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Importance of Iron-Rich Foods

  • Category: Nutrition
  • Posted On:
  • Written By: Reema Kanda, RDN
Importance of Iron-Rich Foods

Did you know that iron helps maintain blood health? We recently spoke with Hoag Orthopedic Institute’s registered dietitian nutritionist, Reema Kanda, RDN, to discuss the importance of iron and which foods are rich in this essential mineral.

Q: Why is it important to eat iron? What does it do for the body?

A: Iron is a mineral that is essential to carry oxygen in the hemoglobin of red blood cells throughout the body so cells can produce energy. It supports metabolism, growth, and immunity.

It is important to eat enough iron because when iron stores become very low it means that not enough normal red blood cells can be made to carry oxygen efficiently, which can lead to a condition called iron deficiency anemia.

Q: Which foods are highest in iron?

A: Some of the foods that are highest in iron include: Meat, fish, and poultry; Enriched or fortified grain products; Some cereals can contain up to 18 mg iron per serving so ensure you have ¾ cup of 100% bran flake cereal; Dried beans like kidney and lentils; Spinach and other green leafy vegetables; Dried prunes

Q: Should I take an iron supplement if I’m concerned about my levels?

A: Iron is an essential micronutrient that is tied to many bodily functions. Ideally, most people will meet their iron needs through diet; however, in high-risk populations, supplementation may be advised. Iron is best absorbed when the stomach is empty; however, under these conditions it tends to cause gastric irritation such as side effects like nausea, heartburn, diarrhea, or constipation. If these side effects occur, you may be instructed to take iron supplements with meals. However, this will reduce the absorbability of the iron.

Always discuss with your doctor if you are experiencing symptoms such as pale skin and fingernails, dizziness, headache, and inflamed tongue known as glossitis. These can all be symptoms if low iron levels exist. Depending on the cause and how low your iron level is, your health care provider may recommend the appropriate intervention specific to you which may include oral iron supplements.

Q: How much iron should we be consuming?

A: To meet your daily dietary needs and to reduce your risk of iron deficiency, general recommendations for women 19-50 years of age is at least 18 milligrams (mg) of iron per day. Older women 51 years and older require less iron, such as 8 mg iron per day. Men 19 years and older need 8 mg iron per day. Pregnant women may require 27 mg iron per day.

Attention must be given to the amount of absorbable dietary iron consumed. What this means is a good source of iron is when it contains a substantial amount of iron in relation to its calorie content and contributes to at least 10% of the recommend dietary allowance (RDA) for iron. The typical Western diets generally contains 6 mg of iron in every 1000 kcals and so the bioavailability of iron in the diet is more important in correcting or preventing iron deficiency than the total amount of dietary iron consumed.

The rate of absorption of iron depends on the iron status of the individual as reflected in the iron stores in the body. The lower the iron stores, the greater the rate of iron absorption. What this means is individuals with iron deficiency anemia absorb approximately 20-30% of dietary iron compared with the 5 to 10% absorbed by those without iron deficiency.

Q: Anything else we should know about iron?

A: You will find two dietary sources of iron called heme and non heme iron. Heme iron comes from animal food sources. Non heme iron comes from plant-based food sources and fortified foods. Iron from meat, fish, and poultry is better absorbed than iron from plant-based foods. When you do consume the non heme food sources, include foods high in Vitamin C which is one enhancing factor such as citrus juice, fruits like melons, dark green leafy vegetables, and potatoes with your meals.

You also want to limit coffee and tea at mealtimes as it can decrease the absorption. These effects are modest if you consume a varied diet.

When you do take supplements, discuss with your doctor as some medications can reduce the iron absorption.