How do our bodies use iron?
Our bodies use iron to make hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is responsible for carrying oxygen from our lungs to nourish the tissues in our bodies. It helps maintain our strength and energy. It’s also what gives blood its red color! Your body needs iron to make new blood cells.
Iron is also important for metabolism, growth and healthy cells and tissues.
How do we get iron from food?
Foods have two types of iron: heme iron and non-heme iron.
- Heme iron is most easily absorbed by your body. It is found in meat and animal products.
- Non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed by your body, but is still a good source of iron – and it’s essential if you don’t eat meat. Non-heme iron is found in foods like fortified cereals, breads and pastas, tofu, beans, and more.
What happens if I don’t get enough iron from my diet?
The amount of iron that your body needs depends on several factors including age, gender, body type and genetics.
Low iron is common in the United States. Women, especially those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, vegetarians and vegans, and people with health conditions including ulcers, kidney failure and gastrointestinal disorders are most likely to be low in iron. It can even affect frequent blood donors, who may be advised to take a multivitamin with iron after making a donation, in order to help their bodies replenish iron.
Many people who have low iron feel fine and have no symptoms. For those that do, symptoms can include feeling tired or irritable, looking pale, having shortness of breath, or finding it difficult to concentrate. Chronic or severe iron deficiency can lead to anemia.
Depending on how low your iron is, the solution may be as simple as eating more iron-rich foods along with foods that boost iron absorption. More serious iron deficiencies may require taking an iron supplement. Your doctor can do a blood test to check your iron level and advise you on the best course of treatment.
How can I make sure I’m getting the right amount of iron in my diet?
The most important thing you can do to help maintain healthy iron levels is eat a nutritious, well-balanced diet with foods rich in iron and high in vitamin C.
Why vitamin C? Because it helps the body absorb iron. Good sources of vitamin C include tomatoes, oranges and other citrus fruits, and bell peppers.
You might be wondering now: if some foods help our bodies use the iron in our diets, do other foods hinder it? The answer is yes. Caffeine, such as in coffee, tea and dark chocolate, can prevent your body from absorbing iron from foods. High fiber foods (including many vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds) and high calcium foods (like milk or cheese) can have a similar effect.
We’re not saying that you have to give up coffee, chocolate or cheese. But you should try to avoid eating them with your iron-rich foods. For example, have your coffee or tea before or after your meal instead of with your meal.
The American Red Cross is spreading the word about the importance of iron in a balanced diet. Creating iron-rich meals is easier with our free guide to which foods contain the most iron and which ones assist in its absorption. Download your free guide to iron-rich foods today.
Disclaimer: This information should not take the place of medical advice. We encourage you to talk to your healthcare provider about any questions regarding your health or iron levels. Food alone might not be enough to increase your iron, supplements might be required