Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency globally — especially among children and pregnant women — and it affects up to 30 percent of both women and children in the United States, according to the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. That’s a problem because the mineral plays a number of critical roles in the body, says Sarah Gold Anzlovar, RDN, a Boston-based nutritionist in private practice. “Most well known is that it’s a key component of red blood cells and helps transport oxygen from your lungs to the rest of the body,” says Anzlovar.
Iron deficiency, a condition called anemia, makes it difficult for your red blood cells to deliver oxygen, according to the Mayo Clinic. Symptoms of anemia may include fatigue, chest pain or shortness of breath, cold hands and feet, dizziness and headache, poor appetite, and unusual cravings for substances like ice, dirt, or starch.
How Much Iron Do You Need Per Day?
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), here’s how much iron different groups of people need per day:
Nonpregnant Women Ages 19 to 50 18 milligrams (mg)
Pregnant Women 27 mg
Women Age 51 and Older 8 mg
Men Age 19 and Older 8 mg
Infants and Children 7 to 15 mg, depending on age
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Avoid Consuming Too Much Iron
The NIH cautions against taking in more than 45 mg of iron per day if you are a teenager or adult and more than 40 mg per day among those age 13 and younger.
Heme vs. Non-Heme Iron: What’s the Difference?
“There are two types of iron: heme iron from animal sources and non-heme iron from plant sources,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, RD, a nutritionist and author of Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family. The NIH also notes that meat, poultry, and seafood contain both heme and non-heme iron.
Heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body than plant-based non-heme iron, according to the Cleveland Clinic, so it can be beneficial to get both types of the nutrient in your diet, Largeman-Roth adds. You’ll need to aim for nearly twice as much iron per day if you don’t eat meat, per the NIH.
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Common Foods Can Help You Get Enough Iron
The good news is that a lot of common foods contain iron — from oysters and pumpkin seeds to fortified cereals and red meat.
Here are 10 foods high in iron that can help you get all of the mineral you need.