The Importance of Iron for Your Health

beef, food, green-1239187.jpg

What is Iron?

Iron is an essential mineral necessary for good health.  It plays many important functions in the body:

  • Helps produce red blood cells
  • Carries oxygen throughout the body
  • Required for physical growth, neurological development and the production of some hormones

Where is iron found?

Iron is found naturally in foods we consume such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes such as beans, lentils, soybeans, some vegetables and dried fruits; can be added to certain grain products such as cereal and pasta; or can be found as a dietary supplement.

There are two different forms of dietary iron: heme and non-heme iron.  Heme iron is more easily absorbed by the body compared to non-heme iron.  Heme iron is found in meat such as beef or pork, fish, seafood and poultry such as chicken or turkey.  Non-heme iron is found in eggs, fortified grain products, dried fruits, vegetables such as spinach and broccoli as well as legumes such as beans, lentils and soybeans.

What helps increase iron absorption?

To help improve the absorption of non-heme iron from foods, eat them at the same time as foods with heme iron or add a food high in vitamin C to the same meal.  Fruits and vegetables are good sources of vitamin C so adding foods such as sweet peppers, strawberries, kiwi, citrus fruits and juices such as orange, lemon or grapefruit can help your body absorb more non-heme iron.    

How much iron do I need?

Health Canada recommends different daily iron intakes based on age and gender and whether you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Recommended Intake of Iron Per Day:

Age GroupMale            Female
Children 1-3 years7 mg7 mg
Children 4-8 years10 mg10 mg
Children 9-13 years8 mg8 mg
Children 14-18 years11 mg15 mg
Adults 19-50 years8 mg18 mg
Adults 51+ years8 mg8 mg
PregnancyN/A27 mg
Breastfeeding under 19 yearsN/A10 mg
Breastfeeding 19 years and overN/A9 mg

The recommended iron intake for vegetarians is 1.8 times higher than for people who eat meat. This is due to the fact that heme iron from meat is more bioavailable than non-heme iron from plant-based foods.    

Source: Institute of Medicine. Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Vitamin A, Vitamin K, Arsenic, Boron, Chromium, Copper, Iodine, Iron, Manganese, Molybdenum, Nickel, Silicon, Vanadium, and Zinc : a Report of the Panel on Micronutrients. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 2001.

Suspect you are not getting enough iron?

If your body does not have enough iron, you may develop iron deficiency anemia.  Some symptoms include feeling tired all the time, shortness of breath, difficulty concentrating and you may get sick more easily.  Speak with your health care professional if you think you may be falling short on iron or are experiencing any symptoms.

Too much iron can be harmful.  Do not take iron supplements unless recommended by your health care provider.

Bottom line

Iron is an important mineral required for good health.  It is found in both animal and plant-based foods.  It is good to include a variety of heme and non-heme iron food sources as well as including a source of vitamin C with your meals to improve non-heme iron absorption.  As always, if you are concerned about your iron intake, contact your healthcare professional for individualized health and nutrition recommendations.

You may also like...