What is iron deficiency?Iron is an important mineral and an essential building block for red blood cells. Iron deficiency anemia usually develops over time if you don't have enough iron in your body. The term "anemia" refers to a condition in which your blood has an abnormally lower number of red blood cells. Anemia can also occur if your red blood cells don't contain enough hemoglobin, an iron-rich protein responsible for transporting oxygen around the body.
Who's at risk?Although it can strike anyone, some people are more prone to developing an iron shortage than others. These include:
Women. Blood loss via heavy periods is a big risk factor for low iron levels. Pregnancy is another common culprit -- you need extra iron at this time so that your baby stays healthy. For this reason, it's not uncommon for pregnant women to need iron supplements.
Vegetarians and vegans. Meat and animal products are one of the best sources of iron, and restricting these food groups may increase the risk of iron shortage.
People with digestive diseases. Individuals who suffer from poor nutrient absorption due to celiac disease, Crohn's or irritable bowel syndrome are at a greater risk.
How much iron do you need?The Recommended Dietary Allowance for iron varies by gender and age group. Most women of childbearing age need about 18mg per day. During pregnancy, iron needs can increase to 27mg per day.
Spotting the symptomsIron deficiency can cause a range of symptoms. These can include tiredness, feeling short of breath, dizziness, headaches, a fast pulse, pale skin, dry nails, an itchy feeling that affects most of your body, hair loss, a sore tongue, cracks at the corners of your mouth, difficulty in swallowing and appetite loss and even angina, says Dr. Sarah Brewer, author of The Encyclopedia of Vitamins, Minerals and Herbal Supplements.
If you suspect that you might be iron deficient, see your doctor, says Dr. Brewer, don't try to self-treat symptoms. The only way to know for sure is through blood tests. If your blood work does confirm an iron deficiency, don't worry! For most people, it's easily treated through iron supplements to get your iron levels back up to normal.
How to get more iron in your dietIncreasing your consumption of iron-rich foods can help prevent low iron levels in your blood. There are two forms of dietary iron: Heme iron and non-heme. Heme iron comes from animal sources and is much more easily absorbed than non-heme iron, which is plant-based, explains nutritionist Fiona Kirk. Liver and meat are your best options for heme iron; chicken, fish, shellfish and eggs are also good sources. Non-heme iron sources include spinach, Swiss chard, Brussels sprouts, kale, beans, lentils, and spices.
Here are more tips to increase your iron intake:
- Add vitamin C. Studies found that vitamin C can up your iron intake by 50 percent. Make sure that you consume enough vitamin C to encourage non-heme iron to be absorbed more easily.
- Look for fortified foods. Many products such as cereals and breads are now fortified with iron and are good sources.
- Take iron supplements. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, talk to your doctor about increasing your iron intake with supplemental iron.
- Don't eat these with iron. Certain foods actually make it harder for your body to absorb iron properly. These include caffeinated beverages and calcium-rich foods -- think tea, coffee, and milk. Try not to consume these while you're eating.
- Cook with cast iron. Using iron pots or pans will increase the amount of iron you get in your food almost ten-fold.