Who's at Risk for Iron Deficiency?

Posted in Nutrition Tips / Postpartum Nutrition / PCOS

Who's at Risk for Iron Deficiency?

If you’ve ever been diagnosed with low iron or iron deficiency anemia, you know just how frustrating this is – you feel tired all the time, you may be irritable, you can’t concentrate, you run out of breath climbing a set of stairs, and you may even develop more colds and flus. It’s not fun.

As a dietitian supporting clients in the areas of plant based eating (vegetarian and vegan eating patterns), polycystic ovarian syndrome, and gastrointestinal (GI) issues, a key nutrient that often comes up is iron. Discussions around iron may relate to: low dietary intake, improving low levels to support fertility, finding the right supplement that minimizes GI side effects, or supporting immune function. Because iron plays such an important role, I’ve partnered with FeraMAX Iron Supplement to discuss what iron is and why it is important, who might be at risk for deficiency, how to optimize your diet, and when a supplement may be necessary.

What is Iron and Why is it Important?

Iron is an essential mineral and is absorbed from food or supplements you consume. Adult males require 8mg per day and adult females require 18mg per day.

Iron is a component of hemoglobin found in red blood cells, and myoglobin found in muscle, both of which transfer oxygen from the lungs to tissues (which is why people experience fatigue and shortness of breath when deficient). Iron supports physical growth and neurological development, cellular function, and immune function.


Who is at Risk for iron deficiency?

  • Iron deficiency develops over time for a variety of reasons:
  • Blood loss due to injury, bleeding from the gastrointestinal tract, or heavy menstrual period;
  • Inadequate dietary intake due to poorly planned vegan diets or during pregnancy when blood volume doubles;
  • Poor iron absorption due to poorly managed celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease;
  • Other medical problems such as chronic inflammation


How to Optimize Iron in your Diet

  • Iron is found in two forms in the diet – heme and nonheme iron. 
  • Heme iron is found in meat, fish, seafood, and poultry
  • Nonheme iron is found in: 
    • Plant sources - lentils, beans, soybeans (e.g. tofu and edamame beans), dried fruit, kale, spinach, and whole grains
    • Fortified foods - enriched flour and grains including white bread and breakfast cereal
    • Eggs

Both sources play an important role in a person’s overall iron status. However, nonheme iron is not as readily absorbed by the body as heme iron. Because of this, the iron needs of those consuming vegetarian or vegan diets are almost double the standard requirements. The good news is that vitamin C (found readily in fruit and vegetables), can improve absorption of nonheme iron up to four-fold.

When planning meals, aim to include at least one iron-rich food and one vitamin C-rich food. For example:

  • Omelet with spinach, peppers, and mushrooms and a slice of whole grain bread
  • Tofu stir fry with broccoli, snap peas, and carrots and brown rice
  • 2-3 oz of meat with  baked sweet potato and a side of green beans
  • Lentil dal with tomatoes and spinach and whole wheat naan or roti

signs of iron deficiency

When is an Iron Supplement Necessary?

First, if you suspect you might be low in iron, meet with your doctor to discuss testing and appropriate course of action. Your doctor may recommend an iron supplement depending on the stage of iron deficiency – e.g. low stores versus iron deficiency anemia. Here is a handy resource to help you discuss your symptoms of iron deficiency, which you can print and take to your doctor.

Then, meet with a dietitian for nutrition assessment and planning on how to increase iron in meals and snacks. The dietitian may also recommend an appropriate iron supplement to meet your unique needs. For example, many of my clients prefer a supplement that can be taken with food, taken once daily, and has fewer GI side effects, which are some benefits provided by supplements with polysaccharide-iron complex. It’s also important to look at the amount of elemental iron (ie. the amount of iron that is available to be absorbed) in each tablet/capsule.


Overall, iron plays an important role in the body and deficiency can come with physical symptoms that limit your ability to function normally and reduce your quality of life. A good health practice is to include a source of iron and vitamin C with your meals but be sure to check in with your doctor and work with a dietitian if you think you may be low in iron.


This is a sponsored post in partnership with FeraMAX Iron Supplement. While the information conveyed may support clients’ objectives, the opinions expressed are my own and based on current scientific evidence.


Brooke Bulloch, RD