Believe it or not, your iron is a big deal. Iron is a mineral that is used within all cells of the body for many vital functions. It plays a major part in the makeup of hemoglobin within your red blood cells. Iron helps hemoglobin carry oxygen from the lungs to other parts within the body.
Iron deficiency is a common health problem among many. This can be due to the body needing more iron during certain periods or a lack of taking in enough iron to meet the body’s needs. High risk groups for iron deficiency include: pregnant or lactating women, menstruating women, premenopausal women, infants and toddlers and adolescent teens or athletes. If you fall into one of these categories – don’t stress too much because many people are able to take in the recommended daily amount of iron from their food sources. It’s when an individual’s iron intake is continuously low, that eventually, they may deplete their body’s reserved iron stores and develop iron-deficiency anemia.
If you are deficient in iron or suspect that you may be, here are a few tips to consider:
1. Don’t self diagnose yourself with iron deficiency. Leave this task to your healthcare provider. As common as this health condition is and with easy access to iron supplements, it can be quite tempting to diagnose yourself with iron deficiency and just grab some iron from over the counter. Symptoms of low iron include fatigue, paleness and feelings of breathlessness; nonetheless, these symptoms are very vague and can actually indicate a variety of other health conditions. You don’t want to start taking supplements and actually have our iron levels build up to toxic levels. If you ever suspect that you may have low iron, it is best to visit your women’s health specialist or primary care doctor for a diagnosis.
2. If you are diagnosed as having low iron levels, monitor your fiber intake. A normal side effect of many iron supplements is constipation! For this reason, many people start out taking their iron supplements and then quickly stop. Don’t you be one of those people! If you must take a supplement, the best thing to do is research dietary sources of fiber and eat these foods. Also, it is very important to make sure that you are drinking at least 64 ounces of water daily. This will keep the “ plumbing” flushed and regular. There is research that says that some fiber can block iron absorption; however, this is only some fiber and not all fiber. Generally speaking, fiber is good for digestive health.
3. Iron is best absorbed when taken with Vitamin C. You can achieve this in many ways: by eating brightly colored fruits and vegetables, adding a Vitamin C tablet to your vitamin regimen or simply drinking a small glass of orange juice as you take your iron supplement.
4. Avoid foods that block iron absorption. This includes calcium and sources high in caffeine such as coffee and teas. Don’t worry – this does not mean that you have to cut them completely out of your diet. It just means that you may want to consider cutting back. Avoid eating or drinking dairy products, cola drinks, tea and coffee around meal times.
5. Try cooking with cast iron. Some studies have shown that doing so can add iron to your food. In particular, cooking foods containing citric acid (ex: tomato sauce) or lactic acid (found in creamy foods) in cast iron allows the most iron to be released from the metal into your food.
6. Vegetarian diets can be low in heme iron – a particular form of iron that is well absorbed by the body found mostly in meat sources. Most vegetarian diets consist of non-heme iron – a form of iron found primarily in plant sources that it less easily absorbed in the body. Yet, don’t despair. Careful meal planning can still ensure that vegetarians also maintain adequate iron intake as well. A helpful tip is to pair non-heme iron sources with acidic foods. The acids help change the iron into a more absorbable form for your body. It can be as simple as adding balsamic or apple cider vinegar to a salad or drinking a glass of citrus juice along with a bowl of soup.
Here is a link to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ranking of high iron food sources: http://ods.od.nih.gov/pubs/usdandb/Iron-Content.pdf