Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States, and women are among the greatest at risk (thanks to our monthly menstrual cycle). Without sufficient iron, your body can’t produce enough hemoglobin, the substance in red blood cells that makes it possible for them to transport oxygen to the body’s tissues. As a result, you may feel weak, tired, unable to focus and irritable.
Check out these top signs for iron deficieny and if you feel you are low, ask your doctor for a ferritin blood test (which measures your body’s iron storage). We have also included the best foods to eat to boost your iron levels and reverse your fatigue.
1. You’re exhausted
2. Heavy periods
3. Changes in your skin tone – looking pale or “yellowish” are often signs of low iron
4. Shortness of breath
5. Heart palpitations
6. Restless leg syndrome – About 15% of people with restless leg syndrome have iron deficiency, according to John Hopkins Medicine. The lower the iron levels, the worse the symptoms.
7. Constant headaches – An iron-deficient body will prioritize getting oxygen to your brain before it worries about other tissues, but even then, your noggin will still get less than it ideally should, Dr. Berliner says. In response, the brain’s arteries can swell, causing headaches, according to the National Headache Foundation.
8. Feelings of anxiousness
9. Hair loss and / or brittle nails
10. You follow a vegetarian or vegan diet – All iron is not created equal. Your body absorbs heme iron—which comes from meat, poultry, and fish—two to three times more efficiently than non-heme iron from plants, says nutritionist Rania Batayneh, author of The One One One Diet. You can still get enough iron with careful meal planning. Dark leafy greens, whole grains, and legumes are all rich in iron; pair them with vitamin-C-rich foods like bell peppers, berries, and broccoli to boost your absorption.
How to Get Iron:
Iron requirements aren’t one-size-fits-all, especially for women. Women between the ages of 19 and 50 typically need 18 mg per day. However, if you’re pregnant, that amount bumps up to 27 mg. If you’re breastfeeding, you should get just 9 mg. Plus, how heavy your periods are could also alter your needs. Older than 50 and not menstruating? You only need 8 mg per day. Depending on your needs and dietary restrictions, here are the best foods to eat to boost your iron levels.
Some foods can help your body absorb iron from iron-rich foods; others can block its absorption. To absorb the most iron from the foods you eat, avoid drinking coffee or tea or consuming calcium-rich foods or drinks with meals containing iron-rich foods.
To improve your absorption of nonheme iron, eat it along with a good source of vitamin C — such as orange juice, broccoli, or strawberries — or a food from the meat, fish, and poultry group.
Very good sources of heme iron, with 3.5 milligrams or more per serving, include:
- 3 ounces of beef or chicken liver
- 3 ounces of clams, mollusks, or mussels
- 3 ounces of oysters
Good sources of heme iron, with 2.1 milligrams or more per serving, include:
- 3 ounces of cooked beef
- 3 ounces of canned sardines, canned in oil
- 3 ounces of cooked turkey
Other sources of heme iron, with 0.7 milligrams or more per serving, include:
- 3 ounces of chicken
- 3 ounces of halibut, haddock, perch, salmon, or tuna
- 3 ounces of ham
- 3 ounces of veal
Iron in plant foods such as lentils, beans, and spinach is nonheme iron. This is the form of iron added to iron-enriched and iron-fortified foods. Our bodies are less efficient at absorbing nonheme iron, but most dietary iron is nonheme iron.
Very good sources of nonheme iron, with 3.5 milligrams or more per serving, include:
- Breakfast cereals enriched with iron
- One cup of cooked beans
- One-half cup of tofu
- 1 ounce of pumpkin, sesame, or squash seeds
Good sources of nonheme iron, with 2.1 milligrams or more per serving, include:
- One-half cup of canned lima beans, red kidney beans, chickpeas, or split peas
- One cup of dried apricots
- One medium baked potato
- One medium stalk of broccoli
- One cup of cooked enriched egg noodles
- One-fourth cup of wheat germ
Other sources of nonheme iron, with 0.7 milligrams or more, include:
- 1 ounce of peanuts, pecans, walnuts, pistachios, roasted almonds, roasted cashews, or sunflower seeds
- One-half cup of dried seedless raisins, peaches, or prunes
- One cup of spinach
- One medium green pepper
- One cup of pasta
- One slice of bread, pumpernickel bagel, or bran muffin
- One cup of rice
Note: Try to hit your RDA of iron, but don’t worry about going above and beyond the recommendations. If you have trouble getting enough iron from food sources, you may need an iron supplement. But speak to your health care provider about the proper dosage first and follow his or her instructions carefully.
Sources: Iron-rich foods via Web MD