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!
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.
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
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
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
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)!
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?