The Dangers Of Iron Deficiency

If you guessed iron deficiency – you are correct. Iron is one of the most important elements in the human diet, and yet many know almost nothing on the subject. Did you know that most Americans get their daily dose of iron from fortified breakfast cereals? Does this strike you as surprising? What did we eat before this? And what do those who avoid grains eat to obtain their iron?

What is iron’s role in hemoglobin? And what is iron’s role in anemia? Can we tell if we’re not getting enough of this vital mineral? Are there different forms of iron available? Is iron from plants differently absorbed than the iron found in animals? All these questions will be answered, as well as many others.

What Is Iron?

Iron is a mineral, which is present in different forms in a wide variety of foods. It has also been added to some food supplies and can also be supplemented. Iron is a part of all cells and is essential for the body and brain. One example is its part of the protein hemoglobin, where iron helps to carry oxygen from our lungs to the rest of the body. Many enzymes and cell functions depend on iron.

If you are not a science connoisseur some of this information may be going over your head. Nevertheless, try as best as possible to read on and learn why iron is vital to human health. Proper intestinal function relies on iron regulatory proteins, which shows the vast importance of just how much iron is needed in the human body.

Iron Deficiency Symptoms

Did you know that iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency? In the United States, it is also the leading cause of anemia. Women are in fact at a greater risk than men for a deficiency. In fact, women are often deficient in iron as a result of heavy menstrual flow. You are especially at risk if you have heavy periods, as more blood can be lost.

The further issue involved is that iron deficiency comes on subtly and slowly. A lack of energy, pale skin, headaches – these aren’t problems that develop overnight. They are small issues, and hard to pinpoint their exact source. Going to your doctor is the best idea if you think you are deficient, as things can become very bad – very quickly – once the deficiency worsens.

The other reason for consulting with a doctor is to make sure you are getting an adequate dose of iron, as well as the right form. Since most iron supplements are not prescription, it is important to choose the right iron, and also to take it at the right time of day. Exact dosages will depend on the situation, and the patient.

The early warning signs of iron-deficiency anemia are nearly impossible to detect, as there are usually very few. Fatigue is probably the first thing one will notice, as they are unlikely to have as much energy once iron deficiency has set in. This occurs because your body no longer has enough red blood cells to carry oxygen to its many destinations. The decreased amount of hemoglobin in your red blood cells also contributes to the problem. Other signs of deficiency include shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, cold in extremities, pale skin and chest pain.

If one hasn’t developed anemia, iron deficiency on its own can present with brittle nails, swelling and soreness of the tongue, an enlarged spleen, and frequent infections and cracks in the mouth. A mild iron deficiency may also harm the memory. If you find you are forgetting your keys more often than normal, it might be time to visit your doctor. Learning issues can sometimes develop as a result of iron deficiency, as well.

Foods High in Iron

In 1941, food companies started adding iron to breakfast cereals. Why did they do this? Iron deficiency was more common at the time, and this was their way of trying to help with the problem. However, the iron in cereal is nonheme iron, which is less well absorbed by the body. Heme iron, by contrast, is much better absorbed. This is yet another instance where a food with synthetic nutrients is not an ideal source of vitamins and minerals. Real food is always preferable to something made in a laboratory or plant.

Since iron is tightly regulated by the body, consuming more than is required is not a good idea. Foods which are rich with iron, naturally, are much better for regular consumption. Some of the best foods which are rich in iron are: oysters, very dark chocolate, beef liver, spinach, sardines, tomatoes, beef, potatoes, cashews, chicken, tuna, turkey, pistachios, broccoli, and eggs.

Why do I have so many clients who are low in iron, who are vegans and vegetarians? The answer lies partly in the bioavailability of iron from plant sources. It has been proven in the scientific literature that iron from animal sources is much more bioavailable. This means that eating animals on a regular basis makes it much easier to assimilate the necessary iron from the diet.

Since most Americans get their iron from breakfast cereals which are fortified with iron, they are getting iron that is largely not as easily used. For the next highest amount of iron in the diet, vegans need to look to white beans, which provide 44% of the daily value for iron. However, not all of this will be able to be used by the human body. Lentils and tofu are the next highest, with each food containing 17% of the daily value.

Meat eaters, on the other hand, can rely on more bioavailable sources, like oysters, which provide 44% of iron for the day. This is equal to white beans for vegans, but it actually works out slightly better, since more of the iron in the oysters will be used. The other benefit, is that the oysters contain a large amount of other nutrients, which is in contrast to the white beans.

Iron Supplements

Supplementing with iron is fairly common, for a variety of reasons. However, there are a few things to think about when it comes to iron. Your body absorbs heme iron about two to three times more efficiently than it does non-heme iron. This brings us back to our vegan analogy, as meat, poultry and fish contain heme, while plant sources largely contain non-heme. You could be eating large amounts of iron, but from less bioavailable sources, and then become deficient.

Before you start supplementing with iron, it is best to consult with a doctor, as too much iron can be very dangerous. There are a variety of iron preparations available. You will see varying amounts of iron, iron salts, complexes, combinations, and dosing regimens. To further confuse the consumer, there are tablets, capsules, liquids and drops. Then of course there are coated versions, and time release versions. Ferrous sulfate is the least costly and most commonly used supplemental form of iron. When in doubt, it is best to go with this form.

There are even foods and drugs that will impair iron absorption, so it is vitally important to check with your doctor before beginning any iron supplementation program. Remember, iron deficiency is the most common nutritional deficiency. The signs and symptoms are hard to detect, and happen subtly and slowly. If you think you may be deficient in iron, it is best to schedule a test with your doctor.


As I’ve hopefully illustrated, there are many foods one can eat to avoid a deficiency of iron. Simply including some meat, poultry, fish and spinach in your diet, can work wonders for making sure your red blood cells stay happy.

Iron in one of the most important elements in the human diet, and yet its importance goes largely untold. With most Americans getting their daily iron from substandard fortified breakfast cereals, it is important to know which foods contain the most iron.

Remember that iron is a part of all cells and essential for the body and the brain. The signs and symptoms of iron deficiency are hard to detect, and happen subtly and slowly. If you think you may be deficient in iron, it is best to schedule a test with your doctor.

This article originally appeared on PaleoHacks.