Are you getting enough iron?

In the past few months, I’ve talked a few times about how tired I am all the time. I’m 24 years old – I should be full of energy! But instead I usually drag myself through the day and then collapse on the couch at 7 pm absolutely drained. And my workouts have been suffering too. I’ve barely been able to do even 15 minutes on the elliptical, and that’s only at a level 3. I suspected something funny was going on in December, but I put off seeing my doctor until late April.

After having my bloodwork done, I found out I have iron deficiency anemia. “How could this be?” I thought to myself. I eat red meat on a regular basis as well as tons of iron-packed plant foods. But sometimes a good diet just isn’t enough to ensure you’re getting enough iron.

So in today’s post I thought I’d share a bit what I know about iron, the different types of iron, what foods to get it from, and most importantly, how to recognize deficiency! But keep in mind that I just have a Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition & Dietetics; I’m not a registered dietitian yet. If this post makes you suspect you have low iron, please make an appointment with your doctor to discuss it!

Are you getting enough iron?

What is iron?

Iron is a component of hemoglobin in your red blood cells that functions to carry oxygen to all parts of your body via the bloodstream. Women between 19-50 need 18 mg per day and men of this age group need 8 mg. If you are a vegetarian, it is recommended you consume 2x the recommended amount for your gender because plant-based sources of iron aren’t as well absorbed as animal-based sources.

Are you getting enough iron?Source

What is the difference between animal and plant based iron?

Plant foods contain only non-heme iron and animal foods contain both heme and non-heme iron. Iron from animal foods is more available because it’s easier to absorb heme iron. Also meats contain a substance known as MFP factor that helps to increase iron absorption.

Good sources of iron:

  • Heme iron: Clams, oysters, mussels, liver, red meat, eggs
  • Non-heme iron: Soybeans, lentils, beans, tofu, spinach, tomato paste, pumpkin seeds, molasses, fortified foods

Are you getting enough iron? Source

However, it’s not so easy. Some components in our food actually reduce the absorption of iron. These components include:

  • Phytates (found in legumes, rice and whole grains)
  • Polyphenols (found in coffee, tea, oregano, and red wine)
  • Vegetable proteins
  • Calcium

Tips for increasing iron absorption:

  • Eat plant based iron with a source of vitamin C
  • Cook foods in cast iron pans, as the iron in the pan will be absorbed into the food
  • Eat plant based iron with a source of animal based iron
  • Avoid drinking milk or eating other calcium-rich foods with iron rich foods

Are you getting enough iron?

Iron deficiency

When we don’t get enough iron from our diet, our body goes through three stage. First our iron stores decrease, then iron transport in the blood decreases, and finally the level of hemoglobin in our blood decreases. It is the third stage that is known as iron deficiency anemia. Its symptoms include impaired work or exercise performance, fatigue, pale skin, impaired immune function, and impaired cognitive function.

What I really want to stress in this post is that iron deficiency is common. Especially among adolescents, menstruating women, pregnant women, and people who do workouts involving jumping and running. Why that last category? Because the impact of your feet on the ground can actually cause red blood cells to burst in your veins! Crazy eh? And even if you eat plenty iron from your diet, sometimes that isn’t enough because of increased iron needs (like during pregnancy) or increased losses.

So if you fit into one of those categories and you’ve been feeling fatigued, it might be a good idea to get your blood work checked. The solution could be as simple as going on an iron supplement (as prescribed by your doctor)!

Are you getting enough iron?

Note: Always check with your doctor before taking supplements because high doses can be toxic. I was put on a 150 mg supplement –  and considering the RDA is only 18 mg for a female my age, this is a potentially toxic dose for someone who doesn’t need it.

1. Dietitians of Canada. Food Sources of Iron. 2012.
2. Thombson J, Manore M, Sheeshka J. Nutrition: a functional approach. 2nd Canadian ed. 2010.
3. Gibson R. Principles of nutritional assessment. 2nd ed. 2005.

Have you ever been diagnosed with low iron before?

How do you make sure you’re getting enough iron in your diet?


Filed under nutrition

27 Responses to Are you getting enough iron?

  1. Interesting, I didn’t know calcium blocks iron

  2. ooh yeah anemia is no fun. And you’re right – everyone’s biological levels are slightly different! I rarely eat red meat and don’t take supplements, but I’ve never had an iron problem….but friends of mine who eat all the right things and take supplements have become anemic! So yeah talking to a doctor and getting bloodwork is really crucial. I really hope this helps you get your game face back on!!

  3. Wow… I really had no idea that jumping and running could lead to iron deficiency. Makes sense… in kind of a creepy way.

    My iron levels have always been fine, which is strange because I never really go out of my way to make sure I’m getting enough. I hope taking the supplements helps you, though… I know that feeling of constant fatigue and it’s definitely not a pleasant thing to deal with.

  4. I love that you mentioned vegetarian sources of iron- it’s all too easy to assume that red meat is the ideal source of iron. I was borderline anemic and I found that regular vitamin b injections helped a lot with fighting the fatigue..I’m guessing that’s to do with the inter-relationship between the 2 nutrients.

  5. You read my mind, I was just brainstorming more ways to increase my iron intake. Thanks for sharing with us Chelsea, someday you will make a great Dietitian as you are able to simplify terms into words everyone can understand. I liked how you shared with us vegetarian sources as well since most people can typically list meats that are rich in iron.

  6. Well done article Chelsea. I was a long distance runner in high school when I developed a case of anemia. I couldn’t believe the improvement when I was treated. It comes on so slowly you don’t realize it until you feel better. So feel better soon!

  7. Last time I checked (during pregnancy) my stores were on the low-side but not anemic. I suspect that they are still low because I am still tired. It got a bit better after I took an iron supplement for a few days and I actually just took one again today. I want to get it checked again, along with B12 just to see where it’s at! Great post and hope you’re FULL of energy in no time!

  8. Great post Chelsea! I knew you were having trouble with this, so I’m glad things are looking much better now!
    I’ve always had times where my iron is very low and then other times where it’s fine. It’s weird how it can just happen like that.

  9. Really well explained! I’ve struggled with low iron levels in the past and I found your post very useful. Thanks for the info…

  10. I had no idea about the running and jumping thing bursting blood vessels…I feel like next time I do any sort of jumping exercises I’m just going to be picturing that!
    Although I was never officially diagnosed, I tried to donate blood last November and I wasn’t able to because of low iron – not quite anemic-level, but definitely lower than it should be. I’ve been taking a multivitamin with iron and upping my red meat intake since, but I have no idea where I am right now – something I want to get checked out to make sure that I’m back up to a healthy level.

    I hope the supplements start kicking in for you soon!

  11. that’s really interesting – i didn’t know that foods could inhibit the absorption of iron!

  12. Thank you so much for this information!! I have wondered about my iron levels before. I think that I get a good source of iron from the foods that I eat, but it is a good reminder for me to continue to be conscious and aware of exactly what I am eating and of any symptoms that I should look out for in case I should become iron deficient.

  13. ah sometimes I wonder if I get enough iron. Thank you for sharing!

  14. I eat LOADS of iron but my body doesn’t seem to absorb nutrients all that well, thanks to the lack of a large intestine. lol

  15. I love love love this post! Iron was my favorite mineral in metabolism of vitamins and minerals last semester! I loved how it is transported and absorbed! What I find super crazy is the issue with absorption and calcium since this is also a mineral we worry about not getting enough of!

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