Iron is part of hemoglobin, a protein found in red blood cells that is responsible for carrying oxygen to all the parts of your body. Iron is also a component in many enzymes that are involved in the chemical reactions that occur in your body. Iron is a trace mineral, which means you only needs a small amount every day to avoid an iron deficiency.
Iron is found in both plant and animal-based foods; however, the forms are different. Iron from animals (such as chicken, beef, and fish) is called heme iron, and plant-based iron (such as in lentils, beans, spinach) is non-heme iron.
Adult men need about 8 milligrams (mg) of iron per day, and adult premenopausal women need 18 mg per day. Three ounces of beef contains 3 mg iron and one cup of lentils contains about 9 mg.
Iron Deficiency Symptoms
When you don’t get enough iron, you are at risk for developing iron deficiency anemia, a condition where your red blood cells can’t carry enough oxygen to all the cells in your body. People with iron deficiency anemia may have any of these symptoms:
- Problems with memory and thinking
- Feeling cold
- Red, inflamed tongue
What Causes Iron Deficiency?
Iron deficiency can occur if you don’t eat enough iron-containing foods, or if you have trouble absorbing iron. Most women need more iron than men due to blood loss from menstruation, and pregnant women need more iron for the developing fetus.
Vegetarians and vegans may be more prone to iron deficiency because the form of iron found in plants (non-heme iron) is not absorbed as well as iron from meat, poultry and fish (heme iron). However, you can increase the amount of non-heme iron absorbed by adding a food rich in vitamin C to your meal (for example, serving beans with green peppers).
If you have iron deficiency symptoms, you should see a health care provider, who can order blood tests to determine if an iron deficiency is the problem or if there are other causes.
Can You Get Too Much Iron?
Eating a healthy diet with plenty of food sources of iron is usually the best and safest way to prevent iron deficiency. Most men and postmenopausal women get enough iron from foods and should not take iron supplements unless prescribed by a health care provider. People who do take iron supplements should not take more than 45 mg/day because amounts higher than that can lead to iron toxicity.
Iron supplements are especially dangerous for people who have hemochromatosis, a condition where iron-overload occurs. Adult iron supplements can quickly become toxic for young children, too, so iron supplements should be kept in tightly-capped, childproof bottles.