Though iron may not get the love that trendy collagen, turmeric, and vitamin D get these days, it shouldn’t be taken for granted. According to the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, iron is one of the top five nutrients to keep a close check on. Consider this your guide to why this mineral is so critical—and how to supplement to reap its benefits.
Why Iron Matters
Responsible for carrying oxygen throughout our body (via proteins in our red blood cells called hemoglobin), iron plays a critical role in our health.
In fact, every cell in our body contains some iron.
Since our tissues and organs need oxygen to produce energy, iron is critical for our body’s ability to do pretty much anything.
The mineral is also vital for a resilient immune system, healthy metabolic function, growth and development, and hormone and tissue production, says Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition and spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
But wait, there’s more: Iron also contributes to the nerve signals that coordinate everything from our heartbeat to muscle contractions during exercise.
Plus, it helps our body clear out the waste product carbon dioxide.
What’s At Stake With Iron Deficiency
When we fall short on iron, we produce less hemoglobin and transport less oxygen throughout our body.
In many cases, iron deficiency causes a deficiency of red blood cells or hemoglobin—a condition known as anemia. Though certain diseases can also cause anemia, iron deficiency is the most common culprit behind it, says New York City-based nurse Rebecca Park, R.N., founder of Remedies For Me.
Often, anemia is marked by symptoms like:
- pale skin
- loss of appetite
- cold hands and feet
Who Needs More Iron?
In 2005, the World Health Organization identified iron deficiency as the top nutritional deficiency, estimating that 24.8 percent of the population worldwide were anemic.
Kids And Iron
The first group at risk for iron deficiency: kids.
Children have high iron needs—particularly in their first year of life and between ages four and eight. “Because the body needs iron to grow and develop, the mineral is crucial for children—especially during growth spurts,” says Valdez.
Without a steady supply of iron to support healthy development throughout these important years, growing children can quickly become deficient in the mineral.
Women Of Childbearing Age And Iron
Another group often faced with iron issues: women.
Because women lose iron in blood during menstruation every month, they need to take extra care to consume enough of the nutrient. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests women with heavy periods increase their intake to avoid deficiency—but Levitan suggests even women with normal periods do so. “One week every month, they are losing iron—and that loss can accumulate.”
Iron loss is also a concern during pregnancy. “Pregnant women are at increased risk for deficiency because the body preferentially gives iron to the baby,” explains Arielle Levitan, M.D., author of The Vitamin Solution.
Herbivores And Iron
Though vegans and vegetarians may eat plenty of plant-based iron sources, they, too, run the risk of deficiency.
You see, there are two types of iron. Heme iron, the type of iron that comes from animal sources, is the most bioavailable form of the mineral. Non-heme iron, which is found in plants, is more difficult for the body to absorb.
“Iron from animal sources is absorbed by the body two to three times more efficiently than that from plant sources,” explains Park.
The result: Plant-eaters have to work much harder than meat-eaters to meet their needs.
Workout Warriors And Iron
Folks who follow a strenuous exercise regimen may also need more iron. After all, iron provides our muscle cells with the oxygen needed to produce energy and recover from exercise.
In fact, one study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests adequate iron intake allows athletes to perform their best during intensive training and competition.
Sensitive Stomachs And Iron
Finally, people with gastrointestinal disorders also face increased risk for iron deficiency, says Valdez.
Often, people with GI issues can’t properly absorb nutrients in their food and supplements—and iron is no exception.
Meeting Your Iron Needs
Since our body cannot produce iron on its own, we have to get it through food or supplementation.
While men need just eight milligrams a day, women need 18—and pregnant women need a whopping 27.
However, since iron deficiency still affects so many people, some of us may need to add a supplement to our routine.
How To Supplement With Iron
If you’re concerned about your iron levels, talk to your healthcare provider about running a blood panel. Levitan recommends asking for a ferritin level test, which reflects whole-body iron, in addition to the usual hemoglobin test.
“You can have normal hemoglobin and not be anemic, but still be iron deficient,” she says.
Depending on your levels, your doctor or a dietitian can help you find the right supplement for you.
What Type Of Iron To Take
Since you can only get heme iron from meat, all of the iron supplements you see on store shelves contain non-heme iron.
How And When To Take Iron
Though how much iron you’ll take depends on your individual needs, your routine should remain the same.
According to Rachel Fine M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., C.D.N. of To The Point Nutrition, iron is best absorbed by the body when taken on an empty stomach, or with just a glass of water.
The actual time of day you pop your supp doesn’t ultimately matter, says Valdez. Just try to take it a few hours before or after meals.
If taking iron on an empty tank causes you to have stomach cramps, diarrhea, or nausea (which folks with sensitive stomachs may experience), you can take it with food. “It’s better to take iron with food than to stop taking it all together,” says Levitan.
However, certain foods (and drinks) interact with iron better than others.
Vitamin C has long been shown to increase your ability to absorb non-heme iron, so try to pair your supplement with a C-containing food, like an orange. Or, opt for a combo supplement, like Chewable Iron With Vitamin C Tablets from Nature’s Plus.
On the flipside, other nutrients—like polyphenols, phytate, calcium, and certain proteins—can interfere with iron absorption, says Ysabel Montemayor, R.D., nutrition lead for organic ready-to-eat meal service Fresh n’ Lean.
Foods and drinks not to pair your iron with: dairy products, soda, legumes, tea, coffee, or whole grains.
According to Levitan, avoiding dairy, in particular, is top priority. “Milk is probably the most notable food not to take iron with, because the body gives preference to absorbing the calcium.”
Precautions To Keep In Mind
Crucial as iron is, we can’t supplement with crazy amounts.
“Inadequate iron can be harmful to your health, but so can excess iron intake,” says Montemayor. In fact, research suggests super-high doses of the mineral can be toxic.
Before taking any iron supplements, just talk to your doctor to make sure you truly need them. (Don’t worry about any iron in your multivitamin, though, says Levitan. It’s typically a small amount.)
Pin this infographic for quick reference: