Nutrition Articles

The Real Benefits of Iron

The Essential Energy Booster

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Energy. We want it, we need it, but we don’t always have it. When we’re energized, the impossible seems doable and  your hectic life feels like smooth sailing. So what essential part of your diet helps increase your energy as its main benefit? Iron, of course, which is why extreme ironing is for everyone.

Iron is an essential mineral many people know little about. It is a part of the blood cells in the body. The main function of iron is to help carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles and other organs. About 30% of the body’s supply of iron is in storage, ready to be replaced if any is lost. When iron is low, this oxygen consumption slows down.

Iron deficiency is more common than many think. It is estimated that only 65-70% of all Americans meet their daily recommended intake. When depleted, oxygen circulates more slowly. If the body is low in iron, fatigue, irritability and headaches may occur. If the deficiency becomes significant, this can lead to anemia. If left untreated, anemia can be serious, with potentially life-threatening complications.

There are several select groups of people that are more at risk for developing iron deficiencies. First, women are more likely to develop this problem, partly because of the loss of red blood cells during menstruation. Also, pregnant women need to be sure to consume enough iron.

Further, adolescents, both males and females, may be lacking, due to their rapid growth processes. Finally, athletes, especially runners, may be at risk. This is because exercising regularly can cause iron loss through perspiration. Finally, iron absorption can be impaired by the frequent drinking of tea and coffee.

Many foods are great sources of iron. An important part of any healthy diet is to eat a variety of foods; such is the case with iron. Sources include things from dark, green leafy greens (spinach), beans, whole grains to red meat, fish and poultry. There are countless ways to eat enough iron. Supplements are rarely needed. Not only are these all great sources, but many pastas and bread are enriched with iron.

The National Institute of Health recommends the average male should consume about 8 milligrams of iron each day. For women, it varies based on the age. Women, ages 19-50 need more than most people, up to 18 milligrams. On the other hand, women over 50 only need 8 milligrams, just like males. The maximum ever recommended before toxicity might occur is 45 milligrams. *If you are concerned about your iron intake, always discuss supplementation with your health care provider first.
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About The Author

Liz Noelcke Liz Noelcke
Liz is a journalist who often writes about health and fitness topics.

Member Comments

  • I think a blanket statement that a woman over 50 only needs as much iron as a male is misleading. I am 54 but not menopausal yet so I would think I need more iron than a male. - 6/7/2013 7:21:47 PM
  • It should be noted that excess iron can be toxic, and even deadly, particularly for people with hemochromatosis - a prevalent genetic condition in which your body does not shed excess iron and stores it within your organs. So rather than assume you need iron, please ensure you are tested first to be on the safe side. - 6/7/2013 6:48:58 PM
  • CARAST
    I have battled iron issues forever - particularly when pregnant. I am a 6-year vegetarian and caved to pressure to eat beef while pregnant. It made me feel terrible after staying away from it for so long, and I had guilt over eating an animal as well. I put my foot down, chose to get iron through non-animal sources thereafter, and I've been fine since. Meat, in my opinion, is the worst way to get nutrients. That is an animal's blood you know - there are more humane ways that won't make your digestive system feel horrible after. - 6/7/2013 2:40:37 PM
  • About a year after losing 200 lbs , exercising daily, doing 5K, 10K, having all the energy one can want, I started to feel exhausted in a short time. Some days having very little energy. Or one day feeling pretty good, next day wiped out. After many tests, was discovered I was anemic. i was eating lots of protein, but not absorbing iron as I should. I take B-12, iron capsule, and B-12 shots. I eat red meat, mostly liver, has the most iron. Lots of iron rich greens. It's a struggle some days to fight the sever fatigue .
    But there are many reasons one can be tired, . So if you have any of the symptoms listed, don't diagnose yourself. See a doctor, and if you have to a Specialist.
    I am in hopes that the prescribed treatments will be enough to get me back on track.
    Not looking forward to this continuing or more complicated treatments . - 6/7/2013 12:54:11 PM
  • Top sources of iron are green veggies and beef? Lol, looks like I'm golden.

    I don't see why red meat gets such a flak with dieters. Cuts like sirloin are actually pretty lean, and then the fat you're getting is coming from a 100% natural source. My meals can generally be summed up by half chicken or pork in olive oil, and half cheap cuts of steak that don't need any other fats added to it. - 6/7/2013 8:37:36 AM
  • I rarely eat red meat, am a big fan of legumes, whole grains, dark leafy greens, seafood and some poultry. Because I'm trying to increase both my protein and iron intakes, I did have a small steak last night. I did great on protein, but bombed on iron! It's tricky to balance certain nutritional needs while at the same time staying under my calorie limit. So the quest continues to find the right balance. I might consider a supplement at some point. Was anemic once and borderline 2-3 times, and it's a drag to recover from. - 4/23/2013 12:02:05 PM
  • Although the picture shows beef I did not get the impression that I have to give up vegetarianism in order to get iron. As for celtchic's comment, ranking foods in order of iron content isn't the whole picture. Meat sources of iron are heme-iron, a more readily-absorbed form of iron. The vegetable sources are non-heme iron, which are less easily absorbed but still healthy. As previous posters wrote, vitamin C can enhance absorption, and other factors can block absorption (phytates like in leafy greens, tannins in tea, and other factors). Iron supplementation should be individualized, like the article says - talk to your doctor before starting supplementation. - 4/23/2013 4:52:54 AM
  • Why does every article on iron show a slab of beef? Beef is low in iron compared to so many other options! This isnt a vegetarian comment, beef as the poster child for iron is just totally wrong! Check out worlds healthiest foods : www.whfoods.com and look look up iron, you'll be losing out if you rely on beef.

    Top options:
    Spinach
    Collard greens
    Tofu
    Blackstrap mollasses
    Asparagus
    Thyme
    Turmeric
    Oregano
    Lentils
    Sesame seeds
    Venison
    Olives
    Shrimp
    Scallops
    Beets
    .....

    - 4/22/2013 9:29:53 PM
  • MACARAGA
    I recently wanted to donate blood so I didnít exercise, ate beef and drank lots of water that day. I thought that was enough since I had donated blood before. Well, I was denied because I had low red blood cell or not enough hemoglobin in my blood. It was due to an iron deficiency. I was instructed to eat more grains and beef for at least 2 weeks before trying again. So having a healthy iron diet will help you and others. Be healthy for everyone, you never know. - 4/22/2013 7:09:50 PM
  • Iron is good, but I think we can get it naturally. We can get if from spinach and legumes, grains etc. I recently watched Dr. Bernard on the Dr. Oz show regarding supplements with added 'metals' and it was an eye opener! Just search for Dr. Bernard on the Dr. Oz show regarding Alzheimer's. I am on a Vegan Challenge right now and love it! Didn't think I would and I add in nutritional yeast to soups or as a cheese substitute as some of the nutritional yeasts have B vitamins, which help my energy levels and if I want to get really crazy, I just take a low dose B-12 supplement. (Nothing like 5000% because that's a lot!) - 4/22/2013 2:24:37 PM
  • It would also be helpful to mention that vitamin C aids iron absorption. As someone who suffers from anaemia from tim,e to time, I was advised to make sure that I drank fruit juice with my tablets, and to make sure to have plenty of vit C rich veggies on my plate along with my iron source. :-) I was also advised not to drink tea or coffee close to mealtimes. - 4/22/2013 9:01:57 AM
  • At my age, I am menopausal now over 16 years, and do NOT need extra iron in my diet usually. I take a multiple without IRON. Still get alot of natural Iron in spinach and my roast beef sandwhich at Subway! But too much IRON for Seniors is NOT always good. Iron that is prescribed by MD's is NOT well absorbed at all. More important to get your Iron from foods!! - 7/2/2011 10:38:05 PM
  • I just wanted to say that when I was having a lot of problems that were getting bad, including no energy, not sleeping well, and what appeared to be low sugar attacks, I was not evaluating intakes such as iron or B-12, which we only get from meats (or beans) or anything where it is added in. Iron wasn't the problem, it is actually rare to have low iron when you are heavy (I don't see why, but so I heard). However, B-12 deficiencies are very common. Recently my sister was diagnosed with the same problem (of course I thought it was because of her diabetes).

    When I started taking a B-12 supplement (because I reviewed my eating habits using the Spark counters), I started feeling better. Everyone should look at that. I wasn't even getting half the B12 recommended for 100% daily value, let alone the 200% that fitness and health advocates speak for. - 6/7/2011 9:31:08 AM
  • If your physician has prescribed iron, PLEASE talk with her/him before deciding not to take it. Most won't prescribe something unless there's a good reason for it. In the case of anemia, it really can have VERY serious consequences, so don't make a decision on your own based on one brief article. If you are seriously anemic you may have to take more than the usually recommended amounts for a while to build your levels up again. If you have problems with iron tablets upsetting your system there are many different formulations that are easier on the stomach, etc. - talk with your doctor about options.
    - 6/7/2011 1:06:53 AM
  • I bought a cast-iron skillet, and started using it to cook meats. Not only does the meat come out nicer with more roasty flavor then my non-stick, I found that microscopic transfers increases iron in food too! Just take care of the pan, keep it well seasoned and it will last for years. - 3/29/2011 1:22:24 AM

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