Iron is an essential element for a healthy body. Despite that, we’re are getting rid of it all the time – iron is lost through menstruation, shedding of intestinal cells and even sweating. (source) So we need to make sure we’re taking in enough iron to make up for this.
If you’ve been lacking energy or feeling constantly drained, you might be suffering from an iron deficiency. Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the States and worldwide around one third of the population is low on iron. (source) Luckily, it’s easy to boost your body’s iron, once you’re aware of the problem. Read on for 8 ways to increase your iron levels.
What is Iron and Why Do We Need It?
Iron is a vital component of red blood cells. It’s involved in the formation of the protein haemoglobin, which carries oxygen all around the body. Iron is also involved in our immune system, allowing us to fight infection. With low iron, you are more susceptible to catching colds and other illnesses. (source)
When you ingest food containing iron, it is absorbed into your bloodstream through your upper small intestine. (source) However, not all dietary sources of iron are created equal. There are two forms, called heme and non-heme iron.
Heme iron is the preferred source for human nutrition. It comes from animal products and is related to haemoglobin. Non-heme iron comes from non-animal sources. Heme iron is absorbed much more efficiently by our bodies than non-heme iron. (source)
Symptoms of Iron Deficiency
If you are low in iron, it follows that your blood is not able to transport oxygen as efficiently, leading to a myriad of symptoms. Iron deficiency is called anaemia. (source) Symptoms of anaemia include:
- Pale skin
- Decreased immune function, higher risk of infection
- Difficulty concentrating
- Brittle nails
Are You at Risk for Anaemia?
Along with the symptoms above, you may need to watch out for anaemia if any of the following risk factors apply to you.
Firstly, women of menstruating age are more susceptible to anaemia than others, due to blood loss. If you have heavy periods, you are at higher risk. Donating blood regularly and health conditions causing blood loss such as stomach ulcers, intestinal worms or hemorrhoids have a similar effect.
Vegetarians and vegans are also at higher risk of anaemia and must take extra care to eat a balanced diet that includes the recommended daily allowance for iron. Vegans in particular may lack vitamin B12, as it’s only found in animal products (although some processed foods are fortified with it). Low vitamin B12 can also cause anaemia.
People who have trouble absorbing nutrients from food due to digestive disorders such as celiac disease are more prone to anaemia. Pregnant women need more iron as they have a larger blood volume and must also nourish the fetus. (source)
Even if you are not a vegan or vegetarian, if you eat a poor diet can easily develop anaemia. In particular if you follow fad diets, it can be impossible to reach your daily allowance of nutrients. (source)
8 Ways to Increase Your Iron Levels
1. Avoid Foods that Decrease Iron Absorption
Even if you eat a fillet steak everyday, it’s not guaranteed that all of its iron content will reach your blood. There are many foods and drinks which actually block iron absorption in the digestive system, meaning that precious iron is simply excreted and wasted.
Vegetables are undoubtedly healthy but oxalic acid in many green vegetables binds to iron in the intestine and interferes with absorption. Spinach is the worst offender so avoid serving your steak with a spinach salad if you’re worried about anaemia. (source)
Another type of healthy food which interferes with iron absorption is whole grains. You certainly shouldn’t avoid them completely but leave a few hours between your portion of iron and your whole grains. Phytic acid is the culprit here.
Other foods which decrease iron absorption are tea, coffee, chocolate, soda and dairy products. (source)
2. Add Heme-Iron Food Sources to Your Diet
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, obviously this doesn’t apply to you so skip to point number 3. For the rest of us, this point is about meat, fish and seafood. If you are low in iron, eating these heme sources will replenish your stores more quickly.
The best foods for heme-iron content are chicken liver, oysters and beef liver. Coming in at a close second are chuck beef, dark turkey meat, ground beef and top sirloin. (source)
3. Increase Non-Heme Iron Intake
As I’ve already explained, topping up your iron stores will be a bit more tricky if you don’t eat animal products. It’s still possible of course but it may take a little longer. Legumes and leafy green vegetables are the best natural sources of non-heme iron. Try to up your intake of beans, spinach, lentils, tofu and pumpkin seeds for maximum effect. (source)
4. Buy Iron-Fortified Foods
I generally try to avoid processed foods as much as possible as they can be high in fat, salt and sugar while lacking fibre. However, they do have one thing going for them – many products have iron artificially added. Some foods commonly fortified with iron include breakfast cereals and breads. (source)
5. Vitamin C
You know how I said some foods block iron absorption? Well on the upside, there are also some foods which boost absorption when eaten along with your iron. Vitamin C is the best example so try drinking a glass of orange juice with your lunch. (source)
6. Cook with Cast Iron
This one really surprised me. Of course the iron we need in our diets is the same as the metal iron, just in tiny particles. Therefore it makes sense that cooking with cast-iron pots and pans will leach some iron into your foods. A study in The Journal of Food Science verified this. (source)
7. Check Your Vitamin B12 Levels
Vitamin B12 is also involved in making red blood cells so if you are deficient, it will eventually cause anaemia. Again, many foods are fortified with B12, especially those aimed at vegans and vegetarians such as soy and nut milks. Other sources include salmon, lamb, milk and whole grains. (source)
8. Take an Iron Supplement
If you are having trouble meeting your iron requirements through diet, taking an iron pill or liquid could be the way to go. You need to take them for a few months to build up your stores of iron and its best to have a blood test to confirm the dose you need. (source)
Unfortunately, they are not without side effects, iron tablets commonly cause constipation, nausea and dark stools. Iron is best absorbed on an empty stomach but taking it with food or at night might help ease these effects. Taking a liquid is preferable to a tablet too.
Recommended Guidelines for Iron Intake
Now you know where to get iron, how much do you need to aim for? The recommended daily amount is 18 mg per day for menstruating women, 27 mg for pregnant women and 8 mg per day for men. Breastfeeding women need 9 mg a day. (source)
So we’ve established that too little iron is bad, but too much can be a problem too and can cause organ damage. Be sure to keep any iron supplements locked away from children as they are one of the most toxic supplements to overdose on. (source)
I hope these 8 ways to increase your iron levels will be helpful for you. I try to eat a balanced diet and get my blood tested when I’m having a checkup at the doctor’s every 6 months or so. If you are concerned about symptoms of anaemia, getting your levels checked at the doctor’s is the best idea, they can confirm it or tell you if it’s something else.