The Best Iron-Rich Foods That Can Help Fight Fatigue and Boost Energy

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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Other populations also have lower iron requirements. “Men and women who don’t menstruate or are post-menopausal need 8 mg per day,” Dr. Murphy says.

What happens if you aren’t getting enough iron?

If you’re not eating enough iron, you’re losing too much, or your body simply isn’t absorbing it well, your body won’t be able to make enough hemoglobin, and iron deficiency anemia can set in. At first, when the deficiency is mild, you might not really know anything’s wrong, but as it worsens, symptoms can set in.

Symptoms like fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and breathlessness are common, says Dr. Powers. Low iron leads to lower hemoglobin levels, which means there are fewer red blood cells to transport oxygen in your body. If your tissues don’t get the oxygen they need, it becomes harder for your body to do its job—everything from muscle contractions to brain function can be impaired. Your heart rate might increase to try to pump more oxygen to its depleted tissue, which can cause lightheadedness, too.

Iron deficiency symptoms are all pretty non-specific—a lot of things can cause similar signs—but there’s one that’s a real tell-tale: pica, or the craving to eat non-food items, says Dr. Powers. “Ice is one of the most common cravings that individuals with iron deficiency experience,” but she’s treated patients who crave “cornstarch, uncooked rice, tissue paper, and other crunchy items that mimic the mineral texture of iron.”

The only conclusive way to confirm iron deficiency anemia is with a blood test ordered by your doctor. For women, that means hemoglobin levels below 12 gm/dl for women and 13.5 gm/dl for men. If you’re in that range, your doc may order blood tests to rule out other nutritional deficiencies (which could indicate an issue with absorbing nutrients) or blood disorders, and may recommend a supplement to get your levels back up to snuff.

It’s important, though, to let that intel come from your doc, as you can overdo it if you pop too much on your own. Common side effects of higher-than-necessary iron intake include stomach pain, constipation, nausea, and vomiting. And taking in a super-high amount (we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of milligrams over a prolonged period) can cause organ and tissue damage. That’s why it’s best to look to your diet to up your iron, unless your doc advises otherwise, since it’s harder to go overboard.

What foods are the best sources of iron?

If you want to increase your iron intake without a supplement, it’s not hard to fill your plate with ferrous-rich foods, whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, or an omnivore.

Food contains two kinds of iron: heme, which only comes from animal sources (like shellfish, red meat, and organ meat—hello, liver!), and nonheme, which is found in produce like leafy green veggies, grains, and nuts. According to Dr. Powers, our bodies more readily absorb heme iron, so it’s even more important for vegetarians and vegans to choose iron-rich foods to make sure they’re getting enough of the mineral. Some foods, like cereals, are also fortified with iron to help you take in more of it.

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