When it comes to iron, men and women are not created equally. End of story.
It’s estimated that 20 percent of women, and 50 percent of pregnant women, are iron deficient—commonly known as anemia—where as only 3 percent of men have this problem. Meanwhile, as many as 75 percent of teenaged girls aren’t getting enough iron from their food.
What exactly does this mean?
It means your red blood cells become low in hemoglobin, whose job it is to bring oxygen to your cells. When your hemoglobin is low then your cells just don’t function at their best.
What is considered low?
13.5 g/dL in a male is considered low, and 12 g/dL in a woman. Normal for men is between 13.5 and 17.5 g/dL, and between 12 and 15.5 g/dL for women.
Why happens if I’m low?
The most common symptoms involve feeling more fatigued and weaker than you should. Other mild symptoms include dizziness and difficulty concentrating.
In more severe cases, you can end up with heart palpitations, especially when you’re working out, dry and damaged hair, skin and nails, and swelling and soreness in your tongue and mouth. Eventually this can lead to circulation problems too, where you find your hands and feet are always cold, as well as immune system issues, which make you more prone to infection.
OK, so how much is enough iron?
Generally, women should be consuming 15 to 18 milligrams of iron per day from their diet, while pregnant women need considerably more than that. The National Institute of Health suggests pregnant women consume 27 mg of iron each day.
What does 18 mg look like in practice?
Let’s consider a few foods commonly known to be high in iron: spinach, beef, liver (and other organ meats), pumpkin seeds and oysters!
100 grams of spinach contains 2.71 mg of iron. This essentially means if spinach is your only source of iron for the day, you need to eat 700 g of spinach. That’s one big salad!
That being said, if you cook the spinach, it shrinks tenfold, so you’d probably be able to get down 700 g if you sautéed a pile of spinach for dinner.
Similarly, 100 g (or roughly 1/4 lb.) of beef has 2.4 mg of iron. This means you need to eat nearly a 2 lb. steak (OK, more like a 1.75 lb. steak to be precise) to get your daily requirement. While some might be able to do it, most women aren’t taking down 26 oz. steaks on the regular.
100 g of pumpkin seeds has 3.3 mg of iron, so although it’s a great way to get some iron, you’re probably not eating a 500 g jar of pumpkin seed butter any time soon.
Now we’re talking!
100 grams of oysters has 7 mg of iron. That means you could throw back 10 oysters—which is doable if you happen to like oysters—and get your daily requirement in one sitting.
If you enjoy a good chicken liver pate, or some sautéed liver and onions, this is your absolute best bet for fulfilling your daily iron requirements. 100 grams of liver has 17.9 mg of iron.
If you’re taking in the above information, and can’t stomach the thought of eating raw oysters or spoonfuls of liverwurst—or you’re pregnant or are a heavy bleeder when you menstruate—then an iron supplement might be right for you.
Read more about iron supplementation here.
OK, I’m doing it, I’m going to talk about menstruation for a moment…
As you know, you lose a fair amount of blood during this time of the month, to the point that it can affect your body’s iron levels, especially if you’re a heavy bleeder.
On average, women lose 5 or 6 mg of iron from their bodies during these 4 to 7 days. So even if you’re not in need of a supplement, this time of the month is an especially important time to hit your 18 mg of daily iron per day.
As a sidenote, some women find taking an iron supplement can actually help fend off fatigue and cramping caused by their period. This 2013 study from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst says iron aids in the formation of melatonin, which is known to decrease mood swings, as well as cramping and bloating associated with menstruation.
Two final tips
On top of eating iron-rich foods, and possible taking a supplement if you’re particularly prone to anemia, here are two more tips to give your iron levels a boost:
- Get more folic acid
Folic acid, which is basically B Vitamins, plays a role in producing hemoglobin. Foods that are high in folic acid include leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus, eggs, legumes, beats and citrus fruits, to name a few.
- Get more Vitamin A and beta-carotene
Vitamin A and beta-carotene both help your body absorb iron more efficiently. Great ways to get Vitamin A include consuming various types of fish, liver, spinach, broccoli sweet potatoes and squash. Meanwhile, carrots, sweet potatoes and squash are also great sources of beta-carotene.
Take home: Take iron seriously, ladies!