Iron is one of the most important minerals for your body. It’s a key part of hemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen through your blood to deliver it to cells. Without enough iron, you’re at risk for iron deficiency anemia – a condition in which your red blood cells can’t carry enough oxygen to meet your body’s needs.
Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world.
You can get iron from your diet – particularly red meat and poultry – or you can take supplements to top up your levels. But which is better? It’s a question many people ask themselves.
There are pros and cons to each option. On one hand, foods like chicken, beef, and bread contain iron in a form your body can easily absorb. On the other hand, supplements offer an immediate boost when you need it most. This article takes a look at both options so you can decide which one is right for you.
Some foods contain iron in a form called heme iron. The best sources of heme iron are meat, including red meat and poultry. Iron is also present in smaller amounts in other animal products such as fish and seafood, eggs, and dairy.
Plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and grains provide non-heme iron.
The body absorbs heme iron more easily than non-heme. In fact, the absorption rate for heme is as high as 35 percent, while the absorption rate for non-heme is between two and eight percent.
That’s a significant difference that may only be possible with supplements.
If you’re a vegan, the only way to get iron from your diet is with supplements or fortified foods. If you eat meat, fish, and dairy products regularly then these provide plenty of dietary iron – almost all of which is heme iron.
The less bioavailable a source of iron is, the harder it is for your body to absorb. Non-heme iron is hard for your body to break down and absorb whereas heme iron isn’t as well regulated by your digestive system.
Your body absorbs heme easily because your stomach doesn’t regulate the release of gastric juices. Your cells produce iron-storage proteins to pick up loose heme in your digestive system, which they use to make new red blood cells.
Non-heme iron is a lot harder for your body to absorb. This is because it’s regulated by compounds called phytates and polyphenols, which are found in plants.
When phytates bind to iron it makes it harder for your body to absorb the mineral. Polyphenols work by turning off heme absorption when they’re present, which makes non-heme iron a lot less efficient at replenishing your red blood cells.
Polyphenols and phytates are a problem for vegans, who rely on plant-based foods to get their iron.
Iron in food vs dietary supplements
Iron from food
Iron isn’t always readily available in food. It’s commonly found in animal foods, but iron stores are more bioavailable to humans. You can also take advantage of absorption enhancers that make it easier for your body to absorb iron from plant sources like broccoli and spinach.
Iron from supplements
Iron supplements are great if you’re short on time or you’re not eating enough iron-rich foods.
Who Needs Iron Supplements?
Below we laid out each type of group that may need iron supplements. As always, iron is something that you should have tested prior to taking any of the iron supplements we recommend in this article. We’ve shared just a few examples of who needs iron supplements below.
People who are iron deficient
Iron deficiency is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the world, particularly among women and children. It’s also common during pregnancy when your body needs extra iron to make more blood (hemoglobin) to carry oxygen from your lungs to your baby through the placenta.
Iron deficiency in children
If your child is at risk for iron deficiency, you’ll likely need supplements. That’s because kids aren’t usually picky eaters and may not get enough iron in their diets to meet their needs. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all infants and toddlers younger than 2 be given a supplement with 4 milligrams of iron.
Iron deficiency in women
Iron deficiency anemia is a common problem among women – especially those who are pregnant or menstruating. In fact, 50% of pregnant women develop some degree of anemia during the last trimester. To combat this problem, many doctors advise their patients to take prenatal vitamin supplements that contain extra iron.
Iron deficiency anemia can also be a problem in women who have heavy periods or experience bleeding due to conditions like polyps, inflammatory bowel disease, and colon cancer. Except for the usual supplements, such as prenatal vitamins, your doctor may prescribe iron supplements for this condition if you don’t respond well to dietary changes.
Who isn’t a good candidate for iron supplements?
If you’re a man or post-menopausal woman, you’re not likely to benefit from taking an iron supplement. This is because the extra iron isn’t absorbed well by your body so it’s not used. In fact, excessive amounts of dietary iron have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. If you’re over 50, it’s especially important to avoid supplements unless your doctor specifically recommends them.
Why do people take iron supplements?
Iron supplements are prescribed for several different reasons. If you have anemia, they can help restore normal levels of hemoglobin in your blood and improve symptoms like fatigue and weakness. Iron supplements are also recommended for people who have conditions that cause chronic blood loss. For example, iron supplements can help treat bleeding caused by heavy periods or other conditions like cancer and inflammatory bowel disease.
How do you take iron?
If you need to take an iron supplement, you’ll need to get it through a prescription or buy them over-the-counter. Follow the instructions on the label to know how much you should take and when to take it. For example, if you have chronic blood loss, your doctor may recommend taking iron supplements with meals to prevent stomach upset.
Iron dietary sources
To get more iron in your diet naturally without supplements, focus on foods that are high in heme iron, the most easily absorbed form of iron. These include lean red meat, chicken, turkey, and fish. Plant sources that are high in non-heme iron include dried fruits like apricots and raisins; leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale; beans; fortified breakfast cereals; whole grains; and dried peas, nuts, and seeds.
A few foods are both high in heme and non-heme iron so you get the benefit of two different nutrients. These include clams; oysters; beef liver; turkey liver; dark chicken meat; cooked spinach; roasted pumpkin seeds; sesame tahini (sesame seed paste); and blackstrap molasses.
What are the side effects of iron supplements?
Iron supplements can cause nausea and constipation, especially when you first start taking them. They may also irritate the lining of your stomach and esophagus, which leads to heartburn. To prevent this problem, take an over-the-counter antacid like Tums an hour before you take your iron supplement. The antacid will help neutralize stomach acid and prevent pain and irritation.
Iron can also cause a potentially serious condition called “iron toxicity,” which occurs when the body takes in too much of this mineral. Iron toxicity is especially dangerous for children because it can damage their developing organs and contribute to behavioral problems. If you’re concerned about the risks of taking too much iron, talk to your doctor about getting tested for anemia or nutrient deficiencies before you begin taking supplements.
17 Best Iron Supplements
With so many iron supplements on the market, it can be hard to know which one is best for you. To help you find the right supplement, we’ve compiled a list of our top 17 picks that cover a wide range of needs and budgets:
- Elm & Rye Iron
- Nature Made Iron
- Thorne Iron Bisglycinate
- Mason Natural Vitamins Iron Ferrous Gluconate
- Zahler Iron Complex
- Vitamin Friends Adult Vegan Iron Gummies
- Garden of Life Vitamin Code Raw Iron
- NOW Iron
- New Chapter Fermented Iron Food Complex
- MegaFood Blood Builder
- Salus-Haus Floradix Iron + Herbs
- Nature’s Bounty Iron
- Solgar Gentle Iron
- Amazon Elements Iron
- NATURELO Vegan Iron Supplement with Vitamin C and Organic Whole Foods
- Rainbow Light – Complete Iron Mini-Tabs
- Slow Fe Iron
How to Choose the Best Iron Supplement
When choosing an iron supplement, you should consider your age, lifestyle, and dietary habits. For example, if you are frequently exposed to germs due to work or social situations, it’s best to take a liquid iron supplement.
Liquid supplements dissolve quickly in your stomach so you absorb more iron. If you’re an older adult or have difficulty swallowing, it’s best to take a chewable tablet because the pill is smaller and won’t get stuck in your throat. Chewable pills are also easier to swallow if you have gaps in your teeth or other dental issues like dentures.
You should choose between different forms of iron depending on your dietary preferences and lifestyle. For example, if you eat a lot of red meat or drink coffee, take an iron supplement with the most easily absorbed type of iron: heme iron. If you’re vegan, choose a non-heme plant supplement because it’s difficult for the body to absorb non-heme iron due to its lower iron bioavailability.
Don’t take a high-dose iron supplement unless your doctor says it’s necessary because too much iron can cause problems like stomach pain, constipation, and nausea. If you do need to take an iron supplement with a high dose of iron, make sure you eat foods rich in vitamin C at the same time because this vitamin increases iron absorption.
You can also buy vitamin C supplements to take with your iron supplement if you don’t want to eat a lot of citrus fruit or drink orange juice.
How to Take Iron Supplements
To get the most out of an iron supplement, be sure to read the label instructions carefully because different products require different dosages.
Generally, adults should take 15-45 mg of iron daily depending on your age and gender. If you have an iron deficiency, you may need to take 60-300 mg to get enough iron in your diet.
There are many different forms of iron supplements so it can be confusing to know how much you need to take. If you take a supplement containing ferrous iron, make sure to take an equal amount of calcium if you’re also taking magnesium supplements.
Ferrous iron is the most common form of iron in supplements because it’s included in over-the-counter products at low doses that are safe for daily use. If you have kidney disease or a history of kidney stones, take ferrous sulfate instead.
Don’t use iron supplements for more than three months at a time because too much iron can cause problems like indigestion and constipation. You should plan to take your supplement every other day if you need to give your body a break from excess iron.
When taking an iron supplement, don’t mix it with orange juice because this prevents the body from absorbing the iron.
Iron Supplements for Women and Children
Women and children should take lower doses of non-heme supplements because their bodies absorb less iron than those of older men. However, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding need to take a higher dose of iron than women who are not pregnant or breastfeeding.
All supplements used to treat anemia should be taken with vitamin C to increase iron absorption. This is especially important for those who take non-heme supplements because they’re usually less well absorbed. Pregnant women should take the iron supplement first because vitamin C causes uterine contractions.
Iron Supplements for Athletes and Vegetarians
Athletes and vegetarians need to take a slightly higher dose of iron than non-athletes because their activity levels require more iron in the body. However, taking too much iron can cause nausea or constipation, so it’s important to speak with a doctor about the right dose for your situation.
People who do not eat red meat need to take twice as much plant-based non-heme iron than those who do eat red meat. For example, if an adult woman eats one serving of red meat each day, she should take about 18-27 mg of iron daily. If she eats no red meat at all, she would take twice as much (about 36-45 mg) every single day because non-heme iron isn’t as well absorbed without the help of vitamin C.
Iron Supplements for Men and Women
Iron supplementation guidelines for men and women vary based on age, health status, and other factors. People who have a history of kidney stones should avoid taking an iron supplement unless a doctor recommends it.
Men do not need to take as much iron in their daily supplements because they lose less iron than women during menstruation. Taking too much iron is not healthy for men but it can cause health problems like constipation and digestive discomfort in women.
Hopefully, this list of the best iron supplements for men and women, including advice on how much to take has helped you determine which option and brand will work best for your current iron needs.
This article has been supplied by Verma Farms, a paid advertiser. Content has not been independently verified by Los Angeles magazine.