Pump Up Your Iron


Pump Up Your Iron

Iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutritional disorder in the world. Iron, an essential mineral for human health, is required for several vital functions, including carrying oxygen to the tissues in the form of hemoglobin, participating in enzyme reactions, and supporting immune function.



The primary cause of iron deficiency is blood loss due to ulcers, cancer, hemorrhoids, or long-term aspirin use. Women are particularly vulnerable to iron deficiency during heavy menstrual periods, pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. Those with low dietary intake of iron (such as vegetarians) and malabsorption disorders such as celiac disease are also at risk.


Evaluating iron status

A state of low iron stores, iron deficiency is commonly detected by measuring blood ferritin levels. Although there is some variability in what is considered a “normal” value, many practitioners consider values between 12 to 300 μg/L for men and 12 to 150 μg/L for women as within a normal range.



Iron deficiency is a common cause of a large variety of health concerns. Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms, but since that’s an everyday issue we busy humans face, it makes it difficult to properly diagnose an iron deficiency. Other symptoms include

  • shortness of breath
  • headache
  • poor immunity and frequent infection
  • fragility of hair and nails
  • hair loss
  • poor growth


Vegetarians and vegans, take note

Those who live a vegetarian and vegan lifestyle may be at risk of iron deficiency. Although vegetarians consume higher amounts of dietary iron compared to omnivores, because it’s in a nonheme iron form (versus heme iron from meat, fish, and poultry), its bioavailability, or absorption by the body, is much lower.

As a comparison, studies show that heme iron is better absorbed (about 15 to 40 percent) compared to nonheme iron (about 1 to 15 percent). Roughly 10 to 12 percent of iron in an omnivore diet is in the heme form, while there is zero heme iron in a vegetarian diet.


Two faces of iron

There are two types of iron found in food: heme iron and nonheme iron. Heme iron is the most absorbable form of iron and is found in meats, poultry, and fish.

Good sources of nonheme iron are dried fruits, dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. To boost absorption of nonheme iron in foods, combine these with vitamin C-rich foods, such as citrus fruit, berries, melons, peppers, and tomatoes. Cooking with cast-iron cookware may also increase the amount of nonheme iron in foods.

Dietary measures alone are often not enough to treat iron deficiency anemia, so supplements play a vital role in managing this condition. Iron supplements come in many different forms, each with its own benefits and drawbacks.



Health care practitioners often recommend iron tablets such as ferrous gluconate or ferrous sulphate for the management of iron deficiency. While these supplements are effective, they often cause unpleasant side effects, such as constipation and stomach pain, which may lead to poor compliance and thus continued iron deficiency. To help reduce some of these side effects, iron tablets can be taken with food on an empty stomach.



Various liquid iron products containing ferrous gluconate and iron chelates are available. They provide better absorption than solid tablets; however, they often have a strong taste and can stain the teeth.


Mineral water

Iron-rich natural mineral water contains elemental iron (Fe++). This form of iron is better absorbed, thus smaller amounts are effective. It is tasteless and does not cause constipation or upset stomach. Research shows it to be effective in the prevention of iron deficiency during pregnancy.


Can you have too much iron?

Although iron is an essential nutrient that is required for normal body function, excess iron can damage the liver, heart, pancreas, and other organs. It’s critical to supplement with iron only if you’ve had your iron status evaluated through appropriate blood tests, and your iron has been shown to be low.

For best results, take iron supplements between meals, and do not take them with milk, calcium, tea, or coffee, as this may reduce absorption. As always, consult with your health care practitioner if you think you may be in need of more iron in your diet.


The best sources for iron

Wanting to reorganize your weekly meal plan to make sure it’s filled with iron-rich foods? Here’s a list of the strongest (and healthiest) sources of iron that can be found at your local grocery store, separated into heme (the most absorbable) and non-heme iron.

Dietary sources of HEME IRON (Based on usual serving size)

(3.5 mg or more)
(2.1 mg or more)
(0.7 mg or more)
  • Mussels
  • Oysters
  • Beef
  • Canned sardines
  • Chicken
  • Cooked turkey
  • Ham

Dietary Sources NONHEME IRON (Based on usual serving size)

(3.5 mg or more)
(2.1 mg or more)
(0.7 mg or more)
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Cooked beans
  • Tofu
  • Lima beans, red kidney beans, or chickpeas
  • Dried apricots
  • Pumpkin, sesame, or squash seeds
  • Peanuts, pecans, walnuts, pistachios, roasted almonds, roasted cashews, sunflower seeds
  • cooked pasta, egg noodles
  • Broccoli or spinach
  • Cooked pasta
  • Bread
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