Iron is another mineral that our bodies need to carry out a lot of functions that keep us healthy and plays a central role in our ability to do our day-to-day tasks.


Types of Iron

There are a few different types of iron that can be found in our diet, but the main 2 are heme iron and non-heme iron.

Heme iron can only be found in animal meats such as seafood, poultry and red meats, while non-heme iron can be found in plant-based and fortified foods. Heme iron accounts for approximately 10 to 15% of our iron intakes in Canada and the US.

Role of Iron in the Body

Our bodies need iron for growth and development. As you may already know, iron is vitally important for making hemoglobin, a protein needed to move oxygen throughout our bodies, but it is also needed for,

    • Making hormones 
    • Supporting connective tissue 
    • Neurological development 
    • Physical growth (keeping bones strong) 
    • Supporting muscles

How Much Iron Do I Need?

Currently, Health Canada recommends healthy men over the age of 18 consume 8 milligrams per day, while women are recommended to consume 18 milligrams daily. Recommended intakes for iron vary a lot based on sex and age. For a complete list of recommendations, check out Health Canada’s website.

Am I At Risk of Iron Deficiency?

Iron deficiency is fairly common in Canada and the US, especially in women of reproductive age and pregnant women. Although iron deficiency is fairly common, and can easily be addressed, some populations have a higher risk of developing iron deficiency than others. Populations with an increased risk include,

    • Pregnant women 
    • Young children
    • People with heart failure
    • Women with heavy menstrual bleeding
    • Frequent blood donors
    • People with cancer
    • People with GI disorders

Unlike many other micronutrients, iron deficiency occurs in many stages

    • Mild iron deficiency
      • There is a decrease in the amount of iron stored in our bodies
    • Marginal deficiency
      • The iron stores in our bodies are very close to empty, and there is less iron available to make red blood cells. Hemoglobin levels are still normal.
    • Iron-deficient anemia
      • There are absolutely no iron stores left in our bodies. Hemoglobin levels begin to decrease and iron deficiency anemia develops.

We do not see any signs or symptoms in the early stages of iron deficiency, because our bodies are using the iron stored within it. However, we begin to experience symptoms when iron stores get low. Some signs and symptoms of iron deficiency include,

    • Weakness
    • Tiredness
    • Lack of energy
    • Trouble concentrating
    • Trouble with memory

Iron deficiency is often associated with blood loss, poor nutrition and GI disorders, and many people with iron deficiency may also be deficient in other important nutrients.

Iron Deficiency Anemia (IDA)

Iron deficiency can eventually lead to the development of iron deficiency anemia (IDA). IDA is the most common type of anemia and occurs when there is not enough iron to make hemoglobin, a molecule that moves oxygen around our bodies. The World Health Organization (WHO) believes that 50% of anemia cases are caused by iron deficiency.

Signs and symptoms of IDA include the characteristic signs of anemia such as fatigue and lightheadedness as well as,

    • Sensitivity to cold
    • Shortness of breath
    • Fast heartbeat
    • Hair loss
    • Trouble concentrating
    • Pica (cravings for non-food items such as dirt)

What About Deficiency from a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet?

For a while, it was debated whether vegetarian or vegan diets contained enough iron. However, it is possible to consume enough iron to meet our needs on a vegetarian or vegan diet!

Can I Have Too Much Iron?

Yes! Although iron toxicity is rare because iron stores are carefully regulated by our bodies, consuming too much iron can have negative effects. Some common symptoms include,

    • Constipation
    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Stomach pain

Iron toxicity usually only occurs in people with hemochromatosis. This inherited condition allows toxic levels of iron to build up in the body. Without treatment, this can lead to the development of chronic diseases.

Where Can I Find Iron?

Iron can be found in a huge variety of foods, including both animal and plant-based proteins! Some of the top iron-rich foods in our diet are listed below based on the type of iron they contain.

Heme iron can be found in,

    • Organ meats
    • Canned sardines
    • Oysters
    • Muscles

Oysters on ice.

Non-heme iron can be found in,

    • Fortified breakfast cereal
    • Enriched rice and bread
    • Lentils
    • Spinach
    • Nuts and seeds
    • Beans
Spinach salad with lemon and cheese garnishes.

Dietary Supplements

There are many different types of iron supplements available on the market. Iron can be found as an individual supplement, as well as in multivitamins. Women’s multivitamins often contain 100% of the recommended daily intake of iron (18 milligrams). On the other hand, men’s multivitamins and multivitamins for seniors contain little to no iron.

Iron itself comes in different forms, and as a result, there are many different strengths and forms of individual iron supplements including,

    • Ferrous and ferric salts
    • Heme iron polypeptides
    • Polysaccharide-iron complexes

Some forms of iron supplements are more soluble than others. The more soluble iron supplements are absorbed more easily by our bodies and can have a higher risk of side effects than less soluble forms.

Interaction with Medications

Iron interacts with some medications and can affect how well they work in our bodies. Some examples of these medications include,

    • Levodopa
    • Levothyroxine
    • Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs)

Calcium supplements can limit our body’s ability to absorb iron. As a result, people are encouraged to take calcium and iron supplements at different times.

For more on the role of vitamins and minerals in promoting health and supporting our bodies, check out the Micronutrient Monday series.