By mass, iron is the most plentiful element on earth. It’s important to us because it is one of the 16 essential elements the human body needs in order to stay happy and healthy. It’s important not just for us, but for all living things: plants, animals, bacteria…you name it.
Even though iron is all around us, iron deficiency and toxicity are common in communities all over the world – especially in less-developed nations and especially in children.
Since our bodies can’t produce iron, we have to get it from the foods we consume. That’s why it’s important to eat foods high in iron.
If we can’t get the iron we need from natural foods, then supplements can help. But it’s important to use supplements wisely. Just as consuming too little iron is bad for us, so is consuming too much. Each person needs to aim for a sweet spot.
Nutritionists at Dietitians of Canada recently compiled medical recommendations into a handy summary of iron requirements:
- Men 19 and older should aim for 8 mg of iron per day.
- Women between 19 and 50 should consume at least 18 mg of iron per day.
- Women 51 and older need 8 mg per day.
- Pregnant women between 19 and 50 should try to get 27 mg of iron per day.
- Breastfeeding women between 19 and 50 should aim for 9 mg per day.
Everyone should stay below 45 mg per day.
These figures include iron from all sources, including both food and supplements.
Seventy percent of the iron we consume is used to carry oxygen from the lungs throughout our bodies. More accurately, it is used to make a metalloprotein called hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. Without iron, no hemoglobin. Without hemoglobin, there is no oxygen transportation. Without oxygen, body tissues die. When enough brain tissue dies to interrupt heart and lung operations, it’s all over.
Long before things get that serious you start to suffer from some of the effects of short-term iron deficiency. These include dizziness, fatigue, low stamina, compromised immunity, chest pain, and shortness of breath.
If a shortage of iron continues, you could develop iron deficiency anemia, a serious illness that is the result of a lack of healthy red blood cells. You could even suffer from pica, which makes people crave and eat nonfood items like ice or dirt.
Many iron-deficient people never have or recognize symptoms. The symptoms of short-term iron deficiency are the kinds of symptoms you might suffer with any number of other illnesses. “Iron deficiency” is rarely the first diagnosis that comes to mind. That’s why it’s a good idea to consult a medical professional if symptoms persist.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide – especially for children – according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The ancient Greek temple of Apollo at Delphi was inscribed with a motto that translates, roughly, into “Everything in moderation.” The saying has become a common bit of advice for people seeking a middle path between too much and too little. It turns out to be particularly apt when it comes to iron.
Iron deficiency can lead to discomfort, illness and even death. It turns out that an overabundance of iron can be just as bad.
When the body receives too much iron, it begins to store it in organs and other tissues, including the heart and the liver. Acute and chronic toxicity can cause permanent damage to these areas. In children under the age of 5, iron toxicity is the leading cause of fatal poisoning – usually by way of candy-flavored iron supplements. Medical experts insist that no one should take iron supplements without discussing them with a physician first.
The home edition of the Merck Manual for physicians describes five stages of iron toxicity:
- Stage 1 comes within six hours after the overdose. Symptoms include vomiting, vomiting blood, diarrhea, abdominal pain, irritability and drowsiness. If poisoning is very serious, rapid breathing, a rapid heart rate, coma, unconsciousness, seizures and low blood pressure may develop.
- Stage 2 comes six to 48 hours after the overdose. During this stage, the person’s condition can appear to improve.
- Stage 3 (12 to 48 hours after the overdose) can see the development of very low blood pressure (shock), fever, bleeding, jaundice, liver failure and seizures.
- In stage 4 (two to five days after the overdose), the liver fails. People may die from shock, bleeding or blood-clotting abnormalities. Sugar levels in the blood can decrease. Confusion and lethargy may develop. Sufferers may lapse into coma.
- Stage 5 comes two to five weeks after the overdose. The stomach or intestines can become blocked by scars. Scarring in either organ can cause cramping, abdominal pain and vomiting. Severe scarring of the liver can develop later.
Let’s Get Iron-Efficient
I think we can all agree that neither iron deficiency nor iron toxicity is a good way to spend our Saturday nights.
In order to get iron-efficient, we must first understand the two types of iron found in foods: heme and non-heme.
Heme iron is found in meat and dairy products. It is easily absorbed by the body.
Non-heme iron is found in vegetables, dried fruits and nuts. It is this kind of iron that is added to cereal and other foods that are “iron-fortified.” This type of iron is more difficult for the body to absorb.
Participants in a 2003 American Society for Clinical Nutrition study were given 25 mg of ascorbic acid (in the form of limeade) along with iron-rich foods to test whether the acid would help with absorption. After 2 weeks, doctors took blood tests. Researchers found that those who took ascorbic acid with their meals went from absorbing 3% of the iron to absorbing 12.6% of the iron.
Similar studies have focused on riboflavin instead of vitamin C. The results were about the same.
These studies show that iron deficiency and iron toxicity can result no matter how much iron you are eating. The rate at which your body absorbs iron from dietary sources can vary widely.
If you are trying to raise your iron intake, then you should be careful not to eat iron-rich foods with foods that are high in calcium. Iron absorption is hindered in the presence of calcium. The tannins in coffee and tea decrease absorption too.
Getting Enough Iron
These foods are particularly rich in heme iron:
- clams: 28 mg
- chicken livers: 12.9 mg
- lamb kidneys: 12.4 mg
- lamb liver: 10.2 mg
- octopus: 9.5 mg
- oysters: 9.2 mg
- beef liver: 8.8 mg
- lamb liver: 8.3 mg
- oysters, breaded and fried: 7 mg
- 95% lean ground beef: 2.8 mg
- top shoulder steak, grilled: 2.9 mg
- duck: 2.7 mg
- pork shoulder: 1.4 mg
In each case, the iron content comes from 100 grams of the food.
These foods are good sources of non-heme iron:
- thyme: 17.4 mg
- sesame seeds: 14.6 mg
- dried pumpkin seeds: 8.8 mg
- dark chocolate: 8 mg
- chia seeds: 7.7 mg
- cashews: 6.7 mg
- parsley: 6.2 mg
- tofu: 5.4 mg
- boiled soybeans: 5.1 mg
- toasted french bread: 3.9
- spinach: 3.6 mg
- toasted coconut: 3.4 mg
- olives: 3.3 mg
- lentils: 3.3 mg
- hummus: 2.4 mg
- swiss chard: 2.3 mg
- asparagus: 2.1 mg
Other noteworthy sources of non-heme iron include thyme, blackstrap molasses, tahini and black pepper.
Here are three iron-rich low calcium meals to get you started.
Spiced Carrot & Lentil Soup
2 tsp cumin seeds
pinch chili flakes
2 Tbsp olive oil
600 g carrots, washed and coarsely grated
140 g split red lentils
1 liter hot vegetable stock (from cube is fine)
12 5ml milk
plain yogurt and naan bread, to serve
- Heat a large saucepan and dry-fry the cumin seeds and chili flakes for 1 minute or until they start to jump around the pan and release their aromas. Scoop out about half of the seeds with a spoon and set aside. Add the oil, carrot, lentils, stock and milk to the pan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes until the lentils have swollen and softened.
- Whizz the soup with a stick blender or in a food processor until smooth. You can also leave it chunky if you prefer. Season to taste and finish with a dollop of yogurt and a sprinkling of the reserved toasted spices. Serve with warm naan bread.
The iron in this dish can be found mostly in the cumin seeds and the split red lentils.
Pumpkin & Spinach Salad
600 g pumpkin or butternut squash, deseeded, peeled, cut into wedges
2 tsp olive oil
2 tsp honey
2 tsp sesame seeds
1 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp honey
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp whole-grain mustard
150 g baby spinach leaves
75 g toasted pine nuts
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking tray with non-stick baking paper. Place the pumpkin in a large bowl. Drizzle with oil and honey. Season with salt and pepper. Gently toss until the pumpkin is well coated. Place in a single layer on the lined tray. Bake, turning once during cooking, for 25 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and sprinkle evenly with the sesame seeds. Return to oven and bake for 5 minutes more or until the seeds are lightly toasted. Remove from oven and set aside for 30 minutes to cool.
- Combine the lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, mustard and extra honey in a screw-top jar and shake until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper.
- Place the pumpkin, spinach and pine nuts in a large bowl. Drizzle with the dressing and gently toss until just combined. Serve immediately.
The iron in this dish can be found in the toasted pine nuts, baby spinach leaves, squash, and sesame seeds. That’s a lot of iron!
Garlic Chicken Livers
8 oz. chicken livers
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
3 cloves garlic
- Wash, trim and dry the chicken livers.
- Dry fry the livers for three or four minutes until cooked through.
- Add the oil, lemon juice and salt to taste.
- Gently stir to mix.
- Serve immediately, sprinkled liberally with chopped garlic – the more the better.
The iron in this dish can be found primarily in the chicken livers.
Foods high in iron can be tasty when prepared well. And they definitely belong on the menu as part of a healthy diet.