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Contributors: Jill Kohn, MS, RDN, LDN

Published: March 29, 2021

Reviewed: March 23, 2021

Bags of nuts

Iron is a mineral, and its main purpose is to carry oxygen in the hemoglobin of red blood cells throughout the body so cells can produce energy. Iron also helps remove carbon dioxide. When the body's iron stores become so low that not enough normal red blood cells can be made to carry oxygen efficiently, a condition known as iron deficiency anemia develops.

When levels of iron are low, fatigue, weakness and difficulty maintaining body temperature often result. Other symptoms may include:

  • Pale skin and fingernails
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Glossitis (inflamed tongue)

Even though iron is widely available in food, some people, like adolescent girls and women ages 19 to 50 years old may not get the amount they need on a daily basis. It is also a concern for young children and women who are pregnant or capable of becoming pregnant. If treatment for iron deficiency is needed, a health-care provider will assess iron status and determine the exact form of treatment — which may include changes in diet and/or taking supplements.

Babies need iron for brain development and growth. They store enough iron for the first four to six months of life. A supplement may be recommended by a pediatrician for a baby that is premature or a low-birth weight and breastfed. After six months, their need for iron increases, so the introduction of solid foods when the baby is developmentally ready can help to provide sources of iron. Most infant formulas are fortified with iron.

How much iron do you need? While your body is very good at adapting to lower or higher levels by absorbing more or less iron as needed, the recommended levels are set to meet the needs of the greater majority of the population. Here are the current Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for iron:

Gender/Age  Iron RDA 
Children 1-3 7 mg
Children 4-8 10 mg
Children 9-13 8 mg
Males/14-18 11 mg
Females/14-18 15 mg
Males/19+ 8 mg
Females/19-50 18 mg
Females/51+ 8 mg

Iron in food exists as two types, heme and non-heme. Animal foods such as meat, seafood and poultry provide both types and are better absorbed by the body. Non-heme iron is found in plant foods, such as spinach and beans, grains that are enriched, like rice and bread, and some fortified breakfast cereals. To increase the absorption of iron from plant sources, it’s recommended to eat them with meat, seafood, or poultry or a good source of vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, kiwi, strawberries or bell peppers. A good way to improve your iron intake is by eating a balanced, healthy diet that includes a variety of foods.

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