Iron is an essential nutrient found in every cell in your body. It builds red blood cells and helps them work, especially in carrying oxygen from the lungs to every cell. Iron also helps your brain function at its best.
Too little iron will leave you feeling tired, out of breath, pale and irritable. You will likely have little energy to do the things you want and trouble concentrating on work and activities.
Babies with iron deficiency can lack energy and look pale. Their thinking and motor development may also be affected. School-age children and adolescents without enough iron do not do as well in studies that test memory, math and verbal learning as those with adequate iron intake.
You need more iron if you are at an age of quick growth and development. Full-term healthy breastfed babies have only enough iron stores to meet their needs for the first four to six months of life. As a result iron-fortified infant cereal is recommended as the first solid food to introduce to a baby. Iron-fortified formula is recommended if you are not breastfeeding.
Introduce other iron-rich foods, such as meat, between six to nine months of age. Introducing whole cow’s milk too early can increase the risk of iron deficiency since cow’s milk is a poor source of iron. Health Canada recommends that cow’s milk be offered after nine to 12 months of age.
All females who are menstruating need more iron than men due to regular blood loss. The situation can be made worse if she is not eating well, is on a strict weight-loss diet, or exercises intensely. More iron is also needed during pregnancy.
The Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for Iron in the table below are set high enough to meet the needs of almost all healthy people. If you are not sure how much iron you need, talk to a registered dietitian or your family doctor.
|Infants, 7 - 12 months||11 mg||11 mg|
|1 - 3 years||7 mg||7 mg|
|4 - 8 years||10 mg||10 mg|
|9 - 13 years||8 mg||8 mg|
|14 - 18 years||15 mg||11 mg|
|19 - 50 years||18 mg||8 mg|
|51 years+||8 mg||8 mg|
|Source: National Academy of Science, 2002|
Did you know that if you are a vegetarian and do not eat any meat, fish or poultry, you need almost twice as much iron as someone who does? Recommended intakes for those who don’t eat meat, fish or poultry can be estimated by multiplying the RDA by 1.8. For example, the RDA for vegetarian women, 19 to 50 years of age, is 18 milligrams – multiplying this by 1.8 increases the RDA to 32 milligrams of iron. Remember, not all iron is created equal.
Which food? What kind? Is it all the same?
To really understand the iron story, you must consider the total amount of iron in a food and how much of that amount your body can use. In food, iron comes in two forms - heme or non-heme. Heme iron is very easily absorbed by your body and is only found in meat, fish and poultry such as beef, lamb, pork, turkey, chicken, fish and seafood. Beef has the highest amount of heme iron.
• beef • lamb • pork •
liver • veal
• fish and seafood
• turkey and chicken (dark meat has more iron)
Interestingly, in Canada, just over half of teenage girls and almost half of women 18 to 49 years do not eat the minimum number of servings from the Meat and Alternatives food group of Canada’s Food Guide to Healthy
Eating. This food group has the only source of heme iron (meat, fish and poultry). Canada’s Food Guide recommends two to three servings of Meat and Alternatives each day. One serving of meat, fish or poultry equals 50 to 100 grams once cooked (100 grams is about the size of a deck of cards).
The main source of non-heme iron comes from foods such as whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals, dried fruits, leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes. Although these foods actually contain a lot of iron, it is not well absorbed by the body. Your body can absorb four times the iron from a serving of 100 grams cooked lean ground beef than it will from one cup of cooked kidney beans.
Some food combinations can increase or decrease the amount of iron your body can absorb. Meat, fish and poultry contain the MFP factor, a special, naturally-occurring compound that promotes the absorption of non-heme iron from other foods. Including vitamin C will enhance the absorption of non-heme iron. On the other hand, substances in coffee and tea called polyphenols have the greatest effect on lowering the absorption of non-heme iron. If you drink tea or coffee, it is important to drink it between rather than during meals to get the maximum iron absorption from non-heme foods.
Bowl of corn flakes with milk and a glass of orange juice
Turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with lettuce and tomato, and chocolate milk
Beef burrito, salad
and apple juice
Yogurt, baby carrots, trail mix and an apple, dried figs
• Have breakfast every day (add strawberries to breakfast cereal)
• Drink a glass of juice
with a veggie burger
• Add ground beef to pizza
• Top a leafy green salad with sliced grilled chicken
So if you are a vegetarian who does not eat meat, fish or poultry, it is important to choose foods with non-heme iron. It helps to eat them with foods rich in vitamin C, and to avoid drinking coffee and tea with meals.
If you are choosing a variety of foods and eating enough calories to meet your body’s needs, you are probably getting the iron you need. If you are diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia, your doctor will prescribe single iron pills and encourage you to increase the iron in your diet. (It is important to have a blood test to confirm that you are suffering from iron deficiency.) Common side effects of iron pills may include constipation, and other stomach-related upsets. When it comes to iron supplements, use as recommended. Excessive doses can be quite toxic.
For the past two years, the Beef Information Centre has worked with health professionals and researchers to develop and launch educational resources on the importance of iron in the diet. Four pamphlets about iron and infants, iron and teen girls, iron and adult women, and iron-rich eating (new) are available at www.beefinfo.org or by calling 1-888-248-2333. An interactive web-based quiz called the Iron Challenge is also available on the web site.