in iron, the amount of iron absorbed from food decreases. To fulfill the amount of iron your body needs and optimize the amount of iron your body absorbs, focus on a balanced diet that includes foods high in iron.
- Eat meat, fish, and poultry. Heme iron, the type of iron present in meat, fish, and poultry, is absorbed two to three times more efficiently than iron present in plant-based foods. Stick with lean beef such as round steaks, roasts, top loin, top sirloin, chuck shoulder, and arm roasts, and poultry such as skinless chicken breasts and turkey cutlets, as well as fish high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, cod, and sardines.
- Strategically plan your plant-based meals. The iron present in iron-rich plant-based foods is referred to as non-heme iron. The amount of iron absorbed from these plant-based foods is based on the foods eaten during the same meal. Meat, poultry, and fish—foods high in heme iron—enhance iron absorption from plant-based foods high in non-heme iron like iron-fortified foods, some beans, and spinach. For vegetarians, eating foods rich in vitamin C alongside non-heme plant-based foods increases the body’s ability to absorb iron. On the flip side, foods rich in calcium decrease the body’s ability to absorb iron from plant-based foods rich in non-heme iron.
- Be careful with antacids. Taking antacids beyond the recommended dosage may decrease the acid in the stomach as well as the body’s ability to absorb iron. Take antacids only as prescribed.