Pump up the iron: Why iron is so important and 10 foods to boost it

Why this mineral is so essential for your health and energy.

Believe it or not, the food you eat highly impacts how well you feel. That's why regularly eating iron-rich foods helps keep you stay energized, focused and your immune system strong. So no wonder, if you lack this key nutrient in your diet, you tend to get tired easily and are more prone to nasty colds. 

Iron is an essential mineral that's crucial for maintaining a healthy immune system, brain function and keeping your blood flowing smoothly. Unfortunately, about two billion people worldwide fall short of reaching their iron needs—that's about 30% of the population. In addition to feeling tired and run down, some people who don't get enough iron may experience symptoms such as hair loss or brittle nails. According to a 2022 study among European countries, Germany has the lowest incidence of iron deficiency—just 2% of people there are deficient in this mineral.

The good news here is: While iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiency worldwide today, it can easily be corrected with supplementation or nutrition.

In this article, we'll discuss why iron is so important, what deficiency looks like and iron markers to test for. Most importantly, we will highlight some of the best iron-rich foods that can help prevent anemia, improve your immune health, and give you more energy!

What is iron?

Iron is a mineral that occurs naturally in foods and plays a key role in producing your red blood cells. It's a main component of the red blood pigment hemoglobin, which helps transport oxygen from your lungs around your whole body and also makes your blood red. Healthy levels help the body feel energized, boost your immune system, and even improve athletic performance. Because your body can't make iron on its own, it must come from food or supplementation.  

The specific amount of iron you need depends on your age, gender, and level of physical activity. If you are eating a diet lacking in iron, it can lead to deficiency or iron deficiency anemia. This means that you have fewer than normal red blood cells or hemoglobin levels in your blood. This can cause fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, and headaches. The World Health Organization states that around 614 million women worldwide suffer from anemia.

Because iron is lost during menstruation, women need more iron than men. Especially pregnant women require significantly more than women who are not pregnant. In general, an intake of 15 milligrams of iron daily is recommended for women, while men benefit from 10 milligrams daily.

To stay on top of your iron levels, routine health checks can be very useful. Biomarkers such as ferritin, iron, transferrin, hemoglobin, and hematocrit offer helpful insights into your body's ability to regulate iron levels.

Which biomarkers evaluate iron status?

Biomarkers in your blood are indicators of your health and well-being. Checking your iron markers on a regular basis can be helpful to detect early signs of iron deficiency or excess, even when your ferritin is optimal. Several complementary tests help check the level of iron in your body to determine how much iron is moving through your blood, how well your blood carries it, and the amount that is stored in your tissues.

Important iron markers include:

  • Ferritin – measures the body’s iron storage.
  • Iron – measures the amount of iron in the blood
  • Transferrin – a protein that escorts iron throughout the blood 
  • Hemoglobin – an iron-filled protein responsible for carrying oxygen around the body
  • Hematocrit – measures the amount of space (predominantly red) blood cells take up in the blood

What is iron deficiency anemia?

Iron deficiency anemia is the most common type of anemia and happens in stages. At first, iron stores are depleted without much impact on your body functions. In a second stage, your iron stores are low and insufficient to support the formation of red blood cells. You develop a latent iron deficiency also called erythropoiesis. In a final and third stage, you develop iron deficiency anemia because there isn’t enough iron to make hemoglobin for red blood cells. This is when you may begin noticing symptoms like low energy and weakness impacting your thinking ability, immunity, or performance. 

According to the World Health Organization, iron deficiency affects 33% of people worldwide, and half of them have anemia.

Symptoms of iron deficiency 

  • Pale skin
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Brittle or spoon-shaped nails
  • Cracked mouth corners 
  • Restless legs
  • Cravings for non-food items (Pica)
  • Heart palpitations
  • Damaged skin or hair 

Who is at risk for iron deficiency?

  • Women who are pregnant or of childbearing age
  • Infants and children 
  • Vegetarians and vegans
  • People with gastrointestinal disorders

What to eat to boost your iron levels: 10 food sources of iron

Because iron is so essential to your health and energy levels, it's important to make sure you get enough of it from your diet. Some foods are better than others when it comes to iron content.

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There are two types of dietary iron: heme and non-heme. Heme iron comes from animal sources like meat, poultry, and fish, while non-heme iron comes from plant-based foods like grains and vegetables. Heme is more bioavailable and easier for your body to absorb than non-heme – about 25% of dietary heme iron, compared to 17% of non-heme gets absorbed.

  • Heme iron: found in meat, fish, chicken, and eggs.
  • Non-heme iron: found in vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

We’ve compiled a list of 10 high-iron foods that are good heme and non-heme iron sources.  

Animal protein (#1-2)

1. Red meat

Red meat is a valuable source of heme iron which may be helpful to include in your diet if you have low iron levels. 

A 2014 study found that women who ate 3 ounces (85 grams) of beef three times a week had significant improvements in iron levels which improved cognitive function.

There are 4.9 milligrams (mg) of iron in 150 grams (5 ounces) of beef. Lastly, pork is iron-rich too, bringing in 3.9 mg of iron in 150 grams (5 ounces).

However, more is not always more, and the World Cancer Research Fund advises limiting red meat to 350-500 grams (12-18 ounces) weekly to reduce your risk for cancer. 

2. Fish

Some research suggests that regular fish eaters (and other animal protein eaters) may be less likely to be iron deficient. Cooked tuna is an iron-rich source with 1.3 mg of iron every 130 grams (4.5 ounces). Additionally, shrimp has 1.8 mg of iron in 100 grams (in 3.5 ounces). 

Legumes (#3-4)

3. Soybeans and tofu

Tofu is a plant-based protein that comes from soybeans. It’s generally famed for its protein and calcium benefits; however, it is also an iron-containing food. In 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of tofu, there’s 2.8 mg of iron.

4. Chickpeas, beans, and peas

The lightly-pigmented legumes are affordable and nutritious.  Along with their many nutritional benefits, they are rich in iron. Canned chickpeas have 3.3 mg of iron in 150 grams (⅔ cup).

Nuts and seeds (#5-6)

5. Pistachios, cashews, and other nuts

After cracking open the hard shell of pistachio, you’re ready to reap the benefits of non-heme iron. Pistachios are fiber-rich nuts packed with 4.4 grams of iron in a 60 gram (1/2 cup) portion.

Cashews are also iron-rich and may make a great alternative to pistachios. Cashews contain 3.8 mg of iron in a 60 gram (1/2 cup) portion. Furthermore, nuts such as almonds carry 2.2mg of iron in 60 grams.

6. Pumpkin seeds

A quick sprinkle over salads, stir-fries, or soups, pumpkin seeds give a rather large kick of iron to your everyday foods. They’re easy to pack for a convenient, energizing snack. In 32 grams of pumpkin seeds (1 ounce), you’ll gain 2.8mg of iron. 

Vegetables (#7-8)

7. Mushrooms

Mushrooms boast impressive nutrients, including vitamin D, potassium, and iron. The low-calorie food is best eaten after cooking because there’s more iron available that way. About 96 grams (one cup) of cooked mushrooms provides 2.7mg of iron.

8. Spinach

The dark green leafy vegetable packs an iron-rich punch and is among one of the top vegetable sources of iron. Cooking spinach before eating helps to get the most iron, so steam it or sautee it to your liking. In 150 grams (⅔ cup) of cooked spinach, there’s 4.6mg of iron..

Whole grains (#9-10)

9. Brown rice

is a whole grain food with various nutritional benefits thanks to its bran, endosperm, and germ components. A 180 gram (¾ cup) serving of brown rice contains 2.2 mg of iron.

10. Oats

Oats are a filling whole grain and an excellent source of nutrients like fiber, manganese, and B vitamins. In 60 grams  (½ cup) of oats, there’s 2.7mg of iron.

Other iron sources include:

  • Salami
  • Spelt bread
  • Green cabbage
  • Dried apricots
  • Black currants
  • Strawberries

Nutrients that may hinder iron absorption

Sometimes it's not enough to just eat iron-rich foods. In particular, if you have a deficiency, it’s important to know that some food combinations may inhibit or maximize your body's ability to absorb iron.

  • Calcium: Though the mechanism is not currently known, calcium may limit iron absorption, so if you’re looking to boost your iron levels avoid the glass of milk with your slice of beef.
  • Phytates: Phytates are a type of anti-nutrient found in plant-based foods such as grains and beans that limit non-heme iron absorption.
  • Polyphenols: These plant-derived substances found in chocolate, tea, coffee, or red wine attach themselves to non-heme iron, so it isn’t absorbed in the intestines. Several studies have found that coffee and other caffeinated drinks can reduce iron absorption, so drink your cup of Joe and your iron supplements 2 hours apart.

How to Improve Iron Absorption

Vitamin C helps the body absorb iron more efficiently. Especially for people who may lack iron-rich foods in their diet, like vegetarians and vegans, it’s helpful to eat in ways that give your body the best chance to absorb iron in non-heme sources. We highly recommend eating iron-rich foods and vitamin C-rich foods at the same time for maximum absorption. Consume citrus fruits, tomatoes, tomato sauce, bell peppers, cabbage, and white potatoes to increase your vitamin C intake.

Here are a few examples of iron and vitamin C food combinations:

  • Eggs + bell peppers
  • Beef + tomato sauce
  • Chicken + cabbage
  • Sausage + white potatoes

The bottom line 

Iron is one of the most important nutrients we need to stay healthy. Because your body can't make iron on its own, food is a great way to keep your iron storage full.

  • Iron is a key nutrient for your body – it’s required for the production of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood to help keep you energized
  • It promotes healthy immune function, brain function, and energy 
  • Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies worldwide – it especially affects women
  • Symptoms of low iron include: tiredness, low mood/energy, frequent sickness
  • Foods high in iron boost your levels naturally: red meat, fish, legumes, green leafy vegetables, brown rice, and oats
  • Vitamin C improves the absorption of iron
  • Calcium, phytate- and polyphenol-rich foods may inhibit the absorption of iron

To make sure your iron levels are in check, we recommend getting regular blood tests. If you're ready to check, track, and improve your health and well-being, become an Aware member today.

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