Iron and Your Health
Why is iron important?
Iron is a mineral that your body uses to make hemoglobin (hee-muh-glow-bin). Hemoglobin is found in your red blood cells and helps carry oxygen to all parts of your body. Without enough iron, your body will not have enough hemoglobin and you may develop iron deficiency anemia (ah-nee-me-ah). Symptoms of anemia include feeling tired all the time and getting sick more easily. Babies and children need iron for healthy growth and development, including brain development.
How much iron do I need?
The amount of iron you need depends on your age and gender. To meet your needs, aim to eat the following amounts of iron each day, also called the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA):
|Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for Iron (Daily)|
|1 to 3||7 mg||7 mg|
|4 to 8||10 mg||10 mg|
|9 to 13||8 mg||8 mg|
|14 to 18||11 mg||15 mg|
|19 to 49||8 mg||18 mg|
|Over 50||8 mg||8 mg|
|Breastfeeding under 19||N/A||10 mg|
|Breastfeeding 19 and over||N/A||9 mg|
Pregnant women need more iron to support the growth of their baby. If you are pregnant choose iron-rich foods every day and take a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement with 16 to 20 mg of iron. If your iron levels were low before getting pregnant, you may need to take more iron. Talk to your health care provider to find out how much iron is right for you.
Do some people need even more iron?
The following people may need more iron than the RDA: vegetarians, women older than 50 years who still menstruate, frequent blood donors, women who have heavy menstrual bleeding, and endurance athletes. Talk with a healthcare provider about any concerns and the amount that is right for you.
Vegetarians need more iron in their diets because the iron from plant foods is not absorbed by the body as well as iron from animal foods. If you are a vegetarian, aim for the following amounts of iron each day:
|Daily Iron Recommendations for Vegetarians|
|14 to 18||20 mg||27 mg|
|19 to 49||14 mg||33 mg|
|50 and above||14 mg||14 mg|
Women over the age of 50 who still menstruate can continue to use the RDA for women 19 to 49 years.
Frequent blood donors may need more iron depending on a variety of factors, which include how often they donate.
Endurance athletes such as long distance runners may need more iron because of the intensity of their activity.
How do babies get enough iron?
Breastmilk is the only food babies need until 6 months of age. Continue to offer breastmilk until your baby is 2 years or older. The iron in breastmilk is very well absorbed. Babies who cannot be breastfed need to be fed a store bought infant formula until they are 9 to 12 months of age and are eating a variety of iron-rich foods.
Include iron-rich solid foods in your baby’s diet every day starting at 6 months of age. These include iron-fortified infant cereal, well-cooked finely minced meat, poultry or fish, egg, lentils, beans, or cooked tofu. If your family is vegetarian, talk with a registered dietitian to make sure your baby gets enough iron. For more information, see HealthLinkBC File #69c Baby’s First Foods.
How can I get the most iron from food?
The amount of iron you absorb depends on the type of iron you eat. There are 2 types of iron:
- heme iron, which is found in meat, fish and poultry, and is well absorbed; and
- non-heme iron, which is found in beans and lentils, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, and eggs, and is not as well absorbed.
You can absorb more non-heme iron by eating foods high in vitamin C or heme iron at the same time. Vitamin C rich foods include:
- red, yellow and green peppers;
- Brussels sprouts;
- snow peas;
- kiwi fruit;
- oranges (including 100% juice); and
- grapefruit (including 100% juice).
You can also drink other 100% fruit juices that have added vitamin C.
Examples of food combinations that help you to get the most iron include:
- split pea soup (non-heme iron) with some ham (heme iron);
- iron fortified breakfast cereal (non-heme iron) with an orange or half a grapefruit (vitamin C); and
- lentils (non-heme iron), broccoli, and red peppers (vitamin C) in tomato sauce.
To increase the amount of non-heme iron in foods, cook with cast-iron or stainless steel cookware.
Tea or coffee can reduce the amount of non-heme iron absorbed from foods. Drink these beverages 1 hour after meals, rather than with your meal.
Do I need an iron supplement?
Some people may need iron supplements. Only take iron supplements when recommended by your health care provider. Too much iron can be harmful, especially for infants and children. People with hemochromatosis absorb too much iron, and should not take iron supplements.
Always keep iron supplements, including multivitamins with iron, out of reach of children.
If you are diagnosed with low iron or anemia, you may need to take iron supplements to help increase the amount of iron stored in your body. In addition to supplements, you need to eat iron-rich foods every day.
If you are taking calcium supplements as well as iron, talk with your pharmacist or dietitian about the best time of day to take them. Calcium may decrease the amount of iron that is absorbed by your body from a supplement.
For More Information
For more information on iron, see HealthLinkBC File #68d Iron in Foods.
Visit Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide at www.healthcanada.gc.ca/foodguide for information about the 4 food groups.
For more nutrition information, call 8-1-1 to speak with a registered dietitian.