Get the Most From Your Iron Intake

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You Need Iron.

Iron is a mineral that’s part of all cells and that plays many critical roles in the body. Among other functions, it carries oxygen from the lungs throughout our bodies, and helps our muscles store and use oxygen. Iron is also part of many enzymes and is used in many cell functions that aid our bodies in digesting foods and that help with many other important reactions that keep our bodies functioning. Having an iron deficiency affects many parts of of the body and of our general health.

What Is Iron Deficiency? Why Is It A Concern?

Iron deficiency, also referred to as anemia or iron deficiency anemia, is a condition that results from too little iron in the body, but is not necessarily a result of too little iron intake. It’s the most common nutritional deficiency and the leading cause of anemia in the United States. Iron deficiency can range from insufficient stores with no functional or health impairments to anemic conditions that affect several bodily organs and overall health and vitality. Mild iron deficiency isn’t a complication but, if left untreated, deficiencies can become severe and lead to health problems.

The following are some health risks associated with severe iron deficiencies:

  • Infants with iron deficiency can have delayed motor or mental function.
  • Pregnant women with iron deficiency anemia have an increased risk for preterm or small babies. These babies are more likely to have health problems in the first year of life than babies born full term or at normal birth weight.
  • Adults with iron deficiency can experience fatigue and have impaired ability to do physical work.
  • Iron deficiency can affect memory or other mental functions in teens.
  • Iron deficiency may lead to a rapid or irregular heartbeat. The heart ends up pumping more blood to compensate for the lack of oxygen carried in the blood when one is anemic. This can lead to an enlarged heart or heart failure.

Risk Factors 

Being part of one of the following groups may increase your risk for iron deficiency anemia:

  • Women. Women in general are at greater risk of iron deficiency due to blood loss during menstruation.
  • Infants and children. Children need extra iron during growth spurts. Children who aren’t eating healthy, varied diets may be at risk for iron deficiency. Infants, especially those who were born prematurely or at low birth weight, and those who don’t get enough iron from breast milk or formula, may be at risk of iron deficiency.
  • Vegetarians. Those who don’t eat meat may have a greater risk of iron deficiency if they don’t eat other iron-rich foods, especially if they’re eating foods with each meal that interfere with iron absorption. (See below.)
  • Frequent blood donors. People who routinely donate blood may have an increased risk of iron deficiency anemia, as blood donation can deplete iron stores. Low hemoglobin related to blood donation may be a temporary problem that can be resolved by eating more iron-rich foods. If you’re told that low hemoglobin prevents you from donating blood, talk to your doctor about whether you should be concerned.

Don’t Overload – Have Iron Stores Checked By Your Doctor

Many multivitamins contain iron, but check first, as not all do. And although stand-alone iron supplements are generally safe, iron overload can cause health complications, so it’s best to talk to your doctor before adding iron supplements to your diet, and never take more than directed without talking to your doctor. The best bet is to have your doctor perform one of several possible tests to determine whether you’re iron levels are sufficient or whether you need to boost your iron intake. In the meantime, use the following guidelines to ensure that you’re food-based iron is most readily available to your system.

Making The Most Of Your Food-Based Iron Intake

Iron from meat, poultry, and fish sources (also known as “heme iron”) is absorbed two to three times more efficiently than iron from plants (i.e., non-heme iron).

The amount of iron absorbed from the diet relies on a variety of factors:

  • The amount of iron absorbed from plant foods (non-heme iron) depends on the other types of foods eaten at the same meal.
  • Foods containing heme iron (meat, poultry, and fish) enhance iron absorption from foods that contain non-heme iron (e.g., fortified cereals, some beans, and spinach), so whenever possible, it’s ideal to eat a mixture of heme and non-heme iron foods in the same meal.
  • Foods containing vitamin C also enhance non-heme iron absorption when eaten at the same meal. This is especially important for vegetarians, as eating foods high in vitamin C combined with non-heme sources of iron reduces the risk of iron deficiency.
  • Substances such as polyphenols, phytates, or calcium that are part of some foods or drinks such as tea, coffee, whole grains, legumes, and milk or dairy products can decrease the amount of non-heme iron absorbed at a meal. Calcium can decrease heme-iron absorption in a meal. However, healthy individuals who consume a varied and healthy diet shouldn’t find this to be an issue.
  • Vegetarian diets are naturally low in heme iron, but careful meal planning and food combinations can help increase non-heme iron absorption.
  • Factors such as taking antacids beyond the recommended dose or taking medicine used to treat peptic ulcer disease and acid reflux can reduce the amount of acid in the stomach, affecting iron absorption and leading to iron deficiency. Talk to your doctor if you think this is a concern.

Foods Rich In Iron Include:

  • Red meat
  • Pork
  • Poultry
  • Seafood
  • Beans
  • Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach and kale
  • Dried fruit, such as raisins and apricots
  • Iron-fortified cereals, breads and pastas
  • Peas

For Best Results, Combine Those Foods With Vitamin C-Rich Foods Such As:

  • Citrus juices, such as orange juice
  • Broccoli
  • Grapefruit
  • Kiwi
  • Leafy greens
  • Melons
  • Oranges
  • Peppers
  • Strawberries
  • Tangerines
  • Tomatoes

Diet-based iron sources are ideal, but if you’re concerned that you may be iron deficient, talk to your doctor. Don’t add iron supplements before checking with your doctor, and never take more than the recommended dosage without talking to your doctor. Eat a variety of healthy foods in the combinations described here and you can improve your iron absorption and decrease your chances of iron deficiency.

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