Importance of Iron

Please discuss the need for iron in people's diets as it relates to anemia. I have read that a woman needs 18 milligrams of iron daily and men need 10 milligrams. Is it possible to get enough iron from a typical diet? —L.M., Indianola, Iowa

Iron-deficient anemia, often referred to as "iron-poor blood", is the most common form of anemia. It generally affects adult women of childbearing age, infants, children and teenage girls. 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, red blood cells cannot carry as much oxygen. That makes you feel tired, weak and less able to perform at peak efficiency. Just how much iron do you need? The good news is that the body is highly adaptive, absorbing more iron when its iron stores are low, and less when they are higher. However, iron in food is not absorbed very efficiently by the body. In fact, much of the iron you consume never gets absorbed into the bloodstream. The amount of iron absorbed depends on several factors: 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. 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 the best iron supplement to take. Keep these nutritional hints in mind as well: iron that is most readily absorbed by the body is found in red meat. There are several easy ways to enhance its absorption. Eating vitamin C-rich foods—such as an orange, some cantaloupe, green pepper or broccoli—along with a serving of red meat will help your body absorb the iron more efficiently. Also, it is best to drink coffee or tea between meals—not with meals—to keep them from interfering with iron absorption. Lastly, pull out that iron skillet to cook those meats! The meat will absorb a little of the iron as it cooks.