Iron: Are You Getting Enough of This Key Nutrient?

By Matthew Kadey, R.D. |

Many Americans aren’t getting enough iron in their diet, putting them at risk for anemia. Find out what iron does and how you can get what you need.

You might know that “pumping iron” at the gym is good for building and maintaining strong muscles. But that’s not the only kind of iron that can benefit your body. You also want to make sure you’re getting enough iron on your plate.

This mineral is an essential part of your blood and supports every part of your body. But many older adults aren’t getting as much iron in their diet as they need.

A 2021 study in The Journal of Nutrition found that iron deficiency among American adults has been rising since 1999. The study authors say that people are eating less iron than they used, which can at least partly explain the rising deficiencies.

Here’s why iron is so important, and how to make sure you’re getting enough.

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What Does Iron Do in the Body? 

Your body uses iron to make hemoglobin which is the part of your red blood cells that carries oxygen. Your red blood cells pick up oxygen from your lungs and carry it to all other parts of your body. So iron is needed for all your organs and tissues to work at their best.

Without enough iron, you’ll struggle to produce enough red blood cells to meet your body’s need for oxygen. This can lead to iron deficiency anemia (low levels of red blood cells). Symptoms include:

    • Fatigue and weakness
    • Headaches
    • Shortness of breath
    • Dizziness or light-headedness
    • Pale skin
    • Difficulty concentrating

Iron is also needed to make myoglobin, a protein that supplies your muscles with oxygen. Not getting enough iron can leave you feeling weak and make it harder to crush your SilverSneakers workout sessions.

Why You Might Be Falling Short 

Anemia is relatively common among older adults. Diet can be one cause. But other underlying problems can affect your ability to absorb and use iron as you age.

Here’s a look at some potential causes of iron deficiency and anemia: 

Not eating enough iron-rich foods. Your body can’t make iron, so you must get it from food. And since red blood cells have a short lifespan, you need a constant supply of iron to make more.

Meat is one of the best sources of iron. But you can also get it from fortified foods, like cereals, and certain plant foods (more on this below).

It might be harder to get iron from food these days — one study found that the iron content of many foods has dropped over the last few decades. This may be due changes in farming practices.

Problems with iron absorption. Even if you’re eating enough iron-rich foods, some conditions can make it harder for your body to absorb it during digestion. Gastrointestinal disorders, like celiac or Crohn’s disease, can affect your gut’s ability to absorb nutrients like iron. Medications that reduce stomach acid, like antacids, can also inhibit iron absorption.

Blood loss. Since most of the iron in your body is in your blood, bleeding too much can lead to deficiency. Conditions like ulcers and cancer can cause internal bleeding, leading to iron deficiency.

Even though anemia is fairly common among older adults, the underlying cause is not so easily defined. Diet can play a role, but it’s not always a matter of not eating enough.

It’s worth noting that anemia can also be caused by a deficiency in vitamin B12. If you notice symptoms of anemia like unexplained fatigue and weakness, talk to your doctor. They can help figure out what’s causing it, whether it’s low iron, low vitamin B12, or another medical issue.

How to Get Enough Iron 

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences recommends that men and women over the age of 50 eat 8 milligrams (mg) of iron per day. Top food sources of iron include:

  • Breakfast cereals, fortified: 18mg per serving
  • Oysters, fresh or canned: 8 mg per 3 ounces  
  • Beef liver: 5 mg per 3 ounces
  • White beans, canned: 4 mg per 1/2 cup
  • Lentils, 3 mg per 1/2 cup
  • Spinach, cooked: 3 mg per 1/2 cup
  • Tempeh: 3 mg per 3.5 ounces
  • Tofu, firm: 3 mg per 1/2 cup
  • Beef: 2 mg per 3 ounces
  • Chocolate, dark: 2 mg per 1 ounce
  • Kidney beans, canned: 2 mg per 1 cup  
  • Sardines, canned: 2 mg per 3 ounces
  • Chicken: 1 mg per 3 ounces
  • Molasses: 1 mg per tablespoon serving  

As you can see, iron is found in both plant and animal foods. But dietary iron comes in two forms:  

  • Heme (from animal-based foods including meat, poultry, fish, and eggs)  
  • Non-heme (from plant-based foods like beans, whole grains, and fortified foods)

Heme iron is more easily absorbed by your body. So even though white beans have more iron than beef, your body will absorb more of the iron from the beef. Eating a variety of iron-rich plant and animal foods will help you meet your daily needs.  

You can also improve your absorption of iron from plant foods by pairing them with foods high in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, bell pepper, broccoli, and strawberries. A study in the British Journal of Nutrition found that women who ate iron-fortified cereal with kiwi fruit, which is an excellent source of vitamin C, were able to raise their iron levels.  

So if you are serving foods like beans and tofu, be sure to include one or more foods that are a good source of vitamin C on your plate.  

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Recommended reading: 4 Food Pairings to Boost Nutrient Absorption 

Using cast iron cookware may also help up your iron intake. Some research shows that cooking in cast iron can increase the iron content of food, potentially improving people’s iron status.  

Should you Supplement? 

If you have an iron deficiency, iron supplements can help. But it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor before starting a supplement.  

It is possible to get too much iron. While you’re unlikely to overdose on iron from food, a supplement can put you over the top. Too much iron can cause GI problems and other tissue damage in your body.  

First, your doctor can do blood work to figure out whether or not you are deficient. Then, they can investigate the cause of your iron deficiency. If it’s caused by an underlying condition, such as a GI problem, it’s important to treat that problem first.  

If you do need a supplement, follow your doctor’s instructions carefully. They’ll let you know what dose to take and how often to take it. They’ll also give you important advice about foods to avoid when taking an iron supplement and potential side effects.  

Recommended reading: Why It’s Important to Consult Your Doctor Before Taking Supplements 

See our sources:
Study on iron content of foods and prevalence of iron deficiency anemia: The Journal of Nutrition
Overview of iron and health: NIH Office of Dietary Supplements
Prevalence of anemia in older adults: BMC Geriatrics
Study on iron-fortified breakfast cereal: British Journal of Nutrition
Effect of cooking in cast-iron cookware: Nepal Journal of Epidemiology  

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