Are you getting enough iron?

Mar 22, 2010 at 2:35 p.m. ET

Vitamins and minerals play an important role in keeping your body happy and healthy. Iron is no exception. But the World Health Organization says up to 80 percent of the world's population is iron-deficient. Are you getting enough?

Anemic Woman

The importance of iron

Iron is one of the most abundant nutrients in your body. It's found in every one of your cells and is essential for maintaining the strength of your immune system, preserving your muscles and regulating cell growth. So it's important that you get enough of it on a daily basis.Most of the iron stored in your body is found in hemoglobin and myoglobin (those are red blood cell proteins that transport oxygen to our tissues and our muscles).Scientists know there are two types of iron the body can absorb: heme and non-heme. Heme iron comes from animal products like beef, chicken or fish. Non-heme iron is plant-based, like beans, lentils and spices. (Try this White Bean Sun-Dried Tomato Hummus.)

Signs and symptoms of an iron deficiency

Iron deficiencies develop over time and are usually associated with low dietary intake or excessive blood loss. In severe cases, the deficiency can lead to anemia.Signs and symptoms may include:

· Weakness or fatigue
· Hair loss
· Decreased concentration
· Headaches
· Brittle, chipping nails (Click for tips to prevent and repair damaged nails.)Seeing your doctor for a quick blood test will tell you if you have any reason for concern.

How much iron do you need?

The Recommended Dietary Allowance for iron varies by gender and age group.Children (ages 1-10): 7 to 10 mg per day
Women (ages 19-50): 18 mg per day
Pregnant Women: 27 mg per day
Lactating Women: 9 to 10 mg per day
Men (ages 19 and older): 8 mg per daySome good food sources include:

Clams, canned, drained, 3 oz = 23.8 mg
Oysters, 3 oz = 10.2 mg
Organ meats (liver, giblets, etc.), 3 oz = 5.2 to 9.9 mg
Soybeans, cooked, 1/2 cup = 4.4 mg
Lentils, cooked, 1/2 cup = 3.3 mg
Spinach, cooked, 1/2 cup = 3.2 mg

Who is at risk of an iron deficiency?

Anyone can develop an iron shortage, but some people are more at risk.Women: From menstruation to pregnancy, women not only lose more iron than any other group, they also need more of it (especially during pregnancy).Vegetarians: Because iron from meat is more readily-absorbed than iron from plant sources, vegetarians will have a harder time meeting the recommended daily dose. Vegans may need almost twice as much iron per day than non-vegetarians (especially females).Digestive diseases: Individuals with celiac disease, Crohn's or irritable bowel syndrome are at a greater risk because they may not be able to absorb much of the nutrient.Iron deficiency and anemia are generally uncommon in men and post-menopausal women because they lose very little blood. They are, however, at a higher risk of iron overload. When this happens, iron overwhelms red blood cells and begins to store in organs, like the liver and heart. This can then lead to cirrhosis or heart failure.

Tips to get more iron in your diet

If you're not vegetarian, the fastest, easiest way to get your daily dose of iron is by eating meat. If that's not an option, here are some quick and easy suggestions to increase how much iron your body will absorb.1. Add vitamin C to your next meal. Recent studies show vitamin C can up your iron intake by 50 percent.2. Reach for iron-fortified foods. Many companies now fortify cereals and breads with iron.3. Avoid caffeinated beverages when you eat. Scientists believe drinking caffeine may inhibit how your body absorbs the nutrient.4. Iron and calcium don't mix. Nutrients like calcium (especially if you pop a pill) cut your body's iron absorption power in half, so stay away from it while you're eating.5. Cook with cast iron. Using iron pots or pans will increase the amount of iron you get in your food almost 10-fold.

More nutrition info you should know

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