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Getting enough iron in your diet

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Iron deficiency anemia

When your body does not have enough iron, it will make fewer red blood cells or red blood cells that are too small. This is called iron deficiency anemia.

Learn more about iron deficiency anemia in our health library.

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Hemoglobin

Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen. A blood test can tell how much hemoglobin you have in your blood.

Learn more about hemoglobin in our health library.

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Iron-rich diet

An iron-rich diet includes eating foods that are good sources of iron every day.

Learn more about an iron-rich diet in our health library.

Your need for iron

Iron is an essential mineral your body needs for energy.

Most of the iron in your body is found in the red part of your blood. This part of your blood, called hemoglobin, carries oxygen to your body's tissues. Smaller amounts of iron carry oxygen to your muscles, nourish cells and help your body function. Some iron is also stored for future use.

Most people can get enough iron by eating the right amounts of iron-rich foods.

Iron deficiency anemia

If you don't get enough iron from your diet, you could develop iron deficiency anemia. This condition means you aren't getting enough iron in the foods you eat to make hemoglobin, leading to a loss of energy. Signs of iron deficiency anemia include:

  • weakness
  • fatigue (feeling tired)
  • lower than normal body temperature
  • frequent illnesses or infections
  • problems concentrating
  • poor appetite.

At risk for iron deficiency anemia

You are at risk for iron deficiency anemia if you:

  • are pregnant
  • are going through a growth spurt
  • don't get enough iron-rich foods, or follow a vegetarian diet
  • have a poor appetite
  • have a rapid or lengthy blood loss (including heavy menstrual periods)
  • receive dialysis because of kidney failure.

In general:

  • Infants younger than 1 year old who are fed cow's milk are at risk of not getting enough iron because cow's milk is a poor source of iron. Breast milk or iron-fortified formula is better.
  • Older infants and toddlers, teenage girls, women of childbearing age and pregnant women are at greatest risk because they have the greatest need for iron.
  • Adult men and postmenopausal women are at least risk because they lose very little iron except through bleeding.

Daily amount of iron needed

How much iron do you need each day? The 2001 recommended daily dietary intakes of iron from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are based on age and gender.

For infants and children
For males
For females

Iron supplements

If you have an iron deficiency because there isn't enough iron in your diet, your health care provider may suggest an iron supplement. Follow his or her instructions.

Iron supplements can cause stomach or intestinal upsets such as nausea, constipation or diarrhea. Too much stored iron can damage internal organs.

Coffee, tea and calcium can block the iron from being absorbed in your body. Do not drink coffee or tea, and do not take a calcium supplement within 1 hour of taking an iron supplement.

Iron in foods

When grocery shopping, look for bread products, cereals and pastas that say "enriched" or "iron fortified" on the label.

Use these foods as sources of iron in your diet every day:

Cereals
Meats
Vegetables
Other foods

Combine iron and vitamin C

Iron from meat, poultry and fish is easier for your body to absorb than iron from vegetables, fruit and grain sources.

Iron from all sources can be absorbed better when you eat them at the same time as a food that contains vitamin C, such as:

  • oranges and orange juice
  • sweet peppers
  • kiwi
  • papaya, guava, mango
  • broccoli
  • brussels sprouts
  • strawberries
  • grapefruit and grapefruit juice
  • dark, leafy greens (kale, collards, mustards)
  • cantaloupe
  • tomatoes and tomato juice.
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Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that is necessary for normal growth and development.

Learn more about an vitamin C in our health library.


Source: Allina Patient Education, Getting Enough Iron in Your Diet, nutr-ahc-21759
Some information adapted from Facts About Dietary Supplements, National Institutes of Health Clinical Center (clinicalcenter.nih.gov).
Reviewed by: Allina Patient Education experts
First Published: 01/15/2007
Last Reviewed: 01/15/2007