Iron is an essential mineral found in every cell of the body. Its main role is to transport oxygen in the blood to the tissues. Iron ensures that our muscles are working properly. It also helps the body convert carbohydrates into energy during exercise. While the body is recovering from strenuous exercise, iron helps produce new cells, proteins, and hormones that make us stronger.

Anemia from low levels of iron is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world. The body cannot produce iron on its own, so you must consume adequate amounts from the foods you eat. This is especially important if you lead an active lifestyle.

It is important to make sure that children and adolescents consume enough iron for proper physical and mental growth. Older adults, those who donate blood frequently, or anyone with a gastrointestinal disorder that interferes with iron absorption should monitor their iron intake. Women are at special risk for iron deficiency, especially during the ages of 19 to 50, when they are menstruating, pregnant, or have recently had a baby.

Iron deficiencies can be caused by a low intake of iron, poor absorption, or blood loss. Over time, if the body cannot maintain normal levels of iron, anemia occurs.

Signs of iron deficiency anemia may include:

  • constant feeling of fatigue
  • short attention span and irritability
  • decreased immune function
  • headache
  • irregular heartbeats
  • heart failure

Our bodies lose small amounts of iron through sweating. This puts endurance athletes, such as long distance runners, at risk of iron deficiency. Without enough iron, can’t use oxygen properly to produce energy. This impairs any athlete’s ability to compete.

A common problem for iron-deficient athletes is the inability to maintain a steady heart rate during moderate to vigorous exercise. Female and vegetarian athletes must be sure to eat well-balanced meals and snacks before and after training.

To meet the daily recommendations for iron, you should consume a variety of foods. The best sources of dietary iron are from cooked beans, lentils, dried fruits, eggs, meat, and fish. Pumpkin seeds, chlorella, and vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, and kale are also excellent sources.

Iron is an essential nutrient listed on food labels in the supermarket. To assist you in making better decisions, consult a list of iron-rich foods. The U.S. Institute of Medicine Panel on Micronutrients recommends that children between the ages of 1 and 8 consume 7 to 10 mg per day. Children 9 and older should consume 8 mg of iron per day. Those between the ages of 14-18 require 11-15 mg/day, with girls requiring the higher end of the range. The average male adult requires only 8 mg/day. However, women between the ages of 19 to 50 should consume 18 mg/day — over twice that amount.

To enhance iron absorption in the body, combine iron-rich foods with those that are high in Vitamin C. For example, adding fresh strawberries or eating an orange in the morning along with a fortified cereal will ensure that you absorb the maximum amount of iron. For lunch or dinner, try a raw kale salad, topped with vitamin C-rich sliced bell peppers, sprinkled with pumpkin seeds and topped with baked salmon. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of iron deficiency anemia, consult with your doctor for further advice and consider making changes to your diet.