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Symptoms of Iron Deficiency and Sources of Iron

Learn why iron deficiency is the most widespread mineral or vitamin deficiency in the world, and what foods supply iron.

Symptoms of Iron Deficiency and Sources of Iron

Iron deficiency is the most widespread type of vitamin or mineral deficiency in the world. Do you constantly experience sluggishness, irritability, and headaches? Perhaps you suffer from this condition. Let's take a closer look and find out.

About 70 percent of the iron in your body is located in a portion of your red blood cells known as hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is your oxygen delivery service, supplying every cell with the oxygen it needs to perform essential metabolic functions. Iron is also a component of myoglobin. Like the hemoglobin in red blood cells, myoglobin ensures adequate oxygen delivery to all your muscles. At this point, you're probably starting to understand the importance of iron in this equation: too little iron, too little oxygen. The result is fatigue, irritability, weakness, headaches, tendency to feel cold, and in the case of severe depletion, iron-deficiency anemia.

Fortunately, iron is found in a variety of animal and plant foods, making it easy to get your daily requirement. Heme iron, the type found in animal products (red meats, liver, poultry, and eggs), is more readily absorbed than nonheme iron, which can be found in vegetables and other plant foods (beans, nuts, seeds, dried fruits, and fortified breads and cereals). Interestingly enough, the body adjusts the amount it absorbs according to the body's need. In other words, a person with iron-deficient anemia will absorb about two to three times more iron after eating exactly the same meal than a person with a normal iron status.

Certain groups of people are at increased risk for developing an iron deficiency. If you think you might fall into one of the following categories, ask your doctor to check your iron status before self-prescribing supplementation. (A simple blood test can tell if you are deficient.)

Groups at risk for iron deficiency include …

  • Infants and children. Their rapid growth and finicky eating habits demand that they get iron in a variety of ways.
  • Women who bleed heavily during menstruation. They lose iron-rich blood each month.
  • Pregnant women with increased blood volume. They are supporting their growing babies' needs as well as their own.
  • Strict vegetarians who take in only nonheme sources of iron. Remember, nonheme plant foods are much less absorbable than iron-rich animal foods.
  • People who lose a lot of blood during surgery or other bleeding injuries.
  • “Chronic dieters” who bounce from one crash diet to another. People suffering from eating disorders might not eat enough iron-rich foods to meet their requirements.

Tips to Boost Your Dietary Iron Intake

Here's information that will help you increase your iron intake and its absorption within your body.


Although not very common, iron toxicity is a serious problem that occurs from either a genetic abnormality causing the body to store excessive amounts or the unnecessary oversupplementation of iron. The result can be liver and other organ damage.

  • Make a point of eating iron-rich foods, both animal (heme) and nonanimal (nonheme) sources each day.
  • When eating nonheme foods, couple them with some vitamin C. (See the list of foods that contain vitamin C in Reducing the Risk of Breast Cancer and Prostate Cancer. Vitamin C can increase the absorption of iron.
  • Avoid drinking coffee or tea with an iron-rich meal; they inhibit the absorption of iron.
  • Calcium interferes with the absorption of iron, so if you take calcium supplements, do not take them with an iron-rich meal. Try them with a snack or some juice because you usually do need some food for your calcium pills.
  • Cook casseroles, stews, and sauces in cast iron cookware. Believe it or not, some of the iron will seep into the food.
  • The presence of heme iron (even very small amounts) at a meal with nonheme iron will enhance the absorption of the nonheme iron.

The best sources of iron (heme) include lean can be liver and other organ red meats, turkey, chicken, pork, lamb, veal, egg yolks, and liver (although it's very high in cholesterol).

Good iron sources (nonheme) include beans, lentils, whole grains, dried fruit, broccoli, spinach, collard greens, nuts and seeds, chickpeas, fortified cereals, blackstrap molasses, barley, and wheat germ.

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