You may “pump iron” at the gym a few times a week, but your body pumps it continuously through the bloodstream every day. Iron is needed to make hemoglobin, a part of red blood cells that acts like a taxicab for oxygen and carbon dioxide. It picks up oxygen in the lungs, drives it through the bloodstream and drops it off in tissues including the skin and muscles. Then, it picks up carbon dioxide and drives it back to the lungs where it's exhaled.
If the body doesn't absorb the amount of iron it needs, it becomes iron deficient. Symptoms appear only when iron deficiency has progressed to iron deficiency anemia, a condition in which the body's iron stores are so low that not enough normal red blood cells can be made to carry oxygen efficiently. Iron deficiency is one of the more common nutrient deficiencies and the leading cause of anemia in the United States.
Symptoms may include:
- Pale skin and fingernails
Sources of Iron
The body absorbs iron more efficiently from animal sources than from plants. Some of the best animal sources of iron are:
- Lean beef
Although you absorb less iron from plants, every bite counts, and adding a source of vitamin C to vegetarian sources of iron will enhance absorption. Some of the best plant sources of iron are:
- Beans and lentils
- Baked potatoes
- Dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach
- Fortified breakfast cereals
- Whole-grain and enriched breads
The following populations are at a higher risk for developing iron deficiency.
Women Who Are Pregnant: Increased blood volume requires more iron to drive oxygen to the baby and growing reproductive organs. Consult your doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist before taking an iron supplement.
Young Children: Babies store enough iron for the first 6 months of life. After 6 months, their iron needs increase. Iron-fortified infant formula and complementary first foods, such as pureed meats and iron-fortified cereals, help this group meet their iron needs until they are able to eat larger portions. Cow's milk is a poor source of iron. When children drink too much milk, they crowd out other foods and may develop "milk anemia." The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no cow's milk until after 1 year, at which point it should be limited to no more than 2 cups per day.
Women of Childbearing Age: Women with excessively heavy menstrual periods may develop iron deficiency.
How to Prevent Iron Deficiency
Eat a balanced, healthy diet that includes good sources of iron to prevent any deficiencies. Combine vegetarian sources of iron with vitamin C in the same meal. For example: a bell pepper-bean salad, spinach with lemon juice, or fortified cereal and berries.
If treatment for iron deficiency is needed, a healthcare provider will assess iron status and determine the exact form of treatment — which may include changes in diet or taking supplements.
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