Fatigue, pale skin, headache? You may be coming down with something, or you may be experiencing iron deficiency anemia. Anemia is a health problem that develops over time when you don’t consume enough iron or when the iron stored in your body gets too low. When this happens, red blood cells cannot carry as much oxygen to the body, making you feel tired, weak and not yourself.
How Much Iron Do You Need?
The recommended amount of daily iron varies depending on a few different factors. According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM)
- Women ages 18 to 50 should aim for 18 milligrams of iron from their diets
- Men ages 18 to 50 should shoot for 8 milligrams.
- For individuals over 50 years old, 8 milligrams per day is the goal.
This number goes up for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and vegetarians. The guidelines for children depend on your child’s age and weight, so go ahead and discuss these iron-rich foods for babies with your pediatrician.
How Do You Know if You’re Getting Enough Iron?
The good news is that our bodies are highly adaptive, absorbing more iron when iron stores are low, and less when they are higher. The amount of iron absorbed depends on several factors, such as: how much and what form of iron you consume, other nutrients in the meal or snack that might help or hinder iron absorption and how much iron your body has stored already.
It’s important to note that iron from meat is more readily absorbed by our bodies, so if you follow a vegetarian meal plan, the IOM recommends upping your daily iron intake by 1.8 times.
To determine if you are deficient in iron, ask your doctor for a simple blood test. If you are low in iron, he or she will advise you on a new meal plan or the best iron supplement to take.
Foods to Help You Increase Your Daily Iron Intake
To keep your iron level in a healthy range, be sure to add iron-rich foods to your diet each day. High-iron foods include red meat, poultry, seafood, beans, spinach, peas and dried fruit. Some processed foods are enhanced with iron. For example, one serving of iron-fortified cereal packs 18 milligrams of iron per bowl.
Another way to increase your daily iron intake is by eating foods that help your body absorb iron. First, the iron found in red meat is most readily absorbed by the body. Next, foods rich in vitamin C (here’s a list that doesn’t include oranges) can enhance absorption. Add citrus fruits, broccoli, strawberries and tomatoes to your diet to help with an iron boost.
Any Foods to Avoid?
Just like vitamin C can enhance iron absorption, other nutrients can interfere with it. Calcium found in dairy products and some vegetables can block our bodies from absorbing the iron in our diets; so can the compounds found in tea and coffee.
If you’re eating a meal or snack of iron-rich foods, hold off on coffee, tea and calcium-containing foods until later in the day to be sure that you’re absorbing all the iron you can. Then save that latte for your afternoon slump.