Pumping iron. Flat iron. Ironing a shirt. There are so many irons in our lives—and yet, do you know if you’re really getting enough of it? Iron is a super important mineral that our bodies need for a bunch of reasons. And while you may know that not getting enough iron could be bad, and it may be the reason you have dark circles under your eyes, do you know much more beyond that? If you’re a little hazy on the signs of iron deficiency or want to know how to slip more iron-rich foods in your life, the following tidbits are exactly what you need. We explain why your body needs iron, signs of an iron deficiency, and then round it out with the best iron rich foods.
First, Some Iron 101
Your Body Needs Iron to Function
“Iron is crucial because it is a key component of red blood cells and you will have decreased oxygen-carrying capacity throughout the body if you’re low in iron,” offers Julieanna Hever, MS, RD, CPT, a plant-based dietitian and author of The Vegiterranean Diet and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition. “This can lead to lethargy, increased risk for infections, and problems with your cardiovascular system.” Not getting enough iron is especially risky during pregnancy, Hever notes.
Iron Deficiency is Particularly Common in Women
Anemia is when your blood doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells, and iron deficiency anemia is a common type. “It’s particularly common in women, especially during their child-bearing years. In fact, it’s the most common deficiency in the world, affecting about one billion people,” says Sarah-Jane Bedwell, RD, LDN, a Nashville-based nutritionist and author of Schedule Me Skinny: Plan to Lose Weight and Keep it Off in Just 30 Minutes a Week. “Women ages 19-50 need 18 mg of iron each day, but pregnant women need even more.”
There Are Two Types of Iron
“The best sources of iron are ‘heme iron’, which is found only in animal products: meat, poultry and fish,” Bedwell says. “‘Non-heme iron’ found in plant and animal products such as leafy greens, beans, fortified cereals, egg yolks, tofu, and dried fruits is less readily absorbed by the body.” But even vegetarian sources are better than no sources!
Pair it with Vitamin C
Your body has a much easier time absorbing iron when you also eat foods that are a good source of vitamin C such as strawberries, citrus fruits, and tomatoes. And why not make your super-combo super-delicious? “For example, eat hummus made with lemon juice (the beans are high in iron and lemon juice has vitamin C), s green smoothie (leafy greens plus fruit), or a chili with tomato sauce and beans,” shares Hever.
Avoid These Drinks with Iron-rich Foods
“If you tend to drink coffee or tea with your meals, you may want to cut back a bit since you absorb up to 40 percent less iron with coffee and as much as 70 percent less iron when you drink tea,” say The Nutrition Twins, Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, CDN, CFT and Tammy Lakatos Shames, RDN, CDN, CFT, and authors of The Nutrition Twins’ Veggie Cure. How about a nice, tall, refreshing glass of strawberry, lemon and mint detox water instead? Sold!
Iron Deficiency is Super Important to Address
Don’t underestimate how much iron deficiency matters: “Although it is usually mild, the fatigue associated it with can disrupt your work and personal life,” explains Lisa Hayim, registered dietitian and founder of The WellNecessities. “It can even cause hair loss and pale skin. If more serious anemia is left untreated, it can result in heart problems and arrhythmia, and problems during pregnancy.”
Your Bod and Brain Need Iron
Simply put, Bedwell says iron is important because it helps carry oxygen to your muscles and brain. Now read on for common signs of iron deficiency and great ways to get more of this crazy-important nutrient.
Signs You May Be Iron Deficient
You’re Tired All the Time
Fatigue is usually the most common sign of iron deficiency, says Hever. “Unfortunately, many of the common signs and symptoms of iron deficiency are nonspecific and the most reliable way to diagnose is via lab tests,” she says. But if you’re constantly tired—even when you get plenty of sleep for several nights in a row—then that should be a big red flag!
You Get Frequent Headaches
“With less oxygen-rich cells to go around, chances are your brain isn’t getting the amount it needs. The oxygen deprivation can cause tightness in the head more frequent than usual headaches,” says suggests Hayim.
You Suffer from a Condition Known as ‘Pica’
“You may also see pale skin, weakness, and even a condition known as pica, which is a craving for non-food items such as dirt,” says Hever. Wait, what? Yes. “Symptoms of iron-deficiency can include unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt or starch,” says Bedwell.
You Have Difficulty Getting Through a Workout
“There is a difference between being tired and fatigued as part of your normal life versus the fatigue you feel when you are iron deficient,” cautions Hayim. “If you feel you struggle to get up the stairs without becoming short of breath, or you barely finish a workout, you may be low or deficient in iron,” says Hayim. If you display any of these symptoms, your best move would be to talk with a medical professional ASAP.
The Best Iron-Rich Foods
“Like all pulses (dried peas, beans, lentils, and chickpeas), they’re protein-packed, sustainable, and nutrient powerhouses that are rich in antioxidants,” say The Nutrition Twins. “One serving of black beans contains 1.5 times as much iron as three ounces of flank steak. So, it’s a great option for vegetarians since vegetarians need double the iron compared to meat eaters because they absorb less. (Meat eaters need between 8-18 mg of iron; menstruating women need closer to 18 mg; vegetarians need 14-33 mg a day.)
“Aside from adding crunch, texture and rich flavor to salads, muffins, granolas and bread, they are a good source of iron and rich in good-for-your-heart fat,” say The Nutrition Twins. “They also contain omega-3 fatty acids that help to fight inflammation and keep the body healthy.” Speaking of inflammation, load up on these anti-inflammatory foods!
“Packed with protein and omega-3 fatty acids, it’s the perfect food to calm inflammatory issues and fight diseases like heart disease. Try to choose wild salmon to limit your exposure to toxins like PCBs,” advise The Nutrition Twins. Need to jazz up your cooking routine? Try these healthy salmon recipes and get out of your cooking rut like Liam out of another engagement to Miley.
This one’s a no-brainer if you want to get more iron, and a slew of other nutrients in your diet. “Packed with fiber and being part of the cruciferous family, broccoli is rich in phytonutrients that are touted for fighting many cancers, including breast cancer. It’s a go-to veggie for many vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, so it’s an easy way to get extra iron. Squirt lemon on it to enhance the flavor and make the broccoli’s iron more absorbable,” share The Nutrition Twins.
Grab that crock pot or fire up the grill! “Lean beef is rich in not only iron but also lean-muscle-building protein and immune-boosting zinc as well,” says Bedwell.
That lunchtime staple is a go-to for a reason! “It’s a good source of heme iron,” offer The Nutrition Twins. “It’s lean, satisfying and a great source of protein, and low in artery-clogging fat—unlike other meats—so it’s ideal if you’re trying to lose weight. Plus, you can easily get a turkey sandwich at almost every diner or deli, but we do recommend going for fresh-sliced versus deli meat whenever possible.”
On the list of “bad” foods that are now good, egg yolks offer iron, both heme and non-heme. “Egg yolks are rich in lutein, a nutrient that is important for eye health as we age, as well as B vitamins,” says Bedwell. For a quick breakfast, try spreading avocado and two eggs (scrambled, sunny side up, however you like it) on whole wheat toast with red chile pepper flakes for a touch of heat and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice for a burst of bright flavor.
Let’s give it up for this affordable staple! “Dried peas are a good source of iron that is packed with protein and fiber,” offer The Nutrition Twins. “One serving of dried peas contains as much potassium as a banana! They add a lot of flavor to dishes—try adding them to salads instead of croutons, add to homemade granola or smoothie bowls, use it to thicken soups and gravies, make veggie burgers and fritters, or incorporate into pasta sauce, guacamole, hummus or baked potatoes.” And if that’s still not getting you psyched, then look into pulse (dried bean) pastas, which are taking the food world by storm this year!