Women Take Note: What You Need to Know About Iron!
Updated: Oct 11, 2020
1.) Animal products are a better source of iron than plant products.
Iron can be found in animal and plant sources. Animal sources have heme iron, while plant sources have non-heme iron. It is important to know that animal products are a better source of iron because they contain heme iron, which is more easily absorbed by your body. Heme iron is involved in oxygen transport, oxygen storage, and aerobic respiration. While you may not understand what these functions are, the point is that heme iron is used in important functions of the body, which is part of why the body is able to absorb heme iron better than non-heme iron.
2.) Poultry: Dark meat can be better than white meat!
Poultry includes chickens, turkeys and ducks. Why choose dark meat poultry, like thighs, over white meat, like breast meat? Dark meat has nearly double the iron, compared to white meat. While dark meat may have higher calorie and fat content, it also has many other nutrients that white meat does not have. Plus, the bones can be saved to make bone broth, which can be used in another meal. So, not only does dark meat have more nutritious value than white meat, it is generally cheaper and can be used to make extra meals! I've you've been avoiding dark meat because of its fat content, remember dietary fat does NOT make you "fat."
3.) Red meat and fish are other good sources of iron
Red meats include beef, lamb, and pork. Liver, usually beef, is another great source of iron but it can have a strong odor that some people don’t like. Many people have the idea that red meat is bad, but like dark meat poultry it is nutritious and has a good source of iron. You don’t have to eat red meat every day, in fact, it’s recommended to eat red meat about 2-3 times per week. Fish like tuna, sardines, and scallops also have iron! Consuming fish is like a double bang for your buck! Not only do you get the iron, but simultaneously you get omega-3 fats which can help boost cognition and your immune system, both of which can be affected by low iron. Additionally, one study actually showed that the DHA in fish helps increase how much iron passes from mom to baby in utero, leading to babies born with healthier iron stores :)
4.) Choose produce/plant-based options that are high in iron.
If your diet includes vegan or vegetarian patterns, you should know that plant sources have non-heme iron which is not as easily absorbed as heme iron that is found in animal sources. However, there are still good plant-based options that may work with your diet!
Consider these plant-based options to ensure you are getting the adequate amount of iron that your body needs:
Leafy Greens: Spinach, Kale, Collard greens
Sprout Vegetables: Radish, Broccoli, Beets
Sprouted Products: Sprouted Tofu, Sprouted Legumes, Sprouted Grains.
Allowing plants to reach the sprouting stage helps to decrease phytate activity to make the minerals iron, zinc, and calcium more bioavailable.
**Most important, if you follow a vegan/ vegetarian diet pattern you MUST have your ferritin checked regularly! Even if your hemoglobin and hematocrit (part of the regular CBC your doctor will order), are normal, you can still be iron deficient without having anemia - the ferritin level is your best indicator.
5.) Vitamin C can help boost iron absorption.
Vitamin C helps the body to better absorb iron. Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits like oranges, as well as kiwis and strawberries. It is a good idea to incorporate citrus fruits in your diet but be careful not to over consume fruits since they can be high in sugar.
Also keep in mind that consuming a variety of fruits throughout each week helps ensure that your body gets the various vitamins and minerals it needs.
6.) Calcium can reduce absorption of heme iron (animal-based iron).
Calcium is most commonly found in dairy products. Limit yourself to ~1 cup of dairy per day and most of all, avoid consuming dairy when also consuming sources of heme iron (animal products). A good rule to follow is to wait at least 2 hours after consuming dairy before taking iron supplements or foods high in iron. The same goes for calcium supplements; consider taking these supplements at opposite times of the day (ex. iron in the AM, calcium in the evening).
7.) Phytates can reduce absorption of iron.
Sometimes called anti-nutrients, phytates are commonly found in plant products like legumes and grains. Switch to alternatives that are sprouted (i.e. sprouted legumes and sprouted whole grain products). Phytate content is 1 reason why vegan/vegetarian diets can lead to a higher risk of mineral deficiencies, including iron.
8.) Polyphenols can reduce absorption of iron.
The compounds commonly found in tea, coffee, and wine, have great benefits to the body, but for those who struggle with iron deficiency, can make increasing your iron levels challenging!
When it comes to tea and coffee, limit yourself to 1 cup of green or black tea, or coffee per day, and do NOT use these beverages to take your supplements. If you are still craving something hot, try herbal teas! There are soooo many herbal tea options and some have a similar taste to green and black tea. Some favorite herbal teas are cinnamon, peppermint, turmeric, and ginger.
Wine on the other hand, is a whole other special category! :) There has been some research that shows including wine in your diet can have some health benefits, but it’s never good to over consume anything, so be careful! Limit yourself to about 2-3 servings per week. When it comes to iron absorption, white wine appears to have less of a negative effect than red wine, so consider this when making your next wine selection.
9.) Don’t take antacids and iron supplements at the same time.
Stomach acid is needed for iron absorption, but antacids decrease acid in the stomach.
See the problem? Without the necessary acid in the stomach, you literally throwing away your iron supplement. Taking antacids and iron supplements at the same time is NOT recommended. Like dairy products and calcium supplements, antacids should be taken at least 2 hours before taking iron supplements. **Very important - if you've been on antacids for a while, talk to your doctor about the need to continue them. Long-term intake of antacids is associated with a much increased risk for multiple vitamin and mineral deficiencies and the health problems that correspond with them such as anemia and low bone density.**
10.) Some groups have a higher risk for iron deficiency.
Breastfed infants can need iron supplementation from months 4-6 due to the lack of iron in breast milk. Again, the mom's diet is key here; vegan/ vegetarian moms should be even more concerned about their babies iron stores as baby's stores at birth may have been lower, and the iron content of mom's breast milk may also be lower. Here is were regular bloodwork is so important! After 6 months, infants generally start on some iron-rich foods, so as long as your little one is doing well w/ food introductions, a supplement may not be needed post-the 6 month mark.
Toddlers however, with a high milk intake can also be at high-risk for iron deficiency. As stated above, the calcium in milk prevents iron absorption. If you see your little kiddo munching on things that aren't food (hair, dirt, paint, etc.) call your doctor immediately!
For women at childbearing age, menstruation can increase blood loss and lead to iron deficiency. If your periods are especially heavy, make sure your annual physical always includes a ferritin check,
A pregnant women’s body needs more iron to transport oxygen to the baby. Many pre-natal vitamins have iron, but this may not be enough for some women. During your pregnancy you will be screened for anemia. If told that an iron supplement is needed, please do NOT stop it due to constipation, there are other options available that will not cause constipation! Iron deficiency in pregnancy that is not corrected can lead to impairment in the brain development of baby, as well as increased risk for pre-term birth, low birth weight, and small for gestational age infants. Iron deficiency in pregnancy must be taken very, very seriously.
11.) If you need to take iron supplements, shoot for whole-food options.
Synthetic iron supplements can cause many undesired side effects like nausea, stomach cramps, and constipation. Whole-food supplements generally do not have these negative side effects. These supplements are either made from food, or developed from growing nutrients in yeast and combined w/ complementary, fruits and veggies. The body knows how to handle and digest these better than synthetic supplements.
Desiccated Liver is a good supplement to take if you are not following a vegan or vegetarian diet. It is made from dried liver extract and contains multiple nutrients, including heme iron. “MegaFood Blood Builder,” "New Chapter Iron Food Complex," and “Floradix Iron + herbs” are good plant-based options that are safe for vegans and vegetarians. Always check with the brand though, if you have any questions about ingredients or more specific dietary restrictions.
**This article is a special contribution by student team member Ms. Breanna Ho**