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Do you often feel tired, have headaches, and are irritable? While there may be many different causes for these unpleasant symptoms, one possibility is that your diet is iron deficient.

Whatever your age, iron is an essential nutrient. It enables your blood to transport the oxygen you breathe and plays a role in cell regeneration. In short, your body’s cells wouldn’t function well at all without iron.

Certain diseases can influence how well your body absorbs, such as Crohn’s disease and celiac disease. Moreover, infants and the elderly are at particular risk of iron deficiency. Women must ensure that they eat adequate amounts of foods that are rich in iron.

Dietary Iron

There are two main forms of dietary iron: heme and nonheme. Heme iron is found in meat, fish, poultry, and seafood. Nonheme iron is present in food of plant origin, such as vegetables, whole-grain products, and legumes. Heme iron is readily absorbed, unlike nonheme iron.

Iron and Vitamin C: a Winning Combination

The absorption of nonheme iron is affected by a certain number of nutritional components. Some foods enhance absorption of nonheme iron when consumed at the same time. Examples of this are foods containing vitamin C, meat, fish, and poultry. When consumed at the same time as nonheme iron (that is, during the same meal), these foods can increase absorption by up to four times.

Foods That Hinder Iron Absorption

Some foods—including tea, coffee, and cocoa—can hinder or decrease the absorption of nonheme iron when consumed at the same time. These foods bind the iron in an insoluble complex eliminated by the intestines.

Dietary Sources

According to the Enquête québécoise sur la nutrition de 1990, many women of childbearing age (18 to 49 years) do not get enough iron. This is a deplorable situation, given all the health issues resulting from iron deficiency.

Did you know that red meat contains a large amount of iron that is readily absorbable? Iron is also found in dark-green vegetables, whole-grain products, legumes (chickpeas, tofu, lentils, beans), and dried fruit. Eating a wide variety of foods is an excellent way to meet your daily iron requirements.

Practical Advice

If you don’t eat enough meat, poultry, or fish in a meal, make sure that you get vitamin C to enhance absorption of iron from other sources. For example, you could have a glass of orange juice or vegetables high in vitamin C (preferably raw) as part of your meal.

Dietary Reference Intakes

Age Groups Iron Requirements (mg/day)
0–6 months 0.27
7–12 months 11
1–3 years 7
4–8 years 10
9–13 years 8
14–18 years 11
19 years or older 8
9–13 years 8
14–18 years 15
19–50 years 18
51 years or older 8
18–50 years 27
18 years or younger 10
19–50 years 9

The tolerable upper intake level (UL) of iron is 40 mg a day for infants and children (0–13 years). The UL for the remainder of the population is 45 mg a day.