Learn About Iron Deficiency
You encounter the element iron (Fe) on a daily basis. In fact, it’s a key part of most everything around us. Anything that is made of steel contains iron. Whether we’re talking about man-made materials, plant or animal life, iron is everywhere.
However, when we’re discussing nutritional needs and iron supplements, we’re referring to dietary iron. This type of iron is a micronutrient, and it plays an essential role in the health of every single cell in your body, particularly your red blood cells (hemoglobin). These cells deliver oxygen to your tissues, and have an especially active job to do in maintaining your muscles. A balanced amount of dietary iron is essential to healthy development and function of your central nervous system. When you’re lacking iron, some of the first indicators are feelings of sluggishness, dizziness, and exhaustion. Your body isn’t delivering proper oxygen when, and where you need it. Simply put, iron gives us energy and the ability to heal our bodies.
What Is Iron Deficiency?
Iron deficiency is a low level of iron. Iron deficiency anaemia is low hemoglobin (too few red blood cells). Anaemia is low hemoglobin (sometimes caused by certain medications, such as anti-retroviral drugs, or chemotherapy) 1.
How common is it?
- Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional disorder in Canada, as well as globally 2. Although the importance of dietary iron is well known by medical professionals, this worldwide problem is largely due to: difficulty with iron absorption, inability to regularly take traditional supplements due to gastric side effects, or an increased need for iron due to lifestyle factors or medical conditions.
- You may be iron deficient or low in iron if you have a chronic health condition (such as Celiac disease), are pregnant, or plan on becoming pregnant. Additionally, you may be someone whose body demands more iron than the average person, or have trouble absorbing iron from dietary sources. A few contributing factors include having heavy menstrual periods, eating a plant based diet (vegetarian), or adhering to a rigorous exercise routine that requires extra iron to build and repair muscles, like distance running or weightlifting.
How do I resolve it?
- Your first step should be speaking to your doctor or medical professional for a full evaluation, including blood testing to determine your current iron levels. Depending on your exact situation, your physician may recommend one or more of the following: dietary changes (such as an increase in iron-rich and iron-fortified foods), oral iron supplements (such as IronOne’s Elemental Iron formula), or more rarely, injection or intravenous (IV) iron therapy.
Your exact needs are best determined by a doctor who is qualified to determine the timeframe, dosage and type of iron therapy that will be most effective for you. Discuss the potential benefits of Iron with a doctor before beginning to supplement your diet, or administering it to anyone in your care.
The Relationship Between Food and Iron
Iron is available from many different animal and plant-based foods. In Canada, grain products like flour, pasta and breakfast cereals are frequently fortified with iron.
We refer to animal sources as heme iron, which is typically the most bioavailable (readily absorbed) form of iron. These include fish, poultry, red meat, and organ meats, such as liver.
Plant-based food sources of iron are known as non-heme iron, and are less bioavailable (not as easily absorbed) though still helpful toward meeting your daily recommended iron needs. Significant sources often include cooked green vegetables, and soaked lentils/beans.
Top 5 Iron Rich Foods
If you’re looking for ways to increase your daily iron intake through improved nutrition, we’ve sourced the top five major sources of dietary iron, according to type, as recommended by registered dieticians:
Excellent sources of non-heme iron
Vegetables & Fruits
Spinach (cooked), tomato puree, edamame (cooked), Lima beans (cooked), and asparagus (raw).
Oatmeal, instant (cooked), cream of wheat (all types, cooked), cereal (all types), granola, and oat bran (cooked).
Mature soybeans (cooked), tofu (cooked), lentils (soaked & cooked), various beans (soaked & cooked), and various peas (soaked & cooked).
Blackstrap molasses, and yeast extract spreads (Marmite or Vegemite).
Excellent sources of heme iron
Meats & Poultry
Duck (cooked), moose/venison (cooked), beef (various cuts, cooked), ground beef/lamb (cooked), and lamb (various cuts, cooked).
Pork liver (cooked), lamb kidney (cooked), chicken/ turkey/ lamb liver (cooked), beef liver (cooked), and beef/veal or pork kidney (cooked).
Fish & Seafood
Octopus (cooked), oysters (cooked), clams (cooked), sardines (canned), mackerel/trout/bass (cooked), and light tuna (canned in water).
To find out exactly how much iron these foods contain, their recommended portioning, or to learn about even more iron-rich foods you can add to your daily diet, visit Dieticians of Canada.
Delicious Iron-Rich Recipes
Raw Asparagus and Mushroom Salad with Walnuts and Miso Dressing
Delicate fresh asparagus, finely shaved mushrooms, tossed with miso dressing, and topped with lightly toasted walnuts.
A roasted veggie and egg dish great for breakfast, or anytime of day. Requires a cast-iron skillet. The use of cast iron pans has been shown to decrease the prevalence of anaemia 3. Vegetarian friendly. Celiac-friendly (gluten-free).
Overnight Gingerbread Oats
A filling, make-ahead breakfast or snack, full of gingerbread flavour. Features blackstrap molasses. Celiac-friendly (gluten-free) - use certified gluten free oats.
Coconut Chickpea Curry
A hearty, creamy, curry. Perfect for a meatless lunch or dinner. Celiac-friendly (gluten-free).
Steak and Potato Bowl
Mixed greens topped with caramelized onions, cherry tomatoes, roasted potato bites, and sizzling steak. Celiac-friendly (gluten-free).
Getting sufficient levels of iron according to your specific needs can be a bit of a balancing act, which is why we encourage you to get support and guidance from a health professional before adding a supplement to your diet. There are many different foods and beverages that interact with your ability to absorb and store iron, acting as either iron inhibitors or iron enhancers. It’s also quite common that your lifestyle or general health may make it so that managing iron levels through nutrition alone is simply not enough to meet your needs, and this is where iron supplements can make a major difference.
Enhancing or Inhibiting Iron?
Your physician or pharmacist will frequently recommend taking oral iron supplements along with vitamin C, whether in supplement form, or with foods naturally containing vitamin C/ascorbic acid - such as a glass of orange juice or whole citrus fruit. This particular vitamin has the ability to enhance iron absorption by protecting the iron from what are referred to as ‘inhibitors’ 4.
There are certain foods that impede or reduce your iron absorption. At the top of this list is calcium. This doesn’t take away from calcium’s importance to your health, it just means that you should avoid taking iron at the same time as consuming foods containing calcium, like dairy products. Phytates are another inhibitor, frequently found in plant-based sources of iron, like beans and legumes. This can somewhat confusing, as this group of foods are also excellent sources of dietary iron. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution that comes down to proper preparation. Techniques like sprouting, and soaking effectively reduce phytic acid, and make iron more bioavailable. Polyphenols (sometimes referred to as vegetable tannins) are contained in popular items such as tea, red wine, chocolate, and coffee, and have been known to inhibit iron uptake.
Managing Iron Levels - When Food Isn’t Enough
Iron deficiency is such a common issue for Canadians and people all over the world, because it’s often insufficient to simply increase your intake of foods high in iron - especially if you follow a plant-based diet. If you are a vegetarian there is a strong likelihood that you will need to supplement your daily diet with nutritional iron. This is due to the fact that plant-based foods containing iron (non-heme) are not as rich in iron (by volume), and not as readily absorbed by your body (bioavailable), as animal-based foods with iron (heme iron).
If you do eat meat, common health conditions like endometriosis, celiac disease, or heavy menstrual bleeding may increase your body’s demand for iron in a way that makes supplementing your diet necessary. Pregnancy, chronic stress, prescribed medications, or demanding athletic activities can also increase your body’s need for iron, making it wise to discuss your lifestyle and iron needs with a doctor to ensure you’re meeting the daily recommended amount of iron that’s right for you.
Do I Need Iron?
Am I At Risk for Low Iron or Iron Deficiency Anaemia?
The only way to be absolutely sure that your iron levels are healthy, is to get them checked with a quick blood test. Your doctor will requisition a blood test that determines the amount of iron stored in your body, and available in your bloodstream. To help you get the conversation started, we’ve created an Online Symptom Checker Tool to see if you are experiencing common symptoms of low iron, and if so, how often. Try it Now.
Common Anaemia Symptoms
Symptoms of Low Iron Levels Include:
- Pale skin
- Brittle Nails
- Lowered immunity
- Unexplained bruising
- Inflamed tongue
- Irregular heartbeats
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Cold hands and feet
Iron for Adults
Healthy Skin, Hair and Nails
Even if you’re in excellent health, absorb iron readily, and aren’t under stress, maintaining adequate iron levels is still a very important consideration. Iron helps your body metabolize proteins, and is essential to production of red blood cells. If your red blood cell count is low, your body may not get sufficient oxygen, which is affects your ability to maintain supple skin, healthy hair, and strong nails.
Why is bruising and fatigue common with iron deficiency?
Red blood cells and oxygen are essential building blocks for the human body, and a vital part of the healing process. When you don’t get enough iron through supplementing or dietary intake, your blood may not clot properly, which may also mean that you bleed or bruise easily. A lack of oxygen moving from the bloodstream to the lungs can lead you to feel weak, dizzy and exhausted.
How Do I Prevent Iron Deficiency During Pregnancy?
Women are especially prone to developing iron deficiency anaemia while they are of childbearing age, primarily due to blood loss during monthly menstruation.
Even if you are not iron deficient prior to pregnancy, when you become pregnant, your body’s demand for iron will dramatically increase. Suddenly you will be building more red blood cells to support your placenta, and the new life growing inside of you (as well as prepare for potential blood loss during childbirth). Studies show that severe anaemia in mothers has a negative effect on newborns, including premature birth, and low birth weight 5.
Know Your Risk Factors?
You are at increased risk of developing anaemia during a pregnancy if you:
- Have two consecutive pregnancies
- Are pregnant with twins or triplets
- Experience frequent morning sickness and vomiting
- Eat a plant-based diet or don't consume enough iron in your daily diet
- Have heavy pre-pregnancy menstrual periods
- Have been anemic at any time before becoming pregnant
Discuss anaemia prevention with your doctor, before (or during) your pregnancy to determine a plan that’s optimizes your and your baby’s well-being.
IronOne™ is recommended by physicians as safe for use during pregnancy, and while breast-feeding, but check with your physician first before taking any iron supplement.
Do you think you could be at risk for low iron?
Visit our online Symptom Checker Tool, and share the results with your physician.
Health Canada's product monograph for Iron can be found at http://webprod.hc-sc.gc.ca/nhpid-bdipsn/search-rechercheReq.do. See Warnings, Cautions, and Directions of Use at https://health-products.canada.ca/lnhpd-bdpsnh/info.do?licence=80076169 for information to assist in benefit-risk assessment. Always consult a Physician and read and follow the label. Product License is also available upon request at 1-877-633-3987.