By Ariana Samani, M.D.

Iron is one of the essential minerals in your body you may not think about much until it causes problems. And these problems can relate to having too much iron or not having enough. Once you understand the daily recommendations and sources of iron-rich foods, the balancing act gets easier.

Why Iron?

Iron provides a role in the body’s growth and development. It is required to make hemoglobin, a protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs throughout the body. Iron is stored in muscles, bone marrow, liver, and spleen. After these sources are depleted, your body will begin to present symptoms of low iron – or iron deficiency anemia.

Healthy Iron Requirements

Daily iron requirements vary based on age and gender (see table: source Healthline). Men, for example, need just 8 mg of iron a day once they hit age 19 – for the rest of their lives. Their iron needs stabilize once they reach adulthood and physical and brain growth have slowed.

Women in child-bearing years need at least 18 mg of iron a day to replace amounts lost in the blood during menstruation. For women over 50, that number drops more than half, to 8 mg a day, due to menopause. This amount can usually be achieved in the diet, so doctors don’t recommend taking iron supplements past age 50.

The maximum amount (or Tolerable Upper Intake Level) is 45 mg of iron a day. Too much iron can be dangerous and cause organ damage and lead to increased risk for liver cancer and diabetes.

Reach for Iron-Rich Foods

Eating a variety of foods can provide proper iron levels. However, this can be a challenge for some children, which is why iron deficiency can be common for the younger crowd – but so important for their growth and development.

Lean meat, poultry, pork, and seafood are some of the best food sources of iron since the body absorbs iron more easily from meat. Green vegetables (spinach), dried fruits (apricots, raisins), beans, iron-fortified breakfast cereals and breads, eggs, and nuts are other good choices. Vitamin C combined with iron-rich foods helps the body absorb the iron.

Symptoms for Low Iron Amounts

Anemia is one of the most common consequences of iron deficiency, when the tissues and organs don’t get enough oxygen throughout the body. Iron deficiency anemia can cause extreme fatigue, decreased immunity, weakness, lightheadedness, and pale skin, among other things. Decreased immunity translates to getting sick more often.

Frequent blood donors also can also develop a higher risk of iron deficiency anemia. Blood donation clinics check the health of your blood (enough iron) before you’re allowed to donate.

Iron deficiency anemia can cause complications and lead to health problems, if left untreated. Some of these include growth and development issues for infants and children, heart problems, and problems during pregnancy. Women who take iron supplements during their pregnancy can avoid this potential concern.

Keeping Iron in Check

Annual physicals and blood work can help you keep your iron levels in check. Knowledge is power, when it comes to your health – and so many other life situations.


Dr. Samani is an Internal Medicine physician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Tanglewood Clinic. Her clinical interests include prevention, obesity, and diabetes.

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