You know that eating a nutrient-rich diet is one of the best things you can do for your overall health and, chances are, you put your best effort forward to try and eat as well as you possibly can. While most nutrients like, iron, are readily available in many of the common foods we eat, we’re prone to running low on certain ones.
According to research published in the journal Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine, approximately 10 million American adults are iron deficient, and 5 million of those suffer from iron deficiency anemia, a condition where the body actually lacks enough red blood cells to function optimally. What’s more: In recent years, the average American’s intake of iron has dipped—by 6.6 percent for men and 9.5 percent for women, according to a new study published in The Journal of Nutrition.
What is iron?
Iron plays a vital role in all aspects of human health, explains Jerry Bailey, D.C., LA.c., certified nutritionist, acupuncturist, chiropractic, and functional medicine physician at Lakeside Holistic Health. “Iron facilitates energy production through helping transport oxygen throughout our bodies as well as creating ATP for cell activity; it assists with immunity by forming antibodies and helping T-cells recognize invaders; finally, it enables proper regulation of temperature and metabolism through aiding metabolic processes and transferring heat efficiently throughout our body,” he says. “Without enough iron, we can suffer from fatigue, anemia, and other health problems.”
Signs you’re low on iron
If you’re really low on the nutrient, you may experience the following symptoms:
You’re more tired than usual
Low iron levels can lead to frequent fatigue, or a feeling of extreme tiredness or lack of energy. “People often report feeling exhausted even after sleeping for long periods of time, as their bodies cannot produce enough red blood cells to transport oxygen to various parts of the body,” explains Dr. Bailey. “This fatigue can be so severe that it interferes with daily activities and routine tasks.”
You have trouble concentrating
Iron plays a crucial role in helping you function cognitively at optimal levels because it helps carry oxygen to the brain. For this reason, being low on this nutrient can leave you feeling foggy, confused, and even lead to memory loss, warns Dr. Bailey. “People may find that their thoughts are scattered and they have trouble staying on track while performing mental activities such as reading or problem-solving,” he says. “They may get easily distracted by their surroundings and find themselves unable to stay focused for long periods of time.”
You get sick often
If you find that you get sick frequently, it may be because your immune system is suppressed and this may be a sign that your iron stores are low, according to Laura M. Ali, M.S., R.D., a culinary nutritionist in Pittsburgh. “Iron helps build the cells in your immune system that help fight infections, help wounds heal, and keep your body strong,” she adds.
Your skin is especially pale
There are many causes of pale skin, but one is low iron. “Hemoglobin is responsible for the red color of your blood, and low levels of hemoglobin can result in a pale or white appearance of your skin and mucous membranes, such as your lips and tongue,” explains Courney Vickery, R.D., dietitian and Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor.
You experience shortness of breath
Low iron levels can leave you feeling breathy, especially during physical activity. “This occurs because there aren’t enough red blood cells available to carry oxygen around the body efficiently, which leads to feelings of fatigue and breathlessness with minimal exertion,” Dr. Bailey explains. “Iron deficiency anemia sufferers may also experience chest pain when breathing due to lack of sufficient oxygen reaching their heart muscles.”
You suffer from GI issues
Gastrointestinal upset is another symptom of having low iron stores, Emma Laing, Ph.D., R.D.N. director of dietetics at the University of Georgia and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, point out. “Iron deficiency related to GI bleeding could cause abdominal pain, or sometimes the pain results from unusual cravings of ‘non-nutritive’ substances, like dirt or ice, that have been linked to iron deficiency (the term for this condition is pica),” she says.
You have brittle or spoon-shaped nails
These are both clinical signs that practitioners tend to notice in patients who are low in iron, according to Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness. “Anemia makes your nails brittle and doesn’t allow them to grow in a healthy manner,” he says. “If iron is low, it is harder to transport oxygen to the cells that make nails.”
How to better incorporate iron into your diet
1. Eat iron-rich foods
Luckily iron is readily available in many of the foods we eat, especially lean meats, poultry and seafood, such as beef, chicken, turkey, and oysters, explains Dr. Laing. “Plant sources of iron are not as easily absorbed as animal sources, but with careful planning, iron needs can be met with these foods (either solely or in combination with animal sources),” she says. “Fortified cereals and enriched grain products like rice and bread are considered plant sources of iron, along with spinach and other leafy green vegetables, dried fruit, beans, tofu and nuts.”
2. Combine iron-rich foods with vitamin C
One of the best tricks of the trade to help you absorb more iron is incorporating iron-rich foods with vitamin C-containing foods like oranges, lemons, bell peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, strawberries and kiwi fruit. In fact, doing so can help increase absorption of nonheme iron by up to 300 percent, according to Dr. Bailey.
3. Use cast-iron cookware
Believe it or not, but cooking iron rich foods in a cast iron pan can also help increase your iron intake. “This works especially well if it is a food that simmers for a while in the pan and has a food that is acidic like tomatoes or vinegar with it,” says Dr. Laing. “Beef slices or chicken breast with bell peppers and onions can be sautéed in the skillet and simmered with tomato sauce.”
4. Avoid drinking tea or coffee with meals
Research, including one study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, has found that drinking tea or coffee with meals can interfere with the absorption of dietary iron from food sources. “This is because substances in tea and coffee called polyphenols can bind to iron and make it unavailable for absorption in the body,” explains Dr. Bailey. “For this reason, it’s best to avoid having either beverage at meals if you want to maximize your dietary intake of iron from food sources.”
5. Take an iron supplement
If you think you’re not getting enough iron from food sources alone, you could consider taking an over-the-counter iron supplement or a multivitamin that contains the nutrient (not all do!). However, Dr. Bailey points out that certain supplements can interfere with the absorption of dietary iron if taken at the same time as meals, so he recommends taking them several hours apart from meals if possible. “Check with your doctor before taking any supplement just to ensure there are no potential interactions with any medications you may be taking or contraindications due to any underlying medical conditions you may have such as kidney disease or diabetes,” he adds.