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What is iron?

Iron is a micronutrient mineral which helps the body’s blood cells bind to and carry oxygen throughout the body. Iron is found in legumes, whole grain breads and cereals, green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and meat.

What does iron do for the body?

Iron is a critical component of two of our body’s most essential substances: hemoglobin, and myoglobin. Hemoglobin is a critical red blood cell protein that helps deliver oxygen into our tissues. Iron is also a component of myoglobin, a similar protein that helps oxygen reach our muscle cells, where it’s then used or stored.

As a part of these two proteins, iron is critical to delivering oxygen around our body, and it also assists in other bodily functions like neurological development, hormone synthesis, and physical growth.

What is an iron deficiency?

Iron deficiency occurs when our body either loses blood quickly, doesn’t get enough iron through our diet, or can’t absorb iron from our food. Iron deficiency is known medically as anemia. Mild anemia is common, and easily ignored. However, once iron deficiency anemia becomes more serious, you may notice some of the following symptoms:

  •   Dizziness
  •   Shortness of breath
  •   Fatigue
  •   Weakness
  •   Pale skin
  •   Swollen or sore tongue
  •   Fast or irregular heartbeat
  •   Headaches

Anemia should be treated as soon as possible since an extended period of iron deficiency can cause health complications like delayed growth, heart arrhythmia, and serious fetal complications in pregnancy.  

What causes low iron?

Most people who eat a balanced diet get all the iron that they need from food. However, an unbalanced diet that’s lacking in iron can lead to low levels of iron within our body.

Other situations that can also cause low levels of iron and iron deficiency include rapid blood loss, or a genetic condition or disorder that can inhibit our body’s ability to absorb nutrients, including iron, from our food. These conditions include anything from celiac disease to colon cancer.

People who are pregnant, or who donate blood frequently may find that they develop iron deficiency anemia while following a diet and lifestyle that’s otherwise healthy. That’s why so many doctors encourage women who are pregnant or those who donate blood frequently to take over-the-counter iron supplements.  

Which foods are high in iron?

Many different foods that are found in our diet are rich in iron. Red meat is the most well-known, but there are plenty of other iron-rich foods available. Some of the most popular include: 

  •   Shellfish
  •   Spinach
  •   Quinoa
  •   Legumes
  •   Pumpkin seeds
  •   Broccoli
  •   Tofu

Learn more about Iron:

Photo of Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson

Medically reviewed by:

Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Ph.D., RD

Kristin is an RDN who also earned her Ph.D. in Nutrition from Arizona State University with an emphasis on insulin resistance, lipid metabolism disorders, and obesity. She completed her post-doctoral fellowship at Mayo Clinic where she focused on nutrition-related proteomic and metabolic research. Her interests include understanding the exact mechanism of action of various genetic variations underlying individual predispositions to nutrition-related health outcomes. Her goal is to help all individuals prevent chronic diseases and achieve long, healthy lives through eating well.

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